Thursday, April 25, 2013

Acoustic Gear: An Overview of the Ergogenic Effects of Music + Things to Keep in Mind, When Compiling a Playlist

Breakdance is not the only, but probably the most obvious example of the perfect synergy of "exercise" and beats per minute.
Today's SuppVersity article is one of those pieces which grew organically and in fact, it was Primalkid aka Alex, who shot me a mini "True of False" item on the music and it's effect on exercise performance, a couple of days ago and thus planted the idea to revisit the effects of music on exercise performance in my brain. While Alex' mini-item was concise and to the point (see blue box towards the bottom of this article), I did remember that I had read about the ergogenic effects of music several times in the past, so I told him, I would expand his "True or False" piece "somewhat", before posting it... well, nerdy as I am, one study came to the another and I ended up with way too much information for a single "True or False" item.

The SuppVersity Soundtrack of your Workout

Instead of simply telling you that the right music can have a beneficial impact on your workouts, I have thus decided to provide you with a brief overview of more or less randomly selected studies to give you an idea of what would make a good addition to your next MP3 purchase.

  • The bad news first: As beneficial as it may be for the average trainee, the pro and everyone who needs to focus can also be distracted by an upbeat workout soundtrack (Brownley. 1995). Everyone who has ever participated in any type of competition will know that: Races, matches etc. if you don't zone in 100% on what you are doing, you lose... and if you will, that's exactly what the 1995 study from the Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina I deliberately picked to kick this summary off, confirms.

    Picking the right music the easy way: In this day and age, you are probably not surprised that a group of researchers over at the Philips Research Center in Eindhoven and the Vrije Universieit in Amsterdam (both in the Netherlands) have already come up with a gadget that's going to do the job for you. The IM4Sports music system consists of a portable player with in-ear phones, heart rate sensor belt, acceleration sensors and a personal computer that will automatically select the "best" music to match your workout (Wijnalda. 2005).

    Data on the real world performance increases that can be achieve by using the prototype the Dutch scientists developed is yet unfortunately not available - the same applies (at least to my knowledge) for the commercial availability of a similarly sophisticated device, although the current generation of mobile phones would actually only be hooked up to a bluetooth heart rate sensor to get the job done.
    In a series of standardized submaximal cycle tests, Kimberly A. Brownley and her colleagues exposed 8 trained and 8 untrained runners to "no", "sedative" (commercially marketed stress management seletion), and "fast" (selection from pop, rock and movie soundtracks) music and measured heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature, rating of perceived exertion, cortisol release, respiration, general feeling (ranging from “very bad” to “very good”, corresponding to -5 to +5) and time to exhaustion of their participants.
    "Repeated measures ANOVA revealed increased respiratory frequency during fast music as compared to the no music and sedative music conditions (p < 0.01). Plasma cortisol levels did not differ at baseline across the music conditions; however, following high intensity exercise, higher cortisol levels were associated with fast music as compared to no music and sedative music (music X intensity interaction, p < 0.01) [...] there was a music x group x intensity interaction (p < 0.05) in which untrained subjects reported more positive affect compared to trained subjects while listening to fast music during low and high intensity exercise. Data collected at voluntary exhaustion revealed significantly more positive affect and higher skin temperature (p values < 0.01) in untrained compared to trained subjects." (my emphases in Brownley. 1995)
    While it is debatable whether the increase in cortisol in response to the fast music has to be considered an advantage or disadvantage (learn why), the statistically significant positive effect of the fast music on the affect of the untrained subjects (+1.6 vs. -0.1 in the trained subjects) during both low and high intensity exercise, suggest that untrained individuals benefit to a greater extend from taking their iPods to the gym than the pros, who may even be distracted by the music, lose focus and thus feel annoyed by listening to fast music.

    The latter is also supported by a slightly more pronounced but statistically non-significant increase in time to exhaustion that's not mentioned in the scientists' summary of the results quoted above.
    Bottom line: For trained athletes exercise performance is not only limited by physical, but also by mental factors, the same music that energizes his untrained peers can therefore be annoying for the better trained athlete.
  • Rocky and/or Top Gun are the "top dogs" among the workout soundtracks - both before / and during HIT (Yamamoto. 2003). There is a reason "The Eye of the Tiger" always hits bullseye (stupid pun intended). It's the 52% increase in plasma epinephrine that sets you into fight an flight mode, when you listen to Rocky's anthem before your next PR.

