Pre-workout supplements have become so popular that it’s hard to imagine a time when they weren’t so widely available. When hitting the gym with your body-building pals it would be hard to find just one in the group who doesn’t have a particular brand that they love to guzzle down before an intense workout.
However, multi-ingredient pre-workout supplements, a term that scientists have shortened to MIPS, were only introduced a few decades ago, back in 1982. In the early 1900s, they were arguing about the harms and benefits of drinking coffee, particularly in regards to staying in pristine physical health. Fast forward to 2019 and we’re having the same debate, it’s just over pre-workouts this time around.
By the early 1980s, it had become widely accepted that a pre-workout cup of coffee would only help burn fat and build muscle. This belief became so engrained in the body-building community that famous lifters such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Frank Zane would religiously drink a cup of coffee with their breakfast before hitting the gym.
Another iconic figure, Sergio Oliva, was often spotted toting an entire thermos of coffee at the gym. He would drink coffee throughout his workouts because he noticed that it gave him more energy and made him sweat more.
Around this time is when the world also started to see other supplements being introduced to the body-building scene. While some were adding harmful supplements to their regiment, others were exploring with natural supplements like niacin. No matter which supplements were taken, the goal was still the same: gain more energy, build more muscle, burn more fat.
This combination prompted the introduction of the first pre-workout supplement, Ultimate Orange. Before long, Ultimate Orange became all the rage at the gym. It seemed like just about everybody had jumped on the pre-workout bandwagon.
Could you blame them? People were constantly coming out of the woodwork, proclaiming that Ultimate Orange was a gift from the heavens.
Users of the product were all reporting increased muscle mass, accelerated fat burning, and the mysterious ability to pump out even more repetitions when lifting heavier weights! The verdict was in, and gym-goers loved the benefits they were gaining from this product. That is, until, the company found themselves immersed in a range of lawsuits beginning in the late 1990s.
Alas, the handful of heart attacks that people were swearing were related to consuming ephedra, an ingredient in the original Ultimate Orange formula, did not stop the masses. Too many people had jumped on board and seen too many results from using this product. It was too late to turn back at that point.
Now, years later, regulations are still constantly being tweaked on what’s allowed and what is banned from being included in pre-workout supplements. Due to regulations, they are, arguably, far safer than they once were.
Pre-Workouts Have Tons of Benefits
The wide range of benefits that can be gained from regularly consuming pre-workouts is what’s caused them to continue to rise in popularity. Some typical benefits enjoyed by consumers of MIPS include:
- Improved focus
- Reduced and/or delayed fatigue
- Increased fat burning
- Faster recovery
- Injury prevention
- Improved blood circulation
- Improved exercise performance
- Increased strength
- Increased endurance
Studies Show Positive Effects
The widespread use of proprietary blends, which are not required to provide a breakdown of dosage amounts, makes it quite difficult for studies to be conducted comparing different pre-workouts. However, the National Institute of Health has determined that MIPS do, indeed, have a positive effect on muscle endurance and mood.
One study, reported by the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, suggests that using pre-workouts actually has a very minimal effect on strength. However, they also point out that ingesting caffeine-containing pre-workouts can combat fatigue during workouts. This means that while you may not notice that you are able to increase the weight you lift, you will likely be able to knock out more repetitions with less of a struggle.
One very interesting thing about pre-workouts that has been discovered is that they don’t seem to benefit your entire body during any given workout session. Two separate studies were conducted by both Michael Cameron and his team and Andrew Jagim and his colleagues. Both studies found that while pre-workout supplements seemed to aide both male and female participants in completing a much larger number of bench press repetitions, there was no apparent effect on the number of back squats they were able to complete.
Alternatively, when conducting his own study, Brandon Spradley found that when his participants took a pre-workout supplement they were able to significantly increase their repetitions when doing the leg press, but there was only a very minimal increase in bench press repetitions.
The Importance of Conducting Further Research on MIPS
One thing that researchers agree on is that different pre-workouts can have vastly different effects. While many of these supplements have many ingredients in common, they greatly alter the amount of certain ingredients. For example, one supplement may only have 50 mg of caffeine while another has 300 mg of caffeine.
This is what makes it so difficult to research pre-workout supplements. There is plenty of known information on the individual ingredients that go into pre-workouts. However, due to the varying amounts of these ingredients and the plethora of supplements, it would be nearly impossible to give a general ruling on how safe or beneficial pre-workouts are.
This is why scientists and health professionals urge users of pre-workout supplements to research the supplements they plan to use.
For now, the majority of scientists and researchers agree that MIPS, in general, are safe. However, it is important to note that the formula changes from one brand to the next, and higher doses of certain ingredients could be damaging for some.
It is also important to note that pre-workouts are only intended to be used for short periods of time, with a break in between continuing use. When using pre-workouts on an ongoing basis, or when pairing them with certain other supplements, they have the potential to become damaging to some individuals.
