What is a Pre-Workout and Do You Need to Use One?

Pre-workout powder container with weights and shaker bottle

You can’t expect to show up at every workout feeling 100%. Sometimes you’ll just feel crappy, tired and unmotivated when it comes time for your workout.

If this sounds like you, then finding the best pre-workout could be just what you need to lift you out of your training slump.

Have doubts about the effectiveness of pre-workouts? Research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that when combined with high-intensity training, taking a pre-workout caused significant increases in VO2 max, workout capacity, and lean muscle mass. It also increased the rate of fat loss from moderate exercise.(1)

If you do decide to join the pre-workout fun, it’s important to learn how to do so safely and correctly. This is why we put together this complete guide to pre-workouts. We’ll cover everything from scientific research and clinical studies to the benefits and drawbacks of supplementing with the gym-goer’s favorite energy drink

What Do Pre-Workouts Do?

If you fail to adequately fuel yourself prior to exercise or intensive training, you’ll be less energetic, weaker, and more fatigued than you would otherwise. There is no escaping this fact.

This is why pre-workouts are designed to help you work out harder and last longer. And even though these supplements are available in several forms, including foods, shakes, powders, and capsules, they all have the same purpose: to increase energy and improve focus.

The majority of users take a pre-workout powder that’s mixed with water or other beverage, and consumed about 30 minutes prior to the start of a workout. Pre-workout supplements provide extra energy and increased blood sugar levels by providing additional carbohydrates to your body. Generally speaking, they boost energy levels far more than having a piece of fruit or a cup of coffee.

Which Ingredients to Look For

Pre-workouts are designed to make it easier for you to sail through intense workouts. Not surprisingly, these products typically provide your body with sugar, caffeine, and other stimulating energy-boosters.

When choosing a pre-workout supplement, here are a few ingredients you’ll want to check for that have been found effective for improving workout performance.

Caffeine – Caffeine is a common pre-workout ingredient and is well-documented for it’s benefits in boosting performance and increasing fat loss. However, it’s important not to overdo it. More on this in a minute.

Creatine Monohydrate – Another popular ingredient widely used by bodybuilders and athletes is creatine. It is found in a large number of pre-workout supplements because of its ability to enhance muscle power and performance during workouts.

Branched Chain Amino acids – BCAAs are known to increase workout endurance and strength by and aiding protein synthesis and providing cellular energy.

Taurine – A sulfonic acid found in various meats, taurine is an important ingredient that helps to reduce oxidative stress during exercise, and aids in the metabolism of fats.
B vitamins – Vitamins B1, B2, B5, B6 are all key factors in energy production and efficiency. Vitamin B3 enhances DNA repair and supports healthier skin, while Vitamin B12 aids in the production of red blood cells.

Nitric Oxide Boosters – NO2-boosters such as l-arginine and l-citrulline are amino acids that are vasodilators. These type of nitrogen dioxide supplements relax and widen your veins, making it easier for blood to flow throughout your body and delivering nutrients faster and more efficiently.

Are They Safe?

It is important to study the label before buying a new pre-workout product. Caffeine is at the top of the list of ingredients to pay attention to. The content can range from just a light dose to uncomfortably strong. In certain instances it can cause anxiety, sleeplessness, high blood pressure, and other serious health problems.

According to research in Food and Chemical Toxicology, adults should not consume more than 400mg per day. How much is that? A cup of instant coffee has 60-80mg caffeine , while a cappuccino can contain anywhere from 65mg-160mg.(2)

Some brands of pre-workout supplements exceed the daily recommended amounts. For instance, Apollo Nutrition’s Assassin V7 Pre-Workout pre-workout contains a whopping 600mg caffeine per scoop!

Most sports nutritionists will tell you that there are certain pre-workout products you should definitely avoid. Anything that approaches amphetamine levels of potency would certainly fall into that category.

In general, taking a pre-workout is safe for most individuals who are otherwise healthy. However, side effects such as jitteriness, itching, and difficulty sleeping can still occur at normal doses. These side effects are not dangerous but may still be uncomfortable. If you are new to pre-workouts, we recommend that you start with a half-dose in order to see how your body responds.

