A pre-workout supplement is a specific type of dietary supplement used prior to physical activity in order to enhance athletic performance and increase energy levels. Depending on the ingredients, there are different types of pre-workout supplements. We have:
Strength pre-workout supplements
These supplements are mostly used by bodybuilders, powerlifters, strongmen, and calisthenics athletes. Their ingredients aim to relatively improve exercise performance by improving strength, reducing the rate of perceived exertion, improving blood flow, and elevating energy levels.
Endurance pre-workout supplements
These pre-workouts consist of ingredients that increase cardiovascular and muscular endurance levels, aerobic capacity, and delay muscle fatigue. They’re mostly used by runners, cyclists, swimmers, triathlon athletes, and generally by athletes of endurance sports, meaning that a race or workout can range from 20 minutes to a few hours.
Nootropic pre-workout supplements
Nootropic pre-workouts are a specific category of pre-workouts, targeting the brain and Central Nervous System. Depending on the ingredients they’re used by all sorts of athletes, from bodybuilders and powerlifters to shooters and archers. They aim to reduce the rate of perceived exertion and improve focus, mental clarity, and accuracy. Some are also used to reduce stress levels and heart rate.
Non-stimulant pre-workout supplements
These pre-workouts may look like all of the above, but they’re missing ingredients that stimulate the CNS like caffeine, making them suitable for athletes that train close to bedtime but still need an energy boost. Non-stimulant pre-workouts are considered milder than others, thus they can be taken for longer without experiencing diminishing effects, something that usually happens with stimulants such as caffeine.
Pre-workouts are generally taken 20-30 minutes prior to exercising, and their effects may last up to a few hours.
In this article, we will analyze the most common ingredients of a pre-workout, how to take one, and what the benefits of taking a pre-workout are.
What are the main ingredients of a pre-workout?
According to their use, pre-workouts are packed with ingredients that aim to enhance the athlete’s physical performance. If you have ever looked at the ingredient table of a pre-workout, it should have left you wondering what all those ingredients do and if they’re effective and safe.
The sad truth of researching Sports Nutrition papers is that many of the ingredients of most pre-workout formulas have failed to be proven effective in enhancing athletic performance or improving body composition (increase muscle mass and reduce bodyfat).
Below is a list of the most researched and proven to work ingredients that you should be looking for in your pre-workout supplement.
Caffeine is the most common ingredient in pre-workouts. Caffeine is a CNS stimulant (Central Nervous System). It is used as a cognitive enhancer, increasing alertness and attentional performance. Additionally, caffeine intake is also shown to increase reaction time, and delay fatigue in aerobic and anaerobic conditions, while also increasing muscle strength and power output. (Recommended dose: 5mg/kg, 30 minutes prior to exercising)
Taurine is an amino acid, produced by the human body and also found in meat, seafood, and dairy. Its main purpose is to regulate minerals, water, and electrolyte balance in the cells, forming bile salts that break down dietary fat from food and regulating the immune system. In Sports Science, taurine has been studied as an ergogenic aid, as it has been found to reduce fatigue and muscle damage while improving oxygen uptake, strength, power, and recovery time. (Recommended dose: 1-3gr, 1-2 hours prior to exercising)
Citrulline is a non-essential amino acid, meaning that the body can produce it naturally by itself. However, by eating food high in citrulline or supplementing with citrulline, the amount in the body increases dramatically and has been proven to act as a performance enhancer. After absorption, some of the Citrulline is converted into Arginine, and then into Nitric Oxide. Nitric Oxide is a vasodilator, meaning that it relaxes the muscles in the blood vessels, allowing them to loosen and improve bloodflow. In sports, Citrulline may boost endurance and muscle strength while also reducing soreness the days after training. (Recommended dose: 6-8gr, 1 hour prior to exercising or 2gr, 3 times a day on rest days).
Arginine is also a common ingredient found in pre-workouts. However, it has been studied that supplementing with Citrulline is more effective than Arginine, as part of the Arginine is lost during digestion, while Citrulline is converted into Arginine after absorption.
