For example, others choose creatine HCL over monohydrate because it’s believed to be more stable. Still, there are many options to choose from, and it can be confusing when making that choice! Just about every product you see will claim to be the best for you.
But, just what does the evidence say? Will a pre-workout help you build muscle and lose fat? What are the benefits? And more importantly, are there any side effects that shady companies might be hiding from you?
Well, in this article, we’d like to take a look at what the evidence has to say about pre workout supplements. So, without further ado, let’s get started.
Pre Workout: What Is It?
A pre workout supplement, sometimes just called a “pre-workout” is a powder that you mix with water, and take 30 minutes before working out.
Pre workout supplements often contain ingredients, like:
- Caffeine Anhydrous
- Creatine Monohydrate
- …and more
Proponents of taking a pre-workout supplement say that it can help increase strength, build more muscle, and even boost testosterone.
Others however, say that pre workout supplements have dangerous side effects, like increased heart rate, and higher blood pressure.
…but, what does the evidence say?
Thankfully, there’s no shortage of evidence when it comes to pre workout supplements. They’ve been around since the early 1990’s, so numerous studies have been conducted on their effectiveness.
What Does The Evidence Say?
As I said before, thankfully there’s been a lot of research done on pre workout supplements. No, you don’t have to just blindly listen to your personal trainer or GNC rep to know the facts.
First off, understand that many pre workouts have a lot of different ingredients in them, but they usually all contain caffeine.
One study, conducted at the Human Biology and Nutritional Sciences department at the University of Guelph, Ontario, found the following:
“Caffeine does not improve maximal oxygen capacity directly, but could permit the athlete to train at a greater power output and/or to train longer. It has also been shown to increase speed and/or power output in simulated race conditions.”Journal of Sports Medicine, Volume 31, Issue 11
This should come as no surprise, seeing that millions of Americans consume coffee every day, for extra energy, and an added boost in productivity.
…and, of course, the primary psychoactive ingredient in coffee is, you guessed it, caffeine. Pre workouts are loaded with the stuff.
In a roundup article published by cience Alert, researchers reviewed over 300 clinical studies regarding caffeine, and here’s what they found:
“Those who respond most strongly to caffeine might see improvements of around 16 percent, but this is unusual. For the average person, improvements will likely be between about 2 percent and 6 percent.”Science Alert, April 21st, 2019
They went on to add that even though 2-6% might not seem like a big deal, in the context of athletic performance, even a slight edge helps a lot.
The evidence on caffeine is clear, but what about the other ingredients often found in pre-workout supplements? What does the science say?
What Does a Pre-Workout Supplement Do?
Pre-workout supplements, sometimes called “pre-workouts” have multi-ingredient dietary formulas that are meant to improve athletic performance and boost energy. They are usually in powdered substance that needs to be mixed in water or a drink and you need to consume it before exercise.
Some fitness enthusiasts take a pre-workout supplement to maximize their performance during a workout. And since pre-workouts contain a combination of ingredients, they are easy alternatives to taking several different supplements.
Depending on the pre-workout formula you choose, pre-workouts can also give you macronutrients in the form of branched-chain amino acids or simple sugars to create a stimulant effect to fuel your workout or increase oxygen to your hard-working muscles.
Common Ingredients Found in Pre-Workouts
Aside from caffeine, which I earlier mentioned, there are other common ingredients found in pre-workout formulas. These include the following:
Nitric Oxide Boosters
Nitric oxide boosters work as a validator in pre-workout supplements. This means that it helps relax the inner muscles of your blood vessels. This way, nitric oxide lowers blood pressure and increases blood flow and oxygen to the muscles.
As a result, Nitric Oxide Boosters make it easier for your muscles to get all the nutrients they need for quick recovery after a workout.
This same ingredient has also been shown to improve endurance capacity and time-to-exhaustion (TTE), which helps evaluate a person’s exercise tolerance. This is based on a 2017 study that appeared in the Sports Medicine journal.
BCAAs (Branched-Chain Amino Acids)
BCAAs contain three essential amino acids: valine, isoleucine, and leucine. Scientific studies have shown that these amino acids compete with another amino acid called tryptophan for entry into the nervous system.
The BCAAs work together to prevent fatigue during a workout, while the tryptophan is converted into a hormone called serotonin, which may make you feel sleepy after a long or tough workout.
Creatine is one of the most popular ingredients in sports supplements and for a good reason. This is because this organic compound is thought to help the muscle recover more quickly, increase lean muscle mass, and improve strength.