Possible Side Effects of Pre-Workout
Due to large amounts of caffeine, pre-workouts are known to cause overstimulation, or a case of the jitters. However, due to the varying combinations that can be found in different formulas, some more serious adverse effects have been experienced by those who regularly ingest MIPS. These include:
- Elevated blood pressure
- Gastrointestinal symptoms
- Cardiac arrhythmia
- Glucose intolerance
Precautions You Should Take
As is mentioned on the nutritional label, if you have any concerns, you should consult your physician regarding the consumption of pre-workouts. If you experience severe heart palpitations or heightened gastrointestinal pain, you should immediately quit ingesting any and all pre-workout supplements until you discuss your symptoms with a physician.
When adding pre-workout powder or beverages to your workout, you want to be intentional to thoroughly examine the list of ingredients. Often, you will notice that ingredients and their amounts are hidden under monikers like “proprietary blends”.
Even if all you care about is the effectiveness of the formula you choose, you want to stay away from products containing large levels of unknown ingredients. While the ingredients may not be harmful, they are likely to be ineffective.
If an ingredient is hidden, it’s impossible for you to know the true amount. If you’re somebody who tosses back a pre-workout several times a day, there’s no way to know if you’re actually ingesting four times the recommended amount of L-arginine, for instance. Maybe that’s what’s causing that bloated and gassy stomach at the gym, as it’s a common symptom of overconsumption.
Pre-Workout Ingredients to Avoid
While side effects of pre-workout supplements are often due to overconsumption, other times these side effects can be related to ingredients that you want to try to avoid. What you will find are a few common food additives that have been linked to potential health risks. You’ll even find ingredients that have been outlawed by the FDA!
- Proprietary Blends: Because proprietary blends are so regularly included in MIPS, they are the number one ingredient that you want to be on the lookout for. With more than half of companies including this cocktail of ingredients in their formula, you’ll notice it showing up on a lot of supplement labels.
The problem with proprietary blends is that they include a large number of unnamed and hidden ingredients. Some of these ingredients are smaller amounts of components that are known to be workout aides. Most of them are ineffective fillers, amino acids and nitric oxide agents.
The alarming thing about proprietary blends is that they often do not show the amount of ingredient contained in the blend. It’s also important to note that, of the formulas containing a proprietary blend, the blend makes up about 44% of all the ingredients! This often makes it the primary ingredient found in pre-workout supplements.
- Nitric Oxide Agents: Since nitric oxide is naturally produced by our bodies, it isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. However, there are still some agents that are used to increase nitric oxide during workouts that you should steer clear of.
These agents aren’t damaging to you. After all, some of them can be found in health foods. However, they have been found to be largely ineffective in adding any type of benefit to your workout.
Some of these ineffective ingredients include inorganic nitrate, L-arginine and L-citrulline. Essentially, these compounds become too broken down to be rendered effective.
Note: Nitric oxide agents are also listed under “Best Pre-Workout Ingredients”, as alternative agents are beneficial in MIPS.
- Branched-Chain Amino Acids: While these amino acids aren’t damaging to you, research suggests that including them in a pre-workout is a waste. This ingredient was originally added to pre-workouts when it was speculated that it was a sort of super amino acid. Many believed, and still do, that BCAAs would minimize protein breakdown, reduce muscle damage and increase the rate of muscle protein synthesis.
However, it has been found that this amino acid fell short of what it was meant to live up to. Researchers are now claiming that the only benefit of BCAAs on your workout is in regards to fatigue, and the boost is so slight it’s nearly insignificant.
Note: Branched-Chain Amino Acids are also listed under “Best Pre-Workout Ingredients”, as alternative amino acids are beneficial in MIPS.
- DMAA: The acronym would be far easier to spot than the scientific name of this FDA-banned amphetamine. However, some companies try to fool consumers by hiding the truth in plain sight, right under the proper names of dimethylamylamine or methylhexanamine.
Regular ingestion of DMAA can pose serious risks to your health. Pairing it with high levels of caffeine can cause more severe issues. Symptoms range from elevated blood pressure and shortness of breath, but can ultimately lead to a heart attack.
- Yohimbe: This natural supplement is found in the compound yohimbine. This compound comes from the bark of the Yohimbe tree. It is used in a variety of dietary supplements as well as medications.
While small doses of this compound can be beneficial, it can also have some serious side effects, particularly when over ingested. Yohimbe is associated with a slew of adverse effects including stomach problems, heart attacks and seizures.
- Synephrine: You may notice this listed under the name of an herb, bitter orange. This one isn’t even a marketing scheme. Bitter orange actually contains synephrine. The herb has a ton of benefits and is regularly used both in health aides and home remedies.
However, combining synephrine with caffeine has been known to cause extreme issues, such as heart attack and stroke. The evidence is pretty clear that this is an ingredient that is best left out of pre-workouts.
- Artificial Sweeteners: There is an ongoing debate amongst health professionals and researchers surrounding the safety of long-term consumption of artificial sweeteners. It has been suggested that certain artificial sweeteners are linked to cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and kidney disease.
