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BoxLife Magazine

Does Music Decrease Overall CrossFit Performance?

By Gavin Brupbacher, cand. BSc

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August 29, 2016

3…2…1…Go! That’s how the WOD starts in most CrossFit boxes all over the world. With this trigger the music gets louder and the symphony of fast beats, crashing weights and gasping athletes begins. Some CrossFitters can’t and/or don’t want to perform at their best without music blasting in the background. This raises the question of whether the principle of “not only for the unknown, but for the unknowable” isn’t in jeopardy. The caveman didn’t have music to escape and evade dangers or to hunt prey. Or as Miko Salo, 2009 CrossFit Games champion puts it: “If you need music for training, go get another hobby. You have to be able to train without music.” 

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Is there any evidence to back claims in favor of either side? There is a bulk of scientific research which has investigated whether music is beneficial during exercise. The review of Karageorghis & Priest (2012) sums up all the data there is (until 2012) on the use of music in the exercise domain. It states that “During repetitive, endurance-type activities, self-selected, motivational and stimulative music has been shown to enhance affect, reduce ratings of perceived exertion, improve energy efficiency and lead to increased work output.”

The research makes it clear that music enhances performance during endurance tasks, but what about during CrossFit workouts? A CrossFit workout not only challenges your body in many different ways (high intensity, varying movements and speeds), but also—at least to some extent—your brain. Keeping good form, counting your rounds and making sure you do the right number of reps for each exercise needs cognition. It might sound easy, but it’s definitively more of a strain on your brain than running on a treadmill. Being succinctly different, it seems reasonable that what pertains to endurance doesn’t necessarily apply to CrossFit.

Unfortunately, despite its growing popularity and importance, music in CrossFit (and CrossFit as a whole) has received very little attention in research. In order to start closing this gap, we decided to investigate this topic. So the questions we tried to answer were: when working out with music, do we get more reps in, feel less pain and lower our perceived exertion—or is it the other way around?

To answer these questions we conducted a randomized, controlled, crossover trial. 13 participants performed four “Cindy” (20 Minute AMRAP of 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, and 15 air squats) workouts, two with music and two without in randomized order. At the 5th, 10th, 15th, and 20th minutes the workout was interrupted (max. 30 seconds) to draw a blood sample for blood lactate analysis. During this time, participants filled out a questionnaire with five items: perceived exertion, perceived pain intensity, and three items of affect. Affect, unlike mood, which is less specific and intense, is the instant emotional reaction to a stimulus.

In order to keep the training setting as authentic as possible, the chosen music corresponded to a typical selection played at the time during workouts in the CrossFit box, CrossFit Basel (Switzerland). It was important to reduce the risk of participants understanding the true nature of the investigation in order to reflect the real-life situation most adequately. The playlist (AC/DC: Shoot to Thrill, Rock N’ Roll Damnation, Guns For Hire, Cold Hearted Man and Back in Black) was standardized in terms of titles, order of titles, and volume.

We were in for a surprise when we ran the data. The statistics showed that training with music resulted in a significantly lower number of reps (for all you science geeks: with music: 460 (±98) vs. without music: 497 (±104), p = 0.03). Put in more practical terms: only three of the thirteen participants had more reps with music. All other parameters remained the same, whether music was present or not.

Additional analysis showed that there were time effects for perceived exertion, pain, blood lactate and heart rates. Heart rate significantly differed between the 5th and 20th minute. Blood lactate, pain and perceived exertion significantly differed between the 5th and 15th as well as 10th and 20th minute, indicating a meaningful physiological and perceived increase of strain in 10-minute intervals. Affect did not change over time. This is interesting because it shows that although physiological strain and pain change over time, affect stays stable.

As always it’s important to put the data in perspective, consider limitations and draw conclusions for practitioners. One limitation is that participants did not classify the music with respect to its motivational quality. The results suggest that the presence of music was disadvantageous, although it was a frequently used playlist. It might be possible that the chosen music does not reflect the preferences of the majority. Coaches who use music during group training sessions should take this into consideration when composing a playlist. Furthermore, participants were not asked whether the music was a distraction. As CrossFitters often choose to train with music, we deemed it superfluous to control for this variable. In  light of these results, however, this seems to be an important factor to consider. Lastly, the sample size (13 participants) is very small. The results give a first indication that music might decrease CrossFit specific performance but does not yet settle the matter once and for all.

Moreover, every coach/box has their preferences when it comes to music. With a growing number of participants it will become more difficult to select music which satisfies/motivates everyone. One possibility is that everyone listens to their own playlist with headphones. That, however, makes it impossible for the coach to give cues and motivate their athletes. So like everything in life, it comes down to what you want. Do you want to maximize your results? Then it might be better to train without music. If you enjoy your workout more with music, then that might have priority over your performance. Either way, hit it as hard as you can!

Additional Authors

Original publication: http://www.mdpi.com/2075-4663/2/1/14

Gavin Brupbacher, cand. BSc

About Gavin Brupbacher, cand. BSc

Gavin is an exercise and health science student at the University of Basel. After having briefly studied psycholgogy, he went on to work in various fields. Upon returning to University, his main academic interest is the intersection of psychology and sport. View all posts by Gavin Brupbacher, cand. BSc →

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