Pre-workout supplements have been around for a long time but often get a bad reputation. You can’t look on fitness social media these days without someone talking about the pre-workout they use. But, should you take a pre-workout before your next gym session? Well, it depends.
If you have gone to the gym or a fitness class and felt like you didn’t have enough energy or that you got optimal benefits from the exercises you were doing, then something is likely missing in your nutrition.
I’ve been on both sides and never knew what to do. I turned to energy drinks, but they typically came with awful side effects such as a pulmonary episode or a high-heart rate. Energy drinks also have high amounts of caffeine and sugar in them. Pre-workouts work the same way to give you that extra boost to your workout, but they affect everyone differently. Also, not all pre-workout supplements are equal.
I’m going to answer the question, “should I take a pre-workout,” and tell you what to look for when buying a pre-workout. First, let’s talk about what a pre-workout does for you.
What Does Pre-workout Do?
You can’t expect to go into your workout feeling 100% all the time. If you have a poor diet or do not give your body the proper fuel to provide you with enough energy, you’ll get weaker and tired faster.
Remember, your body needs carbohydrates for energy. When you eat a complex carbohydrate such as an apple or carrot, your body converts it into glucose, which it uses for energy. What your body does not use is converted into glycogen and stored in the liver. Typically, your body can get enough energy from carbohydrates to get you through light to moderate exercise. If you do intense workouts or training, your body might need a little extra boost, which is where pre-workout supplements come into play.
Pre-workout supplements are multi-ingredient dietary formulas designed to boost your energy and athletic performance. They’re powdered substances that you mix into water and drink before exercise. While countless formulas exist, there’s little consistency with what ingredients are in pre-workout supplements. Some common ingredients include amino acids, beta-alanine, caffeine, creatine, and artificial sweeteners, but these quantities vary widely depending on the brand. Plus, some products may not be tested for quality or purity.
Most people that use pre-workouts take them 30 minutes before their workout. The extra carbohydrates and glucose in the pre-workout elevate blood sugar levels and supply additional training energy.
What Should Be in Your Pre-Workout?
Knowing pre-workouts are designed to boost energy, it shouldn’t surprise you to find out that caffeine, sugar, and other stimulants are in most pre-workout powders. It’s essential to read the ingredients before taking a pre-workout. One of the most important factors to consider is whether or not the ingredients are natural. You should stay away from anything artificial, including sweeteners and caffeine.
Caffeine is the key ingredient to look out for as the content can vary from mild to too much, and extreme in some cases. High caffeine levels can cause serious health issues like anxiety, insomnia, and high blood pressure. Your daily intake of caffeine should be no more than 400mg daily, including everything you drink or eat, such as coffee and soda.
If you are taking a pre-workout, it should contain six key ingredients. Let’s talk about those ingredients.
6 Key Ingredients to Look for in a Pre-Workout
Essentially, pre-workout ingredients will support energy, endurance, strength, pump, and focus for your workout. However, not all ingredients are necessary. With that in mind, your pre-workout is most effective when it includes these six ingredients.
L-Citrulline (9 grams)
L-citrulline is considered a non-essential amino acid, which means your body can produce it when you don’t get it from your diet. Your kidneys turn L-Citrulline into another amino acid called L-arginine and nitric oxide.
These two amino acids are essential for your heart and cardiovascular health. They boost nitric oxide production, which helps your arteries relax and work more effectively. Nitric oxide expands your veins and arteries, making it easier for blood to flow around your body, delivering nutrients quicker and more efficiently. Watermelon is a good food source of L-citrulline.
Most pre-workouts have a good amount of caffeine, as much as 300mg in one scoop. Caffeine can affect everyone differently, so use your best judgment when choosing a pre-workout. I suggest trying a smaller dose, such as a half-scoop or just one scoop if the recommended serving is two scoops, and see how you react.
