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In Writing

Stewart Home: Keep Fit

April 2014

Novelist and poet Stewart Home listens in to getting pumped, and works out some listening suggestions for the more discerning gym bunny.

(click here to listen to Home's playlist now)

While I don’t think a musical revolution is taking place in the world’s gyms, a lot of tunes are played during exercise, so the sounds people deploy during their workouts are worth looking at. For instance, sports science is having an impact on how some people use music in the gym. According to academic researcher Costas Karageorghis, there is a “sweet spot for music in the exercise context associated with a tempo range of 120–140 bpm.” There are even people listening to what they think will improve their workout rather than what they actually like, although you’d think that what you like would seem to be one of the criteria for picking tunes that will maximise your performance.

Yesterday I did my thing solo in the gym rather than in a class, and because I don’t like Top 40 radio (I particularly dislike the chat and ads between the tunes) I took my iPod with me so that I could use old soul and funk tunes to block out what I don’t want to hear. I dig the music on my iPod but I only know what’s on there because I compiled it lovingly many years ago. Otherwise, I wasn’t paying attention to the music at all. Among the tunes I didn’t take in were:

  • “I Hurt On The Other Side” by Sidney Barnes
  • “You’ll Always Be In Style” also by Sidney Barnes
  • “Turning My Heartbeat Up” by the MVPs
  • “Garden Of Four Trees” by The Explosions
  • “Earthquake” by Bobbi Lynn
  • “Blowing Up My Mind” by The Exciters
  • “The New Breed” by Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm
  • “All Of A Sudden” by The Incredibles
  • “At The Woodchoppers Ball” by Willie Mitchell
  • “Right Track” by Billy Butler

Earlier, I went to a body conditioning class and heard an hour of sequenced dance tracks. I’ve no idea what any of the songs were, who performed them or what the lyrical content was. I do know the instructor buys a lot of CDs from Pure Energy where you can order music online according to BPM, genre, or fitness routine. I neither like nor dislike the dance tracks this instructor plays but I have a gym friend who was part of the original Olympia riot grrrl scene who can’t stand this music and avoids any class at which it is played.

At my gym there are music players that can both speed up and slow down CDs to change the tempo of what’s being played. For many in the class the music is purely functional, and the tempos of many tunes have presumably been altered before being compiled as fitness albums, and then are changed yet again in the class. The music in body conditioning and boxercise classes is simply there to provide a beat as we workout. We’re focused on the exercise not the music, although at least one of the trainers is clearly obsessed by the tunes they play, no one else seems to be moved by them.

When I first started regularly going to the gym ten years ago, hearing tracks like “I Can’t Stand It” by The Soul Sisters did have an effect on my performance. Back then, uptempo tunes I really liked would make me feel better and enable me to push on through with what I was doing when I was finding it hard to continue. Now I don’t need to work through mild pain as much as I did back then, so songs that really groove me don’t have the same effect they once had. It’s great to be able to match my movements to a beat, but I’m more focused on going inside myself and moving things around on whatever machine I’m using – switching maximum effort between one leg and then the other at set times on cardio machines, making sure my out breath is on the side I’m using to make maximum effort, and scanning around my body to see how I’m using different muscles.

I always want to mix exercise up and change things around. I run outdoors and not just in the gym, because the experience and effect is very different. But when I’m on the street I don’t listen to music because I want to be able to hear what’s going on around me. I don’t bop to tunes when I’m cycling around town either and much of what I hear when I go to indoor cycling classes at the gym I’d rather avoid, including acts such as Fatboy Slim and Queen. I’m happy to do interval training on a fixed bike but not to listen to “Bicycle Race” by Queen every time I do this. When I told the instructor she should try some other bicycle songs she said she didn’t know any and looked blankly at me when I mentioned “The Push Bike Song” by The Mixtures and “My White Bicycle” by Tomorrow. I didn’t dare mention “Bike” by Pink Floyd as my guess was she’d know the band and search for it, and then I’d have to listen to Syd Barrett every time I go to a spin class!

Just as strong coffee will reduce muscle fatigue by ten percent, Costas Karageorghis claims music can improve your performance by up to 15 percent. But part of the trick is to listen to tunes that make you feel youthful and fit, which means sounds from when you were a kid. So my iPod chock-full of 60s and 70s soul and funk is perfect workout music for me. I also happen to like Sun Ra and Lol Coxhill but I can’t imagine working out to either… When I look at other people’s workout playlists they’re obviously getting something different from their tunes than I am. And while The Pharaohs’ “Love Y'all” may not feature on any workout playlists I’ve seen online, a track like that works a lot better for me than Katy Perry or Lady Gaga who supposedly rank high with female gym users, or the hard rock allegedly favoured by men. If I’m doing interval training on my own I do sometimes play 70s punk rock because I can use the short songs as a time measure, but northern soul is just as effective for this and overall I prefer it.

I’ve found music has less and less impact as I go on with my fitness training. Leaving aside the workout, the gym is where ultimately beats just keep you moving, and allow you to perform repetitions accurately by providing a tempo. In the end everyone has their own taste in body odour boogie but for music to be effective workout material, a lot of great sounds are ruled out. I save those for when I get home.


The gym I went to in Berlin had a spinning class which played heavy obnoxious commercial techno...the instructor would tell over it military style an you could here him over the other side of the gym and even all the way into the changing rooms.

Even though I was curious about spinning I never tried it due to that impression - especially as they even did it that way at 7am

Neu! is excellent for running/cycling

I gave up at the word 'deploy'

I made a strange discovery when creating my workout playlists. Scrolling through my iPod, I saw that with songs like "Chop Suey" by System of a Down or "Ether" by Nas; I apparently have a thing for angry Virgos. I added "They Don't Care About Us" by MJ and "***Flawless" by Beyonce. I only play their music when I want to pump something out...

Stewart Home is boring

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