Beta-Alanine is an amino acid synthesized in the liver and ingested by animal food such as beef and chicken. After absorption, beta-alanine combines with histidine within the muscles and other organs to form carnosine. Carnosine acts as an acid buffer in the body, which means that it binds to Hydrogen ions to control the pH decline in the cells, allowing for a longer exercise duration at high intensities. Beta-alanine is the limiting factor in muscle carnosine synthesis, meaning that supplementing with beta-alanine will reduce muscle fatigue and improve endurance. Beta-alanine also causes a tingling sensation when in high doses. (Recommended dose: 3gr, 30 minutes prior to exercising)
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) refer to three amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Supplementing with BCAAs may delay mental and physical fatigue during prolonged exercise. BCAAs have also been found to reduce markers of exercise-induced muscle damage and muscle soreness 24 – 48 hours after exercise, but they haven’t been proved to speed up the recovery of muscle performance. (Recommended dose: 10-20gr prior to or during exercising)
L-Theanine is an amino acid, mainly found in black, green tea, and mushrooms. L-Theanine is used as a supplement to promote relaxation, reduce blood pressure and enhance cognitive function, mental focus, and mental performance. Mainly found in nootropic pre-workouts, it’s mostly useful for athletes in sports such as sharpshooting and archery. (Recommended dose: 100-200mg along with caffeine)
Creatine is produced in the body in small amounts, it is also found in beef, but supplementing is needed to observe its ergogenic abilities. Creatine stores high-energy phosphate groups in the form of phosphocreatine. During exercise, the body utilizes ATP for energy, turning it into ADP. Then, these phosphate groups are donated to ADP (adenosine diphosphate) to regenerate it back into ATP (Adenosine triphosphate), the primary energy carrier in the body. This act is very useful during strenuous exercise where ATP levels dramatically decrease. Creatine is among the most well-studied and effective ergogenic aid. It has been proven that Creatine increases energy, strength, and power output during training, while also improving anaerobic capacity and sprint performance. Some studies show cognitive function improvement, mental fatigue reduction, and working memory benefits. (Recommended dose: 0,03gr/kg per day)
How long do pre-workout effects last?
The effects of a pre-workout last from 30 minutes to a couple of hours after consumption, depending on the ingredients of the formula. However, the exact time depends also on:
- Athlete’s bodyweight (the bigger the athlete, the shorter the time it takes to digest)
- Serving size (a big serving size may last longer)
- Sensitivity to the specific ingredients (e.g. some people have high tolerance in caffeine, thus they may need higher or more frequent doses)
- Food intake (taking a pre-workout with an empty stomach will make the absorption faster)
How to take a pre-workout?
A pre-workout should be taken prior to exercise, with the exact time written on the supplement package. To avoid health risks and stomach discomfort I would advise you to consume a meal 2 hours before, to slightly delay absorption.
If it is your first time taking a pre-workout, stick to the lowest dosage possible and gradually increase to avoid discomfort.
Are pre-workout supplements safe?
In general, pre-workout products are considered safe. However, there are some tips that I would like to share with you that may prove helpful.
Avoid high doses
When taking a pre-workout, read the recommended intake and stick to it. Increasing the dose of a caffeine-including pre-workout will result in too much caffeine intake which will develop a caffeine tolerance, resulting in diminished effects. This applies to other stimulants as well.
Stick to the basics
When it comes to pre-workouts, I always suggest people avoid formulas with 20+ ingredients. It is most likely that most of them are ineffective anyway and in very low amounts. Caffeine, beta-alanine, creatine, and citrulline are the most well-researched and beneficial ingredients of a pre-workout.
Not for everyday use
If you’re thinking of buying a pre-workout to have more energy to achieve your fitness goals, avoid getting into the trap of using it before all your training sessions. Try to work out some days of the week without taking a pre-workout to not develop tolerance and depend on it.
Avoid allergens and start small
Obviously, if you are allergic to a specific ingredient, you will avoid it. However, pre-workouts contain so many ingredients that we may not know if we are allergic to one of them. It is best to start with half the recommended dose and observe how your body reacts to it and slowly work your way to the recommended dose.