Anyone who has taken or taught a group exercise class knows the important role that music plays. The playlist sets the tone and tempo for the class, and it can greatly impact how much students enjoy the experience. Studies have shown that music can impact how hard students work during a class (intensity) and how long they will work (exercise fatigue perception). The right playlist can inspire your students to give their all during class and can increase the chances that they leave with a smile on their face, having enjoyed the burn.
There are two basic approaches to building a playlist for your class, dictated by the type of class you are teaching. The first type is class formats in which the movement dictates the music choice, and the second is formats in which the music dictates the movement. Let’s look at each independently.
Format A: Movement dictates music choice
Classes in format A demand that the movement be planned first and then music selected to enhance the class experience. These classes typically use movements that are done in a specific order, to a set number of reps or adhere to strict time intervals. Examples for classes in format A include barre, Pilates, yoga, strength, HIIT/Tabata and circuit. Creating a playlist for these classes should focus on two key elements: tempo and theme.
The speed of the movement in your planned class will dictate the tempo range of the music you should play. Music is measured in beats per minute (BPM). There are standard BPM ranges for class formats.
It’s important to note that the BPM ranges in the graphic below reflect the “work” stages of the class. As you move through a warm-up, you should progressively build to that tempo range, while doing the reverse for the cooldown.
To manually determine the BPM for a song, you’ll want to determine the song’s time signature and count the measures in the first minute. Total measures multiplied by beats per measure will give you the BPM. For those who have a background in dance or know how to play an instrument, this will come fairly naturally. For others, there are many tools or apps you can use until you develop a natural sense of BPM. SONGBPM is a great, free online tool that will show the BPM for any song entered in the search bar. There are also a lot of searchable playlists on Spotify that are put together by BPM range, like this one.
Once you’ve determined your BPM range, it’s time to pick the specific songs for your playlist. To keep your students engaged (and to narrow your focus from the millions of songs out there), selecting themes for your playlists is a great way to go! Some themes I’ve successfully used:
Genres (e.g., country, punk pop, classic rock)
A single artist (Folks like Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson and Jason Derulo have plenty of music to fill a class on their own.)
Format B: Music dictates the movement
Classes in format B require the playlist to be created first, and then the movement is planned to match the music. These classes are typically choreography based or depend on significant tempo/intensity intervals. Examples of format B classes are: dance fitness, cycling, interval training and step classes. The key for these classes is developing a class map.
A class map is a timeline for where tempo and intensity changes will occur throughout the class. You’ll need to consider the lengths of warm-up, intervals, active recoveries and cooldown. Once you’ve built your timeline, you’ll need to consider both BPM and length when selecting songs that can drive the movement you want. You can also apply themes to format B classes, but you’ll likely want to consider broader ones like decades or genres to allow you the flexibility you’ll need, particularly for dance-based fitness classes that require choreography.
General tips & taking it to the next level
Consider the age range of your students and the culture/policies of the facility in which you’re teaching. This particularly applies to explicit lyrics and mature themes. If you’re teaching to young people or in a church recreation facility for example, you’ll need to be particularly thoughtful. Additionally, some facilities may require clean music per company policy. Be sure to check if there are requirements.
Use your playlist to drive a theme “party” with your class. Share your playlist theme ahead of time and encourage your students to dress accordingly. This works particularly well with decade- or holiday-themed classes.
Look for remixes. Have a song you really want to use, but it just doesn’t fit the BPM range you need? Search for remixed versions or covers by other artists. These alternative versions often have BPMs that differ significantly from the original. You can also often find “fitness” versions of Top 40 hits that have been covered/altered to fit a specific BPM range.
Give your class control. This tactic isn’t for beginner instructors, but once you’ve become comfortable in front of a class, it’s a great engagement opportunity to prepare two different playlists and give them the option to vote on what vibe they want for the day. For example, greet your class by asking “Are we feeling ’80s rock or 2000s pop punk today?” This typically works more seamlessly in format A classes, but instructors with more experience can incorporate this option into format B classes if they are mentally prepared with two full movement plans/class maps.
Overall, playlists should be the most fun part of your class plan. Create different options, ask your students for their input on styles they like and keep innovating!
Infographic | Music Tempo Guidelines for Exercise
Blog | A Day in the Life of a Group Exercise Instructor
Certification | Become and ACSM Certified Group Exercise Instructor®
Caitlin Kinser, M.S., has been teaching group exercise classes since 2010. She’s taught in a variety of settings including fitness studios, large gyms, college campuses, youth/community centers and virtually. She has taught multiple formats, but her heart belongs to dance fitness. Caitlin owned and operated a boutique fitness studio for two years prior to joining the professional staff at the American College of Sports Medicine®, where she serves as the director of digital strategy.