Let’s Talk About Pre-Workout Supplements

Let’s Talk About Pre-Workout Supplements

Published on Friday, December 09, 2022 by Alexander Koch

As a teacher and coach, I get asked a lot of questions (which I love!).  

One of, if not the single most, frequent topics I get asked about relates to pre-workout supplements  

“What do you think of this pre-workout?”  

“Is there any pre-workout you recommend?”  

Pre-workouts are a thriving arm of the dietary supplement industry. The market value of pre-workout supplements was estimated to be $12.9 Billion in 2019 and is projected to grow over the next several years.    

The history of pre-workout supplements can be traced back to a 1982 product called Ultimate Orange, which was formulated by Dan Duchaine. Duchaine was a notorious figure from the bodybuilding underground, and the author of The Underground Steroid Handbook. Ultimate Orange contained sugar, ephedra (a now-banned stimulant), and amino acids. In the decades since, a variety of products have hit the market.

What is in pre-workouts?

Pre-workouts come from a host of manufacturers, each with its own, unique formula. That said there are several common ingredients found in many pre-workouts. Typical pre-workouts may contain most or all of the following:

Sugar –

For energy and taste. Sugar is a fast-digesting source of energy that can be used to fuel your muscles within minutes of ingestion. Decades of research support the ergogenic effects of carbohydrate ingestion. Of course, too much sugar can add empty calories to your daily energy intake and lead to weight gain. 

Amino acids-

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and pre-workouts have been linked with amino acids since the original Ultimate Orange. The branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), leucine, isoleucine, and valine are common ingredients in pre-workout supplements. The BCAAs are specifically metabolized in skeletal muscle and are thus thought to impart several benefits, including increasing muscle building and potentially reducing muscle soreness.

Though BCAAs do play a critical role in muscle metabolism, evidence to date does not strongly support the effectiveness of BCAA supplementation in enhancing exercise performance. Taurine is another amino acid that is commonly found in pre-workout drinks and plays several roles in metabolism, as an anti-inflammatory, and as an antioxidant. As with BCAAs, evidence as to the effectiveness of taurine on exercise performance is mixed.

Stuff to wake you up-

Stimulants, chiefly caffeine. Caffeine is the most-ingested drug on the planet, and it does have benefits related to both increasing alertness by blocking adenosine receptors in your brain, and by mobilizing fat stores for added energy. In some instances… shadier substances have infiltrated pre-workouts. For example, the original Jack3D contained a stimulant dimethylamylamine (DMAA). DMAA was linked with several adverse effects, including some deaths via heart attack. The FDA began removing products containing DMAA from the market in 2013, however, some manufacturers still insert DMAA into their products.

Stuff to pump you up

Things that theoretically enhance circulation to muscles. Namely arginine and citrulline, both of which, in theory, can enhance the production of a vasodilator called Nitric Oxide. Nitric oxide is produced in the lining of your blood vessels, and it enhances blood flow to our muscles when we exercise. Niacin, a B vitamin, is another ingredient in some formulae. Niacin dilates blood vessels beneath the skin, leading to a flushing effect that can make one feel like it is doing something meaningful.

Stuff that doesn’t make a lot of sense in the short term-

Some ingredients in pre-workouts have good evidence that they can enhance exercise performance. Namely creatine and beta-alanine. There is strong evidence that creatine supplementation can enhance exercise performance, particularly by improving power retention over a series of repeated short-burst efforts. Creatine supplementation works by enhancing muscle stores of an energy source known as phosphocreatine.

Likewise, beta-alanine has good empirical evidence backing its performance-enhancing qualities, the mechanism of which is attributed to its role in building a buffering protein in the muscle known as carnosine. However, these substances have to be ingested over a long period of time to enhance muscle stores of phosphocreatine (5 days) or carnosine (2 weeks), respectively. So drinking one dose shortly before you work out is highly unlikely to realize their benefits. 

Which brings us to the big questions- Do pre-workouts work?  Are they safe?
We will explore these topics in parts 2 & 3!

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