Pre-workout supplements are commonly used across a wide athletic spectrum, from average, everyday gym-goers all the way up to top professional athletes looking for that extra edge.
Proponents of pre-workouts believe that they improve their performance, allow them to go harder, and thus believe they improve their ultimate results.
As a broad class of supplements, pre-workouts can differ in formulation dramatically, with some powdered drinks being no better than kool-aid, and other forms with extreme stimulant dosages that can be downright risky.
So, in order to get a better understanding of what the potential benefits and risks are, let's explore in a bit more depth what pre-workouts are, what they're designed to do, and whether or not they actually work.
What are Pre-Workout Supplements?
There is an enormous range of ingredients that are used in pre-workouts. However, in general, most are designed to boost your energy levels, with the basic intention being to improve athletic performance.
Both the ingredients and the overall dosage of those ingredients are key to a pre-workout’s effects. While that may sound obvious enough, the reality is that a large percentage of manufacturers will take advantage of the consumer, who may be less than knowledgeable about ingredient and dosage information.
In fact, over the years, numerous pre-workout supplements have grown in popularity amongst gym-goers despite the fact that they contain ingredients and/or dosages with no scientific evidence of efficacy.
In essence, many manufacturers put popular ingredients with unproven workout benefits in their products, at minimal dosages. And many of these may even sit on page one on Amazon when you search for pre-workouts.
So then how do you go about finding the right pre-workout supplement if there’s so much junk out there? It all comes down to understanding what your reasons are for taking a pre-workout in the first place and then finding supplements with ingredients and dosages that have actually been shown to be effective.
Types of Pre-Workout Ingredients
While it might be news to some, different types of pre-workout ingredients are designed to do different things.
And understanding what some of these different kinds of ingredients actually do can help point you in the right direction when it comes to selecting a pre-workout that’s not only safe but also effective.
Central Nervous System Stimulants
Stimulants, both illegal and legal, are used throughout the athletic realm.
However, the evidence for the athletic improving properties of the most stimulants, from caffeine to amphetamines, ephedrine, and even cocaine is, for the most part, insubstantial.
Yet, there’s no doubt, that many seek the psychoactive high that stimulants provide, and a wide variety of pre-workouts use large doses of caffeine and other central nervous system stimulants to cater to this desire.
Caffeine is perhaps the most studied stimulant and the typical dosing that’s been shown to improve performance is noted to be from 1.5mg to 3mg per kilogram of body weight.(1) This equates to approximately 1 medium cup of coffee for the average 175-pound man. Interestingly, higher doses of caffeine have not been shown to increase performance to a greater degree in most studies.
Furthermore, the parameters studied and the observed improvements in things like strength, power, anaerobic capacity, and aerobic capacity (endurance) have tended to be mild and inconsistent. For example, some studies show improvement in strength on the bench press but not necessarily on the squat or leg extension.(2)
And indeed, many chronic users of stimulant-based pre-workouts know that they have to cycle off their stimulant of choice in order to re-sensitize their systems to the effects. Dependence on a stimulant occurs when chronic use causes the brain to adapt in a manner such that higher doses are necessary for its effects to be felt.(3)
Dependence on caffeine can occur as manifest by the inability to stop using it. This appears to be unrelated to daily dose and certain individuals are more susceptible.(4)
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Athletic Endurance Increasing Ingredients
Some pre-workout ingredients are specifically designed to improve the endurance of your muscles. The longer and harder the muscle can work, the greater the athletic result. This is true for explosive anaerobic movements (resistance exercise, short interval sports) and for aerobic activities (distance running, swimming, biking, etc.).
And indeed, several ingredients have been shown to increase muscular endurance. For instance, beta-alanine is an amino acid that gets absorbed by the muscle cell and becomes metabolized into carnosine. In skeletal muscle, carnosine acts as a buffer to lactic acid which builds up with exercise. This buffering action allows the muscle to function longer.(5)
Some ingredients, on the other hand, are popular for different reasons. Citrulline is another amino acid that benefits endurance. However, it's become popular primarily because of the “pump” that it produces in the muscle. Pump is due to vasodilatation of the blood vessels in the muscle: in essence, they relax and allow more blood to flow into the muscle.
Pump is a great feel after exercising. It authenticates that you have worked the muscle hard. However, pump, in and of itself, has not been shown to increase muscle growth or improve workout performance.(6)
Other popular pre-workout ingredients that have been shown to be ineffective at improving exercise performance include arginine, agmatine, and betaine (trimethylglycine). This doesn’t mean they aren’t useful for other human benefits (ie betaine may be very useful for the liver and heart), it’s just that studies have failed to demonstrate any significant benefit when it comes to exercise performance.(7)
Muscle Performance Enhancing Ingredients
There are also ingredients that will improve the actual performance of your muscle contractions. As previously mentioned, by increasing endurance, beta-alanine technically also falls into this category.
Creatine, is by far the most studied and validated ergogenic supplement, with its performance-enhancing effects being demonstrated in countless studies.
It's been shown to improve athletic performance in at least 2 ways. First, it increases muscle ATP concentrations.(8) ATP is the molecule that the muscle cell uses for direct energy. When ATP runs out, the muscle cannot fire -- Think of ATP as the gasoline your car’s spark plugs ignite to push the pistons.
