When you want that extra boost to your workout, or the inspiration to get you into the mood to go to the gym in the first place, most people reach for a pre-workout supplement. They’re known around the workout world to get your body prepped and ready for intense exercise and to give you that leg up to get your muscles toned just the way you want. Do they actually work, though?
Let’s look at the tried-and-true facts to decide if you should add supplements into your routine or if you should take a pass.
Are There Real Benefits to Pre-Workout Supplements?
Almost all supplements that are meant to be taken before exercise to heighten performance are called “pre-workout.” Many types come in several forms, most with a “proprietary” makeup of various ingredients. Thus, any conclusions made about pre-workouts in general are just that—generalizations—but for the most part, they include some combination of:
- Nitric oxide precursors
Scientific research confirms that these can help improve workout performance. However, supplements aren’t the only way to get these into your body! You can also get them in a less expensive, more natural form by consuming:
- Leafy greens (spinach, kale, broccoli, collard greens, etc.)
- Red or white meat
Consuming any macro- or micro-nutrient as close as possible to its natural form makes it more bioavailable, too, meaning that your body can absorb and process it more easily.
What the Science Says
Sure, supplements are popular. They’re sold at almost every gym and health food store, as well as common retail and online chains. Unfortunately, though, there aren’t a lot of studies that show whether specific pre-workouts are safe or effective. Oftentimes, you can’t even find transparent information about what the true ingredients in your supplement actually are.
Certain research gives promising evidence toward safety and efficacy. However, there aren’t any long-term studies available, which means that we don’t know about the effects of taking pre-workout for an extended period and whether those effects are physical or mental.
This doesn’t mean that pre-workout doesn’t, well, work. Many of the foundational ingredients are proven to help enhance exercise and physique. We just can’t see the whole picture yet.
Creatine for Muscle Growth
Creatine is a building block that makes up cells in the Musculoskeletal system. Studies show that it helps improve strength, aids in the creation of lean muscle, and helps muscles recover after hard work. So, of course, it’s added to the majority of pre-workout supplements.
A review of the current studies suggests that one can safely and effectively consume up to 30 grams of creatine daily for up to five years. There is even evidence to suggest it could help prevent injuries. Compared to a placebo group, it’s been found that up to 20 grams daily while engaging in strength training improved muscle strength and reduced damage.
Improved Performance with Caffeine
Research proves that caffeine can help you reach higher limits for mental and physical exertion. Other studies show that it might even help you burn fat and improve your reaction time, compared to working out without caffeine. This is because it increases your body’s adrenaline and cortisol levels.
We’re pretty sure you can figure out that you don’t need to get caffeine from a supplement, though. Even a couple of cups of coffee can have the same effect as a serving of pre-workout. Most of this research was done on males, though, so results may be different with females.
Blood Flow Increase through Nitric Oxide
Your cells naturally produce nitric oxide. It’s released through your blood vessels, allowing higher volumes of blood to move where you need it—into your arms, for example, when you’re bench pressing.
Many pre-workouts include this molecule in their formulations; however, it’s as precursors, which are the compounds that the human body uses to form nitric oxide. Some evidence shows that simply exercising creates this compound, though, so you don’t necessarily need to add more to your body before beginning your gym routine. However, adding in extra through a supplement could give you the boost you’re looking for.
Remember that research agrees on the fact that nitric oxide is present not only in your body but in natural foods, such as those ever-touted leafy greens and other powerhouses such as beetroot juice.
Using Pre-Workout for Weight Loss
A large portion of pre-workout users do so because of claims that these supplements help you lose weight, but nothing can replace the healthy choices of eating right and staying active. There’s nothing wrong with getting some extra help, though, especially if it encourages you to stick to a plan since you’re seeing great results.
Understanding the Risks
As with almost anything man-made, there are potential risks along with the reported benefits. If you follow the label directions and amounts, you’ll probably be safe with most pre-workout formulations. It’s your responsibility to know and attend to your own body and your unique needs, though, including what doesn’t feel good to you when you’re working out. Take these things into consideration to stay on the safe side.
The Sour Side of Artificial Sweeteners
Many pre-workouts are filled with artificial sweeteners and various forms of sugar alcohol. This does what it’s meant to—makes the supplement taste good without adding additional calories. However, these compounds can be addicting (sugar is sugar), and your body doesn’t usually process them very well.
Consuming these ingredients can make you feel hungry when your body doesn’t necessarily need extra fuel and can even cause nausea and digestive troubles. Look for these ingredients if you want to avoid these negative effects:
Too Much of a Good Thing—Caffeine
Didn’t we just say that caffeine, especially in its natural form, can be beneficial to your workout? We did. However, you’ve probably felt the after-effects of an all-nighter fueled by too much coffee or cola… jitters and anxiety followed by a huge crash, headaches, and disrupted sleep come to mind. You could even be at risk for higher blood pressure levels if over-consuming caffeine becomes a habit.
A traditional serving of pre-workout has about as much caffeine as two to three cups of coffee. This amount is about the average recommended limit for a typical body (about 400 milligrams), if not on the higher end of what’s suggested for healthy intake. If you’re taking pre-workout on top of your regular coffee, tea, soda, or energy drink levels, your daily caffeine consumption will be on overload.
Choosing Your Brand Wisely
Every time you go into your favorite health and wellness store, it probably seems like there’s a new brand of pre-workout on the shelf. How are you supposed to know which ones are legit and which ones should be avoided? It’s not as if these products are rated and regulated by the FDA, either. That means that it’s on you to do the research and choose what you consume based on ingredients, business practices, and science.
You’ll want to buy a product that gets its accreditations from independent third-party companies such as NSF International. “Third-party testing agencies” means that when they evaluate products, they aren’t paid by the product company itself to say certain things.
Weighing the Alternatives with the Choice of Pre-Workout Supplements
There’s no doubt about it: the best pre-workout supplements can help give your exercise routine a boost and get you to your physical goal. However, there are risks associated with them and science doesn’t show the long-term effects clearly.
If you’re looking for a completely safe alternative, there are plenty to choose from. You can add in healthy snacks or drinks with the compounds you’re looking for, saving you money and giving you what you want in the most natural way. You can feel good about adding these to your diet:
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Avocado toast
- Orange smoothies (with the peel)
- Rice cakes with nut butter
- Carrots and hummus
- Coffee (black or with a bit of milk and sugar)
Putting It All Together
It might keep you in the “in-crowd” at the gym if you show up finishing your pre-workout shake, but remember that your health is your responsibility and that trends come and go. The latest and greatest in “proprietary formulas” aren’t always proven, and they’re never magic. Keep your energies focused on your specific goals and the healthiest ways to achieve them.