10 Best Workout Songs, According to Science

Woman listening to iPod while working out

Image: Getty/Cultura RM/Fab Fernandez

We all know that music makes exercising more enjoyable, but it isn’t simply a frivolous workout distraction. Research has consistently shown that music can make workouts feel less strenuous, allowing you to push yourself harder. While exactly how this happens remains unclear, it likely involves arousal responses (i.e., music makes you want to move rather than stay sedentary). The body responds to the rhythm of the music with a physiological revving that prepares it for physical demands and subsequently helps you ignore your body’s messages of discomfort.

That’s not all, however. Music has also been shown to distract and calm nervous competitors in high-pressure situations, thereby improving their subsequent performance. Case in point: Basketball players prone to performing poorly under pressure during games performed significantly better if they first listened to catchy, fast tempo music. The theory is that the music helped distract the players, freeing their body “to do what it knew how to do without interference from the brain.” There are many elements in play here — physiology, psychology, biomechanics, neurology — which make explaining the complex mechanics of exactly how music affects the body and brain anything but simple. One thing is for sure, music boosts both your subjective sense of motivation and your performance, though not without limits.

At very intense levels of activity, music seems to have no benefit. According to an article in The New York Times, a 2004 study of runners found that during hard runs (about 90 percent of maximal oxygen uptake) music was of no physiological use to runners — no matter the tempo. The theory with this is that music can only divert attention away from pain to a certain extent. “When you increase the speed and intensity of a workout, perceptions of fatigue override the impact of music, because attentional processes are dominated by physiological feedback. The noise of the body drowns all other considerations.”

For better or worse, most of us don’t spend the bulk of our exercise time working out at the highest of intensity levels, but even at moderate intensity, not all music is created equal. When listening to a song, you get with the beat of the music, so fast tempos are considered optimal. If the workout music is too fast, however, the effect is trumped. Research shows that between 120 and 140 beats per minute (BPM) is ideal. For warm-ups and cool-downs, slower music with about 80 to 90 BPM works best.

With that in mind, we asked SoulCycle instructor Lindsay Waxer to put together 10 best workout songs for the ultimate fitness-optimized playlist.

Sing for the Moment by Eminem (82 BPM)

“Great song to start your workout. It gets you pumped up and more present for whatever fitness routine you are gearing up for!”

Black Out Days Remix by Danny Brown and Leo Justi (95 BPM)

“This song picks up a little bit, but you are still grooving and headed into the zone. By the end when the rap part begins, you are ready to take it to the next level.”

Who’s That Chick Afrojack Dub Remix by David Guetta featuring Rihanna (128 BPM)

“This is my favorite workout song of ALL time, no matter what I am doing! It makes me want to jump around and just DANCE!”

Lose Control by Missy Elliott featuring Ciara and Fatman Scoop (128 BPM)

“Anytime I hear this jam, I get psyched. I really start to let loose and take my movements to the next level.”

Snap Yo Fingers by Lil Jon featuring E-40 and Sean Paul of YoungBloodZ (140 BPM)

“This is a great old-school, hip-hop throwback. It’s great because ANYONE can move, even if it’s just snappin’ your fingers to the beat.”

7/11 by Beyoncé (135 BPM)

“I mean, do I have to really say anything about this one? Beyoncé is the QUEEN and when I hear this song come on, I pretend I am just like her in her video!”

F for You by Disclosure featuring Mary J. Blige (128 BPM)

“Just a cool vibe and gives you a moment to calm down a bit after Bey. Still awesome to move your body and feel yourself a bit.”

Pursuit of Happiness Extended Steve Aoki Remix by Kid Cudi (128 BPM)

“I get so happy during this tune! We are looking for happiness every day, so when it comes on, you just smile.”

Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ by Michael Jackson (120 BPM)

“This awesome 80s throwback is a great way to start to unwind a bit after your workout. I mean, it’s Michael, so you don’t have to take yourself so seriously — just move the way you feel!”

We Own It (Fast & Furious) by 2 Chainz and Wiz Khalifa (87 BPM)

“Great way to end your fitness routine. The words and beat underneath it are powerful and let you know you did it!”