Pre-workout supplements are taken to give you the edge to burn more fat, recover faster, or maximize your performance (1). Athletes of all shapes and sizes, as well as many fitness enthusiasts, are always looking for ways to improve their performance and achieve their goals. Pre-workout powders can offer a shortcut.
The pre-workout you consume can also be tailored to improve a variety of factors such as endurance, strength, or muscle growth (2).
Many pre-workout concoctions are offered as ‘stacks’ or combinations of different nutritional compounds to produce different effects in the user. Providing optimal nutrient intake prior to exercise will not only help you maximize your performance but also minimize muscle damage.
Creatine increases time to failure and work capacity. Your body uses creatine to create energy, this creatine-phosphate pathway provides extreme levels of energy, or ATP, for only a brief second or two though.
One study published in the Journal of Sports Nutrition (1995) showed that exercised performance and time to failure increased dramatically with creatine supplementation versus a placebo (3).
Creatine supplementation improves muscle growth and size. Creatine needs to be stored in your muscles with adequate amounts of water. As a result, creatine tends to draw more fluids into your muscles giving your muscles greater size due to the increase in water mass (4).
Another 1999 study found that those who took creatine over 6 weeks gained 4.4lbs more muscle mass than those who took a placebo (8).
Caffeine helps to burn more fat. A 1995 study showed that caffeine increases energy expenditure by up to 11% which helps burn extra calories and promote weight loss (9).
Caffeine also increases adrenaline which helps break down fat cells faster.
Another 2004 study showed that caffeine helps increase fat burning directly by up to 29% (10).
This is the “fight or flight” hormone, designed to make our bodies ready for intense physical exertion.
Citrulline boosts blood flow and endurance. A 2006 study showed that citrulline is a phytonutrient that works as a vasodilator and is seen to increase time to exhaustion during exercise (15).
Further, an increase in blood flow is seen to promote better delivery of nutrients to muscle tissues to increase the speed of muscle recovery after exercise (16).
Citrulline-malate improves performance. A study published in the journal of nutritional science showed that exercise induced fatigue was reduced when supplementing with citrulline (17).
BCAAs help increase time to exhaustion. A study done in 1997 showed that BCAA’s reduce fatigue by 15% in humans compared to a placebo (18).
Another 2011 study showed that BCAA’s increases resistance to fatigue by 17% and enhances lipid oxidation (19).
BCAAs help increase recovery. By lowering blood levels of the enzymes lactate dehydrogenase and creatine kinase (which are involved in muscle damage), BCAA’s can help speed up recovery. A 2013 study showed that BCAA’s lowered muscle soreness by 33% (20).
Sodium bicarbonate can increase power. Sodium bicarbonate is an alkaline powder that works by buffering acid, specifically lactic acid, produced during anaerobic activity. This helps keep pH levels at 7 and increase power and workout length.
A 2012 study showed that pH balancing, due to sodium bicarbonate allowed for longer and harder workouts (21).
Betaine improves endurance and strength. A 2011 study published in the journal of strength and conditioning research showed that betaine protects cells from exercise induced swelling damage (24).
This results in enhanced endurance and strength from muscles.
L-ornithine supplementation has been shown to promote lipid oxidation. This is when your body prefers to burn fat for energy instead of carbohydrates.
Another study in 2008 showed that L-ornithine supplementation could reduce fatigue levels as a result of promoting lipid oxidation (25).
Beta alanine speeds up muscle growth. Beta alanine regulates the amount of carnosine in the muscles. The main role of carnosine is to regulate acidity levels. A 2015 study showed that carnosine counteracts acidity levels and can help the muscle to do more work and allow you to push harder for longer (26).
A 2011 showed that beta alanine, due to carnosine regulation, helps build more muscle in less time (27).
HMB protects against muscle loss during fasted training. During fasted training, muscle breakdown is accelerated for a variety of reasons. This is something we don’t want.
A 2009 study showed that HMB shines because it’s not only an effective anti-catabolic agent, but also won’t cause insulin levels to rise (28).
This results in more muscle being spared and fat being burned compared to a regular training session.
Yohimbine enhances blood flow and boosts energy. Yohimbine is a chemical extracted from a species of the African plant, Yohimbe. A 2006 study showed that yohimbine could accelerate fat loss (29).
A 2015 study showed that yohimbine also improves exercise performance and it’s particularly effective at fighting off physical fatigue and increasing time to exhaustion (30).
Taurine improves exercise performance. A 2004 study showed that taurine supplementation protects muscle cells against oxidative stress in humans (31).
Another study in human cyclists showed that Taurine supplementation allowed for longer and harder workouts. This is because taurine effectively removes waste products in muscle cells during exercise (32).
A 2013 study showed that, taurine can prevent muscle damage and soreness as a result of exercise (33).
Lastly, a 2010 study showed that 1.66 grams of taurine supplementation improved fat burning by 16% in athletes (34).
CDP choline improves focus and concentration. A 2012 study showed that supplementation with CDP-choline improves attentional focus (35).
L- tyrosine helps maintain mental focus in stressful situations. Intense exercise can lower focus due to the amount of stress placed on the body. This is because the body burns through essential neurotransmitters such as dopamine and adrenaline. L-tyrosine helps build these neurotransmitters.
L -arginine helps improve blood flow. L-arginine is an amino acid that helps make proteins. It also becomes the gas nitric oxide (NO) in the body. NO helps blood vessels relax, so more oxygen-rich blood can circulate through your arteries.
Pre-workout can increase overstimulation and jitteriness. The average pre-workout formula concentrates caffeine, packing in 435 milligrams on average. The issue is too much caffeine, combined with other stimulants and exercise increases the risk of a dangerously high heart rate, overexertion, and even injury (39).
