Pre-workout supplements, also referred to as pre-workouts, typically contain a blend of ingredients – most commonly caffeine, B vitamins, creatine, and amino acids, that are designed to work together to improve physical stamina and during exercise and training for greater results.
Many brands offer pre-workouts in various forms, including liquids, drink mixes, tablets, capsules, and bars; however, each brand differs in ingredients and amounts, which means one brand may be more stimulating, or intense, than other.
Pre-workouts are used by both men and women who are looking to get fit and maintain a sleek, toned body.
Pre-workout supplements have long been used by fitness gurus, trainers, bodybuilders, athletes, gym-goers, and individuals alike for the increased energy they provide that help users improve their performance during even the most grueling exercise session.
Many fitness gurus and trainers use pre-workout supplements as part of their own workouts for a boost of performance in the gym, and some also recommend pre-workout supplements to clients, so they get the most of their workout.
Many bodybuilders and powerlifters also use pre-workouts before heavy lifting, which requires intense strength and focus. The amino acids contained in pre-workout supplements also help improve muscle growth and recovery faster post-training.
Some athletes have been known to use pre-workouts as part of a low carb diet when trying to burn body fat. Some athletes also use them prior to short burst exercises, such as swimming and sprinting, which can otherwise lead to exhaustion and a decrease in physical performance.
Some gym-goers use pre-workout supplements prior to high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and Crossfit, which includes a vigorous mixture of aerobic exercise, bodyweight exercises, weight lifting and other exercises that require a high energy throughout. Some people also use pre-workouts to lower their risk of injury during training, as well as to increase their tolerance for more intense training.
Many ingredients in pre-workouts are supported by research as beneficial when used as part of a workout regimen. In fact, the ingredients in pre-workouts have been shown to provide the following benefits:
Pre-workout supplements often contain some type of caffeine, which is the same ingredient found in coffee and tea, which have long been used to combat decreased energy and mental fatigue.
Many studies show that, when taken as a supplement, caffeine increases energy and endurance during exercise and sport activity, as well as reduces fatigue for improved mental clarity and mood. Caffeine’s effects are said to be due to the stimulating action it has on the nervous system, which thus increases energy and mental alertness.
Dimethylaminoethanol (DMAE), Choline, and Huperzine A found in some supplements are also believed to improve brain function.
Some ingredients found in pre-workouts, such as Caffeine and Green Tea Extract, help you lose weight by helping your body burn fat for fuel.
Research shows that caffeine helps you burn brown fat, or good fat, which helps boost energy and heat in the body, thus burning calories and leading to weight loss. Research suggests that it also helps turn white fat, or bad fat, which is associated with obesity, into brown fat where it is more easily burned, which further facilitates weight loss.
Creatine is also commonly found in pre-workouts.
The body naturally creates creatine, which is mainly reserved in the skeletal muscle, where it contributes to muscular strength and the production of energy. However, in supplement form, it is derived from amino acids, which, when ingested, boosts creatine levels in the muscular tissues for increased energy. It also improves muscle size and strength, which is why it is often a favorite of power athletes and bodybuilders.
In fact, some studies show that creatine improves maximum strength by up to 15%. Meanwhile, other studies show
that creatine can also improve muscle retention and increase muscle mass, depending on your muscle creatine stores.
Pre-workouts also often contain various B vitamins, such as B12 and B6, which promote energy and keep your metabolism in check, thereby helping the body effectively process fats, carbohydrates, and protein, so they are used for energy as opposed to being stored as fat, which helps support a healthy weight.
On the other hand, studies show that low levels of B vitamins can negatively impact athletic performance.
Beetroot juice root is also usually found in pre-workout supplements and is beneficial for increasing nitric oxide, which opens the blood vessels, enabling more blood to flow through the body, thereby improving cardiovascular performance, which puts less strain on the heart during intense training.
One study conducted on competitive cyclists showed that after consuming about 17 ounces of beetroot juice just under 3 hours before embarking on a 2.5 mile cycling endurance test, the cyclists performance improved by over 2 percent, concluding that beetroot juice supplementation lowers the oxygen demand of exercise and improves performance in endurance sports.
Some supplements may also contain branched-chain amino acids (BCAA), such as leucine, which help promote muscle protein synthesis, or the process of building new proteins or muscle mass, which is important for adaptation and recovery following exercise.
According to one study, after consuming a 5.6-gram BCAA drink following resistance training, participants showed more than a 20% increase in muscle protein synthesis as compared to those who had none. These effects were further enhanced when combined with other amino acids.
Another study showed that BCAA was also effective at preventing muscle soreness and fatigue following exercise.
