- Pre-workouts supplmenets aim to increase energy, focus, and performance during your exercise.
- Many pre-workouts include caffeine, beta-alanine, B vitamins, and creatine.
- Depending on your workout and goals, pre-workout supplements may be a way to get performance benefits.
Pre-workout products are one of many supplement options that aim to improve athletic performance, boost endurance, and improve muscle strength. Although it's difficult to confirm those claims, the ingredients found in certain pre-workouts, like caffeine, have shown to provide some performance-boosting properties.
As you get into a fitness routine, using a pre-workout supplement may help during certain physical activities. And although the supplement market offers plenty of pre-, post-, and during-exercise fuels, not all are created equal.
Read on for what exactly a pre-workout is, what ingredients to consider, and how those ingredients may benefit your workouts.
What is a pre-workout?
Pre-workout supplements, also called "pre-workouts," come in many forms, like powders, liquids, or pills. According to health coach and certified personal trainer Morgan Rees, "any form [of pre-workout] exists with the purpose of increasing performance during a workout."
When taken before an endurance or strength workout, pre-workouts may provide a kick in energy, focus, and performance.
What's in pre-workout?
Most high-quality pre-workouts contain caffeine, beta-alanine, B vitamins, and creatine, and aim to increase energy levels and promote recovery. Some may also have ingredients like Nitrate, citrulline, choline, and TMG.
Here's what each main ingredient is and how it works:
- Caffeine: "One of the major ingredients in any pre-workout is caffeine," Rees told Insider. "If you take one before working out, you should feel a spike in energy." One study found caffeine helps improve performance during endurance, power, and resistance exercises.
- B Vitamins: Vitamin B helps metabolize food into fuel, Rees said, so including it in a pre-workout may offer an additional kick of energy.
- Beta-alanine: Beta-alanine helps decrease muscle fatigue and increase exercise capacity. Studies show that daily supplementation of beta-alanine may improve high-intensity exercise performance. However, more research is needed about its effects on strength and endurance.
- Creatine and BCAAs: You'll find creatine in almost all pre-workout supplements. Studies show having more creatine in your body can have a positive impact on high-intensity exercise performance, but individual responses vary. If you take a supplement with BCAAs, you may also see benefits of increased muscle protein synthesis and minimal protein breakdown — i.e., a reduction in exercise-induced muscle damage.
- Other ingredients: You may also find supplements containing ingredients like nitrate, citrulline, choline, and tri-methyl glycine (TMG). Citrulline may increase blood flow to the body's tissue while choline could help with low energy levels and muscle aches. TMG and nitrate may also help boost overall performance.
When should you take a pre-workout?
Rees recommended taking a pre-workout supplement roughly 30 minutes prior to a workout in order to reap the benefits at the right time. Most pre-workout products specify a similar timeline.
Is it safe to take a pre-workout?
Unless it contains large amounts of caffeine, most evidence suggests pre-workouts are safe to use. However, studies may be short, and therefore, the long-term benefits and risks aren't well established. If you have a pre-existing condition or take other supplements, it's always best to check with your healthcare provider before taking something new.
Rees recommended double-checking a supplement's caffeine dose regardless, as some have up to 500 milligrams, which may be too much. Look for a pre-workout with less than 200 milligrams per serving, like this pre-workout from Gnarly Sports Nutritions, which has 180 milligrams.
What are the benefits of taking a pre-workout?
A study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition reported that supplements taken before a workout are often used to "improve energy, alertness, strength, power, and body composition."
Here are some potential benefits:
- More energy: The caffeine and B vitamins in a pre-workout may provide added energy and mental focus.
- Less muscle soreness: Studies show that creatine helps improve muscle recovery during and after a workout, although supplementation is more likely to benefit people participating in certain activities.
- Better overall recovery: Supplements with creatine and added protein work to increase strength and power, build lean muscle mass, and aid in recovery. These benefits may be specific to certain activities.
What are the side effects of taking pre-workout?
Most studies show that although people may experience some side effects from a pre-workout, they're short-lived and not harmful. However, without long-term studies, no one can say for sure if these are safe over time.
For example, beta-alanine sometimes produces a tingling sensation for roughly 30 minutes after ingesting it, but it isn't harmful and subsides quickly. To avoid this, look for a product with a sustained release formulation of beta-alanine.
Similarly, too much caffeine may lead to feelings of anxiety, shakiness, or changes in heart rate. Avoid supplements with added caffeine if you're sensitive or if you already drink a daily caffeinated beverage like coffee or tea.
It's worth noting that supplements are not regulated by the FDA. A 2021 study found that some pre-workouts contained known NCAA-banned substances or had some amount of unknown substances.
Rees recommended taking supplements without artificial flavors and food coloring, especially if you plan to take them often. Check all ingredient lists for natural flavors or natural food coloring.
Pre-workouts are just one option of many to supplement your weekly fitness routine, along with, for example, optimizing your nutrition, getting enough sleep, and training efficiently.
And according to Rees, if you don't take a pre-workout, it doesn't mean your workout will be any less effective or efficient. Some activities may benefit from a pre-workout, and if you participate in one of those routines, it could make a difference.
"You may feel more energetic throughout your workout with increased exercise capacity," she said. "As long as your body responds well and you feel good, pre-workouts [can be] a positive addition to your routine."
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