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Why Music Helps You Get Physical in Your CrossFit Workout

Listen to Music for CrossFit workout

Visit any CrossFit class anywhere in the world and there is a good possibility that the sound of music will be pounding through the room. In fact, many if not all organized exercise sessions use music as a stimulant. Why?

Music changes both the body and the mind during a workout. According to a 2013 article in Scientific American, “Music distracts people from pain and fatigue, elevates mood, increases endurance, reduces perceived effort and may even promote metabolic efficiency. When listening to music, people run farther, bike longer and swim faster than usual—often without realizing it.”

In a 2012 review of the research, Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University in London, one of the world's leading experts on the psychology of exercise music, wrote that one could think of music as "a type of legal performance-enhancing drug." There are many reasons music has this effect on the human body.

The Rhythm Response is the Key

The SA article notes that since 1911 several hundred studies have been conducted on the effect of music on the body when it is involved in physical activities. Here are some conclusions of this music and exercise research.

“Two of the most important qualities of workout music are tempo—or speed—and what psychologists call rhythm response, which is more or less how much a song makes you want to boogie. Most people have an instinct to synchronize their movements and expressions with music—to nod their heads, tap their toes or break out in dance—even if they repress that instinct in many situations.

“What type of music excites this instinct varies from culture to culture and from person to person. However, to make some broad generalizations, fast songs with strong beats are particularly stimulating, so they fill most people's workout playlists. In a survey of 184 college students, for example, the most popular types of exercise music were hip-hop (27.7 percent), rock (24 percent) and pop (20.3 percent).”

It’s All in Your Head!

Recent research noted in the SA article, points to how music encourages athletes to keep pushing ahead with their exercise regime. “Distraction is one explanation. The human body is constantly monitoring itself. After a certain period of exercise—the exact duration varies from person to person—physical fatigue begins to set in. The body recognizes signs of extreme exertion—rising levels of lactate in the muscles, a thrumming heart, increased sweat production—and decides it needs a break.

“Music competes with this physiological feedback for the brain's conscious attention. Similarly, music often changes people's perception of their own effort throughout a workout: it seems easier to run those 10 miles or complete a few extra biceps curls when Beyoncé or Eminem is right there with you.”

Dr. Karageorghis correctly surmised that "Given that exercise is often tiresome, boring and arduous, anything that relieves those negative feelings would be welcome," However, the intensity of a typical CrossFit session may work against this “distraction” tactic.

The research notes that “the benefits of distraction are most pronounced during low-to-moderate-intensity exercise. When up against high-intensity exercise, music loses its power to override the physical feelings of tiredness, but it can still change the way people respond to that fatigue. The right music elevates mood and persuades people to ride out waves of exhaustion, rather than giving up.”

Neuroscientists have noted that different regions of the human brain specialize in processing different senses—sound, sight, touch—and the brain uses the information it receives from one sense to help it understand another. The SA article on music and exercise added, “"We have also known for decades that there are direct connections from auditory neurons to motor neurons," explains Jessica Grahn, who is a cognitive neuroscientist at Western University's Brain and Mind Institute in Ontario. "When you hear a loud noise, you jump before you have even processed what it is. That's a reflex circuit, and it turns out that it can also be active for non-startling sounds, such as music."

Here’s Your Playlist, Now Rock It!

The intensity of CrossFit is constant. As such, a steady, driving musical beat is critical. Veteran CrossFit trainers also feel that the tune should be at least 130 beats per minute (BPM) in order to get that motivation and distraction from pain working together.

In a 2015 article for Shape Magazine, writer Chris Lawhorn proposed the Ten CrossFit Songs to Help You Crush Your Next WOD. While some of them might be a little more “R” rated than others, they all have one thing in common: They start and keep that adrenaline pumping.

Here’s the list, with the BPM for each song.

Drake's workout music

Rihanna - Bitch Better Have My Money - 103 BPM
Nine Inch Nails - Came Back Haunted - 131 BPM
Kanye West, Theophilus London, Allan Kingdom & Paul McCartney - All Day - 123 BPM
Afrojack & 30 Seconds to Mars - Do or Die (Remix) - 128 BPM
Metric - Breathing Underwater - 143 BPM
Breathe Carolina & Karmin - Bang It Out - 130 BPM
Taddy Porter - Shake Me - 131 BPM
Imagine Dragons & Kendrick Lamar - Radioactive - 139 BPM
Nero - Doomsday - 121 BPM
Drake - Energy - 86 BPM

If you think you need a little boost, some “legal, performance-enhancing drugs” as noted above, download these tunes and see if you can get your trainer to put them in music circulation at your CrossFit box.

Do you have a song that motivates you during your CrossFit workout? Send them our way and we’ll share them with the rest of the class.