Whether you’re a fitness fanatic or the proud owner of a brand-new gym membership, one thing movers and lifters of all levels agree on is music can make or break a workout. Since Rocky Balboa ascended up those Philadelphia steps to the tune of “Gonna Fly Now,” the pursuit of the perfect workout music has been as essential to effective training as a healthy diet and steady discipline.
Hip-hop fans especially understand the relationship between music and exercise. Who among us hasn’t shadow-boxed to LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out,” or did our best impression of 50 Cent in the video for “In Da Club”? With the genre often promoting self-esteem, against-all-odds perseverance, and triumphant tales of struggle and success, rap could be considered the king of all gym music. “The lyrics are motivating, inspiring, and super positive, but not in an overbearing way,” Ackeem Emmons, a personal trainer at Aaptiv, said of his favorite rap songs to play while he trains.
With part of his job at the audio-based fitness app Aaptiv being the curation of background tracks for guided training sessions, Emmons often finds himself balancing his taste in music with that of his clients. “People aren’t shy on the internet — they’ll tell you, ‘I hated this playlist,’” he said jokingly. “As a trainer [or] as a DJ, we do it for the people, so their opinion definitely matters. You can’t be selfish and just play your choice of music…[You have to] learn the workout, learn the people, and give them what they want.”
While Emmons personally prefers to train to J. Cole or Rick Ross, he understands there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to playlisting workouts. “The BPM, the instrumentation, the lyrics — all of those things provide an energy,” he noted. To find out ways gym-goers can discover what’s best for them rather than relying on the first gym playlist cover they see on their music streamer of choice, Okayplayer spoke with Emmons about how he chooses music for both his clients and himself, and how you, too, can become a master of the hip-hop workout playlist.
Stretching and Warming Up
Ideal BPMs: 97-103 BPMs
In some ways, the most effective aspect of training is what you remember to do before and after. This includes stretching and warming up, which even experienced runners and lifters know to do but sometimes skip anyway. Likewise, most rap fans understand how well the genre can be complemented by other sounds, yet neglect to include them when curating their exercise music.
Before jumping straight into deadlifts and drill beats, it’s important to start with movements that loosen the body, which also means playing songs that relax the mind. “Running and training aside, I have a non-negotiable when it comes to my stretch classes — it’s solely R&B,” Emmons said. “I’m a super hype guy but there are different vibes for different modes and different times. R&B just immediately puts you in a very calm, meditative, relaxing state, [which is] where you need to be when it comes to stretching.” He’s so adamant about this sort of serenity that Summer Walker’s drumless, acoustic “Session 32” is often played during his warm-ups.
For the avid hip-hop head, consider beginning your playlist with some rap-sung collaborations or downtempo boom-bap classics to score your stretching routine, before transitioning to the harder stuff for the actual workout. Not only will this ease your body and mind into the stress you’re about to put them through, but it also sets the precedent for a perfectly-timed soundtrack that adapts to the different exercises you have planned for the day.
OKP’s recs: “93 ‘til Infinity” by Souls of Mischief for that boom bap fix, and “Around The Way Girl” by LL Cool J or “Always On Time” by Ja Rule and Ashanti if you don’t mind feeling romantic before feeling the burn.
Resistance Training and Long Cardio Sessions
Ideal BPMs: Start at a low 80 BPMs before bumping up to 110-140 BPMs
Photo by Matthias Drobeck.
Once you’re warmed up, it’s time to get some weight moving. This could include exercises utilizing body weight, free weights, medicine balls or, if you’re one of those CrossFit crazies, all of the above. This is when the practice of playlisting becomes a bit tricky. On one hand, you want something upbeat and energetic. On the other, if you get too hyped, you may naturally rush your form, thus increasing your risk of injury (the golden rule of lifting: slow and controlled repetitions are how you keep your body safe).
Emmons’ solution to this vibe-threatening dilemma is similar to that of a DJ — always pay attention to the BPM. “You want to start [lifting] in that lower BPM just to kind of warm up the muscles, taking it slow.” An intense but not-too-agro song that fits this mold is “Dreams And Nightmares (Intro)” by Meek Mill, which maintains a tempo of 80 BPM while still offering what Emmons described as a “positive connotation.”
