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Once popular only within the weightlifting world for serious athletes seeking to gain strength and size, the supplement category of pre-workouts has taken over mainstream fitness. In 2019 alone, the pre-workout supplement market size was over 12.5 billion. An Amazon search yields over 2,000 product results, and the “preworkout” hashtag on Instagram currently has over 4.3 million posts. So the question remains: is enhancing workout performance just a scoop of powder away? Ahead, we’ll examine what’s in these pre-workout supplements so you can make an informed decision about whether pre-workouts are the right tool to help you achieve your fitness goals (or if pre-workout even works in the first place).
Meet the Expert
What Is Pre-Workout?
Pre-Workout is a category of supplements made to be taken before working out. The goal of a pre-workout combo is to increase your energy, focus, and endurance. While they may come in capsule form, the most common packaging for pre-workouts is a powder that you mix on your own into liquid when ready to consume it.
There is no regulation around what specific ingredients pre-workouts must contain to meet the category definition, but there are a half dozen common ingredients across many brands. These are:
- Caffeine: The stimulant in the coffee that gets 85 percent of Americans going every morning is scaled up to frightening heights in pre-workout supplements; they contain anywhere from 60 milligrams (about ¾ cup of coffee) to a whopping 500. Caffeine is the most common ingredient found in pre-workout supplements.
- Creatine: Used for both muscle recovery and growth, this amino acid is naturally found in seafood and red meat. Important note: it can initially lead to water retention.
- Nitric Oxide: Nitrates and nitrites preserve processed meats and give them a bright red glow; they’ve been linked to causing cancer, but they also increase blood flow to your muscles, which helps to reduce muscle fatigue.
- B-12: a vital nutrient for nerves and blood cells, vitamin B-12 is found in assorted animal foods, which is why vegans commonly become deficient in it without supplementation. It’s known as the “energy” vitamin, but studies have yet to show it enhances workout performance at all.
- BCAA'S: Branched-chain amino acids are essential nutrients, and are found in foods like meat, beans, and nuts; they’re used to boost muscle growth and prevent fatigue.
- Beta-Alanine: a non-essential amino acid that occurs naturally in meat, beta-alanine has been shown to increase carnosine concentration when taken before workouts; carnosine reduces lactic acid production and leads to more effective exercise.
How Pre-Workout Affects Your Performance
As you can see from the varied ingredients listed above, pre-workout supplements hit your performance from every angle possible. They aim to keep you going stronger for longer, then to minimize your recovery so you can do it all again as soon as possible. Because of the numerous ingredients in the combinations, they are likely to help you perform to some extent. It depends, of course, on the quantity and quality of each ingredient as well as how your unique body responds to that. Unfortunately, many brands don’t list quantity of individual ingredients, relying instead on “proprietary blends” that only denote the total quantity of multiple supplements. If you’re sold on the idea of trying one, Dr. Goglia recommends “a taurine-based product with d-ribose and l-glutamine added with a much smaller amount of caffeine.”
Meanwhile, Asche recommends avoiding pre-workouts, saying, “For the majority of people, these powdered supplements aren’t necessary and may not be providing any additional benefit if you’re already consuming a well-balanced diet rich in amino acids.”
Potential Side-Effects of Pre-Workout
Whether it’s the four-cups-of-coffee equivalent of caffeine that can make sleep an impossibility, creatine’s water retention promotion that could temporarily size you up to larger than you want, or playing with fire by way of the carcinogenic nature of nitrates, pre-workouts may have a host of unpleasant side effects.
Says Asche, “It’s important to note that supplements are not regulated the same way food products are, so you run into several risks by taking caffeine in pre-workout supplement form.” For example, Dr. Goglia warns that, “Caffeine can disrupt sugar transport, risking a low blood sugar episode mid-way through your workout.” These supplement combinations often contain copious amounts of sugar alcohols to mask the taste, which can lead to digestive upset. From pre-workouts, Asche says to look out for: “gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhea, gas and bloating, rapid heart rate, headache, impaired sleep, and feeling tingly or jittery.”
Safer Alternatives to Pre-Workout
- D-Ribose: a naturally occurring simple sugar, D-Ribose is available as a lightly sweet powder that you mix into liquid or as capsules; it has been proven to improve muscle performance, metabolism, and muscle recovery
- L-Carnitine: this amino acid helps your body turn fat into energy; like d-ribose, it’s available as a powder or capsule
- A Small Snack: “If you're looking for a great pre-workout snack, ideally you would want to choose a low glycemic option," says Goglia. "[For example],1 tbsp of jam with 1 tbsp of almond butter is a great pre-training source of energy.”
- Natural Caffeine: “Often black coffee with a touch of sweetener will also get the job done without the harsh chemicals or additives,” Dr. Goglia says, and Dr. Asche confirms: "Caffeine has been shown to increase mental alertness and concentration, and improve athletic performance by increasing time to exhaustion.”
- Kre-Alkalyn: “The better choice over straight creatine is kre-alkalyn—ph-correct creatine monohydrate—which is more stable in the stomach and is not degraded to creatinine, which will result in increased bioavailability," Dr. Goglia says.
- Carbs and Protein: “Consuming carbohydrates pre-workout helps to top off glycogen stores, provide glucose for the central nervous system, and prevent hunger mid-workout; consuming protein pre-workout has been shown to promote muscle protein synthesis and aid in muscle recovery,” says Asche.
Whether you choose a single supplement or a simple snack, there are countless safer, gentler ways to enhance your workouts than pre-workout products. They may be popular on social media, but they’re unlikely to be so well loved by your nervous system or your digestion.