Whether you engage in workouts at the gym on a regular basis or you stay home to work out, you have probably heard of pre-workout supplements and their supposed benefits from your friends, trainers, athletes, or even advertisements.
According to fitness experts, pre-workouts are formulated to improve your fitness and provide you with the energy you need to get through even the toughest workout. On the other hand, some experts believe they are dangerous and unnecessary.
In this article, we’re going to explore the science behind pre-workouts to help you decide whether or not they are healthy and if you should include them in your daily regimen.
Defining Pre-Workout Supplements
Before we can get too far into the science behind them, we must first explain what we mean by “pre-workout supplement”. Many people refer to them as “pre-workouts”. These are multi-ingredient dietary supplements that are formulated to give you a boost to your overall athletic performance and energy level.
In most cases, they are powders that you mix with water and drink before you start your workout. Hence the term “pre”. Some companies offer capsules, which some people find are more convenient to take.
When you start shopping for a pre-workout, you will find a wide variety of formulations from one company to the next. However, there is some consistency when it comes to the ingredients. Some of the most common ingredients include amino acids, creatine, beta-alanine, artificial sweeteners, and caffeine. However, the quantities of each vary depending on the brand.
Plus, it’s important to note that you need to be careful when choosing a pre-workout because some of them have not undergone third-party testing to ensure quality and purity.
Pre-workout supplements are often referred to as pre-workouts. According to research, they improve energy levels and athletic performance when consumed prior to working out. While there are some common ingredients, there is no combination that is set in stone, each manufacturer creates their own blend. These are typically powders that are combined with water but can also be capsules.
What Ingredients Should You Look for In a Pre-Workout?
When it comes to the effectiveness of pre-workout supplements, research is limited at this time. However, there are some studies indicating that certain ingredients are beneficial for athletic performance.
Creatine is a chemical compound that is naturally produced by your body and stored in the skeletal muscle. It is responsible for the production of energy and muscular strength.
Quite often you will find it as a standalone supplement where you buy your fitness supplements. However, it is also often included as an ingredient in pre-workouts. Creatine is especially popular among power athletes, including (but not limited to) weightlifters and bodybuilders.
Research indicates that creatine supplementation increases your body’s supply of this chemical, which means exercise performance, muscle mass, recovery time, and strength are all greatly improved.
Nitric oxide precursors
Nitric oxide is another chemical that is naturally produced by your body. The primary role of this compound is to relax your blood vessels, improving blood flow. Many of the pre-workouts on the market include common compounds that your body can convert to nitric oxide. These include L-citrulline, L-arginine, and some dietary nitrates, including beetroot juice.
Research indicates that by supplementing with these compounds, you increase the transport of oxygen and nutrients to your muscles, improving athletic performance. That being said, while it’s true that L-citrulline has proven to boost performance, L-arginine gets broken down before it makes it to your bloodstream. Therefore, while it does increase nitric oxide production, it does not have any benefit on workout performance.
In general, the research on nitric oxide is focused on young men. Therefore, it’s not clear if these results apply to other populations. We need more research to be sure.
You will find that some of the pre-workout formulas include BCAAs – or branched-chain amino acids. These compounds have proven to increase the growth of muscle mass and decrease muscle soreness when consumed prior to working out.
That being said, BCAAs are commonly found in dietary protein sources, so you might actually already be getting an adequate amount throughout your day.
Caffeine is also commonly found as an ingredient in pre-workout supplements. The purpose of including this ingredient is to increase your energy and focus. Research indicates that this stimulant can improve workout performance, mental alertness, and memory. Additionally, there is some indication that it may help burn body fat.
The final common pre-workout ingredient we’ll explore is beta-alanine. This is an amino acid that is commonly included because research shows that it prevents the buildup of lactic acid in your muscles during workouts. Lactic acid is the compound responsible for muscle fatigue and since beta-alanine mitigates this compound, you can increase the intensity and length of your workouts.
While research indicates that it does mitigate the lactic acid in your system, it also comes with an interesting side effect: tingling. Many people find this uncomfortable, but it’s completely harmless. However, you can decrease your dosage and see if that helps. If not, you can go back to the store and find one that does not contain beta-alanine.
While it’s true that the actual formulation varies from one pre-workout to the next, there are certain ingredients that have proven to be effective, such as nitric oxide precursors, creatine, BCAAs, caffeine, and beta-alanine.
Things You Should Avoid When Choosing a Pre-Workout
While it’s true that pre-workouts are generally safe, they are not 100% free of risk. If you are considering adding them to your workout regimen, make sure that you consider their disadvantages first.
Below, we’ll explore three things that you need to avoid when choosing a pre-workout supplement.
Too Much Caffeine
Caffeine is commonly included in pre-workouts to boost energy. However, when you consume too much of this stimulant, you may experience side effects such as stress, impaired sleep, and increased blood pressure.
On average, a single serving of a pre-workout contains as much as you’d find in 1 to 2 cups of coffee, which is acceptable. However, if you are also getting caffeine from other sources, you may accidentally get too much.
