Unless you own a home gym, the issue of whether or not you train to music is usually decided for you. Nowadays the gym stereo is a much a part of the gym floor as the weights themselves. Depending on your gym, the decision to leave your headphones at home results in anything from pop music to death metal drumming through your ears. There is, very little wrong with this in theory. After all, the early callisthenics teachers of the nineteenth-century advocated exercising to music.
How were things done during the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of bodybuilding in the 1960s and 1970s? Furthermore, if possible, should you train without music? The bodybuilders of yore held mixed opinions…
Train Away to Your Favourite Songs
For some within the Iron Game, training to music was an easy way of ramping up your motivation and pumping out a few additional reps. Writing in his New Encyclopaedia for Modern Bodybuilding, Arnold Schwarzenegger revealed his fondness for Rock and Roll music when it came to training. In his lesser known work, Arnold’s Bodybuilding for Men, the Seven Time Mr. Olympia echoed this comment when he urged trainees to listen to something with a good tempo and that got the blood pumping. This would certainly square with those who believe that training to music allows you to train harder, with more intensity, and arguably with more amusement.
Now Arnold’s fondness for music was found amongst several more in his cohort. Frank Zane, who is a musician in his free time, was keenly interested in the effect of music on his and others training. Demonstrating this was Zane’s later workout tapes, which synced the music to the rep cadence he desired from his trainees. Similarly Ric Drasin’s fantastic YouTube Channel reveals that music was played in Gold’s Gym during the 1980s
So far I’ve picked out a U2 song playing dimly in the background… I’ll have to find the rest. While these men arguably represented the elite of the bodybuilding world, music was being played in the chain gyms run by Jack Lalanne and Vic Tanny. Thus the average trainee was also being treated to music while they trained. The music chosen may have been a smidge more suspect than the Rock and Roll that Arnold enjoyed blaring through his eardrums. In 1961, a report featuring Vic Tanny’s gym noted the “softly muted mood music” echoing throughout the gym.
There was then, a strong and persistent use of music in the gym within large swathes of the United States. This was not however, the case for everyone.
No Music, No Problem
One of the most famous advocates for training without music was the Iron Guru himself, Vince Gironda. Over the course of his training career, Gironda was steadfast in his belief that training to music inhibited your ability to concentrate fully on the muscles being used. Vince’s gym was known for its no music stance, and supposedly carried a sign on the front door proclaiming
No pool. No chrome. No music. Just iron.
Gironda wasn’t the only one with this attitude either. The original Gold’s Gym, the one opened by Joe Gold was similarly known for its no-nonsense approach to training. As noted by Bill Grant many years later, Gold refused to allow Bill Grant be played in his gym, believing like Gironda that it affected trainee’s attention. A discipline of this particular approach was the legendary Don Howorth. Speaking to Randy Roach for the latter’s Muscle, Smoke and Mirror series, Howorth exclaimed that
You must merge the mind with the muscles. I don’t know how the kids today can train while blasting music in their ears. You can’t listen to both your body and blaring music at the same time. They’re not getting it! People thought I wasn’t very approachable in the gym. When I was working out, I was deeply focused and not very social. Today, I’m just there to have fun
Interestingly, Roach, a man intensely fascinated with the history of bodybuilding, mentions of his own World of Muscle podcast that he prefers not to train to music. Again he believes that you can concentrate more without it and also that the impetus for training hard should come from internal motivation above all else.
What Should You Do?
Well nothing if your gym has a stereo. There’s very little choice barring some form of noise cancelling headphones. If however you’re in the fortunate position to choose whether or not you listen to music when you work out, I would recommend training in silence every once in a while.
In the first instance it does, as Gironda and others believed, help you to focus on the muscle rather than the music. In my own experience, the best back training has always been done without the latest Top 40 playing in the background. Similarly training without music forces you to be aware of your thoughts as you train. Though this is rarely talked about in the fitness industry, our thought patterns contribute to the intensity of our training. If you don’t believe me, do a set of twenty rep squats and monitor your thoughts throughout. Chances are they’ll be fairly negative by the end of the set. I find that training in relative silence heightens my awareness of the stories I tell myself during training. When they’re overly negative I change things up in my preparation.
That being said, there are some days when heavy and loud music is an asset. As I generally avoid pre-workout supplements, music is the only stimulant I rely on to train. So yes I do use my headphones at times.
Personally I like to vary it up depending on the day. If I’m ready to train and enthusiastic to do so, we’ll train without music. If, as is often the case, I need a kick in the right direction, the music comes on. The best of both old-school approaches.
What about you? Do you listen to music while you train? Let us know in the comments!
P.S. Everyone has a guilty pleasure…this is mine