L-arginine is another BCAA commonly found in pre-workout supplements, which increases growth hormone secretions. In fact, studies show that L-arginine is effective at increasing growth hormone levels by more than 90%, while L-arginine used in combination with exercise was shown to improve growth hormone levels by up to 200 percent.
B-alanine, taurine, and betaine are naturally occurring amino acids that are also commonly found in pre-workouts, which on their own, provide various benefits that research shows are only heightened when combined.
B-alanine is naturally produced in the liver and is responsible for managing nerve signal function. When used as a supplement, it may improve physical performance, as well as help stave off the onset of neuromuscular fatigue.
Taurine is mostly found in the brain, organ tissues, and muscles, where it acts as a neurotransmitter that regulates the transfer of nutrients throughout the body and maintains cell membranes. As a supplement, it is believed to help improve athletic performance and regulate metabolic function.
Betaine maintains normal liver function and also helps process fat. In supplement form, it has been shown to increase muscle size, improve body composition, and work capacity in over 20 participants of a six-week study.
Pre-workouts can benefit you ultimately by improving your stamina, energy, and body composition; however, depending on the ingredients, as well as their use, they can cause harmful effects on the body. In fact, when considering incorporating pre-workout supplements into your workout and training regimen, there are some precautions to keep in mind that will help ensure you make the transition as safe as possible for best results, including:
The main concern with pre-workout supplements is that they are not regulated by the FDA, which means they are not held to strict research standards, regarding their safety and effectiveness.
This means there is always a risk that the supplement may contain unknown compounds, including banned substances, such as ephedra, synephrine, or bitter orange, and Dimethylamylamine, as well as unknown amounts of certain compounds, which can be unsafe, as product labels can be misleading or inaccurate since the product is not strictly monitored. However, the FDA will remove a product from the market or ask the producer to recall the product on their own, if they deem a supplement unsafe. Regulatory actions will also be taken by the FDA along with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against supplement companies who make falsified or unsubstantiated claims regarding their products.
Companies can, however, offer independent assurance that their products do not contain banned substances and do contain the labeled amounts of ingredients by hiring a third-party certification company, such as NSF, to verify their claims, which will then result in the product being stamped with the third-party certifier’s official logo.
Some pre-workout brands contain up to 400mg of caffeine per dose, which is equivalent to consuming four cups of coffee prior to your workout. However, for some individuals, this can be excessive. Meanwhile, other products contain high doses of guarana, which is a plant extract that behaves similar to coffee beans but with double the amount of caffeine per gram, which can also be excessive for certain individuals.
Caffeine in excess can cause your heart rate and blood pressure to increase, which can lead to heart issues. It can also disrupt your sleep cycle and cause nausea and gut issues, as well as dehydration.
Therefore, it is recommended only consuming 3 grams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight to lower the risk of adverse reactions. You should also be sure you are not ingesting caffeine from other foods and drinks throughout the day, which can cause your caffeine intake to be too high for the day.
High levels of creatine, which is also a diuretic, can cause dehydration similar to excessive caffeine; therefore, you should monitor your intake of creatine, as well.
Nitric oxide in high doses can also cause some individuals to experience mild cardiac issues.
Lastly, B-alanine can sometimes overstimulate nerve cells, especially in high doses, which can cause tingling sensations; therefore, experts recommend starting with the lowest dose and then working your way up to see what works best for you.
It is also not uncommon to experience jitters as well as headaches when first taking pre-workouts, which usually only occur in individuals who are sensitive to certain ingredients or if you exceed the daily recommended dose. It is also not uncommon to experience itching when first taking pre-workouts that contain B-alanine because it stimulates the nerves, which can cause you to become itchy and flushed in some spots. However, it typically only lasts about 15 to 20 minutes.
Some pre-workouts, especially powders, drink mixes, and bars, also contain sugar alcohols or artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose, to add sweetness sans the calories; however, some individuals are sensitive to artificial sweeteners, which can cause intestinal issues. Furthermore, sugar alcohols have been known to cause bloating, as well as diarrhea and gas, which can affect your workout.
Some ingredients contained in pre-workouts may hinder the effects of certain medications. For instance, some medicines used to treat ulcers, such as Tagamet HB, actually cause caffeine to remain in the body longer, which increases the risk of side effects from caffeine.
Therefore, if you are considering pre-workout supplements and are taking prescribed or over the counter medications, be sure to consult your physician to be sure it will not have a negative interaction with your medications.
Since pre-workouts hit the scene and become popular, they have been a subject of research regarding their efficacy and safety, which have also raised the eyebrows of many consumers. However, the fact is, pre-workouts, though not for everyone, are deemed safe and effective, when used as prescribed and taken in the right amounts.