Has Not Been Third-Party Tested
In the USA, dietary supplements are regulated as foods – not drugs- by the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA. Rules on foods are not as strict as the rules on drugs and since there are regulatory gaps, the labels may be misleading or inaccurate. If the safety and quality of the supplements you are taking has been compromised, you may end up consuming substances that have been banned or even dangerous amounts of certain ingredients. In order to ensure that the supplement you have chosen is safe, make sure that it has been third party tested by an organization such as USP or NSF International.
Contains Sugar Alcohols or Artificial Sweeteners
You will find that many of the pre-workouts on the market contain sugar alcohols and/or artificial sweeteners. These are added to improve the flavor without adding a lot of unwanted calories. Unfortunately, for some people, they cause gastrointestinal distress and discomfort.
Particularly, a high consumption of sugar alcohols can trigger uncomfortable digestive symptoms, including bloating, diarrhea, and gas. All of these can cause a disruption in your workout.
There are some people who report a similar response from consuming artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose. That being said, these symptoms have not been scientifically proven.
Depending on your preference, you may wish to avoid these altogether or you might want to try a small amount to see how your body tolerates it.
When it comes to pre-workouts, there are certain ingredients that may result in adverse effects. Make sure that you take the time to read the label to see what’s in it. Also, check to see if it has been third-party tested. If it has, there will be a logo from the company that did it on the label somewhere.
Should You Use a Pre-Workout?
For many people, pre-workouts are effective and offer a lot of benefits to an otherwise mediocre workout. That being said, it’s important to understand that pre-workouts are not for everyone.
If you do have low energy levels or you struggle to get through a workout session, take a look at some of the other lifestyle factors, such as sleep, diet, and hydration. If those are not where they should be, consider making changes instead of jumping to supplementation.
Also, the variability in the ingredient list makes it difficult to determine which ones are effective and which ones are not. Then, there’s the cost factor. While many of the supplements on the market are affordable, some of them can get quite expensive and science has not proven them to be any better than consuming a whole food diet to get the same benefits. For example, some people find that a banana and a cup of coffee are a great alternative to taking a pre-workout supplement.
Therefore, to be honest, it’s a personal preference whether or not you should use a pre-workout. If you try one and find that it works for you, there’s no reason you should not use them. However, if you are doing just fine without one, you may not have any reason to start. If you do decide to use one, make sure that you pay attention to the ingredients and keep the following in mind:
How Should You Take Pre-Workouts?
If you take the time to read the label, you will find that most pre-workouts will have clear instructions on the proper way to take them. However, you may wish to start out with a lower dosage- maybe half- to see how you tolerate it, especially if it contains beta-alanine or high levels of caffeine.
Don’t forget, if it does contain beta-alanine, you may experience a tingling sensation. It is harmless, but many people find that it makes them uncomfortable. Also, if the pre-workout contains caffeine, pay attention to when you take it. Some people find that if they take it later in the afternoon or evening and then work out, they have a harder time falling and staying asleep.
Finally, most pre-workouts need to be taken about 30 minutes to 1 hour prior to your work out. This will give it enough time to get into your system and take effect.
Whole Food Alternatives to Pre-Workouts
As we alluded to earlier, there is no pre-workout on the market that can replace a healthy diet of whole foods. Whether you use a pre-workout or not, fueling your body for exercise is critical and can make a difference in how you feel and your overall athletic performance.
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, or ISSN, consuming a meal packed with carbs and protein prior to working out can improve body composition and strength.
Therefore, you should think ahead and plan to consume a balanced meal with fat, protein, and carbs approximately 2 to 3 hours before. For example, consider a meal including a veggie omelet, whole wheat toast with avocado spread, and a side of fresh fruit.
If you lose track of time, you can choose an easily digestible carb, such as fruit, approximately 30 minutes to 1 hour before working out.
If you do decide that a pre-workout is right for you, go for it- just make sure you choose a high-quality one. On the other hand, if you decide that you want to skip the pre-workout, but still want the benefits of caffeine, drink a cup of coffee and eat a pre-workout snack.
It is very important to understand that, no matter how effective, a pre-workout cannot replace healthy sleep habits, adequate hydration, and a balanced diet. If you do decide to use one, check the ingredients to make sure they are safe and available at safe levels.
Many athletes and workout enthusiasts use pre-workouts to enhance their physical performance and increase energy. However, there’s not a lot of research that backs these apparent benefits. Most of them are safe for healthy adults to use- but they are not required for performance or overall health. Therefore, they are not really bad for you per se- but they’re not necessarily good either.
Many of the common ingredients in these formulas have been proven effective when taken prior to working out such as beta-alanine, creatine, and caffeine. Unfortunately, there’s no standard formula for these supplements- each company creates their own blend of ingredients.
The FDA does not regulate pre-workouts (or any other supplement) they way they do pharmaceutical and OTC drugs. Therefore, it’s up to you to look for evidence that the product has been third-party tested for purity and potency. If you have underlying health conditions, discuss your use of supplements with your physician prior to starting it.
Finally, whether you decide you want to use a pre-workout or not, you need to make sure you’re leading a healthy lifestyle. Drink plenty of water. Get adequate sleep. Eat a balanced diet. These will go a long way in improving your performance without the help of dietary aids.
- What Does Pre Workout Do? Boost Fitness Performance or Not?
- The 10 Most Common Pre Workout Ingredients Found in Supplements
- Ranking the Top 22 Best Pre-Workout Powder Supplements (2022)
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