Key Takeaways

  1. Researchers wanted to see if music could improve performance and perceived enjoyment of a sprint-based workout.
  2. Sprinters who listened to music during their workout had higher post-exercise enjoyment as well as higher heart rates and peak power outputs than people who didn’t listen to music.
  3. As you might expect, listening to music can boost your performance and enjoyment of your workouts.

Most people in most gyms listen to music when working out. 

And most of us don’t need any research to know listening to music often makes working out more enjoyable and encourages us to work harder.

Not everyone thinks this is a good idea, though.

Contrarians claim listening to music when working out doesn’t really improve your performance all that much, and so it’s more of a distraction than anything else.

Is there any truth to this? 

Well, that’s what scientists at the University of British Columbia wanted to test in a study published in 2019. 

Let’s see what they found.


What Did the Researchers Do?

The researchers had 24 untrained adults do three sprint workouts while . . . 

  1. Listening to motivational music (selected by the researchers)
  2. Listening to an educational podcast
  3. Listening to nothing (the control condition)

The researchers had everyone complete all three of these workouts in random order, with some listening to a podcast first, some listening to motivational music first, and some listening to nothing first.

This random order helped reduce the chances the order the workouts were performed in would affect the results.

Everyone got around three days to recover between each workout, to make sure residual fatigue from the first workouts didn’t affect the latter workouts. 

The sprint workouts were a variation of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) called sprint interval training (SIT). This involved three 20-second “all-out” sprints on a bike with two minutes of rest between sets. 

While listening to nothing while working out served as a control, listening to a podcast was used as a second control to determine if simply listening to noise might affect performance.

The motivational songs used in the music condition were Calvin Harris’ “Let’s Go,” Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us,” and Linkin Park’s “Bleed it Out.” 

The lack of metal is clearly the biggest flaw in the study, but since EDM and angsty pop is in vogue, I suppose we can forgive them. 

Anyway, the researchers measured mental and physical effects of the training throughout the study, including:

  • Enjoyment and arousal
  • Perceived exertion
  • Heart rate (recorded continuously)
  • Power output (average and peak, measured in watts)

The researchers also instructed all of the participants to maintain their normal dietary and sleep habits, and to refrain from doing any exercise aside from the workouts in the study.


What Were the Study Results?

music workout

Listening to motivational music improved enjoyment of sprint workouts, and increased heart rate and peak power output compared to listening to podcasts or not listening to anything.

While the differences in power output and heart rate were slight, they were statistically significant.

Interestingly, people’s ratings of perceived effort (RPE) were similar across all three conditions. 

In other words, even though participants worked harder when listening to music, they didn’t feel like they were.

On average, everyone felt better after the workouts when they listened to music versus listening to a podcast or nothing, too. 

The researchers concluded listening to music while working out can not only improve performance, but make exercise more enjoyable, too.

What Does This Mean For You?

The TL;DR? 

Motivational music helps you work harder and makes exercise feel easier. 

While this study was only on short sprint workouts, other research shows listening to music can also improve performance during endurance workouts. It’s also not clear if this will necessarily make you stronger during weightlifting, but it’s fair to wager it would help at least a little. 

Although the boost in performance is nice, I’d argue a bigger benefit of listening to music, a podcast, or an audiobook is it gives you another reason to get to the gym. It’s one more reward for showing up and doing the work.

The only time you may want to avoid listening to music is if you’re training for an event that doesn’t allow you to listen to music during the competition. 

For example, you aren’t allowed to listen to music during a powerlifting meet, a 5K, or most other races and competitions, so you should do at least some of your workouts without listening to music so you aren’t thrown off come competition day.

Other than that, listening to music is basically all pros and no cons.

Now, although the music used in this study was exclusively electropop, hip-hop, and rock, you may find other music far more motivating (I like classical and metal, for instance).

There’s also some evidence you may benefit from pairing the kind of music you listen to with what kind of workouts you’re doing. 

In other words, you could pick something fast for your HIIT sessions, something more hard-hitting for a heavy squat day, and something more melodic for a slow cardio workout.

The Bottom Line on Listening to Music While Exercising

Music is a powerful tool that can help you not only work harder during your workouts, but help you enjoy your workouts more and feel better afterward.

What’s more, it’s one more thing you can use to reward yourself for showing up to the gym every day.

The best kind of music to listen to when working out is . . . 

  1. Motivational and inspirational to you
  2. High tempo or a tempo that closely resembles the speed of exercise you’re doing

If you’re looking for some songs to listen to while workout out, check out this article:

70 Songs to Work Out To: Picks from My Playlist 

What’s your take on listening to music while exercising? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!