You likely won’t find a pre-workout without caffeine, so the source is the most crucial factor to consider. It should be from natural sources. Keep an eye out for other energy stimulants. Theobromine and Rhodiola Rosa are popular ingredients but are mild stimulants compared to caffeine.
I used to not believe in creatine, but now I think it’s one of the essential supplements you can take if your activity level is moderate to high. Creatine is a natural substance in muscle cells that helps your muscles produce energy during heavy lifting or high-intensity exercise. Your body stores about 95% of its creatine in the muscles, mainly in the form of phosphocreatine. The other 5% is in the brain and testicles in men.
When you supplement, you increase your stores of phosphocreatine. This is a form of stored energy in the cells, and it helps your body produce more of a high-energy molecule called ATP. ATP is often called the body’s energy currency. When you have more ATP, your body can perform better during exercise. Creatine also alters several cellular processes that lead to increased muscle mass, strength, and recovery.
These pre-workout ingredients lessen your perception of fatigue and increase your endurance and overall stamina. Beta-alanine is one of these anti-fatigue ingredients. Some people have issues with beta-alanine because it can often cause a tingling sensation on your skin. Beta-alanine is a must-have in your pre-workout if you can get over the tingles.
Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid. Unlike other amino acids, your body combines beta-alanine with histidine to make carnosine. Carnosine is stored in your skeletal muscles and helps improve performance by reducing lactic acid accumulation.
You also lose electrolytes when you sweat. The average person loses 1 gram of sodium per one liter of sweat in an hour. In some cases, such as lengthy workouts, high-intensity training, or heated environments, sweat losses become much more significant and cause excessive electrolyte imbalances, which could create an issue.
Your pre-workout should have electrolytes to keep your body hydrated while you increase your performance. Check the label, and if it has 300mg of sodium, 100mg of magnesium, and 100mg of potassium, that should be enough. It’s still important to replenish your electrolytes after your workout as well.
B vitamins are essential for any role in your body, supporting metabolism and producing energy. That’s why you should ensure your pre-workout contains optimal B vitamins. Vitamins B1, B2, B5, and B6 all play essential roles in energy production and efficiency, while B12 supports blood production, and B3 boosts DNA repair and promotes healthier skin. B vitamins are water-soluble, so your body will remove what it doesn’t need through your urine.
These six ingredients are essential if you’re looking to improve performance and get the most out of your workouts. Yet, pre-workout supplements aren’t for everyone.
Are Pre-Workout Supplements Safe?
Pre-workout supplements are generally safe to take regularly. It’s important to follow the instructions on the label. Your caffeine threshold is different than someone else’s, so it’s important to know what you can tolerate. Some brands go too far with a sensible limit of caffeine content, and that’s risky. The Food and Chemical Toxicology Journal cites research that suggests no more than 400mg of caffeine per day – that’s the amount in 3 cups of coffee.
Be sure to check the per-serving caffeine amount in your pre-workout before you take it. If you’re new to pre-workout supplements or haven’t taken one before, take half of the recommended dosage to see how your body reacts.
Should I Take a Pre-Workout Supplement?
Several months ago, I started taking a pre-workout supplement and noticed a big difference in my workouts. Keep in mind that everyone is different. It’s also important to consider two factors when deciding if you should take a pre-workout supplement: the intensity of your exercise and your goals.
Pre-workout supplements don’t directly support muscle development as a protein powder might. However, it does give you the energy, endurance, and focus on boosting the performance of your workout. My suggestion is that a pre-workout might be right for you if you are doing high-intensity activities or need an extra boost in the gym or on your run. I love using pre-workout before Pilates or a Bootcamp.
A pre-workout is unnecessary if you’re doing light exercise such as yoga or walking. Remember, the goal of a pre-workout supplement is to boost performance.
While pre-workout supplements are an excellent boost for your workout, you must stick with your nutrition. You cannot out-train a bad diet, and giving your body the proper nutrients before exercise will give you the energy and strength you need to perform better without depending on a pre-workout supplement. Supplements are just that – supplements to your diet and not intended to make up for a lousy diet.