When it comes to post-workout supplements, protein powder is king. But when it comes to supplements to take before training, pre-workout is. Pre-workout supplements are known for their ability to increase energy, muscular strength, and endurance. Three things that will take any workout to the next level. The problem is... pre-workout gets a bit of a bad reputation which makes people wonder if they do more harm than good.
Before you write off pre-workout supplements altogether it's important to know more about them, the common ingredients used, and how they work. Because pre-workout may not be as bad as gym-goers think... it all comes down to choosing the right pre-workout for your fitness goals and one that is effective and not just filled with unnecessary additives and filler!
So, is pre-workout bad for you?
You'll have to decide for yourself, but don't worry, we'll help you by providing you with all the facts on pre-workout supplements! By the end, you'll be able to know whether pre-workout is right for you and if it is, how to find an effective one for you.
What is a pre-workout supplement?
It is a dietary formula that is designed to improve your exercise performance by including caffeine and other performance-boosting ingredients. It typically comes in a powdered substance that you mix in water, but another popular form is in energy drinks. Although that is not referring to all energy drinks, only the ones labeled to be an energy and workout performance booster.
Each pre-workout is sort of unique in its own way because different supplement companies have their own formula blend. They may share similar ingredients, but the doses may be different giving them different benefits. Although there isn't one singular perfect pre-workout blend, they do share similar performance-enhancing ingredients. The ingredient that almost every pre-workout has is caffeine. Although the actual formula is much more important when it comes to enhancing performance, most people care for the amount of caffeine per dose (typically between 150-300mg). Other common ingredients used are artificial sweeteners, amino acids, B vitamins, creatine, beetroot juice, and more. Something else to note is that nearly half of 100 commercially available pre-workout supplements have a "proprietary blend". This means that the amounts of each ingredient are not disclosed, therefore you won't know exactly how much of each ingredient you're ingesting.  This is something that you would want to avoid when looking for a pre-workout. Regardless of that, there are a good amount of beneficial pre-workout supplements that use good ingredients in optimal doses. Which is the reason so many people in the fitness world use them for their high-intensity training.
Benefits of pre-workout
Not all pre-workout is bad. Good pre-workout formulas with an adequate amount of caffeine and relatively clean ingredients can help improve the way your body functions during your workouts. Here's how these energy drinks and workout powders can help...
- Caffeine is a stimulant that helps boost your muscles' energy house and increases alertness. Studies have shown it to be effective at reducing the rate of fatigue while increasing muscle endurance, strength output, and anaerobic capacity.
- Pre-workouts containing BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids) can help promote muscle protein synthesis which in turn promotes better muscle-building.
- Pre-workouts containing B-vitamins can also help give you an energy boost and increase muscle protein synthesis. They play an important role in energy metabolism and blood regeneration, essentially this means that they help convert nutrients into energy.
- Pre-workouts containing creatine, a derivative of three amino acids that are naturally produced in the body, are effective at boosting performance and energy levels (it's stored in the muscles as a source of quick energy). Creatine has been heavily studied and is often taken after a workout for its ability to increase muscle mass and strength.
- Some pre-workouts contain beetroot juice, which is commonly known for increasing the body's levels of nitric oxide and improving cardiovascular levels. Nitric oxide dilates blood vessels to increase blood flow throughout the body thus increasing your endurance.
What to look for in pre-workout
As you can see the benefits from pre-workout supplements come from the ingredients they contain which is why knowing what to look for in a pre-workout and what to avoid is important. The last thing you want is to choose one that is less of the stuff your body needs and more fillers like sugar.
Most of the benefits from pre-workout come from certain ingredients, so you might want to take a close look at the nutrition label and ingredients list. Depending on your needs and preferences, you'll want a few or all of these on the list when purchasing your pre-workout:
- Caffeine: Aim for an effective dose of 150-300mg of caffeine per serving, or look for a caffeine range from 3-6 kilograms of body weight.
- Creatine: If you're not already taking a creatine supplement, and your main goal is to build muscle, then consider looking for a pre-workout with creatine in it. Make sure it contains at least 3-5 grams per serving for it to be effective.
- Amino acids, specifically L-Citrulline-Malate, Beta-Alanine, L-Arginine, and L-Tyrosine: The dose of amino acids you want will vary depending on the amino acids present. For citrulline malate look for one with at least 4 grams, for arginine and tyrosine aim for 1-2 grams, for beta-alanine aim for 1.5-5 grams.