    It may not be ergogenic, but it is unquestionably motivating: The Anthem from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's 1976 master piece "Rocky" (photo © 1976 MGM)
    Ok, ok, ... I have to admit a 52% increase is just what the researchers from the Nagoya University measured in their six healthy university students (24.0 ± 4.1 years, 172.2 ± 2.6 cm, 70.2 ± 5.4 kg and 23.7 ± 0.7 kg/m) after listening to the soundtrack for 20min and right before a supramaximal cycle ergometer test. The exact effect size will probably be different for you, but the principle remains the same.

    If we know assume that the general trend holds in the case of the power output as well, this would unfortunately mean that you won't get any actual performance increments out of it. After all, in the study at hand, neither the slow (Chopin) nor the fast music had any measurable effects on the mean power output during, or the blood lactate, ammonia or plasma catecholamine levels following the exercise.
    Bottom line: Despite existing physiological effects (catecholamine release), the Rocky and/or Top Gun soundtracks are obviously rather psycho- than physiostimulants. The latter could obviously entail motivational benefits, which could come handy on those days you don't really feel like adhering to your workout schedule.
  • If you are interested in a couple of tips on designing the optimal HIIT vs. MIIL routine, check out the SuppVersity HIIT-Series
    Medium intensity interval listening can be a superior alternative to a constant stream of music (Beckett. 1990). I guess I will first have to explain what "medium intensity interval listening" (MIIL) is, before I get to the actual benefits this way of listening to your favorite music only intermittently can have on your exercise performance.

    The principle is actually quite straight forward. Just as you would jog for 5 min and walk for another 5 min on a medium intensity interval training protocol, you simply pick your favorite radio station / playlist, listen to it for 5 min and then continue training for another 5 min without music.

    If you work anywhere similar to the 32 students (age 18-22) who particpated in Amy Beckett's 1990 study, the above protocol can increase the distance you'll cover during 30 min of walking by 43%/14% (women) or 38%/29% (men) compared to not listening to music at all (first figure) or a steady stream of pop/rap/rock/techno or whatever music you prefer (second figure).
    Bottom line: Maybe you remember what I wrote about the inflation of "True or False" posts here at the SuppVersity a couple of days ago? How they would lose their appeal if I kept bombarding you with daily TOF items!? Well, I guess it's the same for the music - the on/off scheme avoids that the beneficial effects wear off.
  • Earplugs can be ergogenic - at least, if you train in gym where they play music you don't like (Nakamura. 2010). Why? Well according to a 2010 study from the São Paulo State University having to listen to music you don't like can have downright ergolytic effects. That's at least what  the scientists observed in their subjects, when they cycled at critical power while listening to "non-preferred" music.

    Don't hesitate and wear ear-plugs during a spinning class, when you feel that the music hampers your performance (learn more about HIIT vs. LISS, DHT and fat loss & more). 
    Compared to the trial in the course of which the 15 subjects listened to their preferred music, the participants of the Nakamura study covered a 28% lower distance and still felt significantly more fatigued, when they had to listen to Justin Bieber.(the "non-preffered music is not specified, but I thought this would be a good example ;-).

    As long as you can tolerate the music in your gym, it does yet appear as if it does not really matter, if you're training with fast upbeat music, classical music or self-selected music in the background. At least that's what the results of a previous study from the University of Kansas would suggest.

    In the said study by Potteigner et al., "[e]ach type of music resulted in a reduced peripheral, central, and overall RPE" (Potteigner. 2000) during 20 minutes of cycling at 70% of the VO2max, when compared with a no-music condition.
    Bottom line: As the results of the Nakamura study shows, your ear-plugs can also have "anti-ergolytic" (=anti performance decreasing) effects in certain environments. Another reason to have your MP3 player fully charged all the time?!
    Let's be honest, guys. These days you really don't have to be ashamed if you wear earplugs or headphones in the gym - regardless of your age.
  • The general usefulness of music does not depend on age (Becker. 1994). In view of the fact that you see relatively few pensioners walking along the street with the earplugs of their iPods in their auditory canals, it may sound surprising, but research shows: Children, adults and seniors all benefit from listening to music before a short (2min) exercise trial.

