For many athletes and workout enthusiasts, taking a scoop of a pre-workout to fire themselves up is part of their routine. The popularity of these products is rapidly increasing.
In fact, in the USA alone, the demand for these supplements is expected to increase more than 8% each year through the year 2027. According to market forecasts, demand is also expected to surge in China due to the increase in gyms opening up there. However, many people question if these supplements are actually worth it or if they are just a waste of time and money.
Additionally, some of the other questions that come up surround how exactly they work and how safe they are for the average person. In this article, we will explore the answers to these questions and more.
This article should be considered an “ultimate” guide to pre-workout supplements because after reading this, you’ll have a better understanding of what is in them, how often they should be consumed, dangers associated with these supplements, and so much more.
What is a Pre-Workout Supplement?
Obviously, the very first thing we must do is explain what a pre workout is. Then, we can get into the rest of the information. As indicated by the name, a pre-workout is a supplement that you take prior to your workout to improve your athletic performance. It is especially proven to boost energy levels.
Pre-workouts are typically high in caffeine, which helps increase the length and intensity of your workouts. However, it’s important to understand that there’s much more to them than that.
While it’s true that the main reason people choose to use a pre-workout is to avoid the zombie-like feeling, they are also proven to increase strength, improve hormonal output, and to increase/improve pumps. These benefits are due to the ingredients that are typically included. Below, we’ll explore a few of the most common ones.
Most pre-workouts are powdered, which you mix with water (unless you are a dry scooper) – but it can also be found in capsules, gummies, and other forms. Also, it’s not just the type of product that varies, the ingredients also vary from one product to another.
Many contain almost the full daily recommended intake of caffeine, but there are some that are caffeine-free. In fact, in 2019, one study revealed that approximately ½ of the ingredients found in the top 100 pre-workout supplements on the market were part of “proprietary blend”, meaning the company doesn’t have to tell you exactly what and how much is included in their product.
Therefore, when you check the label of a pre-workout that you’re considering, make sure the ingredients are clearly listed and that there is enough of each one. However, how do you know what ingredients are vital and how much of each should be present? We’ll explore that below:
What Ingredients Should You Expect in a Pre-Workout?
Just like any other dietary supplement, you want to make sure that the pre-workout you choose is designed to meet your needs/preferences. With that in mind, there are five primary ingredients you should expect to find in a good quality pre-workout supplement:
Each of the above ingredients plays a critical role in getting your body ready for your workout. You will find that at least one of them is providing you with energy, improving blood flow, increasing strength, or triggering another reaction that will improve your overall strength or help you improve muscle mass.
Below, we’re going to explore the advantages of these five most common ingredients found in pre-workouts and the ideal amount of each one that a quality pre-workout product should contain.
Of course, it’s also important to keep in mind that you will encounter some pre-workouts that contain things like Lion’s Mane and deer antler velvet. While it’s true that there are some health benefits associated with these ingredients, our primary focus is these five main ones.
It’s important to note that, as mentioned, not every pre-workout supplement is going to include caffeine on the ingredient list, it is the one that many people look for to provide them with an extra burst of energy before heading to the gym. Plus, chances are it’s the one ingredient on this list that you know the most about.
We know that caffeine is a stimulant. This means that it speeds up the processing of your central nervous system. You’ve likely heard at least one person call it a drug- which is true. A stimulant, no matter what it is, is labeled as a drug because of how it affects your central nervous system. However, don’t let this get you too worried- you will not fail a drug screen due to consuming something with caffeine in it.
Of course, we know that caffeine is made to keep us alert. Most of us discovered that when we were in college and put off that bit term paper or project until the last possible day. However, stamina and endurance is not the only thing that caffeine is good for.
According to research, caffeine also improves blood flow, increases mental clarity, and lowers our perception of pain- which are factors that are critical for athletes. In addition, there is some indication that it assists the brain in activating muscle contractions.
Some research suggests that there is a negative impact associated with caffeine, and that is an increase in cortisol, which is a stress hormone. This has an effect on your immune system and the anabolic processes of your body, such as rebuilding muscle that has been broken down. In addition, there is some indication that it may also increase testosterone levels, but only minimally.
The benefits of caffeine are backed by lots of research that endorses caffeine use for athletes engaging in training and/or competition. For strength athletes, there is some indication that caffeine boosts peak power better than a placebo.
As mentioned, some pre-workouts contain high levels of caffeine while others will have none. If you don’t want or need the energy boost, you might prefer to find a pre-workout that does not contain caffeine. These will typically be labeled as “stimulant free” or “stim-free”. These are ideal if you typically engage in your workout at night before bedtime and don’t want to be up all night. However, what if you prefer to have caffeine?
According to research, the benefits listed require approximately 200 milligrams of caffeine, which is in alignment with the recommendations from the International Society of Sports Nutrition. However, there are a few things you need to keep in mind.
First of all, pay attention to your body for side effects. As mentioned, caffeine is a stimulant, and if you take too much, it can cause health complications such as increased heart rate, irritability, muscle tremors, and more. If you start noticing these, you may want to decrease your dosage or take a break.
Second, keep in mind that chances are the pre-workout is not the only source you are getting caffeine. According to the May Clinic, the average healthy adult should get no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine daily. This is approximately 4 cups of coffee- which means if the pre-workout you are using contains 400 milligrams of caffeine, you’ll want to skip the coffee, sodas, teas, etc for the day.
