Music and Weight Training
For some, music is a psyche tool without peer; for others, nothing
Some people are moved by music, others are indifferent. For some music is an integral part of life while for others music is annoying. In progressive resistance training there is a long history of athletes using music to “get fired up” before and during a training session. Some lifters are affected by music to such a depth and degree that results from the session are greatly improved with music and results are dramatically reduced if that same trainee is deprived of music. I am one. Music has been integral to my training since the 1960s.
Some people find music superfluous, a distraction, every bit as annoying as I find mechanical sounds or mindless talk. The majority split the difference, enjoying music but certainly not morphing into a demented psycho state anytime Enter Sandman comes on (like some of my training partners.) In elite athletic circles a lot of attention is paid to “psyche,” i.e. recalibrating the mindset to improve workout performance. For many athletes, music plays a big part in recalibrating the civilian mindset into the warrior mindset. The warrior mindset lifts session performance to the next level.
I have had a steady stream of hardcore training partners since 1965. The majority preferred to train with music. In my earliest training sessions, we had fabulous music and fabulous reception from an old single speaker radio we kept in our basement gym, this in the mid-sixties. Early Beatles and Rolling Stones, then brand new, would ricochet off the bare concrete floors, turning the whole basement into a massive echo chamber.
What incredible training sessions we had, pushed mercilessly by each other and fueled by the incredible music of the era: The Animals, Zombies, Who, Manfred Mann, plus all the incredible Motown and Stax-Volt Memphis soul stuff. I was moved by the music. I would transport from my normal left-brain/right-handed rational mindset into a right-brained/left-handed intuitive mindset, using music to put me into an appropriate trance state. Mind and body HAD to come together if I were to succeed with the back-breaking training poundage I had assigned myself.
The invention of the personal listening device in the 1980s revolutionized the melding of music with training. Suddenly athletes were able to orchestrate their own private listening selections. This all happened with the invention of the cassette tape. The Sony Walkman became an integral part of the workout. The athlete had a collection of tapes or a customized cassette of their own making, containing one psyche song after another, all designed to amplify the gym effort.
As someone moved by music, always and forever, I can say without hesitation that music elevates my performance by a consistent and measurable 2-5% over an identical no-music non-psyched session. Consistent psyching, using music, is not as easy as it sounds. After a while songs that once got you fired up lose their appeal. Finding replacements is a difficult task. The reasons certain songs move us (those of us that are moved by such things) is a truly mysterious thing. Like falling in love, there are a myriad of subconscious urges and intangible factors involved.
For those that are moved by music, the modern phone is a magical tool with which you can conjure up any song you desire. What an incredible thing: I can bring up Cajun zydeco music, Indian sitar ragas, Norwegian death metal or Coltrane’s Atlantic recordings. You name it, inside 30 seconds you can be listening to it. Just the other day, something caused me to recall a tune I hadn’t thought about in 30 years, Freddie C. Scott’s ‘are you lonely for me baby.” Bang! Thirty seconds later I am hearing it again. Incredible! We are (musically) only limited by our imagination.
If I am driving to train at a commercial gym and discover I have forget my music-listening device, I turn around and drive home to get it. I cannot and will not train in a commercial facility without my music. I want no interaction, zero, with the civilians. I don’t want to hear the piped in music, the cacophony of voices or the clang of metal. I want to trance-out and get lost in my own private Idaho. Mentally, using music and concentrated effort, I consistently lift my performance to the next level.
I also use an iPod. I have compiled a catalog of over 1,000 songs. When it is time to train, I turn on the iPod and put it on shuffle. I will toggle through songs until one grabs me. There is no accounting or predicting what song will electrify me on that day and at that time. I have done the hard work by creating a large library of preapproved (by me) songs in widely disparate genres. There is no telling what song might be up to bat when I have it set on shuffle. I find that for the ultimate psyche, the song should not come out of a conscious preconception on my part.
Better if within my vast 1000 song catalog I come across something spontaneously – that jacks me up far more than if I go into the training session thinking, “Heavy barbell squat day, I am going to listen to ‘Back in Black.’” I have found in my fifty years of iron immersion that the high is higher if unpredictably and spontaneity pick the song.
I keep scrolling thru until I hit on something that resonates in me on that day. Could be George Jones, Keith Jarrett, Nine-inch Nails, Glenn Gould, ACDC, The Spinners, the Ohio Players, Yoyo Mas, Clannad, U2, Al Green, Otis, Smokey…on and on it goes. I can just keep scrolling until something lifts me to Defcon V. When something grabs me, I latch onto it and surf that emotion. I want to be taken higher, I want to turn myself into primal man and storm the barricades, in my own 2017 way.
My favorite training is done in private, when I can marinate in the Zen of combining gut-wrenching effort with the most beautiful, empowering, exciting, electrifying music you have ever heard in your life – I have that experience damned near every time I train. It is what keeps me coming back for more.
Naturally I also use music when I run in the woods. With woods running I control my audio environment with music. Trail running requires you fix your gaze on the path directly in front of you to avoid roots, loose rocks, depressions and trip hazards, ergo your visual field is fixed. Now add to the controlled visual and audio the intense exercise and the hormonal rush of lung-bursting cardio and you have a recipe for a transcendental meditational experience. Music amplifies training efforts, if you are moved by the muse.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.