So you are interested in taking a "pre-workout" supplement? Let's talk. One of the most common inquiries I get from my clients is about pre-workout stimulants. People are curious about what it is and how it can help them have more energy for their workout. Other people think that they will miraculously start dropping large amounts of weight because they are now taking a "supplement". The term "pre-workout" has this stigma that if you're taking it you must be the "real deal" — you're now a professional bodybuilder because you take a "pre-workout" (enter "bro" at the end of this statement for the full effect). But the hard truth is that a "pre-workout" supplement or stimulant can be more dangerous than beneficial for various reasons. And if you don't do your research and exercise caution you could wind up with some serious health issues.
First and foremost it's important to note that not all pre-workouts are created equal. You must do your research before you chug down a yummy pink fluid that tastes like lemonade and offers false promises of "max calorie burn". By definition a "pre-workout stimulant" is: "Something that you consume (medicinal, stimulant, supplement, or other energy source) prior to beginning your workout". It is not a miracle drug that instantly causes you to burn more calories, lose weight, or lift heavier weights. Pre-workout can, however, give you the same type of "pick-me-up" as a cup of coffee.
Let's start off by noting that the DSHEA (The 1994 Dietary Supplement Health & Education Act) does not require supplement makers to have their products approved before marketing. They treat supplements more like food but they don't have to prove that they are safe or effective before selling. So many supplements take advantage of this and sell products that may contain harmful, untested or just plain ineffective ingredients. Now, the first two adjectives used there probably grabbed your attention (harmful and untested). However, I'd like to draw your attention to the last adjective as well — ineffective. Think about that for just a few seconds. You pay a decent amount of money on a supplement that's makes overblown claims but has little scientific backing and then on top of that isn't required to have approval before selling. You might just be handing over a big fat $50 bill to these companies to continue selling straight up filler. Ouch.
Next, let's discuss the ingredients that might grab your attention on the labels (or lack thereof). Often times pre-workout and supplements will have a mystery blend of ingredients labeled as a "propriety blend". These companies aren't require by law to disclose what's in these "propriety blends" or in what quantities. Many supplements contain artificial sweeteners, dyes and emulsifiers (which contain nasty side effects such as major diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain and infertility issues). In the past, some pre-workouts also contained large amounts of caffeine that have led to major cardiac issues and even death. Since 2 teenage deaths from related cases there has been restrictions put into place on how much caffeine can be added to these supplements. Finally, at least one regulation for safety put into place! This is one of many reasons why it is SO important to know not only WHAT ingredients are in your pre-workout but also HOW MUCH of that ingredient as well.
Before I jump into some of the ingredients, I wanted to get this information on your radar as well. The FDA filed legal charges against some of the most popular pre-workout companies, Jack3d, OxyElite Pro and others which have been linked to cases resulting in acute liver damage along with multiple deaths. They were both found to be using supplements that were not on the FDA approved list. They have since changed their formulas, but it is hard to continue tracking these companies. And remember, they are not required to have approval before marketing.
With that being said lets take a look at some of the most common ingredients found in pre-workout formulas:
1. Arginine - this is an amino acid that claims to raise nitric oxide production which in turn can increase muscle growth, strength and performance. However, research has shown that it actually does NOT affect strength during a workout and also that it can't be absorbed properly into the intestines — making it pretty useless in the pre-workout world. (There is evidence that taking Citrulline - see below - may actually lead to higher levels of Arginine in the body than taking Arginine alone due to the difference in absorption. Citrulline converts to Arginine after consumption.)
2. Creatine - this increases energy production in the muscle cells and draws fluids from the blood plasma into the skeletal muscle improving muscle performance. The issue here is that this has to be taken regularly in order to build up sufficient levels. And this only works when people are pushing to their max efforts during their workouts. So yes, this can be effective, but only when used properly. When used regularly this can cause weight gain — but from increased water in the muscle not from fat (a good thing). This is one of the safest supplements you can take - it's been researched for decades by reputable sources.
3. Niacin - (Vitamin B3) - helps to turn food into energy. It also causes sweatiness and increased blood flow to the skin which can cause what's known as the "niacin flush". This can make you "feel" and look like you are working harder. But are you? Niacin seems to have way more negative than positives and might actually be counterproductive for your workouts and impair exercise endurance. Many companies seem to use this for the pure psychological effect that it has on it's consumers — to make them "feel" as if they are working hard. There is a huge lack of evidence that shows it actually increases energy.
4. Citrulline - a vasodilator which causes increased blood flow. The increased blood flow has been shown to boost muscle endurance, minimize muscle soreness, and enhance aerobic performance. It has also been shown to aide in stimulating protein synthesis and also in decreasing amino acid breakdown (both good things!).
5. Caffeine - just like a cup of coffee provides, this will increase your heart rate which in turn can make you feel more energized. However, increasing you heart rate too much and then over-exerting yourself in your workout can lead to worsening problems and conditions. This can also lead to cardiac issues as well. Everyone tolerates caffeine differently, but it should be used with caution. When utilizing caffeine (in a supplement or in a cup of coffee or tea) you should also be aware that you can build up tolerance to it which would leave you with a loss of benefits. You might need to take a break from using this occasionally to maintain it's benefits.
6. Beta-Alanine - this is a non-essential amino acid which produces carnosine. Carnosine helps to reduce lactic acid buildup in your muscles during exercise, leading to improved performance (increased lactic acid causes muscle fatigue). Beta-Alanine has been researched and studied, but the study groups have been small. More research needs to be done, but so far this has been deemed safe and effective for producing enhanced performance and reduced muscle fatigue.
As you can see, not all ingredients in pre-workouts are bad. Some ingredients such as caffeine, creatine (explained above) and beta-alanine have been shown to modestly enhance performance in extreme athletes or bodybuilders. They seem to give an edge in people pushing to their max limits. And they all are deemed by professional studies to be safe when taken in the recommended dosages (one level scoop means ONE LEVEL SCOOP).
So here are my top tips for choosing a good pre-workout:
1.) Steer clear of pre workouts that have "proprietary blend" in the ingredients. It might not state "proprietary blend" but instead it may have a fancy name like "Super Performance System" or "Power Stimulant Blend" or “matrixes,” “complexes,” “amplifiers” or some other bogus name. No thanks. If a company isn't willing to tell you what's in their product, then chances are high that they are hiding something.
2.) Choose a food-first approach. If you can utilize a cup of coffee and an apple, for example, before your workout and you get the energy you need to perform well then stick with that. Just take a break from the coffee occasionally to avoid building up a tolerance. Keep in mind that your intake a few hours before your workout also plays a big role in how you perform. So eat well and work hard.
3.) Do your research before purchasing. Check the label and research each ingredient. Never risk what you're putting into your body. Educate yourself first. You need to know WHAT and HOW MUCH are in your pre workout.
4.) A long list of ingredients should raise red flags.
5.) A fancy label that boasts "max energy" or "pure power" should not be the selling point for you. The only thing that matters on the label is the ingredient fact list.
6.) Never take a pre-workout for the first time before a marathon or other major event. Try a new pre-workout (after researching it of course) in small amounts first to see how your body will tolerate it. Everybody is different and tolerates different things in their own way. Proceed with caution and be smart.
I hope this helps those of you who have had questions about whether or not to take a pre-workout and what type of pre-workout I recommend.