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The Key to Improving Your Climbing? Heavy Metal

How one under-valued genre could make all the difference

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I’ve been a metalhead for most of my life. Consequently, heavy metal is the music I always play when I climb, whether I’m scrambling big easies in the alpine or bouldering in a gym. Heavy metal, perhaps more than any other musical genre, is oft associated with controversy. Aggressive tempos, violent lyrics, all that yelling and screaming… It’s easy to understand why folks shy away. 

There are, of course, statistically proven similarities among metal fans. A British study in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts found that a preference for heavy metal music over other genres was associated with “higher Openness to Experience, more negative attitudes toward authority, lower self-esteem, greater need for uniqueness, and lower religiosity.”

None of my climbing buddies, or really anyone I’m friends with, listen to heavy metal. For years, I’ve had people tell me, “I don’t understand how you can listen to that stuff.” I’ve also heard plenty (first and foremost, my mother) hypothesizing that metal music will have a negative effect on my wellbeing. “It’ll make you stressed,” “It’ll make you angrier,” “You’ll become more violent,” and so on. 

As a result, my heavy metal listening, while climbing and otherwise, is tinged with a hint of regret and foreboding. Last weekend, while soloing the North Ridge on Kit Carson Peak in Colorado, I heard my mom’s voice in my head and consequently switched from Cirith Ungol to The Eagles. Maybe this metal music is making me distracted or stressed, and more prone to a fall, I thought.

holding guitar and climbing rope in hands. In front of a climbing wall.
Decisions, decisions… Photo: Owen Clarke

These thoughts have always gone against what I innately feel: that heavy metal is the perfect genre for me. I’ve always felt like I climb better when I listen to heavy metal, regardless of what anyone else might say about its effects. So I did some digging.

The benefits of music on performance and recovery are extensively studied. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research reported in 2013 that “listening to music during nonstructured recovery can be used by professional athletes to enhance recovery from intense exercise,” finding faster and greater decrease of lactic acid levels in the bloodstream and more active recovery periods among athletes who listened to motivational music.

More specifically, however, fast-paced, high-intensity music, like heavy metal, is shown to possess unique benefits all its own. A study in the medical journal Frontiers in Psychology found that listening to music with a fast tempo (between 170 bpm and 190 bpm), provided more benefit when engaged in endurance exercises than slower tempo music, or no music at all. In short, it helped individuals workout harder and longer. 

Martial arts aficionados (and Adam Ondra) have always maintained that grunts or yells can increase strength and performance, and Men’s Health found information that backed up this belief in an Iowa State University study, with novice and veteran martial artists increasing their handgrip strength by about 7% when they performed a karate yell or kiap.

Climber Adam Ondra yells at speed climbing contest
Adam Ondra is no stranger to screaming for power. Photo: IFSC/Eddie Fowke

 Is it too much to assume that the yelling and screaming of metal music can result in similar benefits for our grip as climbers?

Not only is heavy metal beneficial from a physical perspective, but mentally as well. Of all the music genres, heavy metal is probably the last you’d think would make you calmer. But recent studies have proven otherwise. An Istanbul-based hair transplant clinic, Vera Clinic, recently conducted an extensive study on the effects of various music genres on heart rate, blood pressure, and overall anxiety and stress levels (stress is widely thought to cause hair loss).

Surprisingly, out of nearly a dozen musical genres, heavy metal was the second most effective when it came to reducing stress levels (behind 80s pop). Almost 90% of the 1,500+ 18- to 65-year-old participants in the study experienced a decrease in blood pressure while listening to heavy metal classics, and heart rates dropped by an average of 18%. Techno music performed the worst, with only 22% of participants reporting a decrease in blood pressure and the average heart rate actually increasing by 9%.

Want to lower your stress levels after a long day busting your ass on your project? Heavy metal might be the perfect solution (along with 80s pop hits, apparently).

Meanwhile, a University of Queensland study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience followed 39 metalheads, finding that after an anger induction, “extreme music did not make angry participants angrier; rather, it appeared to match their physiological arousal and result in an increase in positive emotions.” In short, the study found that listening to metal helped participants level themselves out. 

“Extreme music did not make angry participants angrier; rather, it appeared to match their physiological arousal and result in an increase in positive emotions.”

The Stack Overflow 2019 Developer Survey revealed that listening to heavy metal helped some software developers focus better when working on coding projects. We all know that climbing routes are puzzles to be deciphered. Is it too much to assume that heavy metal could help you concentrate on solving the sequences in your climbing project, too? 

As anyone with access to Google will find, there are countless studies out there about the benefits of music on performance, mental and physical. What quickly becomes clear, however, is that while fast tempo tunes like heavy metal and rock may help individuals perform better in endurance-based tests and trials, the strongest causal factor where improved performance is concerned is quite simple: The music that works best is your own personal preference.

Harvard Health concluded as much, writing that “patient-selected music shows more beneficial effects than music chosen by someone else … According to the American Music Therapy Association, music ‘provokes responses due to the familiarity, predictability, and feelings of security associated with it.’”

Heavy metal music fan portrait
Photo: Annie Lipton / EyeEm – Getty Images

“In the cardiac stress test study (done at a Texas university), most of the participants were Hispanic, so the researchers chose up-tempo, Latin-inspired music. In the artery relaxation study, which tested both classical and rock music, improvements were greater when classical aficionados listened to classical music than when they listened to rock, and vice versa.”

The bottom line is the best music genre for climbing, or for improving any mental or physical performance, is probably simply the one you enjoy listening to the most. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. 

Maybe that’s a no-brainer, but if, like me, you’ve had people tell you that listening to heavy metal music while working out or climbing is a bad idea and likely to stress your brain or body out… Now you can continue rocking on with confidence.