Getting the right nutrition and preparing your body for exercise can make all the difference when it comes to getting the most out of your workouts. But where does a pre-workout supplement fit into that? Is it just another hoax or does it serve a legitimate purpose? And what exactly is pre-workout?
“Pre-workout is a supplement used to increase energy and motivation before a workout,” Connie Cheng, wellness director for Gold’s Gym, told The Active Times in an email. “If you are continuously having suboptimal workouts, you may not reach specific fitness goals, and a pre-workout can help maximize your performance in a workout on lower-energy days.” But that doesn’t mean you should be relying solely on pre-workout to achieve the workout results you want.
“Any type of supplement should be a way to balance a healthy eating pattern,” Cheng said. Even with pre-workout, you still need to make sure your diet gives you all the nutrients and vitamins you need.
Pre-workouts are generally made up of three types of ingredients: stimulants, nootropics, and pump enhancers. Stimulants work by blocking the receptors in your brain for the chemicals that make you feel tired. The stimulant most commonly found in pre-workout is caffeine, the same ingredient found in coffee, which can also help your workout.
Nootropics are ingredients that help stimulate the brain. Typically, they are used to boost cognitive performance, but their function in terms of exercise is somewhat different. “Specifically for pre-workout, they stimulate neurons and increase blood and oxygen flow to the brain to increase motivation during your workout,” Cheng said. This study in the Canadian Geriatrics Journal showed that, unless you’re deficient in certain nutrients that keep your brain healthy, most nootropic supplements won’t improve cognitive performance.
Pump enhancers increase nitric oxide, which increases blood flow to the muscles. This gives you better power output and performance, and can also decrease muscle soreness after your workout is over.
Cheng also mentioned another ingredient to look for called L-theanine. “In combination with caffeine, the energy you experience is smoother rather than anxious,” she said. So you might not experience the same jitters you’d get from loading up on coffee. L-theanine is also found in matcha tea. “It is also shown to reduce stress and improve sleep,” Cheng said.
Some pre-workouts contain an ingredient called L-citrulline, which Cheng said could be effective in improving workouts, as suggested by this study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
However, not all pre-workouts contain the same ingredients, and some slip in some dangerous chemicals. For example, one USAToday report in 2013 found an ingredient similar to methamphetamines in a popular pre-workout product, which caused some athletes to fail drug tests after taking it. You should always check the label before you buy a pre-workout, and make sure the label is clear on what the product contains.
But even in safe pre-workout products, the caffeine they contain can be harmful in combination with certain health problems. “If you have a pre-existing heart condition, you want to discuss possible risks with your physician,” Cheng said. “The amount of stimulant can cause heart arrhythmias (improper beating of the heart) — especially during a cardio-intensive workout.”
In addition to these risks, there are a few potential side effects to consider. If you’re slow to metabolize caffeine, you could be kept up at night after you take pre-workout with caffeine in it. In addition, ingredients like beta-alanine and niacin can cause tingling or a flush, respectively, in some people who are sensitive to those ingredients according to anecdotal accounts from those who have tried using pre-workout. Don’t worry — these symptoms are not harmful, but you may want to choose a pre-workout without those ingredients if it bothers you.
But if you’re a healthy adult without a history of health problems, pre-workouts are an option if you need a boost on a day where maybe you didn’t get the amount of sleep you wanted last night or didn’t get the nutrition you had planned to. “Like any other supplement, you do not need pre-workout if you are properly nourishing yourself before and after your workout,” Cheng said. “During busier times or on trips when there may be gaps in nutrition and lower energy/motivation, pre-workout can be a useful boost.”
There is only one way to know if a pre-workout works for you, and that’s to try it. Some find it to be a great addition to their workout routine, but if you’re looking for anything more than an energy boost, you may find yourself disappointed. Try using a pre-workout before one of these seven trendy workouts.