When it comes to needing an energy boost before a workout almost every gym-goer has their go-to pre-workout supplement. Like protein powder, this is a must-have supplement for many. Even those who just started working out get wrapped into the pre-workout hype! There is a good reason for it... Pre-workout drinks can be beneficial for increasing your energy, muscular strength, and endurance. And who doesn't want that before a heavy lifting session or high-intensity workout?
Although pre-workout supplements can help increase your performance, keep in mind that they're not all created equal. These supplements are heavily marketed, if you walk into any health store or do a quick search on Amazon you'll find thousands of different options claiming to have the best ingredients in order for you to crush your workout. Most of the time people don't even know what those ingredients are or what they do! Luckily, there are good pre-workouts that contain safe, energy-boosting ingredients... But be wary about others that have pointless and potentially harmful ingredients.
With that being said, before investing in an expensive pre-workout that claims to have ingredients that are going to help you shed fat, build muscle, or whatever, learn more about it! It's better to make an educated purchase than one that might potentially harm you. That's why we put together the most important information about pre-workout supplements - What they are, the benefits, risks and side effects, and what ingredients to look for. That way you can decide whether pre-workout is bad for you or going to be your new best friend.
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 now is energy drinks. Although that is not referring to all energy drinks, only the ones labeled to be an energy and workout performance booster.
Every supplement company has its own mix of ingredients and their own formula blend, so there are so many that exist. In fact, pre-workout supplements are still under heavy research, so there aren't too many articles about how ingredients on the current formulas work. Therefore there isn't one perfect formula, so we'll just cover the most important ingredients that they share in common. The ingredient that 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 ingredients it can consist of is 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 before high-intensity training.
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.
- Pre-workouts containing BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids), like leucine, can help promote muscle protein synthesis.
- Pre-workouts containing B-vitamins can also help promote energy and muscle protein synthesis.
- Pre-workouts containing creatine, a derivative of three amino acids that are naturally produced in the body, is 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. The nitric oxide dilates blood vessels to increase blood flow throughout the body thus increasing 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:
- Amino acids, specifically L-Citrulline-Malate, Beta-Alanine, L-Arginine, and L-Tyrosine
- Beetroot juice
Another thing you should look into that doesn't have anything to do with ingredients is the company itself and whether they or a third party has tested the formula. You can do this by simply looking at their website for information on how they test their formula, if it's not on there then look elsewhere! Look for companies that are transparent about their formula testing. If it has been third-party tested then things are much easier because the pre-workout itself will have a signature stamp on the packaging. Making sure the company you're buying from is transparent or has been third-party tested will ensure that the pre-workout supplement you're buying has been examined for the quality and purity of ingredients.
Now let's get into things to avoid! Something you don't need to avoid but should keep into consideration is the amount of caffeine in your pre-workout. The amount you should consume depends on your weight, so if you're an avid coffee drinker, consider sticking to lower doses, like 100-200mg. Luckily, in powder form, it's easy to measure out your dose by scoop.
With that being said, here's what you should avoid when choosing a pre-workout:
- 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 then 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 (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 3 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?
Don't let those possible side effects deter you from trying pre-workout! 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.
Now, if you want to know if you need one? Then the answer is no, you don't absolutely need it. 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 to increase 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!