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Workout Playlist: The Best Songs for Getting Pumped About Pumping Iron

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A fresh year is upon us, which means all kinds of physical health-related resolutions. You know the drill: Hit the ground running come the first of January and then the wheels start to slow a few weeks later. Not so in 2021, as we have the music to keep your fitness goals alive and well the entire year through.

A good playlist is a driving force that can serve as kryptonite. That sensational breakdown, drum fill, or anthemic melody build can be the difference-maker when you’re shooting for a sub-seven-minute mile on the treadmill or looking for a new personal best under some impressive weight on the bench. The right music can increase adrenaline, function as a metronome for timing reps to, and just plain motivate.

Anybody who’s set foot in a gym knows as much. We also know that those playlists can be a bit stale, hence the tendency for folks to pack in their own earbuds and mixtapes. Now more than ever it’s up to you to provide the jams as we’re still in a pandemic and a lot of our gym routines have transitioned to our own homes, for safety’s sake. And here at The Manual, we’re about silver linings. One obvious one in this vain is no more bad workout music. Your gym is your temple, even if right now it’s a garage or living room. So treat it to a curated playlist that will keep the sweat dripping and your heart rate up.

Workout Playlist

The Breakdown

It’s difficult to just jump right into your weight program or workout routine. One needs to be coaxed into such things. Like coffee in the morning or a gentle nudge from a friend into a mountain lake, a little assistance is a good thing. So we’re easing into your set with a song that’s practically the soundtrack to all things persuasive. Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” builds beautifully, giving you just enough time to get into the zone before locking in to your physical rhythms. The wavy, intoxicating, and repetitive guitar hook will keep you focused (and if you’re an extra slow starter, we suggest LCD Soundsystem’s fantastic “Dance Yourself Clean,” as it gives you several minutes to gather before exploding with a colossal beat).

Now that you’re up and running, it’s time to keep the meter. There’s hardly a better artist for the task than Com Truise. His cool and synth-driven electronica functions like a giant pulse you can set your watch to. “Brokendate” will keep you energized without distracting from the task at hand. It’s hypnotic, but mildly so, like the perfect dose of CBD.

You’re putting in the work now, so we can hand the floor to Rihanna. Her 2016 hit was an instant pop classic and remains a great track to exercise to. The bubbly bass line and Rihanna’s tireless vocals will provide a second wind. Yes, Drake’s voice is a little sleepy, but if you time things just right you can rest briefly during his interlude.

Speaking of bass lines, Thundercat practically owns them. The jazz-inspired artist known for his collaborations with Kendrick Lamar crafts a funky-as-hell bottom line with “Them Changes.” This track will serve like a rower’s metronome, keeping you moving in rhythm before a therapeutic fade out. At which point it’s probably time to build things back up again. This calls for the indie gold of Band of Horses and the swelling sounds of “The Funeral.” When the drums and guitar kick in you can’t help but want to go nuts.

Next up, “All The Stars” from the standout Black Panther soundtrack (RIP, Chadwick Boseman). Yet another song with an almost-mechanical percussive backbone that pushes you along like an engine. By now you’re likely feeling pretty good, having broken a sweat and found your stride. Which calls for the swagger of Dr. John and the feel-good boogie-woogie of “Quitters Never Win.”

You can’t stop, you won’t stop. Make sure of it with Jack White’s toothy “Lazaretto.” It’s a hard-rock masterpiece fit with one of the most addictive guitar hooks of all time (if you haven’t seen the live SNL version, do yourself a favor). Simply playing the air guitar along with this track is a workout in its own right. The time signature changes some, which is an added bonus for shiftier workout routines. And the constant crash cymbals sound like they’re congratulating your every move.

You could use the entire album as your playlist but one track in particular from Run the Jewels stellar fourth LP (RTJ4) is “Walking in the Snow.” It’s an absolute go-getter and while you should lift the hell out of some weights while listening, you should also pay attention to the slicing lyrics which poetically describe America’s many serious systemic hangups. Next, some pure pop elevation via Rina Sawayama and her banger “LUCID.” While we’re moving, continue on with Phil Hesh’s cyclical “Herb,” which blends fizzing keyboards with jazzy interludes for an ambient-rock effect that helps you keep grinding.

Now comes the time when you might have to dig deep for some added energy. Four Tet’s “Hands” is perfect for that, as it begins introspective and atmospheric before blossoming into a beat-backed electro jam that’s teeming with inspiration. Followed by RJD2’s “Smoke & Mirrors,” a case study in blending samples with percussion. M83’s remarkable “Midnight City” will keep the blood flowing for a further 3:15, guaranteed.

To keep the kinetic energy abuzz, “Ambling Alp” by Yeasayer plays next. The track is named after an Italian heavyweight boxing champ from the 1930s and its wired nature is contagious. The Roots’ “The Seed (2.0)” comes next, easily one of the catchiest songs ever written. Take the energy you normally would to the dance floor here to your next set of curls. Finally, some white-knuckled classic rock with Heart’s rumbling “Barracuda,” sure to inject a bit of sonic caffeine when you need it most.

The end is in sight and you’re on your last set. Take it home with Handsome Furs’ victorious “Dead + Rural.” The uplifting track is anchored by a dance-y synth line and it flames to and fro with some electric guitar work and an infectious crescendo. If you’re feeling those triumphant, finish line overtones and you’re up for one more round, throw Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” on and get to work. If you’re routine is finished, well, just dance. On your own. Like nobody’s watching.

Workout Inspiration

We’ve also got you covered on actual exercises — everything from HIIT training, the best arm workoutsbodyweight exercises perfect for men on the go, a beginner’s guide weight training, and how to run in the cold. Not everybody is a gym rat. If you’d rather work out at home, you could use a gym-free fitness app. And don’t forget about recovery!

May this playlist help you keep your goals. Here’s to a healthy and active 2021!

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Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
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