With such a muscular boost, athletes and fitness enthusiasts may achieve bursts of energy and speed, especially during bouts of high-intensity exercises (like sprinting or weight lifting).\
Beta-Alanine is a non-essential amino acid and an important ingredient, especially for vegan athletes. Why? It’s because it helps increase carnosine levels in the body and therefore increases total muscle buffer capacity, as explained in a study published in the Med Sci Sports Exerc.
By muscle buffer capacity, it means the muscles’ ability to neutralize the acid that piles up in them during the workout. As it happens, it delays the onset of muscle fatigue.
You’ll also often get a mix of B-vitamins from a pre-workout supplement. Vitamins B1, B2, B5, and B6 all play significant roles in energy efficiency and production. Plus, they help your body synthesize the protein properly.
Moreover, Vitamin B12 supports blood production while Vitamin B3 promotes healthier skin and boosts DNA repair.
But why is my pre-workout not working for me? you may ask.
To some people, their pre-workout seems to be not working for them. To begin, it may just be because the ingredients are taking time to take effect in your body. Some stimulants, like caffeine, take immediate effect to improve your alertness, but there are other ingredients that take time to develop in the body.
However, if you feel like you’re not feeling the effects after taking the pre-workout supplement for an extended period of time, a fat burner may be a good way to fix this.
Pre-Workout vs. Fat Burner: What’s the Difference?
I have met a lot of people asking what’s the difference between a pre-workout and a fat-burner. And more often than not, these are people who’ve been grinding it out at the gym and want to fast-track their results or they’re those who don’t feel a difference in the first few weeks of their training.
Well, there are some similarities between the two and often these similarities are in the form of caffeine content. But, let me tell you that they also have a few differences. As I’ve highlighted earlier, pre-workouts increase strength, promote endurance and give you more energy.
Fat burner supplements, on the other hand, are dietary supplements that work to speed up weight loss. But the good thing about fat burners is that some also give people a boost of energy they need for their workout.
So, if you are among those people who’ve been training hard and eating clean for a few months but still can’t seem to shed that extra pounds, taking fat burners may help you jump-start that sluggish metabolism.
But just to let you know, some fat burners contain stimulants that have side effects, like gastrointestinal issues, trouble sleeping, increased blood pressure, and anxiety. So, you really have to be picky about the supplements you’re taking.
If you do choose to take a fat burner than a pre-workout, I advise you to read the supplement contents so you can be mindful of your additional caffeine intake throughout the day to avoid side effects.
Still, I would say that there is no substitute for a healthy diet and a workout program.
What to Eat Before a Workout: Optimising Your Pre workout Nutrition
As much as I enjoy getting into the gym and working hard, I will also be the first to admit that it isn’t always easy. There are times when the constant stress of life accumulates, and the last thing I want to do is get into the gym and spend an hour or so sweating and grunting – no matter how good I know it will be for me in the long run.
And this appears constant among those of us who participate in physical activity regularly. We understand the benefits of physical exercise, are fully aware of its (obvious and positive) impact on body composition, and our entirely dedicated to the cause – but it can still become a grind.
During these times we often drag ourselves to the gym and get through a half-baked session at a moderate intensity, equipped and happy with the knowledge that it is better than doing nothing,
But what if there was a better way?
What if we could optimise our pre workout nutrition in such a way that not only we are full of energy by the time we get to the gym, but we are entirely focused on our workout, and the fatigue associated with our day to day life has dissipated into nothing more than a mere memory?
You might say that it sounds a little too good to be true. But I would say that it’s not.
By making a few tweaks to our pre workout meal (as in the meal we have 1-3 hours before our workout) we can optimise our training session by ensuring that the body is primed and ready to go for its coming workout.
This involves taking in the right macronutrients, and implementing the correct supplements (at the right time) to yield maximal results!
Consume Slow Release Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates have gotten a bit of bad rap in recent years, in which they have received a lot of negative attention due to their (apparent) associations with heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
The reason I say apparent is because it is always important to note that not all carbohydrates are created equal. While processed carbohydrates (think junk food, muesli bars, cereals, and breads) have shown strong associations with disease and illness, this is not true of unprocessed carbohydrates (think vegetables and fruits).
In fact, diets high in unprocessed carbohydrates have actually shown to have a positive impact on health, potentially protecting against heart disease and diabetes (so in short, we have nothing to worry about).
And this is important, because carbohydrates play an integral role in our ability to perform physical activity at a high intensity. Once consumed, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which is transported into the blood and shuttled around to the muscle tissue of the body. Once in the muscle tissue, glucose is broken down for the rapid release of energy.
By consuming natural, unprocessed carbohydrates 1-3 hours before our workout, we can guarantee the steady absorption of glucose into our muscle tissue throughout the duration of our training session. This will ensure we have adequate energy for the entirety of our session, allowing us to work at an extremely high intensity, and subsequently, make maximal gains.
