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Unveiling the Reality of Pre-Workout Supplements

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

You might have heard your CrossFit or HIIT class friends talk about consuming some “pre” before they go to the gym, or seen people on #FitnessTok engaging in potentially dangerous trends with dry pre-workout powder. Or maybe you’ve come across companies advertising products designed to fuel you through a challenging workout. These pre-workout supplements have gained popularity recently, as many individuals praise their invigorating effects.

All this hype may leave you questioning, “Should I take pre-workout?” Due to its increasing popularity, more scientific research has been conducted to explore the benefits and whether these pre-workout blends truly enhance performance. However, like any supplement, there may be potential risks involved. Ahead, experts provide comprehensive information about pre-workout powders and pills.

When a Pre-Workout Supplement Can Provide a Boost

Scientific studies offer contradictory findings regarding whether pre-workout supplements enhance performance, and most studies involving both positive and negative outcomes have utilized relatively small sample sizes. One study discovered that while participants reported increased energy and focus, the physical gains were limited. Meanwhile, another study demonstrated improved energy levels, as well as enhanced muscular endurance and anaerobic capacity. However, a review of existing scientific literature on the subject highlighted that the long-term benefits and potential implications of using pre-workout products are less understood, as most of the available research predominantly examines short-term effects.

The most reliable research primarily focuses on individual ingredients rather than the combination found in a typical pre-workout supplement. Here’s a breakdown:


“The most prevalent ingredient in pre-workouts is caffeine,” states Pam Bede, R.D., a sports dietitian with EAS Sports Nutrition. “This is because athletes have utilized this familiar performance-enhancing aid in the hopes of improving endurance, delaying fatigue, and even reducing the perceived difficulty of the workout (also known as RPE or rate of perceived exertion),” she explains. For instance, numerous studies demonstrate the benefits of caffeine on strength and power outputs. The optimal caffeine dosage is .9-1.4mg per pound of body weight, according to Bede. For example, a 150-pound individual would need approximately 135-200mg of caffeine around 20 minutes before exercising. (Just so you know, that’s less than a small cup of coffee at most cafes.)

Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)

These popular pre-workout ingredients are the foundational elements of protein and are designed to safeguard glycogen reserves in the muscles so you can engage in physical activity for a longer duration, and they may also aid in recovery, according to Bede. Scientific research supports this claim: One study validates the role of BCAAs in recovery and the development of muscular anaerobic power (otherwise known as your body’s capacity to produce force). Other research discovered that BCAA supplementation assists in maintaining muscular performance. (Beta-alanine, specifically, is included in many pre-workout products.)

Nitric Oxide (NO) Enhancers

You might also encounter nitric oxide enhancers in a pre-workout blend. (These may be listed as L-arginine, L-citrulline, or L-norvaline.) These substances support blood flow and the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to the muscles, as explained by Bede. This can contribute to the appearance and sensation of your muscles being “pumped up.” One research review states that the nitrate found in beetroot juice can enhance cardiovascular endurance and reduce the time it takes to reach exhaustion. Keep in mind that instead of using a supplement, you could simply opt for beet juice as your pre-workout drink. Although the precise quantity required varies based on your size, aim for 300–500mL of the juice or approximately 400–500mg of a nitrate supplement, as suggested by Bede.

Protein and Creatine

Lastly, protein (including creatine) is a major attraction for many individuals who take supplements — although this requirement is typically not addressed by pre-workout products. You are more likely to find protein in “recovery” supplements (or plain protein powder) rather than in pre-workout blends, although the BCAAs in pre-workout supplements do provide amino acids essential for protein synthesis. Protein (around 20 to 25 grams immediately before or after a strength training session) does scientifically assist women in gaining lean muscle mass and reducing body fat — this can be achieved through either a supplement or whole-food source, according to Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., former head of the exercise science department at Quincy College.

On the other hand, creatine can be found in certain pre-workout supplements (or sold separately) and can be utilized to enhance performance during high-intensity workouts, as previously reported in this guide to pre-workout and post-workout supplements. “Creatine may provide more energy for muscle contraction,” Robert Parisien, M.D., an orthopedic sports medicine surgeon at Mount Sinai Health System, previously told Shape.

