Some lifters swear by heavy metal for hitting PRs. Others turn to rap or classic rock. Either way, the prevailing wisdom is this: To be at your best, listen to something exciting—ideally with a steady, pounding beat.
But being as amped up as possible isn't always the best choice, especially while you're just getting warmed up or starting to cool down from a workout. And if you're looking for a way to get the most out of your workouts—either at home or in the gym—you have more choices than just "loud" or "louder."
Here are a few things (besides music) you should try listening to before, during, and after the gym:
Before Your Workout: Nature Sounds
Stress is the enemy of gains. Coaches and bodybuilders have been saying this for decades, but the reality is that all of us have full lives outside of the gym, and it's hard not to bring our baggage with us when we've had a tough day.
And while intensity (and sometimes taking a little anger out on the weights) can be a good thing, too much stress has been shown to wreak havoc on our strength performance and muscle growth in certain populations. Stress and anxiety cause your levels of the hormone cortisol to rise. When they get too high, your workout and recovery can suffer measurably.
The solution? Prep for your workout with soothing nature sounds to reset your cortisol levels before you get there.
It sounds odd, but hear me out: Listening to nature sounds for just 20 minutes or so can significantly reduce your stress levels and even help you get more focused on the task at hand.
Throw on a nature track in the car on your drive to the gym instead of your usual pre-lift playlist, or even better, walk to the gym (if possible) sans headphones to get the full experience.
During Lifting: Nothing (or Your Favorite Tunes)
I get it: Lifting to no music at all is blasphemy for plenty of you—especially if you've already shelled out three digits for those fancy headphones. But at least some of the time, you should consider just immersing yourself in the sounds of the gym, according to one of the all-time great bodybuilders.
"I don't listen to music," four-time Mr. Olympia Jay Cutler told Bodybuilding.com while filming the Living Large 8-Week Mass-Gaining Program. "For me, it's not really an emotional thing. I'm very driven to do what I do. I don't need that extra anger or frustration to train any harder."
If he needs a little extra motivation, Jay will simply bring a buddy to the gym.
No hype? No anger or frustration? Then what's the point? According to Cutler, it's doing quality set after set, quality workout after workout. No matter how amazing any individual workout is, it's not nearly as important as the sum total of what you're doing in the gym. And if you're completely reliant on being hyped up for every workout, you might be focusing on the wrong thing.
That said, if you are going to listen to music, consider choosing your own music rather than subjecting yourself to what's simply playing in the gym. Jim Stoppani, creator of the immensely popular Shortcut to Size and Shortcut to Shred programs, was part of a study that found letting lifters play their favorite music actually made a difference in how they performed.
"A study I did with the Weider Research Group shows significant strength gains across all lifts when athletes train to their favorite tunes," Stoppani told Bodybuilding.com, reporting that the difference was an extra rep per average on every set. That may not sound like much, but over months and years, it can definitely add up.
During Endurance Training: Music or Podcasts
The benefits of listening to music while performing endurance training are well documented. Among other benefits, it can help you push your heart rate while keeping a relatively low rate of perceived exertion.
However, sometimes it's not about elite performance—it's about keeping moving and staying in a heart rate zone for an extended period of time. And in the case of a long run, walk, or other cardio workout, even the best playlist may start to wear on your ears.
This is why a lot of runners swear by podcasts for long sessions instead of upbeat music.
They're better at distracting you from the task (especially if you don't enjoy cardio) and they keep you moving for longer since the workout seems to go by faster and you'll often want to make it to the end of an episode before stopping.
Podcasts are also a refreshing break from the same-old songs and playlists you sweat to every week, and given the range of them out there, you'll never run out of new stories to enjoy and topics to learn about. The right one can keep you engaged and motivated to do a proper stretch and cool-down after a lift—you know, the part everyone always skips!
After Your Workout: Relaxing Music, White Noise, or Pink Noise
So you optimized your pre-workout build-up, and crushed your workout. What now? It's time to recover so you can do it all over again. And what you listen to can help there, too.
In the immediate post-workout period, getting those cortisol levels down is a high priority. And according to a 2018 study, listening to soothing music can help do just that. "Music of a slow, sedative nature can expedite the recovery processes that follow strenuous physical exercise," the authors wrote.
But recover doesn't end there. Your sleep is just as important! And one seriously underutilized tool for sleeping better is noise—specifically, the sonic hues known as "white" and "pink" noise.
White noise is a somewhat high-pitched hissing sound like TV static or a whirring fan, while pink noise is a little lower and sounds more like rustling leaves or a strong wind. Both can quietly mask distracting background noises that might trigger alertness while you're slumbering, and both are linked positively to sleep quality. It's easy enough to use a white noise app, or even just a fan, while you sleep at night to maximize your recovery from a tough workout.
Nail rituals like these, and you just might have more great workouts—and great results—to show for it.
- Poornima, K. N., Karthick, N., & Sitalakshmi, R. (2014). Study of the effect of stress on skeletal muscle function in geriatrics. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research: JCDR, 8(1), 8.
- Harvard Health Publishing. (2018). Sour mood getting you down? Get back to nature. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/sour-mood-getting-you-down-get-back-to-nature
- Patania, V. M., Padulo, J., Iuliano, E., Ardigò, L. P., Čular, D., Miletić, A., & De Giorgio, A. (2020). The psychophysiological effects of different tempo music on endurance versus high-intensity performances. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 74.
- Karageorghis, C. I., Bruce, A. C., Pottratz, S. T., Stevens, R. C., Bigliassi, M., & Hamer, M. (2018). Psychological and psychophysiological effects of recuperative music postexercise. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 50(4), 739-746.
- Papalambros, N. A., Santostasi, G., Malkani, R. G., Braun, R., Weintraub, S., Paller, K. A., & Zee, P. C. (2017). Acoustic enhancement of sleep slow oscillations and concomitant memory improvement in older adults. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11, 109.