Second, creatine will decrease neuromuscular fatigue during and exercise. Neuromuscular fatigue is the eventual impairment of signal transmission to the muscle and muscle firing. (9)
As a further benefit, higher brain creatine levels seen with creatine supplementation is associated with improved neuropsychological performance in both young and old alike. (10) This means better mental processing (focus, concentration, mind over matter) during exercise.
There are numerous proprietary and patented types of creatine and none have been shown to work any better than creatine monohydrate -- the cheapest and un-patented form of the different versions.
Ingredients that Promote Muscle Growth and Recovery
Lastly, there are also some ingredients that were designed to improve how your muscles react and adapt to your training.
Your muscles are constantly breaking down fibers and forming new ones on a microscopic level. When this happens as a result of exercise, your body wants to repair and reform its fibers back to their baseline size.
This occurs in every type of exercise ranging the gamut, from long-distance running to weight lifting. Weight lifting or resistance exercise more generally, is unique, however. When done properly, it can actually stimulate your muscles to grow larger than their previous state -- it does this by increasing the amplitude of muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
Certain supplement ingredients will help to enhance the mechanisms behind repair, recovery, and growth. Again, the correct dose is necessary for the ingredient to work.
HMB (Beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate) is a naturally occurring biochemical found within your muscles. HMB is formed from the breakdown of the amino acid leucine, one of the three branched-chain amino acids known to increase MPS.
HMB supplementation has been demonstrated to increase muscle strength, power, aerobic performance, and resistance to fatigue.(11) Of further benefit, HMB helps decrease the muscle breakdown caused by exercise. As such, it significantly improves athletic recovery.
HICA (α-hydroxyisocaproic acid) is also formed in the muscle by breaking down leucine. It works somewhat differently than HMB but is noted to decrease the amount of muscle broken down as a result of exercise. The less you break down, the less that has to be repaired.(12)
PA (phosphatidic acid) is a naturally occurring fat that is used in our cells to send messages. As a supplement, phosphatidic acid has some impressive athletic performance outcomes. It has been demonstrated to improve strength and increase muscle mass.(13)
In fact, when athletes are training extremely hard, such as during an extended training camp, their power and output metrics tend to decrease as does their muscle mass. PA has been shown to improve these metrics as well as allowing athletes to gain net muscle mass.
Is Pre-Workout Bad For You?
So now that you have a better idea of what some of the different kinds of ingredients actually do, the bottom line is: are pre-workouts safe? And as you can see from the above discussion, the ultimate answer is that it really depends on both the ingredients themselves and their dosages.
On one hand, there are several different ingredients that appear to be both safe and effective when taken appropriately. However, where pre-workouts become unsafe is when large doses of multiple stimulants are used in the product.
There are all different kinds of pre-workout ingredients out there, and while most are designed to improve athletic performance, some may ultimately do so better than others. While central nervous system stimulants like caffeine are the most popular pre-workout ingredients, their overall effectiveness when it comes to improving exercise performance is somewhat questionable.
Other kinds of ingredients like those that help to increase muscle endurance, performance, and recovery may ultimately be the better choice when it comes to selecting a pre-workout supplement that is both effective and safe.
But again, both ingredient selection and dosage are key. In order to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks, you'll want to go with a pre-workout supplement that contains only proven ingredients at appropriate dosages.
- “Caffeine and performance” Spriet, L.L. International Journal of Sports Nutrition. Jun. 1995.
- “The acute effects of a caffeine-containing supplement on strength, muscular endurance, and anaerobic capabilities” Beck, T.W., et al. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Aug. 2006.
- “The Dopamine Dilemma-Part II: Could Stimulants Cause Tolerance, Dependence, and Paradoxical Decompensation?” Yanofski, J. Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience. Jan. 2011.
- “Caffeine dependence in teenagers” Bernstein, G.A., et al. Drug and Alchohol Dependence. Mar. 2002.
- “Effect of beta-alanine supplementation on muscle carnosine concentrations and exercise performance” Sale, C., et al. Amino Acids. Jul. 2010.
- “Effects of dietary sports supplements on metabolite accumulation, vasodilation and cellular swelling in relation to muscle hypertrophy: A focus on "secondary" physiological determinants.” Cholewa, J. et al. Nutrition. Oct. 2018.
- “Betaine in human nutrition” Craig, S.A.S. American Journal of Clinical Nutrtion. Sep. 2004.
- “Energy demand and supply in human skeletal muscle” Barclay, C.J. Journal of Muscle Research and Cell Mortility. Apr. 2017.
- “Creatine supplementation attenuates the rate of fatigue development during intermittent isometric exercise performed above end-test torque” Abdalla, L.H.P., et al. Experimental Physiology. Dec. 2020.
- “Use of creatine in the elderly and evidence for effects on cognitive function in young and old” Rawson, E.S., Venezia, A.C. Amino Acids. Mar. 2011.
- “Beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate supplementation and skeletal muscle in healthy and muscle-wasting conditions” Holecek, M. Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia and Muscle. Aug. 2017.
- “Chronic α-hydroxyisocaproic acid treatment improves muscle recovery after immobilization-induced atrophy” Lang, C.H. et al. American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology and Metabolism. Aug. 2013.
- “Efficacy of phosphatidic acid ingestion on lean body mass, muscle thickness and strength gains in resistance-trained men” Hoffman, J.R., et al. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrtion. Oct. 2012.