The optimal slow release carbohydrates that we should prioritise as part of our pre training meal are starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins, and fruit, such as apples and bananas.
Moreover, by consuming carbohydrates pre-workout, we will feel better and more energised, which will obviously go a long way in mentally preparing ourselves for a solid session.
Incorporate some lean protein
Protein is hands down the most important macronutrient we can consume. Once consumed, protein is broken down into amino acids in the gut, which are then absorbed into the blood and shuttled around the body.
Amino acids are the building blocks of muscle and connective tissue, hormones, and metabolic enzymes (among a host of other important components that make up the human body…), and as such, are essential to recovery, health, and optimal function.
By consuming protein 1-3 hours before we start our training session we can ensure that a steady stream of amino acids is provided to the muscle tissue of the body, which will optimise its repair and development both during and after our workout.
This will in turn maximise our muscle growth, increasing the results of our training.
It is important to note that our pre workout protein should come from lean sources, such as poultry, red meat, or even protein powder, as these sources have very little fat content (and fat has shown to slow the absorption of other macronutrients – including protein!)
Read more about the common protein myths.
Have a quick coffee
Coffee is enjo
yed by people all over the world, and is constantly both applauded and recognised for its ability to promote productivity and increase energy levels.
While this may be over exaggerated at times, there is a heap of evidence to show that caffeine ingestion pre exercise will lead to improvements in performance and reductions in sensation of effort – effectively meaning that we feel as if we are doing less work when we are in fact working harder than ever.
Furthermore, caffeine has shown to improve cognition, reduce fatigue, and increase mental clarity, making it a great addition to our pre workout meal. Also considering that caffeine has a half-life of 4-8 hours (depending on our tolerance), it is absolutely perfect to consume 1-3 hours before we train.
Incorporate both Agmatine and Creatine
While I don’t recommend relying on supplements to get you through your workout, there are two that can make a massive difference when implemented into our pre workout meal.
First up is Agmatine.
Agmatine is a fairly new supplement that has been shown to improve focus and mental clarity, while also staving off fatigue and feelings of lethargy. As a result, consuming it pre workout can go a very long way to prepare us for a solid gym session, and maximising our time in the gym.
Second up is Creatine Monohydrate.
Creatine is ultimately the most well researched supplement on the planet. Creatine supplementation has been shown to improve muscle growth, work capacity, and strength development. As such, supplementing with Creatine can allow us to perform more work during our session – which has the capacity to vastly improving the results of our training.
By implanting the tips outlined in this article we can optimise our pre workout meal, ensuring adequate energy and recovery while also stimulating the nervous and muscular system so that they are primed for exercise.
This will stave off any sensations of fatigue and improve our energy levels, while severely increasing focus. All of which will lead to a better workout and greatly improved results!
Go Lighter, If You Have a Sensitive Stomach
But what if you have a sensitive stomach? Should you be eating before exercising? Wouldn’t it be better to work out on an empty stomach instead?
I understand that a few inconsistencies in your pre-workout meal or daily meal, in general, can throw you off.
The thing is, there are some things you should not eat before you work out so your body can perform at its highest level, but there are also foods you can eat that allow you to work out just fine. My suggestion is you go lighter. A scoop of protein powder with a banana would be a healthy example.
This small meal can provide your body with enough nutrients it needs as you workout without making you feel sick. Or another option is to take a probiotic before your workout to help your body digest your meal.
Pre-Workout Ingredient Research
As stated before, many of the best pre workouts on the market don’t just have caffeine. They have a whole plethora of other ingredients.
So, what does the research say about these other ingredients?
One meta-study, cited by 331 other research papers, found that beta alanine does, in fact, have a positive effect on exercise and exertion:
“BA improved (P = 0.002) the outcome of exercise measures to a greater extent than Pla [median effect size (IQR): BA 0.374 (0.140–0.747), Pla 0.108 (−0.019 to 0.487)]. Some of that effect might be explained by the improvement (P = 0.013) in exercise capacity with BA compared to Pla; no improvement was seen for exercise performance (P = 0.204).”The Forum for Amino Acid, Peptide, and Protein Research, Volume 43, Issue 1
Researchers clarified that, while beta alanine does seem to positively impact short term exercise, it doesn’t have much of an impact on longer term aerobic exercise.
So, if you’re planning on doing some strength training, it’s quite possible that a pre workout containing beta alanine would be beneficial.
Another common ingredient in pre-workout supplements is creatine monohydrate, sometimes just shortened to “creatine.”
