Workout Music : Soothing or Aggressive?

WilliamsMusick hath charms to soothe a savage breast

- William Congreve

This is the second part of this month's series on workout music; a collaboration with Run to Win's Blaine Moore.

I love to listen to music, and my tastes vary wildly according to mood. When I'm heading to the home gym, however, there are only two types of music to consider. These are not two genres, but instead can be thought of in terms of their effect on your heartrate - soothing or aggressive.


Soothing music has a lot of things going for it. Put on a relaxing tune and watch as your breathing and heartrate slow, and your focus improves. These factors alone can make it a very worthwhile way to begin your workout.

When I tried using soothing music in a workout, I had great results. I felt more focused, and calmly set about breaking a few PRs. It sounds perfect - yet I changed back to more aggressive tunes in the very next workout (and have kept them ever since). Why?

The short answer : I prefer it. I'm much more comfortable with loud, obnoxious, aggressive metal (or anything from hard rock up, really) as an accompaniment when I'm lifting weights than anything a little more calming (I save that for a relaxing break at the end of a long day).

The longer answer : there have been numerous studies on the relationships between music and the human body. Music to heal, music to relieve symptoms; music to take your mind to a different place.

Of these (several of which have been listed at the end of this article), two points stand out. Soothing music has been shown to :

Reducing cortisol production has many health benefits long-term (such as a reduction in blood pressure and aiding the ability of the immune system to do its job) [1], but this has dubious benefits during the short period of a workout. Cortisol is a complex hormone, but amongst its many roles are protein breakdown and the takeup of amino acids - neither of which are particularly desirable during your workout.

Similarly, reduction of muscle tonus can be seen as both a good / bad thing. For those with exceedingly tight or spasmodic muscles, a little reduction may be welcomed. In all other cases, however, it's not something you particularly want.


I've grown up surrounded by hard rock and a little metal (AC/DC and Metallica are typical), and this is very much my default. During workouts I generally listen to music of this 'weight'.

My usual practice is to throw a random sample of songs on the iPod from a personal 'workout' playlist, listening to one song per set. When the next set begins, I switch to the next random song (whether the previous one is still playing or not) and get down to business. This works out well.

The reason for listening to this type of music is again a question with both a short and long answer. The short one is the simple fact that I'm used to heavier music, and I feel more 'at home' with it playing than I do with something more soothing (which I generally associate with a darkened room, glass of wine and closed eyes).

The longer answer is that aggressive music can actually assist strength training in the same ways that soothing music can hinder it. An increase in both cortisol production and muscle tonus are of benefit here. A couple of other benefits might be :

Music promotes dissociation : you're much less likely to think about pain and more likely to succumb to the various chemical changes taking place in your body when you listen to music you enjoy. Personally I enjoy a lot of different genres, but the heavier ones usually top the list.

Motivation : along similar lines is the concept of motivation. If you enjoy the music, you're more likely to enjoy the workout; and therefore more likely to repeat the process. Always a good thing.


Overall, it's the heavier stuff for me. Soothing music is great for doing just that - soothing; however a bit of growling and screaming will always be welcome in the home gym. As musical accompaniment, that is.

Studies and further reading

Although the use of music is highly controversial at times (and very much a personal thing), the following will give you some insight into the current environment :

The effects of vibroacoustic therapy on clinical and non-clinical populations
Wigram, Anthony Lewis

The influence of preferred relaxing music on measures of state anxiety, relaxation, and physiological responses.
Thaut, M.H.
Journal of Music Therapy 26

La La La: The Effects of Music on Muscle Strength
Stephanie C. Chang; Jacqueline S. Ho

Music therapy as a treatment method for improving respiratory muscle strength in patients with advanced multiple sclerosis: a pilot study.
Wiens ME, Reimer MA, Guyn HL.

Relaxing music better turned off
ABC Science Online
5 May 2006

Music makes your heart beat faster
ABC Science Online
10 Oct 2005

The Effects of Music on Exerise?
Len Kravitz, Ph.D.


1. Cortisol

You Might Also Like...

Brilliant device. If your shoulders aren't quite as flexible as you'd like, grab The Rotater. Love it.
Already got one? Looking for something specific? Swing by the Straight to the Bar Store. It's all in there.

Scott Andrew Bird

Scott Andrew Bird is a writer, photographer and a guy who just loves this stuff. He's been at home in front of a computer for more years than he cares to remember (OK, 37) and is now making amends for years of many mistakes noted in the De-constructing Computer Guy articles (part 2) on T-Nation.

Find out what he's up to via Twitter, Facebook, the Daily 'Paper'; and of course his online home. Enjoy.

Like this? Check out :

Looking At : Jan 8, 2017.

During the past week we've discussed a number of great links; on Google+, Twitter, Nuzzel and so on. Here are a few of my favourites.

Looking At : Sep 13, 2020.

During the past week we've discussed a number of great links; on Facebook, Twitter, in The Daily 'Paper' and so on. Here are a few of my favourites.

Looking At : Sep 6, 2020.

During the past week we've discussed a number of great links; on Facebook, Twitter, in The Daily 'Paper' and so on. Here are a few of my favourites.

From Losing to Lifting.

An incredible journey.

Looking At : May 12, 2013.

During the past week we've discussed a number of great links; on Google+, Twitter, Nuzzel and so on. Here are a few of my favourites.

Of course, if you enjoyed these, I'd highly recommend grabbing the Strength & Fitness Newsletter. Delivered weekly, and absolutely free.

(there's also a Daily Update, if you're looking for an even larger dose of training-related goodness.)

NB : If you'd like to write a guest post for Straight to the Bar, or if you'd like to join the team of Moderators here (I love hearing about everyone's training approaches) - get in touch. And if you've got a fitness competition or seminar coming up, add it to the calendar.

Look forward to hearing from you.

Over to you. Leave a comment below, or send us a tweet :

blog comments powered by Disqus
Straight to the Bar Strength Kit

Are You as Strong as You Could Be?

Grab the Straight to the Bar Strength Kit.

Training Guides, eBooks and of course the Strength & Fitness Newsletter. Absolutely free.