It has been estimated that 48-53% of Americans regularly use supplements. Within this population, pre-workout supplements (pre-workouts) are becoming increasingly popular. Commercially sold pre-workout supplements may contain a near infinite combination of ingredients but will commonly contain caffeine, creatine, branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), and beta-alanine as the main active ingredients, along with some additional combination of stimulants, botanicals, plant extracts, and vitamins. The combination of these ingredients can pose a threat to human health. Therefore, in this article, we will analyze these supplements in more detail. We’ll also check whether the claims of the manufacturers of these supplements are really in line with the currently available scientific research.
What are the claimed benefits of pre-workouts for bodybuilders, athletes, and regular exercisers?
Pre-workout supplements (pre-workouts) are taken only before exercise to maximize performance.
Claims are that pre-workout supplements increase power, energy, athletic performance, endurance, alertness, and mental focus. It is also claimed that they enhance your motivation and muscle pumps. To put it simply, you should train harder, lift heavier weights and train longer without feeling tired.
Pre-workout supplement manufacturers will tell you that their products are safe and incredibly effective. You’ll run like Usain Bolt, lift like Arnold, and perform with Herculean strength like Lasha Talakhadze (Georgian weightlifter). Medical experts disagree and for good reason. We’ll return to this topic later in the article.
What are the main ingredients in pre-workout supplements?
These supplements may contain a near-infinite combination of ingredients (cocktail) but will most often contain the following ingredients in varying proportions:
- A stimulant, usually caffeine, for enhanced energy, motivation, and work capacity;
- Some form of creatine (creatine monohydrate, Kre-Alkalyn, etc.) for enhanced strength and endurance;
- A nitric oxide boosting compound to increase blood flow to working muscle (vasodilator) and aid in achieving a “pump” which is usually L-Arginine, L-Carnitine, Beta Alanine, Citrulline Malate or Agmatine Sulfate;
- Amino acids such as glutamine or BCAAs (Branched-Chain Amino Acids);
- Added antioxidants, vitamins, botanicals (herbal supplements), or extracts;
There is easily another dozen or so ingredients we can find in pre-workout formulations. Many other ingredients are probably helpful to some degree, but we need additional research to understand their full potential.
However, keep in mind that you can find all of the ingredients listed above as standalone supplements. Each of them individually can serve as a pre-workout supplement. It is much safer to try the listed ingredients individually, one by one, to see which one works best for you than taking a combination of stimulants (pre-workout formulations).
What can science say?
Is there a scientific background for these claims? Research on these supplements’ effectiveness is very limited, and their claims aren’t closely regulated.
It turns out that these supplements may just change the way you feel while you’re working out. Many of the ingredients in pre-workout supplements are intended to give athletes the perception that their workout is supercharged.
You’ve got ingredients that are going to increase blood flow, increase heart rate, increase focus, increase blood flow to the skin, and give you a little tingle. But those physical effects don’t make people bigger, stronger, or faster. And although some of these supplements’ ingredients — such as caffeine, creatine, and beta-alanine — have been shown to modestly enhance performance in extreme athletes and bodybuilders, they only give people an edge if they are pushing themselves to the limit.
And some supplements on the market may contain illegal and dangerous additives, such as amphetamine-like stimulants. Even supplements that contain only legal ingredients can include high levels of caffeine, which can have a negative effect on the heart, recent testing by one independent lab found.
Well-known deceptions and tricks
Here’s what the supplement industry doesn’t want you to know! Many brands use high doses of caffeine and then underdose effective but expensive ingredients, such as beta-alanine and citrulline malate. The result is a product that lists many of the right ingredients but isn’t much different than a strong cup of coffee. If you want to benefit from each ingredient, they need to be present in appropriate doses.
Spotting an underdosed pre-workout supplement is easy. Products with serving sizes of less than 15 grams are too small to provide much more than caffeine and flavoring. Generally, products with effective doses of beta-alanine and citrulline malate will have a serving size of 15 to 30 grams. Properly dosed products will also be more expensive than underdosed products. But you won’t be wasting money on a glorified cup of coffee.
What are the potential side effects of pre-workout supplements?
Most of the ingredients commonly found in pre-workout supplements have been studied independently, but the effects of combining these ingredients on blood chemistry, blood pressure, and heart rate are not well understood.
Some pre-workout supplements, such as the now-banned Jack3d, may contain 1,3-Dimethylamylamine, which has sympathomimetic properties and has been associated with acute myocardial infarction. Therefore, the safety of pre-workout supplements depends on the combination of ingredients contained within each.
Furthermore, these supplements can have some or many of the following side effects:
- make you feel jittery;
- tingling sensation in your hands and feet (almost always);
- high blood pressure (that’s the nature of the ingredient such as caffeine);
- increased water retention mainly due to creatine;
- a rush of blood to the surface of your skin, resulting in red patches (mostly because of niacin);
- digestive upset;
- trouble sleeping;
Things to consider…
There are several other things to consider before using these supplements. The most important reason is due to the fact that the FDA has very little oversight of the majority of companies making supplements.
Just know that the companies do not have to list all the ingredients. A lot of them load their product up and hide behind the term “proprietary blend”. So there may be chemicals in these supplements that we don’t know about.
There is no 100% guarantee in regards to the manufacturer’s ingredients and safety regulations. Therefore, athletes should be aware of exactly what they are putting into their body, the ingredients, the possible short and long side effects, the dosage and the potential risk of a positive doping result.
Also, concern is that pre-workout supplements are relatively new and there hasn’t been a lot of long term studies on them.
Popular pre-workout supplements
- Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Pre-Workout
- Cellucor C4 Original Pre-Workout
- MusclePharm Assault Pre-Workout
A whole class of supplements marketed as pre-workouts claim to enhance your motivation, energy, strength, performance, muscle pumps, and endurance. While many of them do at least some of what they claim to, they generally have “proprietary blends” of ingredients, which could include almost anything: vasodilators (increases blood flow), nootropics (cognitive enhancers), BCAAs, endurance-enhancing ingredients, etc.
If we are to consider supplements in general as risky and likely not good for long-term health, a cocktail of mystery chemicals should raise some serious concerns. If a company you trust provides a pre-workout without any proprietary blends (cocktails) and you’d like to try it out, above in this article you’ll find certain ingredients that are worth a try (but individually).
Pre-workout supplements may increase your exercise capacity if you maintain a wholesome workout regimen and diet, but they’re not necessary to attain good results.