When you’re leaving the house before your workout, you’ve got to make sure you’ve assembled all of your gym essentials. From your water bottle to your training journal, you know the things you need to be your best self in the gym. For many lifters, their headphones are also on the top of the must-haves list in the gym. But is it the worst thing if you forget them at home?
Many lifters swear by having their headphones during their workout, while others prefer the combination of silence, heavy breathing, and iron-clanging in their own garage gym. You might be somewhere in between, too.
Figuring out whether you should work out with or without music is kind of like deciding if you want to use pre-workout. It depends on your knowledge of your body, your needs, and what the research says on how effective your weapon of choice is. You might need your Linkin Park to get pumped up before hitting those new personal records (PRs). But are there any drawbacks to listening to music during your workout?
Read on to find out what the science says, and learn the best (and worst) times to turn up the beat.
How Does Music Impact Your Workout?
Your personal experience may have already told you what research also suggests — listening to your favorite pump-up jams when you’re about to lift heavy can help you get through tough attempts. Turning off the world and turning on your personalized gym playlist can make it feel easier to lift heavier. (1) You might also find that you can work out longer while listening to music, possibly because it puts you in a good mood while distracting you from the pain of the burn. (2)(3)
On the other hand, how you listen to music during your workout also affects your performance. (4) It might not be quite as motivating to hear whatever your gym is blasting on the speakers instead of your own favorite tunes. But playing music through your headphones — especially noise-canceling headphones — might mess with your coordination. (5)(6) You definitely don’t want your coordination to be off when you’re diving into a complex maneuver like the clean & jerk.
Benefits of Working Out With Music
If you swear by working out while you’re plugged in, there’s plenty of scientific support for your necessary PR jams. It can be helpful to work out with music when you need a motivation boost — whether that’s to get started with your workout or to push through a tough one.
Have More Fun
You might head out to the gym to help shake you out of your Monday blues. Exercising with music might just give your spirits an even bigger boost. Working out while listening to music is known to boost your mood and help you have more fun during your training session. (7)
You might enjoy your time even more when you can select your own music through your headphones. Lifting to your own playlist can make you feel like you’re not working as hard, lowering your rate of perceived exertion (RPE). (1)
When you’re feeling less strained, you’re likely to be having more fun — not to mention being able to work harder, which is a significant part of the fun for a lot of lifters. That’s a definite argument in favor of wearing headphones so you don’t have to settle for whatever your gym decides to play at any given moment.
If all your workout motivation vanishes when you arrive at the gym and realize you forgot your headphones, don’t worry — you’re not “soft” or “weak-minded.” Research has shown that there’s a direct correlation between one’s ability to listen to music while and their motivation. (8) When people are able to listen to music, they’re more likely to be able to get out and get after those low-intensity cardio sessions. (9)
Headphones also help if you’re planning to go all out in the gym with a high intensity session. Listening to your own music is known to boost motivation during intensive anaerobic training. (4) Plus, hearing your own favorite jams helps your heart rate recover more efficiently between bouts of work. When you feel less beaten down between sets, you’re more likely to be motivated to come back harder.
Get More Explosive
Are box jumps or snatches in your program? Need a fast way to shake off your grogginess and get going? When your workout calls for explosiveness and power-oriented moves, your pre-workout can certainly help — and so can your newest wireless headphones.
Listening to their music of choice increases athletes’ explosiveness, power, and velocity. (7)(8)(10) This might be especially true of music with faster tempos (think Lil Nas X’s “THATS WHAT I WANT,” not “DEAD RIGHT NOW”). (10) Selecting tunes that have a fast pace and cranking them up loud can help you perform movements faster, too. So whether you’re getting your fast-paced bangers from the gym speakers or your own headphones, try to time your explosive work with an explosive beat. (11)
Some research shows that listening to self-selected music can increase your max strength, perhaps because listening to your favorite music can lower your RPE and help your workout feel easier. (1) When you need to put in a strong anaerobic effort — think those heavy doubles you have programmed for later today — blasting your pump-up jams may be just what you need to increase your peak power. (4)
Since your music might also be able to help your heart rate recover more efficiently between sets, you’ll also be setting yourself up for successful bouts of five by five heavy lifts. (4) The better you recover between sets, the heavier you can lift, for longer.
Benefits of Working Out Without Music
Maybe you forgot your headphones at home and need to convince yourself that you can, indeed, get a good workout without them. Or maybe your coach has encouraged you to ditch the music and focus on your inner motivation. Whatever the reason you’re thinking of working out without music, it might give you some distinct advantages.
Prep for Competition
In all likelihood, you won’t be allowed to compete with your headphones on during weightlifting, powerlifting, or strongman competitions. There may be background music playing — you might even get to choose what plays during your last deadlift attempt, for example — but in general, you won’t be able to control the noises around you during competition. Lifting without music during competition prep and general training can help you acclimate to that unpredictability.
If you can’t control your musical surroundings during competition, it helps to get used to controlling your internal environment while lifting — i.e., forgoing music during your in-gym attempts. Think of it as yet another form of training specificity. When getting closer to a competition, you shift to pretty much only training competition lifts. You might want to simulate meet conditions even further by getting your body and mind used to practicing those lifts without controlling your music.
That’s not to say you can never listen to music during competitions. During lulls between flights, you can absolutely put on your headphones and tune in. Research suggests that listening to pump up jams in the minutes before a max-effort exertion can still help improve your performance. (12)(13)
You don’t have to be listening to music during your actual lift to benefit from music. By avoiding music during your big lifts in the gym during competition prep, you can prepare your body and mind for completing your actual lifts without your tunes.
