How To: A Sports Psychologist's Guide to the Perfect Workout Playlist

A Sports Psychologist's Guide to the Perfect Workout Playlist

The right music can spur you to pick up the pace during an intense workout, pep you up before you hit the treadmill or walking path, and even encourage you to lift for just a few extra reps. Although we all have our favorite workout playlists, scientists have discovered what it is, exactly, that makes you workout harder when certain songs begin.

The Key to a Successful Workout Playlist

According to Costas Karageorghis, a sports psychologist and the deputy head of research for the School of Sport and Education at Brunel University in London, a simple formula can tell you whether or not your playlist is making you work harder. After 20 years of research and years building playlists for top athletes, Karageorghis found that BPM (beats per minute) is one of the main factors at making you work harder.

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Karageorghis also found through his research and experience that the most effective songs are those that distract your brain—the ones that allow you to zone out and ignore what's happening to your body as you workout. The more a song takes your focus off of the pain of your workout, the less effort you'll expend and the easier it'll feel.

How to Pick the Right Music for Your Workout Playlist

There's more to a song than just good feelings. Here's how to tell if your playlist will help you work harder while getting fit.

Step 1: Pick Good Pre-Workout Music

Before you actually start running, or whatever workout you are going to do, listen to some fast-paced music to create "psychomotor arousal." Music with a BPM of 120 to 140 offers is a sweet spot, according to Karageorghis, and can help boost your mood, too.

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Step 2: Pick Songs Faster Than Your Normal Pace

When crafting your new workout-boosting playlist, Karageorghis notes that your music should be just above your working heart rate. (To find out your target heart rate zone, use this online calculator.) By doing this, it'll trick your body into working out just a little bit harder.

On average, Karageorghis believes 120 to 140 BPM is the ideal range, but you should adjust it to match your own pace, as long as you keep the BPM of your playlist 5 percent higher. However, when your heart rate surpasses 140 BPM, a ceiling effect kicks in, and the songs' tempos will no longer make a difference in your workout.

How to Find a Song's BPM

Discovering the BPM of every one of your songs can be difficult. Although it's tempting to turn to an automated service, skip that step—automated BPM websites have a terrible success rate, according to Lifehacker. Instead, you can find the BPM of an individual song by entering its title on Song BPM's website.


If you're an iTunes user, simply enable the BPM option in your app. While iTunes can't automatically detect a song's BPM, it can display the information if it's been populated by the record label or previous owner.

Populate it yourself, by selecting a single song or multiple songs. Right-click on the selected song(s), and click "Get Info." In the window that opens, scroll down until you see "bpm." That's where you can enter the BPM manually.

If you prefer to use streaming services for your workouts, there's an easy to way to detect BPM on these apps, too.


While Spotify doesn't offer BPM information on its own, you can use Sort Your Music, a feature that combines Spotify with Echo Nest to sort your playlists and song library by BPM. You can also just play the playlist that Karageorghis created on Spotify, which is great for any workout.


If you're a Pandora user, it might seem impossible to create the perfect BPM playlist—yet the app has curated stations designed by BPM to ensure your workouts get a boost. They offer a list of suggested stations, along with the BPM range of the music for each on their website.

Step 3: Pick Songs with Good Associations

If you choose songs that evoke happy times and memories, you'll forget about the awful and difficult workout taking place. Happy memories equal a distracted mind. Also, songs with that make you think of triumph are great, like the theme song for Rocky. Just make sure they are face-paced with a good BPM rate.

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Step 4: Pick Songs You Actually Enjoy

This should go without saying, but if you don't like the music, your workout is going to suck. Music that you like and listen to daily can make your exercise session seem easier and even pleasurable. As Karageorghis says, "By blocking some of the signals that travel from the working muscles to the brain, music can lower perceived exertion during easy or moderate workouts by 8 to 12 percent," and enjoying your tunes is how it's done.

More Mind Hacks:

Now that you have your workout music down, see why you should never stretch before exercise or sports, how to avoid injury while exercising, this doctor's checklist for staying healthy overall, and find out some ways that music affects your overall productivity.

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