Creatine is one of the most common supplement ingredients recognized by athletes and sports scientists. It’s mostly associated with muscle growth and strength gains. You can take this supplement in standard form called creatine monohydrate.
This powerhouse of an ingredient has a whole host of clinically proven benefits, and in many ways, is the most powerful (legal) supplement.
One study, for example, published in the Journal of Molecular Cellular Biology, found that creatine can drastically increase strength:
“For example, short-term creatine supplementation has been reported to improve maximal power/strength (5-15%), work performed during sets of maximal effort muscle contractions (5-15%), single-effort sprint performance (1-5%), and work performed during repetitive sprint performance (5-15%).”Journal of Molecular Cellular Biology, February 2003
They also went on to say that creatine supplementation may also promote significantly greater gains in strength, fat free mass, and performance.
Lately, however, it’s been found that creatine monohydrate poses some issues on its solubility in liquids and absorption. The more stable form, creatine hydrochloride (HCL), has been found to be more soluble and easily absorbed by the body.
The newer form of creatine is gaining popularity in the market today. This new form of creatine is created with a hydrochloride attached to a creatine molecule. This modification is responsible for its better absorption and solubility.
A study found that creatine HCL is more than 40 times more soluble than the standard form. Simply, you can take less creatine HCL and experience the same results. Also, faster absorption means that you don’t experience water retention, which is one side effect of creatine monohydrate. The additional HCL also adds to the better stability of the molecule. This means you can skip the loading phase and experience results.
Everywhere you look, there’s ample evidence supporting the claim that preworkout supplements help users improve gym performance.
…but, with that in mind, what about the side effects?
Potential Side Effects
Now, I’m sure you might be wondering… “Yeah, that sounds great, but what about the side effects? Isn’t pre workout dangerous?”
The truth is that any stimulant-based supplement can have potential side effects, especially if you have a pre-existing heart condition.
For the vast majority of people, pre workouts have minimal side effects, but there are some side effects to be concerned about, however.
Potential pre-workout side effects may include:
- Rapid Heart Rate
- Profuse Sweating
- Shortness of Breath
While these side effects may sound dangerous, most fitness professionals agree that unless you have a heart condition, pre-workout is relatively safe.
If you do experience any of those side effects however, it is recommended that you cease pre-workout usage at once, and reassess your tolerance.
How to Choose A Pre Workout
If you don’t have a pre-existing condition, and are eager to try a pre workout supplement, then we’ve got you covered.
Usually, you want your pre workout to contain several ingredients, namely caffeine, beta alanine, and potentially some creatine, too.
Here are a few popular pre-workouts:
- C4 By Cellucor
- Bulk by Transparent Labs
- Pre-Kaged by Kaged
- Pulse by Legion
The author’s favorite pre workout is Nitraflex by GAT, which not only contains a lot of caffeine, but testosterone boosting ingredients, as well.
Nitraflex contains 325mg of caffeine per scoop, though—so be sure to assess your tolerance by taking half a scoop to begin with.
Personally, I take my pre-workout on an empty stomach, because I combine it with intermittent fasting for the growth hormone benefits.
Many people, however, prefer to eat before they hit the gym. Be sure you’re eating the right pre-workout foods to give yourself a boost, however.
If you do eat before the gym, be sure to wait at least an hour before consuming your pre-workout, otherwise the effects will be delayed.
The type of exercise you do matters
In choosing the best pre-workout supplement to try, remember that the type of exercise you do or normally take part in matters too. So, it is important to consider your fitness goals.
Typically, some ingredients in pre-workouts can only improve some aspects of exercise performance. There are those that focus on boosting your endurance, while others focus on increasing strength or power.
It is important that you check the labels before you make the decision to ensure that what you’re getting is of the highest quality and the ingredients are aligned with your fitness routine or goals.
Besides pre-workout supplements and maintaining a balanced diet with fiber, protein, carbohydrates, and other nutrients, efficient hydration and getting the right amount of sleep are also important to speed up your body’s recovery process.
Most of the nutrients you should be getting should still be in your daily meals and don’t rely only on the supplements you’re taking. At the end of the day, no supplement can substitute a healthy and balanced diet, sufficient rest, and a balanced diet!
Summary & Tips Take Home Points
In conclusion, a pre workout supplement can drastically increase performance in the gym, and help you get jacked fast.
Be sure to check with your doctor before you try any new supplement routine, as a medical care professional’s advice is always best.
If you want to gain an extra edge in the gym, you can also consider adding in some kratom for the bodybuilding benefits, too.
All in all, pre workout supplements are a powerful way to enhance your performance in the gym… so be sure to use them responsibly!