- Beetroot juice: The amount needed to increase blood flow and endurance depends on body weight, but aim for anywhere between 100-500 grams. Anything less will be ineffective.
- Vitamin B12: Pre-workouts with B vitamins will help your body convert nutrients into energy, and the most common one used is B12. Look for a pre-workout with around 2.4 micrograms per serving, but if you eat a diet rich in meat, seafood, and dairy then you should have enough of this nutrient!
- Minerals: Minerals like magnesium citrate, potassium, and sodium can help boost your cardiovascular performance for better endurance while reducing muscle cramping. Your diet should provide you with plenty of these minerals, but if you find a pre-workout with magnesium, potassium, or sodium make sure it has at least 150-400 grams per serving.
These are just a few of the common ingredients and effective doses you should look for in your pre-workout. Now, here are some common ingredients you should avoid...
- Proprietary blends: Certain pre-workouts can have everything you're looking for, but you won't know exactly how much is in it. It might not have as much as you actually need for muscle growth, performance, or energy. So try to avoid these types of blends.
- Soy lecithin and carrageenan: These are thickeners that can cause digestive problems or other problems when consumed too much.
- Glucose syrup, maltodextrin, and refined sugars: These are just sweet fillers that will be doing you more harm than good.
Are there risks or side effects?
As with any supplement, there are potential side effects and risks that can occur if not taken properly. Although the ingredients found in pre-workout are safe in normal amounts, they can be harmful in higher concentrations, specifically caffeine and creatine. And if they have a proprietary blend, you won't exactly know how much of each ingredient you're actually consuming.
First, let's talk about creatine. This supplement is relatively safe as long as you're staying within the recommended dosage. So if you're already taking a creatine supplement then don't get a pre-workout that contains it (the same goes for those who don't want to take creatine at all)! Taking too much creatine can lead to stomach cramps, muscle cramps, nauseous, and other unpleasant effects. If you do want to get a pre-workout with creatine then look for one that has no more than 5 grams.
Now, let's talk about caffeine. This is where pre-workout gets most of its unpleasant side effects. Consuming high amounts of caffeine can lead to increased heart rate and blood pressure, nausea, jitters, and diarrhea. It's hard to find a pre-workout without any type of caffeine, so be mindful of the amount you choose to get. If you have 2 or more cups of coffee a day then a pre-workout of 300 mg of caffeine might cause some problems. Keep your daily caffeine intake in mind when purchasing a pre-workout, it's best to keep it between 100-250mg.
Lastly, you don't want to take any supplements that contain more than 100% of your recommended daily allowance of any one nutrient. Constantly supplementing with high doses of nutrients can contribute to the development of certain diseases.  So be sure to look closely at the nutrition label of the pre-workout you’re purchasing to see if there are any extremely high percentages of any nutrients, too much caffeine, or creatine.
Should you take pre-workout supplements?
As always, supplementation isn't necessary, but it can help maximize your training efforts. Pre-workout supplements aren't all bad, you just have to make sure you're choosing the right one and consuming it in a safe and effective manner. As long as you avoid the ingredients and proprietary blends we discussed and find the pre-workout with the right ingredients in the right amounts for you then you’re golden! Other than that, you have to decide for yourself if pre-workout is right for your training and lifestyle or not. If it is, look online for pre-workout samples to test free different formulas, this will help you find the perfect one for you.
If pre-workout doesn't seem like the right fit for you, you can prepare for an intense workout with a post-workout snack like a banana with nut butter. You can even use coffee if you need a burst of energy! Whole foods are always the answer when it comes to meeting your nutrient needs and increasing energy. But supplements, like pre-workout, are packed with a few extra ingredients that you might not get enough of from food that will help make your training more effective!
Need help finding a good pre-workout?
Our sister company, 373 Lab, has one that you might love... One scoop of 373 Lab's Sour Raspberries Pre-workout contains 150 grams of natural caffeine, along with effective doses of Citrulline Malate, Beta-Alanine, Arginine, Tyrosine, and Theanine. No proprietary blends or unnecessary additives. Only full transparency and good ingredients at effective doses to give you everything you need to crush your workout!
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