Some pre-workouts don’t provide any benefit at all. A significant hazard is paying money for different stimulants that raise your heart rate but lead to dangerously high blood pressure and cardiovascular system strain (40).
The issue is commonly found in the ‘proprietary blend’ on the supplement label. Keeping the pre-workout formulation secret allows companies to sneak ingredients, such as pre-hormones, amphetamines, and other chemicals, past FDA approval (41).
For instance, the FDA recently filed criminal charges against USP Labs, the makers of the pre-workout supplements Jack3d and OxyElite Pro, whose products have been linked to acute liver toxicity and multiple deaths (42).
Beta-alanine can cause temporary skin irritation. At a proper dosage, beta-alanine will cause temporary tingling and itchiness of the skin (43). This is nothing to be worried about and will subside within an hour.
High doses of L-arginine can cause gastrointestinal upset.
Creatine supplements work best at 5g/day. It’s recommended to use a longer initial period instead of taking megadoses of creatine from the start for more effective and safe results (43). Additionally, a longer creatine loading time ensures a lesser chance of gastrointestinal discomfort that may be seen with high doses of creatine.
Caffeine doses are recommended around 200 mg (equal to 2 cups of coffee), or less (44). In terms of cycling caffeine, it’s recommended to take caffeine only before intense weightlifting sessions and not on cardiovascular endurance days.
As caffeine is dehydrating, supplementing with caffeine while training your cardiovascular fitness may dangerously increase your heart rate and blood pressure. That’s why excess caffeine is not recommended on days you perform intense cardio (45).
The optimal dose of BCAA is 10 grams before the workout and then 10 grams after. This method helps capitalize on the muscle-sparing effects of BCAAs (46).
Niacin is best in small doses. 20 mg is enough to trigger an increase in carbohydrate metabolism to support high exercise intensity and avoid a niacin flush (47).
Citrulline can be taken in larger doses for up to 6-8 grams for sports performance (48).
Sodium bicarbonate is best taken as a 300 mg dose. This offers the optimal level of acid-buffering to delay the onset of fatigue and increase power as well as work output (49).
Additionally, taking too much sodium bicarbonate is seen to cause gastrointestinal upset, which is undesirable before training or competition (50).
L-theanine should be dosed at a ratio of 1:1 with caffeine for optimal effects.
Betaine dosages range between 1.25-2.5 grams. With the latter end of the range showing more performance enhancing effects. More may be needed depending on the size of the individual consuming it.
Tyrosine is commonly taken in doses of 500–2,000 mg 30–60 minutes before exercise,
L-ornithine has an effective dosage of 2-3 grams per day.
Beta-alanine works best at 5g/day. The dosage range is between 2.6 and 6.4 grams.
Clinically effective dosages of HMB range between 2-3g.
Taurine dosages range from 500mg-2,000mg per day.
Clinically effective dosages of yohimbine range from 0.1 to 0.2 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.
Clinically effective dosages of CDP-choline range from 250 to 500 milligrams.
Q: How long does it take for a pre-workout to kick in?
A: On average it takes around 30 minutes for a pre-workout to kick in.
Q: Can pre-workouts cause kidney failure?
A: Since creatine and caffeine are both diuretics, taking too much of a pre-workout with both ingredients can lead to dehydration, kidney problems, and high blood pressure. However, it is not common.
Q: Are BCAA’s a pre-workout?
A: No, BCAA’s can be an ingredient in pre-workout supplements.
Q: Can pre-workouts cause liver damage?
A: Although rare, the potential for liver damage does exist, depending on which workout supplements you take
Q: Can you lose weight with pre-workout?
A: Yes and no. By taking pre-workout supplements before you hit the gym, you’ll increase the intensity of your workouts by pushing yourself harder, running faster, or lifting heavier. In turn, this will cause you to burn more calories during every gym session, helping you to lose weight quicker and more efficiently.
Q: Can you do cardio on pre-workout?
A: Yes, pre-workout supplements can be used for any type of cardio, whether it’s steady state or HIIT.
Q: Can you take pre-workout on an empty stomach?
A: The main difference between taking a Pre-Workout on an empty stomach rather than after eating a meal will be the duration it takes for that product to take effect. If you have recently eaten a meal, it may take an additional 15-30 minutes to feel the effects of a Pre-Workout, by the time it is absorbed.
Q: Are pre-workout supplements banned?
A: Certain pre-workouts may contain a banned substance called Synephrine HCL, a potent adrenergic stimulator. According to bodybuilding.com, Synephrine HCL, “augments energy levels and ATP synthesis” and is structurally similar to Ephedra.
Q: Can you take pre-workout at night?
A: Yes, you can take pre-workout at night – but it might not be a great idea. Due to its stimulant properties, pre-workout concoctions may give you too much energy to fall and stay asleep. As such, it’s recommended you do not take pre-workout within 4 hours of bedtime.
Q: Why do I get itchy or tingly when I take pre-workout?
A: Supplement companies often add beta-alanine into their pre-workouts, due to its ability to improve muscular endurance in the gym. However, in certain doses (which vary from person to person), it can cause tingling or an itch on your skin, as a result of a side effect known as paresthesia. It only lasts an hour or so and is nothing to be worried about.
For both the average individual and elite athlete, a pre-workout supplement can make quite a difference. Studies routinely indicate more energy, better workouts, and intense focus are all common side effects of even the most basic pre-workout solution.
For short, intense activities, caffeine, citrulline, beta-alanine and sodium bicarbonate help. For longer-lasting endurance style training, caffeine, nitrate, and BCAAs are your best bet for improved performance.
While there are dangerous supplements out there, many companies are doing it right. Focusing on pre-workouts from reputable suppliers that are transparent with their formulas and have the recommended dosages of key performance nutrients, will take your physique and performance to greater heights.