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How to Build an Effective Workout Playlist

by Lisa Poisso on April 07, 2014

You've finally got your exercise routine down, and you're hitting the jogging trail or gym every weekday more often than not. But it's getting harder and harder to keep up the pace, and you dread pounding through one more circuit to the same overplayed tunes. Your old favorites aren't lifting your spirits — or your heart rate — quite like they used to.

There's more to an effective workout playlist than simply a rotation of songs you enjoy. You might think that putting together a collection that works is part art, part science. In fact, it's all science. Research confirms that listening to music during moderate exercise helps you work out harder, faster and longer.

Studies show that music helps distract you from the discomfort of your efforts, slip into a state of flow ("the zone"), maintain a steady pace and boost both your mood and your enthusiasm.

Hit the sweet spot

All8Unless you're pushing the performance envelope, the most effective workout playlist includes songs that range between 120 and 140 beats per minutes (BPM) — fast enough to help you keep the pace while striving to push a little more. Yes, you'll want to look for some warmup and cooldown tunes too, but make sure you don't shuffle them in with the rest of your mix and risk bogging down your momentum. At the same time, avoid super-fast cuts that you simply can't keep up with.

Before you add a song to your workout playlist, test to see if it hits the BPM sweet spot. We recommend a do-it-yourself approach, in order to avoid any misclassifications at half-tempo or double-time. Try these websites on your computer or tablet.

  • All8 lets you tap any key on your keyboard along with the beat of a song to tell you its BPM.
  • SongBPM lets you search for songs by artist and title to find out their BPM.

Where to find tunes

Shape PlaylistIf you're not into spending hours culling the perfect songs for an exercise playlist and you suspect you'll be sick of it within a week, investigate ready-made playlists. Sometimes, it's easier to let someone else do the work.

  • serves up songs paced for running, walking or cycling. There's an iPhone/iPod app (more details below) that provides even more features.
  • Running Playlist sorts exercise playlists by BPM and genre. It offers an iPhone/iPod app as well.
  • Shape experts have put together a whole host of workout playlists for every taste, including fresh lists every month, genre-specific lists and even themed playlists for events like March Madness.
  • Spotify's Ultimate Workout Playlist is a collaborative effort between music streaming service Spotify and a British sports performance researcher, producing the ultimate fitness playlist culled from Spotify's 6.7 million songs and designed for peak performance in every phase of your workout.
  • Pinterest buries you in ideas: workout playlists for dudes, for lifting, for spring, with hits of the year — it's all collected here on Pinterest. Jump in for a massive list of choices, but don't say we didn't warn you.

Let your app set the pace

FIT RadioIf you get bored too quickly by ready-made playlists, you need a fresh stream of tunes for every workout. Keep moving with one of these streaming services.


No more measuring BPMs and assembling lists when you pick up this handy app. PaceDJ matches the music it plays to your current pace. You'll need a good stash of tunes on board your device for PaceDJ to pull from; PaceDJ does not stream music.

Price: $1.99 from iTunes or $0.99 from Google Play

The app works along the same principles as PaceDJ, matching the tunes it plays to your pace. Again, there's no streaming; you'll need to keep a good selection music on your device. We like the feature that automatically removes songs from your rotation if it finds you skip them very often.

Price: $2.99 from iTunes

FIT Radio Workout Music

Ready to free your playlist from the confines of your own music library? Stream professionally curated playlists with FIT Radio. Choose from genre channels that fit your mood and musical taste. You can take FIT Radio everywhere you go; it's available on the web, Android, iPhone and BlackBerry, so create a single account and log in wherever you are.

Price: Free from iTunes, Google Play and BlackBerry World; premium versions for unlimited genres and mixes from $2.99

Whether poring over your music collection to pick out just the right inspirational tracks is part of the fun or you just want to get out the door and hit the road, there's a fitness playlist solution to fit you. Your exercise pants? Well, that's another story.

[smartphone on runner's arm via Shutterstock]


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Discussion loading


From Kraye Grymonnt on April 07, 2014 :: 10:30 am

Really enjoyed the article as well as a way to get what I want in terms of my BPM of choice for workouts. I was familiar with the concept but not the work through.



From Lisa Poisso on April 07, 2014 :: 11:18 am

I thought I was all set before I started researching the article, yetI learned a bunch of great new tricks and resources this time around. Glad you found it helpful!



From Rey on April 07, 2014 :: 10:57 am

Once you’ve figured out the range of BPM that suits the kind of workout you do (or are challenged by), then do to and enter the BPM in the search box. Then find songs you like to listen to. Don’t pick a song because of its BPM; it must be one you like. If not, not matter how well the BPM matches your workout goal, you will be annoyed when it comes on, and it will wreck your workout spirit.



From Lisa Poisso on April 07, 2014 :: 11:19 am

That’s what I like about — sometimes you think you’re going to like something, but then it really grates on your last nerve when you’re actually working out. After you skip it enough times, remembers and takes it out!



From Diana Van Dyke on July 27, 2015 :: 4:29 pm

Great article. Had exactly what I was looking for.  Also: PaceDJ is free right now for an undetermined limited time. 




From Chris Byers on March 18, 2021 :: 4:29 am

Found so much value from your post! Thank you!!


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