Music or No Music?

You could probably separate most lifters into two camps: those who train with earbuds, and those who train without. I’ve spent many weeks where every training session began and ended with me intently focused on the set ahead, music blaring. Some days, it would be any number of metal albums. Other days, it’d be the soundtrack to a game, or a show. I’ve lifted to the tune of a podcast, on lightweight days. And I’ve lifted in total silence, as well. Personally, music is a plus on the right days, and a minus on others. It’s something I have to feel out. Some days, especially when I’m in no mood to lift, the right kind of music can ignite a raging fire within me and give me the mental strength to push through a session, and come out the other end pumped up, invigorated, and filled with visions of new PRs. Other days, however, I feel content and zen, and want nothing more than to slip under the bar and move weight in dead silence.

But what does the science say? For the most part, personal preference matters the most. The intended goal of any given session matters as well. Studies show that music has absolutely no effect on strength, specifically maximal strength – your ability to hit your limit depends on mental arousal, sure, but there are other ways to reach mental arousal, and most of your arousal in psyching up for a max is the thought of the max itself – that enormous challenge you’re itching to overcome. But for submaximal lifting sessions, which are bound to be almost all of them, there are certain benefits to having a tune in the background – given it’s a tune of choice, rather than whatever the gym happens to be blaring. In fact, other studies show that certain types of music, especially the kind that relaxes you or gives you a sedative effect, is much more likely to mess with your training and leave you feeling weaker and lifting less.

Effects of Music on Mood

This article will directly and indirectly discuss another important thing – the effect of mental arousal on lifting. You most definitely shouldn’t approach each lifting session with maximum hype and doing so is definitely going to lead to emotional burnout anyway. Some sessions will be harder than others, and some should be relatively easy – if your program is pushing you to your limits every time you hit the gym, you won’t be making a lot of progress.

As such, arousal is an important thing to manage when lifting. At lifts under 90%, for example, I typically don’t expect to have to drum up a lot of mental willpower to move the weight. I concentrate, focus on technique, apply power to each rep – but I’m not trying to push the weight through the roof of the building, into the stratosphere, with such force that the barbell becomes a celestial object (ideally).

On the other hand, when I’m going for a 3RM, I’d like to be a little hyped up, and motivated. Some music can help, but I don’t need it. I’ve never gone for an absolute max, but it’s moments like that when mood matters most – pulling the absolute most out of yourself for a single rep requires a lot of mental fortitude, and the right mindset. Studies show that positive arousal is absolutely necessary for pulling the most out of yourself before a max lift.

Keep in mind that this is positive arousal – neurotic arousal, in the form of anger or anxiety, actually reduces strength. You might feel subjectively stronger when angry, but you’re much stronger if you’re hyped up, or positively excited. It helps to calm your nerves the day before a meet, and then ramp up the motivation and excitement in the hours moving toward the platform. When you finally lift, and you need your arousal to be at max, music may help – but ultimately, there are tons of other ways to get yourself psyched up and ready for a big lift.

 

As such, it’s important to analyze not only how music affects strength, but how it affects mood. Subjects in a study may have had all the arousal they needed for a good max lift, wherein music plays no actual difference, and you’re probably too hyped up to hear the music anyway. But when you need that extra oomph to get you mentally set up, music can be a big factor. Physiological arousal, as rated through skin conductance, was at its highest while listening to pieces that subjects described as emotionally powerful, meaning mood through music has not only a psychological but a physiological effect as well.

Besides, we all know anecdotally that the right music sets the tone. Music is integral to marketing and filmmaking for the express purpose of helping a customer or viewer get into the right “zone” emotionally for the media they’re about to consume. The idea that music makes us feel a certain way is about as old as the discovery of fire by mankind.

So, if the question is “should you go into a lifting session with total silence or with music?”, then the answer is that it depends on the session.

Music for Training

For strength endurance and warmups, the science says that your best bet is to listen to music that keeps you going. The idea here isn’t actually to hype up – it’s to take your mind off the perceived rate of exertion. What you’re basically trying to achieve is you’re trying to dissociate from the training session by going into a “flow” state through music, focusing on the technique and performing rep after rep. At about 60% 1RM, subjects were up to about 6% stronger per set in the number of reps they could perform vs. the number of reps they performed in silence. Set after set, this extra volume can rack up into a considerable amount of more weight moved thanks to music. However, that only counts for AMRAP sets. Most programs consist of given rep ranges, set as per the program needs, and maybe one or two sets per session get to be AMRAPs where you max it out.

In that case, feel free to pump up the jam when you’re getting ready for your AMRAP set. On the other hand, feel free to listen to music whenever you want to. Don’t listen to anything that actually takes your mind completely off the session – you need to focus if you want to lift. And don’t listen to music that explicitly calms you down or makes you feel drowsy. That will mess with your progress.

Using the Right Kind of Music

When discussions run into the topic of listening to music while training versus not listening to music while training, context is king. You don’t want to listen to music while working with your coach or practicing a movement that explicitly requires you to focus very carefully on how you’re moving. Music can be great to give you the extra few reps on an AMRAP set on an exercise you’re proficient at, but if you suck at deadlifting, bench pressing, or squatting, then you want total silence and you want tunnel vision between you and the bar. Go through your cues and your points, feel each rep, and practice your form.

Dissociation through music can help you when you’re working on greasing the groove and turning the movement into something ingrained. But in the early stages, trainees should definitely keep the earbuds out of their head and focus on rep quality.

This is even more important in more difficult lifts. An Olympic weightlifter should ideally keep away from music when focusing on internal stimuli, cue recitation, and rep quality. As they become more confident and familiar with their movement, music can help a training session within the right context.

The Final Takeaway

Lifting with music is neither bad nor good, but you should pay attention to how it affects your training based on where you are with a movement, what your goals are for the session, and how music will affect your mood.

You don’t have to rely on music to pump you up for a max lift, and the music itself isn’t the main factor contributing to your arousal. Music can be effective in AMRAP sets, which should generally be rare in your training (but still in there). Don’t listen to music when you should be focusing entirely on form quality and the movement you’re performing. And listen to your music – not the gym’s music – if you’re going to be listening to music at all.

Sometimes, you can’t avoid the gym’s soundtrack. Unless it’s a new gym that you’re still getting familiar with, you’ll typically learn to blend out whatever’s going through the gym’s speakers and focus on your training. If you can’t, bring something to stuff your ears and keep the noise out, or listen to your own music anyway.