“As you get to the middle of your workout, the BPM tends to get a lot higher, in that 110 to 140 zone,” he added. This part of the session is when his beloved “Purple Lamborghini” by Skrillex and Rick Ross might play. “I don’t care what day, what time… [If] I hear ‘Purple Lamborghini,’ all of a sudden I got a whole lot of energy and I could do whatever,” he said.
Though this mid-to-high-tempo strategy is Emmons’ prescription for resistance training, he has the same philosophy when it comes to long cardio sessions, too. “One of my favorite programs to playlist for are actually outdoor runs because chances are, 90% of the time, you’re gonna run outside when it’s a beautiful day,” he said. “You can’t just go outside and start sprinting because you’ll pull a muscle or something, you’ll injure yourself.”
“That opening song is the most important to me,” he added, offering JAY-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church In The Wild” as a perfect propulsive, mid-tempo song to begin a jog with. “Then, again, finding that higher BPM in the middle to keep them engaged. They’re halfway [through their run]. They have to turn around and get back home, so we have to create that vibe, or else they got an Uber bill coming.”
OKP’s recs: “Hussle & Motivate” by Nipsey Hussle if times are tough away from your workouts; “Harder Than My Demons” by Big Sean if you’re feeling blessed; and “Bitch Let’s Do It” by YoungBoy Never Broke Again if he energizes you like he does Ja Morant.
Ideal BPMs: Start at a high 130 BPMs before going down to a high 90 BPMs
Photo by drazen_zigic.
For those of us who can’t imagine a punishment more tortuous than an hour-long run, shorter bouts of cardio added to the days we strength train are preferred. These usually last about 15-20 minutes, with conventional wisdom suggesting they should happen after lifting as opposed to before. That way, we feel as strong as possible during the main workout. Here — when you’re tired but not exhausted, feeling accomplished but with a bit more work left to do — is when the tempo of your playlist should descend from its crescendo without totally crashing.
What Emmons described as a “happy medium” deep into a workout is Drake’s Honestly, Nevermind, mostly due to its mood. His go-to from that project for post-lift easy listening is “A Keeper,” one of the most mellow songs on the tracklist. “Working out is tough, you’re voluntarily putting yourself through stress, so [adding] negative energy or a [darker] vibe isn’t going to be successful,” he said. “Especially without [trainers] physically being there, without having someone there to hold you accountable, it takes that much extra work to keep that person engaged and motivated throughout, so you really want to set up a positive environment for them to be receptive to.”
When you’re on the treadmill, stairmaster, or exercise bike after a taxing strength training session, breezier, more melodic, genre-fluid rap is the way to go. With Drake’s catalog including inflections of Afrobeats, Dancehall, and most recently, house music, this part of your workout playlist may be a universal spot to plug in The Boy.
OKP’s recs: “Sticky” if you need an Honestly, Nevermind track with some bounce; “Madiba Riddim” if you’re a fan of Diaspora Drizzy; and “Unforgettable” by French Montana and Swae Lee if you enjoy Afrobeats-inspired rap, but have had your fill of Drake.
Ideal BPMs: Think of this as a free-for-all — go for whatever makes you feel euphoric
Photo by Brooke Schaal Photography.
Properly cooling down after a workout offers the same injury-preventing benefits of warming up. Here, you want to be just as open-minded as you were when you were stretching to rap duets — the only difference is now that your feel-good endorphins are roaring, you want to capitalize on that sensation by playing the most euphoric music you can think of. “This is science,” Emmons said. “With those endorphins released, you feel better, so now [you should be] listening to uplifting music…You’re feeding that fire.” Burna Boy’s “Last Last” gets the job done for him.
Since we all exercise and emote differently, the perfect final song of your session might not be the same as someone else’s. And because you’ve already initiated your pivot from the hip-hop purist part of your playlist by this point, the mainstream rise of Jersey club rap could provide some perfectly paced songs to punctuate your workout. Whether you’re hitting some dynamic stretches, burning out with static holds, or slowing down the treadmill to a brisk walk, ending with some party-centric tunes will make you feel that much more elated once you’re done training for the day.
OKP’s recs: “Just Wanna Rock” by Lil Uzi Vert if you’ve finished your workout feeling on top of the world; “Players (DJ Smallz 732 – Jersey Club Remix)” by Coi Leray if your new gym body has you ready to hit the streets; and “In Ha Mood” by Ice Spice if you prefer your Jersey club with a hint of New York drill.
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