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How to create the perfect exercise playlist for better workouts

Music can improve your workout performance, but you have to know what kind to listen to.

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The perfect playlist can help you workout longer and harder.

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What's the one thing that SoulCycle, Orangetheory, CrossFit and Zumba all have in common? 

Answer: These group fitness classes all bump intense -- sometimes even aggressive -- music through loudspeakers. So even though you're drenched in sweat and battling the muscle burn, you're still having a good time and you're motivated to keep pushing yourself.

As it turns out, we listen to music while exercising for good reason -- and it's about more than just getting pumped up for a good sweat sesh. Research proves that music, especially high-tempo, high-intensity music, can boost workout performance and even motivate you to exercise for longer.

If you're wondering how you can optimize the benefits of music for exercise, you've come to the right place. In this article, learn how and why music influences your fitness performance, how to create the perfect playlist for making gains and where to snag a done-for-you workout playlist. 

Read more: 3 smart gyms tested and rated: Peloton, ClassPass and Mirror 

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Why does music improve workout performance? 

There's no shortage of research on the psychological effects of music. A good tune can help boost your mood and help you focus, but it can also motivate you or give you a competitive edge, which is where it applies to exercise. 

Music affects your workout performance in a number of ways, including:

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule: Music might not help you when you're struggling with DOMS or an injury, but most of the time, you can expect the above benefits.

person running on path outside

Studies show the running to upbeat music can actually help you run faster, and the same is true for cycling.

Stage 7 Photography/Unsplash

How to create the perfect workout playlist 

When it comes to improving workout performance, picking a playlist is all about tempo. Matching the music tempo with your intended heart rate will keep you pumped up for the duration of your workout, while mismatching can do just the opposite. 

Think about what happens when a fluke song comes on in the middle of your workout -- say, you're jamming to upbeat trap music or hard rock and all of a sudden an '80s love ballad comes on. You stop, dig your phone out of your pocket and skip it. Or maybe you power through, but all you can think about is how you can't wait for it to be over, thus interrupting your focus on the workout. 

Creating the perfect workout playlist is actually really simple. Just focus on two things: tempo and type of workout. The more intense you want the workout to be, the more upbeat the tempo should be. 

Finding a song tempo in beats per minute is just like finding your heart rate. People who are musically inclined may have an easier time counting the BPM in a song -- if you have trouble with that, this handy song BPM tool can help. Just plug in a song name and get the BPM. 

These general tempo guidelines should help you get started with your workout playlist: 

  • Yoga, pilates and other low-intensity activities: 60 to 90 BPM
  • Power yoga: 100 to 140 BPM
  • CrossFit, indoor cycling, or other forms of HIIT: 140 to 180-plus BPM
  • Zumba and dance: 130 to 170 BPM
  • Steady-state cardio, such as jogging: 120 to 140 BPM
  • Weightlifting and powerlifting: 130 to 150 BPM
  • Warming up for exercise: 100 to 140 BPM
  • Cooling down after exercise: 60 to 90 BPM

If you want to get even more scientific about it, engineer the tempo of your playlist to support interval work. For example, if you plan to go for an interval run where you'll run fast for 3 minutes, slow for 2 minutes for 30 minutes total, you can create a playlist that supports that goal. In this case, you'd enlist a fast-moderate-fast structure. Just make sure the lengths of the songs are close to the interval timeframes. 

Other factors such as bass, volume and lyrics may also influence your performance, but focusing on tempo helps to keep playlist-picking simple. 

Music streaming platforms with done-for-you workout playlists

Don't want to bother with your own playlist? Try one of these streaming platforms that already have hours upon hours of workout-specific music. 

Fit Radio: Fit Radio's entire premise revolves around BPM-specific workouts. You can find premade playlists for all different heart rate ranges in pretty much every genre. One thing I love about Fit Radio is that DJs mix playlists with quick cuts and meshed songs, so you get a lot of variety. 

RockMyRun: This app is similar to Fit Radio in that DJs create playlists by genre, BPM and activity. Despite the name, you can use RockMyRun for any type of exercise. The quick-adjust feature that allows you to quickly change the tempo of your playlist gives this app a leg up on others.

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RockMyRun helps you run faster with BPM-specific playlists.

App Store/Screenshot by Amanda Capritto

Apple Music: Apple Music has an entire section dedicated to workout playlists. Go to "browse" and then "Music by Mood" to find the fitness category. You'll find playlists for lifting, yoga, HIIT and more, as well as genre-specific playlists. Playlists are updated often, so add something to your library if you like it. 

Spotify: Like Apple Music, Spotify has a wide range of premade workout playlists, and is always updating current playlists and adding new ones. The playlists are categorized by BPM, but also have names -- like Beast Mode or Rock 'n' Run -- that help you decide whether a playlist is a good choice for a specific workout.

Jog.fm: Jog.fm helps you find or create the perfect playlist for your run based on your pace. Just input your mile pace and the app will offer up a list of songs that match that pace. You can also just browse popular music, which is categorized by pace.

PaceDJ: This app scans your music library to find the BPM of songs to create tempo-specific playlists. You can also choose from a number of premade playlists or let the app identify your running/walking pace and play songs that match. 

Just one thing before you hit the gym: Be careful not to play your music too loud, as loud music can cause hearing loss and headphones are a common culprit. Oh, and if you're going out for a run or bike ride, be safe