New workout tapes to pump you up
Sometime after I joined my local gym, three basic rules of exercising hit me like a medicine ball: (1) Always remember to stretch beforehand; (2) always slurp water between workouts; (3) never, ever, bring along a Sonic Youth tape.
Don’t misunderstand. I love Sonic Youth and other scuzz-pop guitar bands, but as I’ve discovered, exercise music is a separate, sweaty beast. At home, Sonic Youth’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star is an absorbing sound collage. Trapped with it on an exercise bike, though, I was in workout hell: Where were the beats, the hooks, the energy needed to alleviate my physical torment?
Just as there’s a science to exercise, so is there one to picking what music should accompany your buffing sessions. Opt for the right tunes, and the mixture of bone, thumps, and harmony can transport you to an almost spiritual place. Grab the wrong tape, and the tedium inherent in getting in shape becomes even more grueling. Now that you’ve wolfed down one holiday meal and are preparing for another, here are a few lessons I learned — the hard way — for selecting music that’s gonna make you sweat.
Remember the basics. Unless your Discman has an anti-skip feature, stick with a cassette player. Monitor the volume — you’d be surprised how loud you have to crank music to override the clanking and grinding of all those Nautilus machines. And when choosing music, remember: The beat rules. Unless you intend to brood and work on your abs simultaneously, leave those jazz and folk tapes at home.
Avoid instrumentals. As much as I like techno, nonstop computer blips are like Chinese Walkman torture on an exercise bike. I’ve found that I need familiar pop to make me forget the agony I’m about to endure. My gym-tape pile includes hook-fests like the Bangles’ Greatest Hits and the Def Jam box. (The Bangles set has a built-in plus: Sweet Valley Girl High ballads like ”Eternal Flame” allow for that all-important cool-down period.) For morning workouts, R.E.M.’s darkly mellow Automatic for the People has enough of a pulse to keep me awake and pedaling. One caveat, however: Sometimes it’s best not to know the songs too well. Singing along may irk your treadmill neighbor — someone like, say, me.
Consider a ready-made exercise tape. If you don’t have time to rifle through piles of cassettes in your closet or make personalized tapes, the music business is here to serve. Labels seem to have discovered en masse that a huffing, puffing new market is waiting to be tapped, resulting in a slew of prefab workout compilations this fall. If you love urban dance-club pop, jog toward the two volumes of Power Workout: High NRG Megamix, which feature pumped-up remixes of club whooshers (Snap’s ”Rhythm Is a Dancer,” Ce Ce Peniston’s ”Finally”) and obscure one-shots. Not all of the tracks are up to the standards of ”Finally,” yet each tape made my 45-minute bicycle/treadmill routine fly by. I also discovered delicious dance singles I’d never heard, like Cynthia’s pleading ”Change on Me.” Don’t try this at home, though: In the tranquillity of your living room, the albums’ nonstop diva beats quickly grow irritating.
Disco rules. Whether or not you’re at the YMCA, old-fashioned glitter-ball grooves never fail. Disco, in fact, salvages another new collection, Heavy Breathing: The Crunch High-Energy Workout, named after the New York-based gym chain. The selections are limited to tracks from the RCA vaults, meaning you’ll have to suffer through ”Macarena” yet again. But disco anthems like ”Turn the Beat Around” and ”Shame” should put your perspiration glands into overdrive. Tip: If an old Donna Summer or K.C. tape is gathering dust in your home, retrieve it and save yourself a few bucks.
Different regimens demand specific music. That’s the theory behind Shape Fitness Music, five volumes pairing music genres with different levels of workouts. (It’s cosponsored by Shape magazine, hence the name.) The complete tapes, due in record and nutritional stores in January, were not available for review at press time, but samplers provided an idea of how the series shapes up. Walk 1 focuses on ’60s pop and R&B hits, while the more rigorous Walk 2 features ’70s disco and Walk 3 (for ”the experienced exerciser”) includes club music (much like Power Workout, but less distinctive). These may be the most scientifically designed of the batch: The producers say the tracks were chosen for their beats per minute. On the downside, the songs are linked together with annoying clap tracks, and due to licensing (or bpm) restrictions, original versions are not always used. ”Needles and Pins,” for instance, is Jackie DeShannon’s version, not the better-known Searchers hit. I found the effect very distracting — but when you’re stuck on a treadmill, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.
If all else fails, turn to VH1. If your tape-deck batteries expire — and if your gym, like mine, has TV monitors — turn to MTV’s sister channel, which has revitalized itself as a rock nostalgia theme park. Mount your bike as the American Bandstand reruns start, and pedal away to all those young thangs grinding to disco and Top 40 pop. I’ve calculated that in a typical Bandstand half hour I burn off enough calories to allow me to trudge home, plop back on the couch — and crank those Sonic Youth albums again.
Heavy Breathing: B Power Workout Volume 1: B+ Power Workout Volume 2: B+