    Moreover, neither the type of the music mellow vs. frenetic, nor  the baseline activity levels and thus physical fitness of the participants influenced the beneficial effects on mileage in the study from the Ursinus College in Collegeville.
    Bottom line: Let's be honest, 10 years ago, age may have been a reason to refuse running around with an MP3 player in the gym, but these days it certainly isn't. So, if you want to be extraordinary and distinguish yourself from your sedentary, increasingly obese, pre-diabetic age-mates and do something for your health and overall fitness, simply follow the example of your grandchildren: Get yourself an MP3 player.
  • If you recall Sunday's installment of "True or False", you will be aware that things work differently if you perform the music yourself. For the drummers in the De La Rue study, for example the heart rate peaks (186bpm were much higher than the average beats per minutes of the songs they were playing (learn more)
    Music tempo and heart rate / exercise intensity should be in sync (Karageorghis. 2006;  2011)  The results of the 2006 and 2011 studies by Karageorghis et al. indicate that "preference for fast tempo increased, relative to medium and very fast tempo music, as exercise intensity increased" (Karageorghis. 2011).

    In view of the fact that it appears as if a close match between the heart rate and the beats-per-minute was the confounding factor here, it is not really surprising that the slow music condition with <80bpm was depreciated by all subjects in the two studies from the Brunel University in London. 80bpms is after all roughly identical to the target heart rate during the low intensity exercise trial (40% HRmax) in the study and way below the target heart rates during the medium and high intensity conditions.
    Watch out, the BPM <> HR connection is not linear: As sensible as it may be to matching the bpm of your workout songs to your heart rate, the relationship is not clearly linear (see figure from Karegeorgis 2012). Rather than that, the optimal bpm increases from >120bpm for low intensity exercises to <140bpm for high intensity exercise in the 80% HRMax range, when the heart rate of the young study participants would be in the >160bpm range, already.
  • If you are in sync with the music this will optimize your movement patterns (various) In the jargon the innate human predisposition to synchronise movement with musical rhythms is called "rhythm response".

    There is more, for example the study Alex' covered in hit True Or False: "According to researchers at the Department of Kinesiology, California State University, self-selected music increased squat jump explosiveness and feelings of vigor, tension, and reduced fatigue (Biagini. 2012). Of course the 20 college age athletes also performed bench press reps to failure with no difference between the music and silence groups, suggesting that music may enhance acute power performance but not multiple-set strength training. So next time you sprint, bring some headphones and a good song ;-)"
    According to Karageorghis it has been studied "since the turn of the twentieth century" and refers to the "commonalities between movement frequency during exercise and music tempo" of which Schneider et al. have been able to show in 2010 that it is reflected by the frequency (approximately 3 Hz) of electroencephalographic delta activity in the brain:
    "Results of this study give reason to speculate that a strong relationship exists between intrinsic and extrinsic oscillation patterns during exercise. A frequency of approximately 3 Hz seems to be dominant in different physiological systems and seems to be rated as pleasurable when choosing the appropriate music for exercising. This is in line with previous research showing that an adequate choice of music during exercise enhances performance output and mood." (Schneider. 2010).
    Now those 3hz = 3 beats per second translate to 180 beats per minute and are thus slightly above the previously discussed upper limit of the optimal BPM scale.

    More recent fMRI studies by Kornysheva et al. have broadened our understanding of the underlying mechanisms and led to the conclusion that activity in the ventral premotor cortex, which links motor and cognitive function, is enhanced when we are working out to music within the optimal BPM margin. According to the German researchers their results confirm the notion that ...
    "[...] the premotor activity increase during preferred tempo is the result of enhanced sensorimotor simulation of the beat frequency. This may serve as a mechanism that facilitates the tuning-in to the beat of appealing music." (Kornysheva. 2010)
    Most intriguingly, previous reports by Roerdink et al. (2008) suggested that the synchronous use of music may also reduce the metabolic cost of exercise by promoting greater neuromuscular or metabolic efficiency - an observation that would stand in line with a theory by Smoll & Schultz, who speculated in 1982 that a regular kinaesthetic pattern may require less energy to replicate owing to the absence of minute adjustments within the kinetic pattern, while offering a greater relaxation which comes from the precise expectancy of the forthcoming movement (Smoll. 1982).
The examples I compiled in the previous paragraphs are certainly not all-encompassing, but by now you should actually have a basic understanding of the different levels at which music can effect your performance and psychological well-being / motivation while you work out. The emphasis on positive results may however evoke the unwarranted impression that you'd just have to bring your iPod to the gym if you wanted to set one PR after the other. That's however not the case. As the first item on the list already suggested,
"[...] music is a beneficial accompaniment to exercise in most circumstances,  [but] it is contraindicated under certain conditions: (a) when it may distract users from safety-relevant information (e.g., on public roads); (b) when exercisers need to focus their full attention on learning a demanding motor skill (e.g., a power clean); and (c) when exercising at high intensities that require an associative attentional style (i.e., ‘listening to the body’)." (Karageorghis. 2012)
There is also more than just a handful of studies where neither fast, nor slow beats had any, or at least no significant impact on the exercise performance of the study participants (e.g. Schwartz. 1990; Pujol. 1999). 

