Everyone knows what pre-workout is. And if you don’t, it’s because you’ve been living under a rock. I love this stuff. I take it because I’m anemic, so I constantly feel tired. It’s difficult to find motivation to get up and go to the gym, and even harder to get a workout in once I finally pull myself together. But what’s really in this weird concoction, and does it actually work? If you’ve ever glanced at the ingredient list on the side of a bottle of C4, it’s just a jumble of words that normal humans can’t pronounce, and it’s hard to tell whether those are actually doing any good for your body or not. But don’t worry. I did the heavy lifting, so you guys don’t have to. And now I’m gonna share that with you. YOU GON’ LEARN TODAY!
Athletes claim that taking this class of supplements boosts their overall performance by increasing strength, stamina, endurance, energy, and focus, and one study even backed this claim (Spradley et al., 2012). I’m gonna look at a list of common ingredients in pre-workout, and analyze whether we should give these claims a second thought or not.
Some of the most common ingredients in pre-workout:
1. Caffeine: My mom always worried that if I drank too many energy drinks, my heart would explode. Pre-workouts usually have a legit dose of caffeine, but a dose high enough to kill you? Certainly not. One of my favorite supplements has a dose of 175 mg/serving, but you’d need anywhere between 5-6g (5000-6000 mg) for a dose to be fatal. Of course, caffeine can be dangerous when used in conjunction with alcohol, or if someone has heart problems, but let’s assume neither are coming into play. Energy-boosters like caffeine and synephrine are used because they’re thought to spike reaction time and speed of fine motor skills. In one study, compared to the control group, men who drank an energy drink before resistance training were able to bench, deadlift, and squat at 60% of their 1-rep max for more repetitions before failure (Duncan et al., 2012).
2. Creatine: I learned about this from my first college Biology class. Creatine works because it helps to restore the main molecule your body uses for energy (aka, ATP. For any of my nerdy friends, this little guy transfers phosphates onto ADP to turn it back into ATPs). It allows for a shorter regeneration time for these ATP molecules. Creatine comes with some drawbacks, though. How it’s ingested has a lot to do with whether or not it’s actually useful. If you want to actually absorb it instead of peeing it out, it’s supposed to be taken with a carbohydrate. And this biology only really comes into play for short, intense workouts–researchers testify that the longer the duration of a workout, the more useless creatine is (Volek et al., 2004). Furthermore, some people have completely denounced creatine, claiming that it can cause renal damage (aka kidney issues) but this is ultimately not true (Poortmans and Francaux, 1999). None of this really matters anyway, though, because the amount of creatine in pre-workouts is so minimal that it barely has any effect. These mixtures usually contain less than 1g of creatine, whereas studies state that 15-20g is an effective dose (Volek et al., 2004). Creatine as a supplement, well… that’s another post for another time.
3. Beta-alanine: This is one of the few compounds that has been proven to be extremely beneficial for exercise results with a mountain of peer-reviewed research. Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid, meaning that it can be produced by the body and needn’t be ingested from an outside source. It works as a buffer, or pH stabilizer, to keep your muscles at an ideal acidity/basicity. Scientists say more beta-alanine in your muscles will allow your body to dissociate more lactic acid, further prolonging fatigue (Artioli et al., 2009). This is pretty damn awesome. It basically works miracles, as long as you’re supplementing with about 1-1.6g of the stuff, and there aren’t any serious side-effects other than skin tingling (Stout et al, 2006). Not everyone experiences these side-effects, however. In one study, only 3 of 8 athletes reported feeling tingly (Howe et al., 2013). In another study, this number spiked when the beta-alanine was altered into slow-release tablets (Decombaz et al., 2011). This uncomfortable side effect is known as paresthesia and is caused by a simple response to the beta-alanine by the nervous system.
