The Science Behind the Perfect Workout Playlist

Is there such a thing as the best workout mix? It turns out, there is. A recent study showed what most athletes and gym-goers already know: That upbeat music makes exercise feel easier and that the right collection of songs can put you in the zone.

Sports scientists at Brunel University in London teamed up with Spotify to analyze nearly 7 million workout playlists in order to design the ultimate fitness soundtrack. They selected popular songs, but also factored in the lyrics, style and tempo (also called beats per minute, or BPM). Ultimately, the team organized the 20 perfect tracks into a musical mash-up that carries you through a complete workout, from warm-up to cardio and strength, and finally through a cool-down.

Research shows that synchronizing your movements to a steady beat will help carry you through the workout and keep you motivated once fatigue sets in. The song’s tempo should match your heart rate, with slower songs playing during your warm-up or cool-down, and faster songs when you need to kick it into high gear.

If you check out the bpms featured in Spotify’s workout playlist, you’ll see that pattern emerge (slow to fast to slow). Here’s the complete song list for the ultimate workout playlist:

  • Roar by Katy Perry — 92  BPM
  • Talk Dirty by Jason Derulo ft 2 Chainz — 100  BPM
  • Skip To The Good Bit by Rizzle Kicks — 105  BPM
  • Get Lucky by Daft Punk ft Pharrel Williams — 116 BPM
  • Move by Little Mix — 120 BPM
  • Need U 100% by Duke Dumont ft A*M*E — 124  BPM
  • You Make Me by Avicii — 125 BPM
  • Feel My Rhythm by Viralites —128 BPM
  • Timber by Pitbull ft Ke$ha —130 BPM
  • Applause by Lady Gaga — 140 BPM
  • Can’t Hold Us by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis ft Ray Dalton — 147 BPM
  • Happy by Pharrell Williams —160  BPM
  • The Monster by Eminem ft Rihanna — 110 BPM
  • Love Me Again by John Newman — 126 BPM
  • Get Down  by Groove Armada ft Stush and Red Rat — 127 BPM
  • #thatPOWER by ft Justin Bieber — 128 BPM
  • It’s My Party by Jesse J  — 130 BPM
  • Play Hard by David Guetta ft. Ne-Yo and Akon — 130 BPM
  • Burn  by Ellie Goulding — 116 BPM
  • Royals by Lorde — 85 BPM

Of course, you don’t always need to turn to experts in music and sports science to create a new workout playlist. There are many free apps that automatically calculate and tag a song’s BPM. Generally speaking, warm-up and cool-down songs should fall into the 80-90 BPM range. The music’s tempo should increase to the 120-140 BPM range once your workout transitions into a moderate intensity level.

The ideal BPM will vary from person to person, depending on their working heart rate, but exercisers can increase the intensity of their workout by raising the tempo a little beyond their comfort zone. This should make you work even harder, but you’ll be so motivated by the music that you’ll barely notice the extra effort. Sounds like a winning formula to us!

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Photo credit: FatCamera

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