No bottom line, but factors to keep in mind when you're setting up your playlist

Regardless of the fact that music is probably not going to be the solution to all your performance and motivation problems in the gym and elsewhere, it is still absolutely worth experimenting with your iPod or whatever other device you use to listen to music before, during and maybe even after  your workouts (the latter to calm down and kickstart recovery) and the following list of things to keep in mind may help you with your N=1 experiments.
What makes a song "workout compatible"? According to Costas Karageorghis, an associate professor of sport psychology at Brunel University in England, who created the Brunel Music Rating Inventory, the most important determinant of the "workout compatibility" of a song is its tempo, which should be between 120 and 140 beats per minute.
This applies to a wide range of commercial dance music, and many rock songs and it corresponds roughly to the average person's heart rate during a medium intensity workout. Karageorghis mentions "Push It" by Salt-N-Pepa and "Drop It Like It's Hot" by Snoop Dogg, but also the dance remix of "Umbrella" by Rihanna as examples that would make a good addition to a playlist you would listen to during a cardio session. For a high-intensity workout like a hard run, he suggested Glenn Frey's "The Heat Is On."
Personal preference is yet also important: According to a NY Times article (Kurutz. 2008), Haile Gebrselassie, the Olympian from Ethiopia, for example, often requested that the techno song "Scatman," which has a BPM of around 135, be played over the sound system during his races.
The same article cites Flex senior writer Shawn Prine who says: "The vast majority of bodybuilders are fans of heavy metal, if not in their personal life at least in the gym". Perine believes that it "keeps you elevated, especially in between sets", but personally prefers to work out listening to hip-hop songs.
In the end, it is thus probably a combination of the compatibility of the M-BPM and H-BPM (music and heart beats per minute), the rhythmicity of the music and the type of exercise and - of course - your personal prefercenes that makes a song "workout compatible".
personal characteristics / preferences & coherence
  • obvious confounding factors are age and socio-cultural upbringing of the individual
  • the lyrics can increase motivation even if respective references to exercise, performance, power etc. are only indirect
  • beat matching, style matching, artist matching, era matching, etc. is important in terms of formulating a cohesive music mix
  • the coherence of the playlist increases if you pick pieces from the same era, the same genre, or by the same artist when moving between the pre-, in-, and post-task phases (Terry. 2011)
exercise environment / demographics (with groups)
  • en vogue pop songs have been shown to be specifically motivational for the "average trainee"
  • in group exercise classes, where music is used synchronously, it appears that the rhythmic abilities of participants warrant careful consideration in the sequencing of music selections (De nora. 2000)
  • concerting the workout program with the music can be highly beneficial; e.g. a change or absence of music can be an effective marker of the next exercise phase or unit, such as the progression from a cardiovascular segment to a warm-down phase
desired outcomes (e.g. performance, relaxation, etc.)
  •  > 120 bpm for stimulation
  • < 80bpm for sedation
  • 60–70 bpm (around resting heart rate) for post workout recovery
  • the inclusion of natural sounds, such as breaking waves, bird song or a babbling brook, may benefit recovery, as well (Karageorghis. 2012)
exercise intensity / heart rate / movement pattern
  • it is advantageous for the rhythm of the music to approximate the motor patterns of the workout (Crust. 2008; Schneider. 2010)
  • as a result of segments that involve syncopation or span musical measures certain parts of a song can provoke increased synchronicity and thus improved motor coordination independently of the baseline rhythm (Styns. 2007)
In view of the fact that it has been shown that no "motivational" music programme designed by someone else can ever match the efficiacy of a self-selected and constantly revised playlist (Karageorghis. 2012), you will probably understand that I will leave it with that and won't provide you with something like an "official SuppVersity Workout Soundtrack"... trust me, you will find what works for you if you incorporate some of the principles you've learned about in this article.

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