Working out is draining, and while it can feel fulfilling when you're done, it's a lot of work while you're doing it. It's no wonder that many men and women turn to supplements to make the whole process a little easier. No, we're not talking about steroids and performance-enhancing drugs. We mean a pre-workout regimen.
What Is a Pre-Workout?
A pre-workout is a supplement or set of supplements designed to help you with working out. Seems pretty simple, right?
Everyone has their preferred arrangement, but in general, a pre-workout should do three things.
- Increase your energy levels. Higher energy levels make it easier to push yourself with working out, giving it your all faster and harder. You run just that much faster, you lift just that much more, and you see those efforts rewarded with more gains.
- Delay the onset of fatigue. The longer you stave off fatigue, the more you can work out without succumbing to it. Working out only works as long as you're putting in the effort, and when fatigue sets in, your return on physical investment drops.
- Promote fat loss and muscle growth. Some, but not all, pre-workout supplements are aimed at promoting muscle growth (such as with protein) or fat burning (such as with a thermogenic).
A pre-workout can come in the form of a pill or capsule, as a powder you mix into a shake or smoothie, or as a bar you eat. Generally, you take your pre-workout around 30-45 minutes before working out, so your body has time to start digesting the ingredients and using them for energy, but not so long that they start to wane from your system.
Are Pre-Workouts Effective?
The question many people have in mind is simple: are these supplements even effective? Do they do what they claim to do?
The answer is, well, yes, and no.
On the one hand, it's undeniable that something like caffeine gives you energy, with all of the benefits and drawbacks the stimulant has. Protein supplements are essential for promoting muscle growth. Ingredients like these are highly valuable as an aid for working out.
On the other hand, a pre-workout alone isn't going to kick your gains into overdrive and make you shed 50 pounds, gain a bunch of strength, and rock an ultra-fit body in a matter of weeks.
If you talk to dieticians and nutritionists, you'll get mixed reviews. For example, Renee McGregor, sports and eating disorder specialist dietician, says this:
"For most people, even the high-performance athletes I work with, I've never recommended a pre-workout. Instead, we look at the timing of caffeine, protein, and carbs consumed before a workout."
Except, what is a pre-workout if not an encapsulated, simple way to take a balance of caffeine, protein, and carbs before a workout? You might not call it a pre-workout, but that's basically what it is. After all, not everyone has a dietician they can work with to regulate all this stuff. Most of us have to do it ourselves, and it's easier to do it with a simple supplement than with individually measured ingredients.
We agree with dieticians on one thing: you need to get your diet in order before you can see real returns with working out. Working out can help with fat loss, muscle growth, energy levels, mental health, and all manner of other bodily functions. It can't, however, offset a bad diet. Adjust your diet, eat healthily, and then you can work out to great success.
Don't feel bad about taking a pre-workout, just make sure you know what's in it, what the ingredients are doing, and what your body needs. That's the resource we're putting together below.
Common Pre-Workout Ingredients
A pre-workout is meant to help promote muscle growth, fat loss, performance, and energy levels during your workout. As such, every ingredient in it should promote one or more of those goals. Here are the common ingredients you'll see, and what they do.
Incidentally, if you're looking at a pre-workout product and it has ingredients we haven't listed here, let us know in the comments. We're always willing to talk about what all this stuff does, to demystify it and help our friends understand.
Caffeine. Caffeine is one of the most common workouts and fat loss supplements on the market, and it can be hard to find a pre-workout without it. Look for "stimulant-free" versions if you're trying to avoid caffeine. Remember that caffeine can give you a boost of energy, but you build up a tolerance to it quickly, and the withdrawal symptoms can be painful.
EnXtra. We're including this as an example of something we'll mention later on. EnXtra is a brand name version of something called Alpinia Galanga, a herbal medicine and root that is related to ginger. This is often included in low-caffeine pre-workouts because studies have shown that it enhances the effects of caffeine. In essense, it makes a small amount of caffeine give you more energy and focus, with less of a crash at the end. Though, keep in mind that the study proving this only investigated 59 people, so it's not a huge source of evidence. It's still promising and goes to show that you should always investigate the ingredients in your pre-workout or other supplements.
Beta-Alanine. This is an amino acid that your body uses to fight fatigue, and it works by helping your body balance the pH levels of your cells. When you work out, your body builds up acidity, and that acidity triggers fatigue. Beta-Alanine has some studies indicating that it helps minimize that acid build-up, which helps delay the onset of fatigue and thus promotes longer, stronger workouts. Be aware, however, that some studies indicate it has some negative side effects, including a feeling of pins and needles in the limbs.