In fact, research shows that it is only products that do not list the ingredients in their “proprietary blend, that are of main concern because the ingredients and amounts are not clear, which makes it hard to determine if key erogenic ingredients are present and in sufficient amounts to render them effective. Otherwise, to find a well-formulated brand, simply check that it lists individual ingredients, uses branded ingredients, is free of banned substances, and it contains dosages based on research.
For best results, experts recommend taking the supplement at least 30 minutes prior to your workout, which will enable you to feel the energy boost right before your workout. During this time, beginners, or if you are trying a new product, should also time when you feel the boost of energy to determine how long it takes your body to digest the ingredients, so you can time it for future workouts.
It is also recommended that you take a break from the product every so often to prevent your body from adapting to it, which will decrease its effects. In fact, experts recommend anytime you stop feeling the energy boost to go off the supplement for anywhere between 2 to 3 days to a month to get the boost back. Furthermore, taking a pre-workout supplement for over 28 days is deemed unsafe as researchers have not yet studied the long-term effects of pre-workouts.
When taking pre-workouts, staying well hydrated can help reduce the risk of side effects. In fact, experts recommend consuming at least 100 ounces of water a day to help prevent side effects.
If your goal is to lose weight from your workout, consider choosing a pre-workout that includes fat-burning benefits, which will enable your body to get the nutrients it needs without consuming too many calories and carbohydrates before your session. Otherwise, eating too many calories and carbohydrates prior to your workout can prevent you from losing weight.
If you are looking to gain muscle mass, consider a mass gainer pre-workout supplement to help you put on weight. Experts also recommend eating a meal high in carbohydrates and carbs at least an hour prior to your workout to help increase muscle mass. However, avoid foods with a high fiber content, which can alter your digestive system and affect your training.
Pre-workout supplements are not a quick fix, which means you still need to focus on proper nutrition to both get and maintain results. In fact, according to experts, these supplements are for individuals who already have their nutrition in check and are just looking to improve small little problem areas where they can.
As we discussed, there are different types of pre-workouts for different types of goals; therefore, understanding your goals will help ensure they get the best product for you. For instance, for cardio workouts, look for ingredients like B vitamins, BCAA, Taurine, and Beta-Alanine, which will help you get the most of your workout.
On the other hand, if your goal is to do some serious lifting, consider supplements with Arginine, Citrulline, GPLC, and Pycnogenol. Meanwhile, to build muscle, look for ingredients like Creatine, BCAA, Nitric Oxide, Carnitine, Glutamine, Beta-Alanine, and Betaine, which have been proven to increase muscle mass.
To burn fat, consider supplements that contain Caffeine and Green Tea Extract, which have been proven to provide weight loss when combined with regular exercise.
Finally, remember Caffeine, Green Tea, B vitamins, and Guarana have been shown to increase energy as do Yerba Mate, Tyrosine, Rhodiola, Taurine, Rosea, and Schisandra Chinensis.
When in doubt, seek expert advice.
Not only can a sales professional help you choose the best product for your goals, but since some supplements contain ingredients that can cause side effects, they can also alert you of such issues before purchasing a pre-workout product. Furthermore, the list of banned substances is ever-growing, which they can update you on to help prevent you from purchasing a product that includes banned substances. Also, not all pre-workout supplements are approved by sports regulating bodies, so if you are training for an event, be sure the supplement is approved.
When it comes to are pre-workouts bad for you, as we just witnessed, the majority of studies show that the main ingredients in these supplements have been found safe and effective for improving energy and stamina, building muscle, and burning fat as part of an exercise routine. In fact, caffeine, one of the main ingredients found in pre-workouts, was also shown to improve mental clarity for better focus during training.
However, because some ingredients and doses can cause adverse effects in some individuals, it is best to begin with a low dose of the product to see how it will affect your body before graduating to the recommended dose. Some experts also suggest simply purchasing the ingredients individually or in smaller quantities, which will enable you to control the dose to test how they will react in your body.
When purchasing pre-workouts, remember, since they are not FDA approved, they are not regulated, which means they can contain banned substances, as well as other contaminants, which can render them unsafe. You should also check that the ingredients listed are present in sufficient amounts to ensure the product is effective. For added safety, you should look for the logo of an official certifying third party, such as NSF, USP, or Informed Choice, which means it has been thoroughly tested by the third party to ensure its purity and quality.
Lastly, when selecting the best pre-workout for you, knowing your goals ahead of time will help you select the right supplement for you. It is also best to consult a doctor prior to taking supplements, especially if you are taking other medications, to ensure your safety and to prevent allergic reactions, and under no circumstances should you ever take supplements while pregnant or nursing without your doctor’s permission.