Are Pre-Workouts Dangerous?

Pre-workout supplements, such as the ones we recommend, are safe to use if you follow the manufacturer’s directions. However, each person has a different threshold for caffeine and some brands can exceed reasonable limits. This can lead to potentially dangerous situations.

The Food and Chemical Toxicology journal published research stating that 400mg per day is the upper limit for adults. This would be equivalent to about 2-3 cups of coffee, so double-check the caffeine content in your pre-workout supplement before adding it to your arsenal.

How Long Before it Starts Working?

Obviously, you want to be in full-on beast mode as soon as you start your workout, and definitely not standing around waiting for your pre-workout to kick in. This requires a little experimentation to determine your optimal window of time.

Most find that the best time to take a pre-workout is between 30-60 minutes before exercise. This will give your supplement enough time start working and get you revved up for your workout session.

You may also want to keep in mind the caffeine’s “half-life”, which is generally between 3-7 hours after it’s ingestion. If you work out in the evenings, it’s advisable to either take half the recommended dose of caffeine, or to use a stimulant-free pre-workout supplement instead.

When to Take a Pre-Workout

A quite obvious question to pose is, “when is the best time to take pre-workout?” Despite the name, a pre-workout doesn’t necessarily have to be taken before your workout. You can take them right up to 15 minutes before working out, or you could wait for a whole hour for longer sessions. Be sure to check the dosage information on your pre-workout label for the more specific details.

Do I Need to Take a Pre-Workout Every Day?

Pre-workouts can cause your body to develop a tolerance if taken on a daily basis. For this reason, you should consider cycling off of your pre-workout supplement for 2-4 weeks in order to allow your body to reset. Additionally, you may want to get some stimulant-free products that you can use on days where less intensity is required. You could just use tyrosine, which is a great budget-friendly option.

Can I Use Coffee as a Pre-Workout?

Pre-workouts and coffee share the same primary ingredient, caffeine. Coffee has been shown to improve athletic performance. However, it doesn’t contain any of the additional ingredients or additives that may be found in other pre-workout products.

Research has shown that caffeine levels peak at 45 minutes after consuming, and then begin to decrease.(3) So in a nutshell, yes – you can use coffee for a pre-workout.

What are the Benefits and Drawbacks of Using a Pre-workout?

Pros

  • Performance Enhancement. A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that pre-workout supplements can increase physical performance, stamina, and recovery.(4)
  • Focus and Concentration. Pre-workouts containing caffeine can increase focus and concentration. Research published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease has shown that caffeine affects people’s mood, arousal and concentration.(5) A pre-workout is the perfect drink if you want to stay focused during a workout.
  • Greater strength. The University of Cordoba discovered that citrulline can increase bench press reps by as much as 53% when added to pre-workout.
  • Improved stamina. Another study found that cyclists who had taken citrulline pre-workouts were able to ride for 12% longer before reaching exhaustion.

Cons

  • Possible side-effects. Overstimulation can result in negative side effects. If the jitteriness or disrupted sleep patterns mentioned before don’t seem very appealing, you might give pre-workouts a pass.
  • Potential to develop a tolerance. It is possible to build up a tolerance by using a pre-workout too often. As a result, the product could eventually become less effective. To prevent this from happening, you could either use a pre-workout during your more intense sessions, or try cycling the supplement on a regular basis.
  • Gastrointestinal issues. Digestive problems can be caused by ingredients like caffeine, magnesium, sodium bicarbonate, and creatine. It’s recommended that you try out different pre-workout products until you determine which one works best for you.
  • Other health concerns. Previous research found a link between the certain energy drinks and mental health issues, diabetes and kidney damage.

References

  1. https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-7-10
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278691517301709
  3. http://jap.physiology.org/content/early/2017/05/08/japplphysiol.00260.2017.article-info
  4. https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-018-0247-6
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20182035/
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