Creatine. Creatine is a common supplement in pre-workouts for men, but it may not be ideal for women. It promotes muscle growth, but it may also cause water retention. This water retention, in fit men, makes muscles look larger because they're swollen. In women, it doesn't promote muscle growth as much, and thus isn't as beneficial. Some dieticians claim it works well, but that you need to eat it as part of your general diet, not just as a pre-workout supplement. Others say it isn't beneficial for women at all. Feel free to try it out, and if you don't like the results, avoid it.
BCAAs. Branch-Chain Amino Acids are a set of three amino acids used in muscle tissue synthesis. To start, taking some BCAAs as part of a pre-workout does two things. First, it makes your muscles more resistant to damage, so they don't break down as quickly, which helps delay the onset of fatigue. Second, it provides all of the nutrients necessary to repair those muscles, leading to better, stronger muscle growth.
EAAs. EAAs are "essential amino acids" and, where BCAAs include three amino acids, EAAs include all nine of them. EAAs include BCAAs, so you only need one of them. BCAAs are generally better for fatigue, while EAAs are better for muscle repair. Some dieticians recommend supplementing with these only when you're not able to work out at your peak, such as when you're injured, to prevent losing muscle when you're off.
Protein. Protein is so essential to working out that it should hardly be considered a supplement at all. Protein is critical for muscle tissue growth and repair, and it's a key fuel your body uses for energy, particularly if you're following a ketogenic diet. Finding the specific balance of protein you need, so you don't go overboard with calories, is the hardest part of establishing a pre-workout. We recommend learning how to count macronutrients.
Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is another of the most common ingredients in a pre-workout. It's a vitamin your body uses to stimulate the production of red blood cells, which in turn helps carry oxygen from your pulmonary system to your cells. Oxygen is critical for muscle function and growth. Thus, taking B12 as part of your pre-workout means you're promoting muscle function and performance while helping to resist damage and repair damage when it occurs. Generally, it's very valuable for enhancing workouts and is one of the most proven ingredients.
L-Citrulline. This is another amino acid, but it's not an essential amino acid, so it's not part of the EAA or BCAA formulas above. In your body, your kidneys convert L-Citrulline into L-Arginine and Nitric Oxide. Together, these two chemicals help your blood vessels relax, which promotes blood flow to your muscles. That, in turn, promotes muscle performance and growth.
L-Arginine. You don't have to take L-Citrulline and L-Arginine at the same time, since the first is converted into the second. If you are worried about putting undue stress on your kidneys, we would recommend taking the L-Arginine instead. It has the same benefits, but it doesn't require your body to do the work to get them.
Carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are not bad for you the way a lot of diets used to claim. Your body uses carbs for energy, so they are by far the best fuel source for a workout. Eating an appropriate number of carbs before a workout ensures that you have the energy to push yourself, burn those calories that you ate (and then some), and promote muscle growth and health. Just be sure to eat a balanced diet outside of your pre-workout so you're not getting too many carbs to handle.
Those are the most common ingredients in pre-workout formulas. There are others, for sure, so let us know if there's one you want us to discuss or add to the list.
Tips for Picking a Good Pre-Workout
It's one thing to go down the list of ingredients, but you're more likely to be looking at products of pre-made formulas on a shelf, not a pile of supplements to mix and match yourself. So, here are our best tips for picking a good product.
Try a sample before you buy it in bulk. There are three things you want to test for with a pre-workout, and you want to test them before you invest in buying a six-month supply. First, test to make sure it actually works for you. If it's meant to give you energy or reduce fatigue, this should be evident within a week or two. Second, test to make sure it doesn't have any side effects you don't want, like a crash. Third, make sure it tastes fine since most supplements require mixing into a shake or something similar. This is going to be a regular part of your routine, so you had better like it.
Make sure you're not dazzled by buzzwords or brand names. Up above, we included one brand name in the list of ingredients to illustrate this point. Normally, you would have no idea what the heck EnXtra even is. It sounds like some fancy chemical, and it's marketed as a "caffeine enhancer" to reinforce that illusion. In reality, it's just herbal medicine. Always be aware of what you're consuming, regardless of the brand name.
Avoid anything that hides its ingredients list. Since supplements are not regulated by the FDA, a lot of shady supplement dealers try to hide what's in their concoctions. In some cases, this just means they don't want you to know it's full of caffeine and sugar. In other cases, it might mean they're hiding something dangerous, like ephedra. If they're hiding it, don't buy it.
Pick a pre-workout that fits with your goals. If you're having energy issues, get one with more energy-boosting ingredients. If you're having problems with early fatigue, get one that focuses on delaying fatigue. If you want to build muscle, focus on one with more protein and amino acids. Don't be afraid to change your pre-workout when your goals change.
When in doubt, keep it simple. Some pre-workout supplements have a dozen or more ingredients. How do you know what's working and what isn't? We always recommend buying small-list supplements and building up with additional ingredients as necessary.
A pre-workout can be helpful to boost your performance in the gym, there's no doubt about it - just make sure you're getting one that works for you!