(Want to discover more? Here’s the complete lowdown on creatine.)

Why You Must Exercise Caution with Pre-Workout Supplements

Now, let’s discuss safety. Just like every other supplement available, pre-workout products are not subject to regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means that manufacturers are not required to conduct safety tests on the specific product, and the quantity of each ingredient may vary from package to package.

Choosing a trustworthy brand – one that has received approval from a third party, such as the Good Manufacturing Practices or GMP stamp, which guarantees that a dietary supplement contains all the claimed ingredients – is a reliable way to ensure the safety of your pre-workout product, according to Bede. However, it’s important to note that these stamps are not completely foolproof, and you should still check the ingredient list. Be cautious if the pre-workout supplement contains excessive amounts of caffeine or a long list of unfamiliar ingredients.

If you’re wondering whether you should take pre-workout supplements and you are sensitive to caffeine, you should be especially cautious, advises Bede. Most of these supplements contain some form of stimulant to provide an energy boost. For certain individuals, this can lead to side effects such as shaking, a rapid heartbeat, or other issues that could actually hinder your workout. Bede also warns against substances like bitter orange, synephrine, and anything with a chemical composition similar to ephedra and ephedrine – ingredients that are prohibited by the FDA due to their potential for serious side effects, including heart conditions. (To know which ingredients to watch out for, consult the FDA’s page on supplement ingredients.)

Consumers are increasingly paying attention to the contents of their food and supplements, and some brands have taken note by prioritizing high-quality ingredients and easy-to-understand labels. Consider The Go Life, a nutritional supplement designed to enhance physical performance and cognitive focus. The brand’s co-founder and former professional cyclist, Alex Cesaria, emphasizes their careful selection of ingredients, as consumers have become more mindful of product labels. Cesaria and his team also opted to produce their supplement in pill form in order to ensure precise control over the dosage of each ingredient. “When you measure out a powder, it’s difficult to know exactly how much you’re getting. Precision in delivery is something we consider important,” explains Cesaria.

Another safety measure to keep in mind when considering supplements? “Do not rely on the advice of salespeople in supplement stores; they are not nutrition experts,” cautions Torey Armul, R.D.N., a sports nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Seek advice from a licensed nutritionist to establish a secure, efficient, and customized nourishing strategy to fulfill your requirements,” she suggests.

The Top “Natural” Pre-Workout? Whole Foods

You can discover many of the components in pre-workout supplements — notably, the ones that studies have demonstrated to enhance performance, such as caffeine or nitric oxide — in whole foods, too. Additionally, with those genuine foods, you also receive other nourishing substances that are beneficial for you.

“I suggest a ‘food first’ approach for both casual and professional athletes who are seeking to fuel their workouts,” states Armul. “Real foods, rather than powders or supplements, are optimal because they offer the finest variety of macronutrients and micronutrients, tend to be the easiest to digest, and are more enjoyable,” she clarifies.

Keep it straightforward with a snack one to two hours before your workout, Armul advises. Endurance athletes should ensure they consume a significant portion of carbohydrates, while weightlifters should aim for a combination of carbs and protein, she adds. Pay attention to the fiber and fat content, as they are digested more slowly, which could result in digestive discomfort, Armul cautions.

So, Should You Use a Pre-Workout Supplement?

The final verdict on the “should I take pre-workout” question? If you engage in recreational exercise, you most likely do not require a pre-workout supplement. Beet juice, sources of whole-food protein, and natural sources of caffeine such as matcha or coffee can likely provide the advantages you seek when using a pre-workout supplement — but without the risk.

If you do opt for a pre-workout pick-me-up, conduct thorough research. “Don’t solely rely on the product’s website or Amazon page for information,” advises Bede. “Genuinely examine each ingredient to ensure its safety, effectiveness, and ability to enhance your performance,” she recommends. (And when uncertain, consult a doctor or a dietitian before consuming any pre-workout powders or pills.)

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