Beta-alanine is considered a non-essential amino acid. This means that, unlike the essential amino acids, the body makes enough of it that you don’t need to get any through your diet. However, there are several reasons why an athlete might want to have a bit of extra beta-alanine in their system.
For one, it has been proven to delay muscle fatigue and prevent the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles. This means that you will be capable of pumping out more reps, leading to increased gains.
You will find that most of the pre-workouts on the market have approximately 2 grams of beta-alanine- but for best results, you need to be getting 4 to 6 grams daily, according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
Also, it’s important to note that if you take a pre-workout and feel itchy afterward, it’s likely due to the beta-alanine. This amino acid has been shown to cause this reaction- but it typically subsides quickly and it’s not harmful, just a bit uncomfortable.
BCAAs, or branched-chain amino acids, are a group of 3 of the 9 essential amino acids, with an interesting chemical structure. They are shaped like branches. These amino acids are critical for muscle growth and often found as a standalone supplement. There are some people who take BCAAs alone instead of a pre-workout because they have been proven to delay muscle fatigue and increase muscle energy. When it comes to muscle growth, evidence is conflicting. Some say BCAAs can help, while others say that a proper diet is best.
There is some evidence that BCAAs improve immune functioning. However, you don’t need to supplement with BCAAs if you’re getting adequate amounts through your diet. Foods like red meat, eggs, fish, legumes, quinoa, cottage cheese, and turkey are known to be high in amino acid content.
Of course, without having a blood test, it’s hard to know if you’re getting “enough”- which means a supplement containing BCAAs may be a good idea. Since most of the studies done on BCAAs are focused on the daily requirement for athletes, it’s difficult to know how much BCAAs need to be in your pre-workout. According to research, athletes need approximately 10 to 20 grams daily for best results.
The third pre-workout ingredient we’ll explore is creatine. This is a substance that is naturally produced by the body- but it’s also one of the most popular supplements for workout enthusiasts. Creatine facilitates the creation of adenosine triphosphate, or ATP- which is a high-energy molecule that helps improve muscle contractions and athletic performance.
Additionally, research shows that creatine optimizes muscle recovery following intense training and also increases lean muscle mass. According to bodybuilders, athletes, and even the International Society of Sports Nutrition, it is highly effective. Experts seem to agree that, for best results, a dosage of 3 to 5 grams daily is ideal. Therefore, when you’re shopping for a pre-workout, try to make sure it contains that much. Of course, you may encounter pre-workouts that do not contain creatine. In this case, you’ll have to get it another way.
The fifth and final pre-workout ingredient we’ll look at here is nitrates. These are compounds made of nitrogen and oxygen molecules. Often, you will find nitrates in leafy greens. You will also encounter synthetic versions that have been created in a lab. So, how are they involved in pre-workouts?
Nitrates facilitate the creation of nitric oxide, which improves blood flow by relaxing blood vessels. When your blood flow is improved, your breathing is better, heart rate is lower, and muscle contractions are better.
When you look at the ingredient list on your pre-workout, you’re likely to see L-arginine or L-citrulline. These are two amino acids that are known to improve the production of nitric oxide.
You may also find ingredients such as beetroot juice, which is high in nitrates. In fact, beetroot juice is so effective that many athletes actually drink beetroot juice prior to working out and many supplement stores actually sell beetroot juice powder.
Studies indicate that you should keep your nitrate consumption to approximately 10 grams daily– no matter where it’s from. This gives you the maximum benefit. There’s no reason to consume more because it won’t do anything more for you.
Should You Buy a Pre-Workout Supplement?
Now that you know more about pre-workouts, the question is: should you buy one- are they worth spending your hard-earned money on? Honestly, most of the research proves that these supplements are a great way to improve athletic performance. However, they are not a be-all-end-all. In 2016, one study showed that pre-workouts improve anaerobic power, which is the body’s ability to produce energy, but did not improve strength.
A review of studies done on pre-workouts basically says the same thing. This review also indicates that there are certain products that you should only use under the guidance of a sports nutrition expert. Finally, there have not been any studies on long-term effects of using pre-workouts. Most of the studies stop at 12 weeks.
Basically, while it may be true that pre-workouts give you more energy and may help you push out a few additional reps, you must pay attention to how it is affecting you. Also, make sure that you do your due diligence before you spend your money.
When Should a Pre-Workout be Taken?
According to recommendations from the experts, ideally you should take your pre-workout 20 to 30 minutes prior to starting your workout. Of course, this is just a standard recommendation. It’s important to know that everyone is different and metabolizes things differently, which means you may need to experiment to find what works best for you.
Why You Should Not Dry Scoop
In recent years, with social media challenges arising, dry scooping- that is taking your pre-workout without water- has become quite popular. This practice has been around for some time though. There are many people who believe this maximizes the effects of the supplement since it’s not being diluted. However, this is not true and the practice can be quite dangerous.
In fact, there was one report that a 20-year old female had a heart attack after dry scooping.
The thing is, when you dilute your pre-workout with water, it gives your body time to absorb the ingredients responsibly. If you dump the whole scoop into your mouth at once, the ingredients are absorbed almost immediately. This can cause a variety of issues. Also, make sure that you’re not taking more than recommended because large doses of caffeine can be detrimental to your health- even fatal.
Plus, dry scooping puts you at risk of choking. Basically, dry scooping is a lot more dangerous than the cinnamon challenge. In order to ensure that you stay safe, make sure that you mix your supplement with water.
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