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Workout Music : Soothing or Aggressive?
Written By : Scott Bird
Filed In : Articles

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
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 :

  • reduce cortisol levels
  • reduce muscle tonus

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.
Aggressive
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.
Conclusion
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
1997
The influence of preferred relaxing music on measures of state anxiety, relaxation, and physiological responses.
Thaut, M.H.
Journal of Music Therapy 26
1989
La La La: The Effects of Music on Muscle Strength
Stephanie C. Chang; Jacqueline S. Ho
CALIFORNIA STATE SCIENCE FAIR
2005
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.
1999
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.
References
1. Cortisol
Wikipedia

Over to you. Drop us a line on Twitter ( @scottbird ), or add a comment below.

Cheers.

 

NB : if you love talking about strength-training as much as I do, you might also like to check out the weekly newsletter (there's also a daily version available). A regular dose of fitness-focussed discussions, absolutely free.

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Written By Scott Bird
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