I always find it fascinating how there seems to be a certain type of music connected to respective castes of gym-goers:
Step Aerobics Enthusiasts/Soccer Moms: Techno
Powerlifters: Death Metal
Recreational Lifters: Alternative and Punk Rock
Cardio Bunnies: Pop
Bros: Mainstream Rap
Olympic Lifters: Silence
…you get the idea
Naturally, I found it pertinent to uncover the physiological basis to why certain types of music may be preferred over others when looking to get the most out of your performance in the gym. To keep this topic from getting too bloated, this article will be looking more specifically at what type of music would be most suited for individuals trying to get “amped up” for a max-effort, anaerobic event (e.g. a sprint, max lift, all-out set, etc.)
Intuitively, many people just assume that music that is fast-paced, loud, and chaotic will get trainees revving at max capacity, which may be true in some instances, but I’ve trained with people who listen to seductive Mariah Carey love songs while squatting 400lbs ass-to-grass; clearly there exists a subjectivity/individuality to this topic.
It is still curious to see if certain types of music do in fact enhance performance one way or another due to their physiological ramifications. So let’s take a look at what’s been found in the literature and see if you should be banging your head or relaxing your mind before you attempt a big deadlift PR.
Pump up the Volume
We first need to establish a baseline as to whether noise in general is conducive to athletic performance. In 1994, Becker et. al compared the performance of children, adults, and seniors who were given 2 minutes to bike as far as possible while exposed to either “mellow or frenetic” music or white noise. While the study did not find significant differences in performance between the two music treatments, they did find an improvement over the white noise treatment. 
Given the ambiguity of the aforementioned descriptors (“mellow/frenetic”), it’s hard to draw much more from that study than that some sort of rhythmic auditory sensation propels athletic performance.
A more tangible study by Yamamoto et. al analyzed the metabolic variations in individuals who were exposed to “slow and fast rhythm” music while performing 45 second max-effort intervals on exercise bicycles. Not surprisingly, plasma adrenaline (epinephrine) was significantly increased in the fast-rhythm treatment compared to baseline values (i.e. before listening to the music).
Moreover, the slow-rhythm treatment had significantly lower noradrenaline (norepinephrine) levels than baseline concentrations. However, despite the differences in the plasma concentrations of these neurotransmitters, the power output during the 45s interval was not significantly altered, nor were blood lactate and ammonia levels effected.
Nevertheless, it’s still pertinent to consider that alterations in plasma adrenaline (and noradrenaline) could impact athletic performance since they play a role in many physiological processes (e.g. blood glucose regulation, heart rate, vascular system diameters, etc.)
One of the better studies I’ve come across had young athletes (12 total) perform Wingate sprints with fast-paced (120-140 beats per minute) or with no music. Contrarily to the Yamamoto et. al study, music did in fact significantly alter power output (in a positive manner; see table 2 below). Oddly though, music had no significant change on the rate of perceived exertion, heart rate, and fatigue index during the sprints (see table 1 below).
What’s better for Intense Training, Metallica or Mozart?
While this article only directly analyzes a few studies looking at the psychosomatic effects music has on athletic performance, there are a multitude of evidence-based trials showing that a correlation does indeed exist.
It certainly seems, in the literature, that listening to “melodic”, slow-paced music provides a sedative effect on individuals (as we would expect with a decrease in adrenaline/noradrenaline), while the inverse occurs with fast-paced, synchronous music.
For individuals looking to enhance their anaerobic performance (especially in max-effort instances) it would seem wise to expose yourself to some sort of “upbeat, high-intensity” music (for lack of more concrete terminology).
I think the important thing to remember here is that music can still fit the description of “upbeat” and/or “high-intensity” without being screamo or death metal. Some people might perceive fast-paced bluegrass music to be “upbeat” and arousing. You don’t necessarily need to blare “World Painted Blood” by Slayer at max volume in order to reap the ergogenic benefits from music.
For lack of a more scientific term, just listen to something that gets you going and amps you up. If that’s Beethoven, then so be it. Music is as subjective as food, different strokes for different folks.
Slayer isn’t mandatory before training balls out, but it may help
Ironically enough, I’m listening to Slayer as I write this and I’m feeling pretty giddy to go lift some weights!
- Becker, N., Brett, S., Chambliss, C., GROWERS, K., Haring, P., Marsh, C., & Montemayor, R. (1994). Mellow and frenetic antecedent music during athletic performance of children, adults, and seniors. Perceptual and motor skills, 79(2), 1043-1046.
- Yamamoto, T., Ohkuwa, T., Itoh, H., Kitoh, M., Terasawa, J., Tsuda, T., … & Sato, Y. (2003). Effects of pre-exercise listening to slow and fast rhythm music on supramaximal cycle performance and selected metabolic variables. Archives of Physiology and Biochemistry, 111(3), 211-214.
- Jarraya, M., Chtourou, H., Aloui, A., Hammouda, O., Chamari, K., Chaouachi, A., & Souissi, N. (2012). The effects of music on high-intensity short-term exercise in well trained athletes. Asian journal of sports medicine, 3(4), 233.
- Terry, P. C., & Karageorghis, C. I. (2006). Psychophysical effects of music in sport and exercise: An update on theory, research and application. InProceedings of the 2006 Joint Conference of the Australian Psychological Society and New Zealand Psychological Society (pp. 415-419). Australian Psychological Society.