Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar: you show up to your favorite class, not really feeling anything out of the ordinary. You feel OK, ready to sweat and move on with your day. Then the music starts, and its a great first song, totally setting the tone for the workout. You get in your zone, and one after another, the beats get better and better, and you are running at peak performance -- "beast-mode", maybe without even realizing it. 50 minutes later, you are setting your personal best. Was it what you had for lunch? Your new pre-workout? Maybe you got an extra hour of sleep that night? Or was it the cute guy two treads over? Nope. It was definitely the tunes. Music can play a vital role in not only our enjoyment (or the reverse!) of a workout, but also our performance. But why?
Studies have shown that music distracts people from pain and fatigue, elevates mood, increases endurance, reduces perceived effort and may even promote metabolic efficiency. When listening to music, people run farther, bike longer and swim faster than usual—often without realizing it. In a 2012 review of the research, Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University in London, one of the world's leading experts on the psychology of exercise music, wrote that one could think of music as "a type of legal performance-enhancing drug." 1
Given the powerful effect music scientifically has on people who exercise, it is no wonder then, that so much of an instructor's job is centered on selecting the right playlist. In fact, taking it a step further, clients may choose one instructor over another based on the music they are known to favor in their classes, and whether or not it suits their preference. Techno, Dance, Rap, Hip-Hop, Top 40... at some of the most popular studios, instructors try to differentiate themselves based on their music. If you absolutely know you need Whitney or Britney to sprint at a 12.5, you know you'll be choosing a certain instructor over one that prefers to play Kendrick Lamar and Lil Sean. And if an instructor gets lazy with that playlist? Using the same one several classes in a row? It could cost him. "I have been known to stop going to certain instructors because they just don't keep it fresh. If I am making an effort to go to your class 2-3 times a week, then you can put the effort into making new playlists. It's' your job." sniffed one client who wished to remain anonymous.
So how do fitness instructors feel about wearing the additional hat of DJ? According to Seth Maynard, instructor at two studios in NYC with two vastly different disciplines, Swerve Fitness and Shadowbox, he has fully embraced this role. "Music can make or break a class in 3:20, I believe it is crucial." He adds, "If I don't like the song, and it doesn't motivate me.... then how can I motivate someone else to that song? It's nearly impossible to do, and still have it be authentic."
Natalie Raitano, instructor at Barry's Bootcamp agrees. "It's everything. Everyone loves to listen to music when they work out, and more importantly, they love working out to songs that they know. It pumps people up. It gets them through that last 30 second sprint of class. It helps them do something more than they did the last class or run at a speed they have never run at before, or lift a weight heavier than they ever lifted before."
Josey Greenwell, also of Barry's Bootcamp has a unique take, as he also is an accomplished country music artist. "I like to think of my class as a concert. The first couple songs are always upbeat, like the beginning of a concert. Later, I'll throw in a throwback tune to catch people off guard, then a song for the guys, followed by one for the girls...and by that point everyone has given in to the workout and really start to fight. I'm on your team for this hour to help you, and I want you to feel the energy I feel in the music!"
Some newer studios have decided music is so essential, they decided to make it a serious part of the experience. For example, one popular international fitness studio designed their workouts, creating a separate role for a proper DJ, soundboard and all, in the class. The DJ is also a fitness instructor, so he or she not only knows the music side well, but also can relate to what is happening in the class from a technical perspective. Steve Uria, owner of the white hot studio Switch Playground, in Capetown, South Africa, which is coming to NYC this summer says, "For me the essence of a workout is the rhythm. It is the heartbeat that will take you on a journey throughout the class and drive you. Marry this with the facilitator who is the guide itself, and you have a winning combination to choreograph the workout perfectly. Switch Playground is all about experiential exercise, it's not just a workout, it's a party for the body and soul." A workout or a party? Can it be one and the same? Robbie McMillan, Instructor and Director of East Coast Curriculum at Barry's sums it up: Being a DJ is one of the best parts of being a fitness instructor. I tell trainees that the music is the heartbeat of the class. People want to feel like they are dancing, even if they can't dance."
Personally, I need to feel a connection to the music when I am working out. An instructor can be perfection technically, but if the tunes don't resonate with me, I just don't feel it. I have been able to sprint for 60 seconds at a 12.5 with incline, because my favorite song is playing. There is no substitute for the emotional experience that happens when one is engaged both physically and mentally in a class. And music plays the biggest role in that for not just me, but so many of my fellow fitness friends. The group fitness experience has become something much more than just exercise. It has become an experience. A client now can choose from not just so many different fitness instructors, but also fitness offerings. They will choose the one they are going to feel the most fulfilled at from a 360 degree perspective. Heads up fitness companies: you are creating an environment for clients -- who can choose to be anywhere during that 60 minutes... and they want to feel better on many different levels when they walk out, than when they walk in...physically, mentally, and emotionally. Fitness is not just a one-dimensional phenomenon. It has become a mind/body/soul experience.
1 Ferris Jabr, Scientific American