No complaint about commercial gyms is as pervasive as gripes about the sub-par music selection. I can remember my early days cleaning up the weights at a local commercial gym, I was constantly hearing from members who couldn’t stand the generic, top-40 music that softly serenaded them while they trained. It was a co-ed facility called ‘Shapes’, so it’s not surprising that many of the bodybuilders that frequented the gym for the heavier selection of dumbbells were left disappointed with the rather tame music selections. I could sympathize with them; however, as an employee of the gym I could relate to the owners who had to keep a rather diverse selection of clientele happy at the same time. Is it better to play it safe and keep the older clientele happy or give in to the bar-benders?
So in memory of my early days in the fitness industry I have three short studies that might make you put a little more thought into your training music mixes than you were before.
Doing better than your best: loud auditory stimulation yields improvements in maximal voluntary force
There’s a good amount of literature that people, when instructed to attempt to move as quickly as possible in response to a cue, actually move faster if that cue is associated with a loud sound. From an evolutionary perspective, I can see this as a beneficial link. It’s great to be fast, but I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to run much faster if you hear a sabre toothed tiger coming up behind you. In the lab the bulk of the literature focused on movement speed, and while this is still relevant to the gym, what happens when we look at force production?
Anzak and colleagues (1) took a look at the ability of a well-timed, loud sound to influence force production in an isometric, grip strength task. Eighteen healthy males and females were recruited to complete an isometric grip strength task in the presence of either a visual stimulus (red flashing LED) or the same visual cue with a loud, unexpected sound (1kHz, 110db). The participants performed 40 isometric repetitions in total with approximately 10-13 seconds rest, with the audio cue randomly distributed throughout the trials. Peak force in each trial was compared between conditions (normalized to pre-testing peaks) as well as rate of force development (‘peak yank’), time to reach peak force and time to reach ‘peak yank’. They also attempted to determine whether the loud sound startled participants by recording EMG activity in the sternocleidomastoid (SCM), which wouldn’t normally be active during the isometric grip task, and has been used previously as evidence of a startle response.
Peak force and the rate of force development (‘peak yank’) were all increased (7.2% and 17.6%) when preceded by a sound whereas time to reach peak force (10% shorter), time to reach peak rate of force development (8.9% shorter), and premotor reaction time (28.7% shorter) were all reduced. A startle response (SCM EMG) was observed throughout the trials, although it was not as common as you would think (roughly 1 in 10), and when it did occur it did not enhance any of the experimental variables. This suggests that a loud audio stimulus can enhance performance in a simple isometric task, and that this improvement isn’t just a consequence of being startled.
It may be a bit of a stretch to conclude that an unexpected loud sound during a grip strength task (participants were wearing headphones) is the same as listening to music while you lift, mainly because it’s pretty hard to surprise or startle yourself with your own music collection. Given the scarcity of the startle response in the present study, the authors concluded the enhanced performance wasn’t dependent on this, and that other mechanisms may be responsible, so it may be more relevant to training than we’d think.
Effects of self-selected music on strength, explosiveness, and mood
We’ve seen that an unexpected sound can enhance force production, but this was in an experimental situation that didn’t represent what it would be like to play your own music in the gym while training with dynamic movements. The next study takes a simple look at what happens when people are allowed to choose and listen to their own tunes.
Biagini et al (2) recruited twenty resistance-trained men to complete three test sessions. After an initial session where 1RM were determined for the bench press and back squat, participants returned for two additional sessions to assess bench press repetitions to failure (75%-1RM), squat jump performance (30%-1RM) and overall mood with either self-selected music or no music at all. Outside of physical performance, participants completed ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) throughout the training session, and a profile of mood states (POMS) questionnaire pre and post exercise (6 item questionnaire on fatigue, anger, tension, etc).
Surprisingly, bench press repetitions to fatigue and RPE during the bench press were not affected by the music. Self-selected music increased jump squat takeoff velocity, rate of force development and rate of velocity development and decreased RPE but failed to alter peak jump height or the relative ground reaction force. The POMS questionnaire indicated that the self-selected music session had elevated tension and vigour and resulted in increased feelings of fatigue.
This isn’t the most conclusive case for self-selected music, more so a comparison of music against nothing. They should’ve had a condition with music that was not preferred (or picked) by the exerciser. It does raise some interesting questions though, why no effect in the bench press but some performance enhancement during the squat? Are the effects of motivational music in a strength training environment different depending on the task (high load, short duration sets vs longer duration, lower load training) or complexity of the task? It’s also interesting to note that this proposed higher level of arousal (tension, vigour) from self-selected music did come at a cost, with elevated fatigue reported post-exercise.
Effect of motivational music on lactate levels during recovery from intense exercise
The previous paper found an interesting effect. Music, when self-selected, can influence certain measures of performance; however, the added performance benefit expectedly increased post-exercise fatigue. But what happens when music is played during the recovery from intense exercise, can it be used as a tool to facilitate recovery to ensure optimal performance on subsequent sets?
Eliakim et al (3) had 20 male participants complete two trials where they ran on a treadmill for six minutes at the speed that correlated with their previously measured VO2peak. During the recovery period following the brief exercise session, participants either had no music or music was played that was deemed motivational (all subjects completed both conditions). Heart rate and step number were monitored over 15 minutes while RPE and blood lactate concentration was measured every three minutes during the recovery period.
There was no difference in the decrease in the heart rate or the final recovery heart rate between the music conditions. The participants who listened to music took more steps overall during the recovery period, and this effect started at the 6 minute time point. This elevated activity coincided with a greater percent reduction in blood lactate concentration over the recovery period and a lower post-exercise RPE.
It seems that while music played during recovery may not influence heart rate recovery following a brief, intense exercise bout, it is associated with increased movement (step numbers) and an improved blood lactate recovery post-exercise. Combined with the study above, it’d be interesting to see effects of self-selected vs non-preferred music, and how characteristics of the music would change based on work vs recovery.
Playlist for PRs
There’s more literature on the effects of music than you would expect with somewhat mixed results, so this is just a small snapshot. It’s interesting that much of what is out there has focused on aerobic exercise, however these three studies provide some insight into exercise bouts of brief duration, and more relevant to a weight-training session.
It’s safe to say most people enjoy music during training, but I have to admit that I’ve been through phases where I train with no music at all, and these short music-free periods almost enhance the effects of music when I bring it back. I’ve also started to evolve a nice system of playlists for songs to listen to during the lift, in-between sets, and in warmup and cool down periods. I hate to be that guy that shuffles through his iPod to find the right song before a lift but I’ve been guilty of this more often than not in the gym.
There you have it, all those music complaints may have a little more science behind them than expected. The next time you go to complain about the music at the gym, just print out that second paper and throw it down on the desk and see how it goes. Who would’ve thought that Steve Jobs has contributed more to our training successes with the iPod than the entire exercise science field?
- Anzak, A et al.(2010). Experimental brain research, 208(2), 237–243.
- Biagini, M. et al (2012). Journal of strength and conditioning research, 26(7), 1934–1938.
- Eliakim, M et al (2012). Journal of strength and conditioning research, 26(1), 80–86.