We’ve reviewed pre-workout supplements before on GreenEyedGuide, but in this guest post, Klemen Bobnar briefly reviews the science behind the ingredients commonly used in pre-workouts.
Some days, you are just bursting with energy, ready to take on the world and crush your workout.
Other times, dragging yourself out of bed demands all the willpower you can muster.
Life isn’t ideal and too much work, studying, or stress can leave you with the desire to switch the squat rack for the couch.
Luckily, there is a solution for those drowsy days: pre-workout supplements.
What is pre-workout?
Pre-workout supplements, or pre-workout for short, are a group of products meant to be taken an hour or less before your workout to enhance your energy, improve your strength, and generally make your workout more awesome.
They do that with a carefully chosen combination of ingredients, which can be broken down into two categories: stimulants and other performance enhancers. The stimulant in the majority of them is caffeine, while other ingredients include creatine, beta-alanine, L-arginine, niacin, protein, and many others (don’t worry if you don’t know some of them, they will be covered in detail in the next section). Every formula is different in the attempt to find the best possible combination.
However, that means that there are a lot of options when it comes to picking one product, which can get confusing. Let’s take a look at these ingredients and try to make your decision easier.
Common ingredients and how they work
These are the most common (and proven useful) ingredients in pre-workout mixes.
Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant and the most widely consumed psychoactive drug in the world. Who doesn’t like to start their day with coffee? Just like a cup of coffee in the morning, caffeine in pre-workout is there to give you the extra kick and reduce fatigue and drowsiness.
Besides that, caffeine is a proper performance enhancer: it improves performance in both aerobic and anaerobic conditions, while showing documented benefits to both endurance and power output. It also improves reaction time and motor coordination. Since you will build a tolerance with regular use, try to only use it when you really need it. Try to stay under 200 milligrams per serving and 400 milligrams per day.
Creatine can increase maximum power (like in sprinting) and performance in high-intensity bouts of lifting with rest times (like lifting in a rep range between 3 and 15) by 5-15%. When going closer to your one rep maximum, the increase drops down to 1-5%.
A 5 to 15 percent increase is really a no-brainer for anyone lifting weights with the goal of building weight. It is considered safe, as long as you stick to the recommended dose of 3-5 grams per day and don’t have preexisting kidney or liver conditions (if that is the case, consult your doctor before taking anything!). However, many supplements contain levels above the recommended dosage. Always check the label!
Beta-alanine delays muscle fatigue, allowing us to do more work before the “burn” sets in (as much as 20%). Supplementation was found to increase exercise performance, reduce neuromuscular fatigue and appears to be safe in healthy adults (dosage!), with the only known side effect being harmless tingling. A standard dose ranges from 2-5 grams but doses 0.8-1 gram are small enough to avoid the tingling sensation (paresthesia).
L-arginine is added to pre-workout supplements to increase blood muscle volume, meaning you get a better “pump”. Three out of five studies reported immediate improvements and only four out of eight showed an increase in performance with regular use.
As of now, it is too soon to recommend L-arginine as an effective supplement when it comes to improving performance, but it does give you more vascularity during your workout, and hey, since the health risk is minimal, go for it if it helps you be more consistent in the gym.
Related Post by GreenEyedGuide: Did You Know Citrulline (watermelon extract) increases L-arginine levels?
Betaine is one of the less known ingredients of pre-workout supplements. However, it is a useful one. A study conducted by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research reported an increase in total volume that people were able to do on the 10 set bench press after 14 days of taking it. The increase was 6.5%, which is big enough difference to think about use.
Protein is one of the essential components of food and the building block of muscle. We all know that we have to eat a certain amount every day to build muscle. Since eating enough can be hard, especially for taller people, supplements are used to bring protein intake up (since you can drink more calories than you can eat). That is why it is added to some pre-workout formulas, but you could also have it post-workout separately, or just get enough of it in your diet. Hint: the timing of it doesn’t make that big of a difference.
Taurine is a common ingredient in energy drinks and it performs many functions. In the case of pre-workout supplementation, a 2014 study found increased strength levels, decreased muscle soreness and oxidative damage, but not decreased inflammatory response after taurine supplementation.
Related Post by GreenEyedGuide: Taurine the Taxi – Book Excerpt of the Week
Tyrosine is a precursor to both norepinephrine and dopamine, two chemicals that (if we simplify) regulate mood and behavior. It improves cognitive function
and may provide benefits to people in demanding situational conditions.
Studies on whether or not it can be used as an exercise enhancer are of conflicting opinion. In any case, whatever benefits that are there to be had are cognitive benefits, which makes this supplement interesting to people who do longer bouts of exercise, especially endurance athletes.
Carbohydrates, Electrolytes, and Vitamins
If you workouts tend to take longer than an hour, you might benefit from replenishing some of the things you lost, namely the above three. For longer workouts, carbohydrates help sustain energy levels. They are included in many pre-workout drinks, but a bag of jelly beans or dry raisins works just as well. With electrolytes, they again become more important when the workout is longer. It also depends on how much you sweat during your workout, as some people don’t sweat much during strength training, but much more when doing cardio.
Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. So with supplements. In most cases, a healthy person can take all of the above with no risk to health.
However, if you have any pre-existing conditions, especially liver or kidneys, consult with a doctor (preferably one who is used to working with athletes).
It goes without saying that any kind of vomiting, cramps, excessive sweating, chest pain or anxiety are not normal reactions and that you should stop taking whatever caused the reaction.
Labels and “Proprietary Blend”
A label that says “proprietary blend” should make you run for the hills, as it means that the company isn’t willing to share how much of a certain ingredient they put into their product. Often, these doses can exceed the safe recommendations, which increases the health risk.
In other words, use at your own risk.
See “Confessions of a Shady Supplement Supplier” – related Post by GreenEyedGuide
A short-term solution to a long-term problem
Using pre-workout is not a permanent solution. It is a useful tool for the times when you are overslept and overworked. It is not to be used every time you go to the gym. You will build up a tolerance, which will require you to take a larger dose every time to maintain the same effects.
Before you consider taking pre-workout, consider how much of these guidelines you are following:
- Get 8 hours of sleep per night
- Drink enough water
- Eat high-quality foods and avoid processed foods
- Eat lots of vegetables of all colors
- Get enough sunlight
But I won’t lecture you about that too much. As a busy student juggling exams, business, freelancing and other activities, I get that “just getting more sleep” often simply isn’t an option. However, you can’t expect to make good gains in the long run on low sleep, a bad diet and little to no water.
To supplement or not?
It has to be said that a sound diet and science-backed exercise program come before adding anything else. Just like you can’t outrun a bad diet, you can’t out-supplement it. No matter how strong your pre-workout is, it is not a permanent solution.
Still, pre-workout ingredients are very useful if you want to get the most out of your gym time. You could take each one separately, or make your own blend to your own taste and needs, but buying a premade one is much more convenient (I’m guessing you don’t have time to make your own pre-workout if you are underslept).
Since taking a pre-workout increases muscular endurance and power output, decreases feelings of fatigue and increases alertness, and has no serious side effects for healthy people, I would recommend them just as anything else – in moderation. We know that consistency in the gym is king, and on a day when you just can’t find the motivation to get a workout in, grab a pre-workout and enjoy the jolt of energy.
About the author
Klemen Bobnar is a freelance health & fitness copy- and ghostwriter. He is a content contributor at Kickasshomegym.com and loves to talk training, nutrition and mental game.