Several researchers have also recently found evidence supporting that artificial sweeteners can lead to glucose intolerance.
- Food Dye: Perhaps you already know the concerns that scientists and health professionals have when it comes to artificial food dyes. Red 3 is known to be cancer-causing. Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 all contain harmful carcinogens.
In addition to this, there are also four dyes that are known to cause hypersensitivity. One of these dyes has also shown to be disruptive to genetic material.
- Fillers:Fillers are widely used in a large range of food products. The majority of food fillers have a starch-based makeup, including ingredients like breadcrumbs, rusk and flour. Alternatively, fillers like fiber additives can add nutritional value to your diet.
One of the main fillers you will see used in pre-workouts is maltodextrin, which is essentially an inexpensive carbohydrate powder with a fancy name.
- Limited Doses and Servings: As you learn about the optimum dose and serving size of the best ingredients, you will begin to notice that most pre-workout supplements are seriously lacking in at least one area. An ideal formula will contain the recommended amounts of at least caffeine, creatine and beta-alanine.
Best Pre-Workout Ingredients
After learning which ingredients can be harmful, it’s important to remember that pre-workouts aren’t all gloom and doom. There are supplements out there that contain all of the good stuff and none of the bad; you just have to hunt to find them.
Below you will find the list of ingredients that you should ensure are present in your pre-workout. Keep in mind, higher doses of certain ingredients will give you a better boost during your workouts.
- Caffeine: If the pre-workout you are looking into doesn’t contain caffeine, forget about it. Many researchers hint that caffeine is, and should be, the primary ingredient in MIPS. Because caffeine is absorbed quickly by the bloodstream, it reaches its peak about 60 minutes after ingestion.
The widely-used drug has also shown to improve cognitive function and boost performance in the areas of power, resistance and endurance.
- Nitric Oxide Agents: Nitric oxide is a molecule that is automatically generated by your body. When it comes to workouts, this molecule has a very important role to play.
Its primary responsibility is to relax and widen the thin muscles lining your blood vessels. This results in increased circulation, which is important during your exercise regimen.
You can find nitric oxide agents listed on a label as a number of different things. Two highly benefiting components that cause increased levels of nitric oxide include arginine and citrulline.
Other companies add a dietary nitrate to their formula, which may be the best option. After consuming at least 300 mg of dietary nitrate your endurance should increase considerably, allowing you to make it through your high-intensity workout.
- Amino Acids: Not all amino acids are alike. Some companies will simply put “amino acids” on the label. That’s nice, but not exactly ideal. Taurine is the good stuff, so that’s what you want to search for when it comes to amino acids.
What’s so great about taurine? Not only does taurine have positive metabolic effects, but it also has ergogenic and antioxidant effects. Unlike caffeine, you don’t need a concentrated dose of taurine to make a difference. If your pre-workout contains just 1.5 grams of this stuff, then you are well on your way to noticing improved muscle endurance during your resistance workouts.
- Betaine: This is a unique derivative from the amino acid glycine. Also called trimethylglycine, this ingredient has the capability to increase nitric oxide and creatine synthesis, promote homeostasis, and to even have a considerable effect on energy levels and strength.
The downside here is that it would take far more betaine than most pre-workouts contain for you to see these results. The aforementioned results were achieved when ingesting 1.25-2.5 grams per day.
- Creatine: In addition to caffeine, creatine is one of the most popular ingredients found in pre-workout supplements. This is due to the wide range of benefits it lends not only to your workouts, but also your health.
A number of scientists have conducted varying studies confirming that the ingestion of creatine increases the concentration of creatine in our muscles. In addition to this, it is able to improve exercise performance, speed up recovery after exercise, aid in thermoregulation and even help prevent injuries!
Creatine containing supplements have also shown to have positive effects on a wide range of health issues including neurodegenerative diseases, heart ischemia, diabetes and fibromyalgia.
- Beta-alanine: On its own, β-alanine does little to aid in workouts. However, it is a precursor to carnosine. Carnosine acts as a buffer to your muscles, which is why the supplementation of β-alanine is critical to getting through that killer workout.
When researching pre-workouts, you want to be intentional to find a formula containing between four and six grams of β-alanine. This is the recommended dose for those desiring to improve their high-intensity performance.
In theory, adding pre-workout supplements to your workout regimen is a great plan. In fairness, it isn’t necessarily a bad plan. In reality, it’s a plan that requires necessary research to ensure that you have no adverse effects.
For those interested in introducing MIPS into their routine, knowing all of the upsides and downsides should prepare you in choosing one that will best suit your needs. While an overwhelming amount of formulas contain one or more ingredients you should avoid, not all of them contain harmful ingredients.
Alternatively, the clean pre-workout formulas that exist can be a fantastic addition to your routine. When going this route, it would be hard to present an argument against the benefits of pre-workout supplements.
Most medications and supplements, alike, come with risks. The ultimate question you have to ask yourself is whether the reward outweighs the risk