4. B vitamins: IB vitamins, like B6, B12, etc, give an energy boost. These vitamins actually function as coenzymes in metabolizing fatty acids and amino acids, and even have a role in DNA synthesis (Yates, Schlicker, and Suitor, 1998). However, this is still sometimes hotly debated (Woolf and Manore, 2006). Alternatively, some studies have shown that ingesting an energy drink containing both caffeine and b-vitamins before an intense workout may improve performance– the study I’m referring to used cycling as an example (Ivy et al., 2009). So, overall, to B-vitamins, I shrug my shoulders.
b.) Niacin: Niacin is also known as B3. This is another reason that pre-workout makes you skin feel tingly/itchy. It also usually flushes the skin. If I take too much pre-workout, my skin appears blotchy and sometimes gets irritated. This is because the niacin causes the blood vessels to dilate. Some studies suggest that niacin supplementation can improve circulation and lower blood pressure. Just like the other B vitamins, they’re important to have in your diet to maintain good health. Also, niacin can irritate the stomach if your body isn’t used to high dosage, so this might be a side effect if you’ve never taken pre-workout before. There are other side-effects of supplementing with niacin, so I would advise you to be more cautionary with this ingredient.
5. L-Tyrosine: Another amino acid. I’ll keep this simple. Tyrosine is a neurotransmitter precursor (precursor = the Pokemon in the evolution cycle that comes before another one. Basically, a step earlier than the final stage) that acts as a mood enhancer. It can lower stress levels and improve mental focus (Banderet and Lieberman, 1989). It’s one of those magic mind enhancers– but works at doses of ~2g, and only if you’re in legitimate psychological or physical distress (Deijen et al., 1999). Still kind of skeptical about this one, but hey, there’s no Limitless drug yet, so I’ll take what I can get.
6. L-Arginine (or citrulline, or both): Theses are known to stimulate the production of NO. This has a role in promoting healthy blood flow, because while you exercise, your body needs to transport oxygen and important nutrients to your muscles and remove waste substances, like ammonia and lactic acid (Maxwell et al., 2001). L-arginine itself has been known to boost aerobic exercise capacity in mice (Maxwell et al., 2001) Most studies on humans concluded that exercise performance was boosted, but it is unclear whether or not this was due to increased NO production (Alvarez et al, 2011). I think it’s still too early to tell whether or not this actually works, but there does seem to be some legitimate science backing the use of it in your pre-workout.
7. BCAAs (Branched-Chain Amino Acids): Rumor has it that this supplement aids largely in recovery. Well, truth is, the results are mixed. Research says BCAA deficiency has implications in reduced immune system efficiency, both in humans and mice, and are integral in cell-to-cell function (Calder, 2006). However, studies have failed to demonstrate whether they have any effect in delaying fatigue. Not because neurotransmitters don’t play a role in central fatigue–they do, but some studies argue BCAAs in this capacity are useless because of our current inability to manipulate them as substances (Meeusen and Watson, 2006). Plus, the one amino acid that was found to have a real effect on reducing the breakdown of muscle and aiding in recovery is leucine, but BCAAs are a mixture of different amino acids, and are only found in pre-workout in minor doses– you’d need 3-5 grams of pure leucine for this effect to be significant (Wilkinson et al., 2013). So, just like creatine, we could talk about BCAAs as a supplement on its own, but again, that’s another post for another time…
8. Proprietary Blend: I tend to stay away from these. On the product label, they’re simply named some variation of “Brand X Energy System,” and totally neglect listing the actual ingredients. That being said, you’d really have no idea what you’re putting in your body. For all you know, you could be drinking python venom because someone in some strange corner of the world believes it has testosterone-enhancing effects. Unlikely. But my point is, you still wouldn’t know what’s in your supplement.
Of course, these are only 8 of the dozens of ingredients in pre-workout, but I’d say they’re arguably the most common ones. Most either have legitimate beneficial effects or show some serious potential– but as anything else in science, more research should still be done. Like I said, I swear by pre-workout, and I genuinely believe it helps me in the gym when I’m weightlifting, but that’s the only time I take it.
I’ll let ya’ll decide whether or not pre-workout is worth your investment, but take these facts into consideration when you’re looking at ingredient labels.