Connect With Yourself
Listening to music while you lift distracts you from all that muscle burn you build up while holding an isometric or grinding through your final rep. (3) And while that might be exactly what you’re looking for, you might also find that lifting without music can give you a whole different level of awareness.
Listening to music can make your body physically more jittery and therefore interrupt your flow state. (5)(6) On the other hand, when you’re not listening to music, you have no choice but to tap into your own body and thought processes. That might mean increasing your awareness of your form and any warning signs your body might be giving you during a lift.
It also might mean forcing you to tune into your why more deeply — why are you attempting this huge lift? What do you want to accomplish? And do you actually believe you can lift it? Connecting with yourself by tuning out everything but your own thoughts and breath work can forge you into a powerhouse of mental strength on the platform.
Protect Your Hearing
Auditory stimulation is high in the gym whether you use headphones or not. From clanging iron to angsty jams blaring from speakers, noise levels are already quite high in the gym. When you add headphones to the mix, you’ve got to crank them up even louder than normal just to hear your favorite pump up tunes over the din.
Even if you’re not using headphones, music might need to be quite loud to have a positive impact on your workout. (10) You also may be especially vulnerable to hearing damage while working out. (14) Working out increases blood flow to your cochlea, meaning that your ears are more sensitive while you’re training. This may cause pressure to build up in your middle ear when you’re training and listening to loud music, which can increase your risk of both short- and long-term ear and hearing damage. (15)
So, if your gym is really blasting those tunes already, you might want to toss your headphones into your bag for the day and rock out to the gym’s jams to spare your ears the extra stress.
Protect Your Ear (and Heart) Health
Even aside from the noise itself, wearing headphones — and not cleaning them frequently — can cause damage to your ears. Ear hygiene is just harder to keep track of when you’re frequently putting headphones in or on your ears — and then sweating a lot. (15)
Your ear health is directly connected with your cardiovascular health because of how much blood flow your ears require. Using headphones at the gym without consistent ear hygiene practices can potentially increase your risk of developing ear infections. (15) So if you’re going to pop in those earbuds, make sure you’re taking care of ear wax residue and sweat regularly. Every week, use a soft-bristled toothbrush to brush debris out of your earpods and soak the foam ear tips in water with a little bit of soap for five minutes. For over-the-ear headphones, use soft clothes with a little bit of hand sanitizer to wipe down the ear pads.
Move More Steadily
Wearing headphones that block out noise surrounding you might prevent you from moving with consistent balance. Your entire posture is more likely to sway on its own when you’re wearing headphones that block auditory feedback from the world around you. (5) Especially if your workout headphones are of the noise-canceling variety, you might find yourself more susceptible to vertigo. (6)
Even if your headphones aren’t noise-canceling, listening to music in headphones impacts your body differently than listening through speakers. People tend to move more spontaneously — even if it’s just through absent-minded finger-tapping — while listening to music from their headphones than through speakers. (16) This might be fun if you’re the type to head-bang your way into a set of heavy triples. But if you want to savor your body’s calmness in the moments before your big lifts, you might want to leave the music on the speakers.
Lift to the Beat — Or Not
There are some days that just feel like a total drag. Without your music, you could never fathom getting through a stroll outside, let alone an explosive workout. Other days, you’re focused on nothing but your upcoming competition, so you want to simulate meet conditions as much as you can — including, alas, no headphones during your lifts.
You don’t have to choose one or the other. It’s okay to shift around which days you listen to music during your workout and which days you don’t. You can also listen during some parts of your workout but not others. Ultimately — to music, or not to music? It’s really up to you.
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- Thakare, A. E., Mehrotra, R., & Singh, A. (2017). Effect of music tempo on exercise performance and heart rate among young adults. International journal of physiology, pathophysiology and pharmacology, 9(2), 35–39.
- Bigliassi M, Karageorghis CI, Bishop DT, Nowicky AV, Wright MJ. Cerebral effects of music during isometric exercise: An fMRI study. Int J Psychophysiol. 2018 Nov;133:131-139.
- Cutrufello PT, Benson BA, Landram MJ. The effect of music on anaerobic exercise performance and muscular endurance. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2020 Mar;60(3):486-492.
- Kanegaonkar RG, Amin K, Clarke M. The contribution of hearing to normal balance. J Laryngol Otol. 2012 Oct;126(10):984-8.
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- Patania, V. M., Padulo, J., Iuliano, E., Ardigò, L. P., Čular, D., Miletić, A., & De Giorgio, A. (2020). The Psychophysiological Effects of Different Tempo Music on Endurance Versus High-Intensity Performances. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 74.
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- Ballmann CG, Favre ML, Phillips MT, Rogers RR, Pederson JA, Williams TD. Effect of Pre-Exercise Music on Bench Press Power, Velocity, and Repetition Volume. Percept Mot Skills. 2021 Jun;128(3):1183-1196.
- Smirmaul BP. Effect of pre-task music on sports or exercise performance. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2017 Jul-Aug;57(7-8):976-984.
- Welch, D., Law, A., & Dirks, K. (2014). Hearing loss with exercise and noise exposure. In 11th International Congress on Noise as a Public Health Problem (ICBEN), Japan.
- Flowers, A., & Pillay, D. (2021). Sports audiology: Ear hygiene practices of gym users who wear earphones. The South African journal of communication disorders = Die Suid-Afrikaanse tydskrif vir Kommunikasieafwykings, 68(1), e1–e7.
- Zelechowska, A., Gonzalez-Sanchez, V. E., Laeng, B., & Jensenius, A. R. (2020). Headphones or Speakers? An Exploratory Study of Their Effects on Spontaneous Body Movement to Rhythmic Music. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 698.
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