Preworkout supplements have become extremely popular over the past two decades, as more and more casual and elite athletes look for ways to achieve more, and in a faster fashion.
It's understandable after all; pre-workouts are touted as supplements that can take your performance to the next level, so it makes sense that you'd want to give them a try if you're feeling stuck in a rut or are looking to achieve new personal bests.
But do you actually need a pre-workout supplement? The answer, as with most things in the world of fitness and nutrition, is that it depends. In this article, we'll break down when and why you might want to consider using a pre-workout and also offer some of the more popular ingredients you might find in these supplements.
When to Use a Preworkout Supplement
There are a few key times when you might want to consider using a pre-workout supplement. If any of the following apply to you, then it might be worth giving one a try:
You're Struggling To Get Motivated For Your Workouts
Many people, especially those who have not developed a routine or are consistent enough in a program, will lack the motivation to work out. In these cases, a pre-workout can help provide the kick you really need to get up and into the gym.
Some of them also contain ingredients proven to boost drive, by enhancing the production of the brain chemical named dopamine. This neurotransmitter is involved in the brain's reward system and can help lead to feelings of satisfaction.
This works out well as you start to make progress in the gym and the dopaminergic system takes over and fosters real motivation from consistent training.
You're Trying To Increase Your Training Volume Or Intensity
If you're an experienced athlete who is regularly working out, you might find yourself struggling to increase the volume or intensity of your workouts. In these cases, a preworkout can help give you the edge you need to really push yourself.
This is often because preworkouts contain proven performance enhancers such as creatine, beta-alanine, and caffeine. These ingredients have been shown to improve performance in both resistance training and cardiovascular exercise.
They may achieve the goal by different paths, but they all contribute to allowing you to work out more intensely, for a longer period of time.
You're Feeling Run Down Or Fatigued
If you're constantly feeling tired, even after a good night's sleep, then it might be due to overtraining. In these cases, it's important to focus on recovery first and foremost.
But if you're feeling run down and are still struggling to get through your workouts, especially if you believe that your nutrition and recuperation are sufficient, then a preworkout can help.
This is because some of the ingredients, such as caffeine, have been shown to improve focus and energy levels. Many pre workouts utilize a host of stimulant based ingredients that serve to bolster energy levels, focus and concentration.
However, tolerance to these types of supplements develops rapidly as well, meaning that infrequent usage is the best way to avoid this scenario.
You Want To Lose Weight
There are other pre-workouts designed primarily for the purpose of promoting weight loss, via the inclusion of thermogenesis inducing agents. Caffeine, green tea extract, capsaicin, and forskolin are some of the more popular weight loss promoting ingredients used in pre-workouts.
These work by increasing your internal body temperature, which then forces your body to use up stored energy (fat) in order to regulate its temperature. This results in thermogenesis, or an increased rate of calorie burning.
You Want To Gain Muscle/ Boost Recovery
Nitric oxide boosters are a major ingredient found in many pre-workout supplements, but many people do not really understand their benefits. Apart from helping to deliver "the pump", what they are really doing is increasing blood flow to working muscles.
This is important because it allows your muscles to get more of the nutrients they need, such as oxygen and amino acids, which are essential for muscle growth and recovery.
Additionally, many pre-workouts contain other ingredients which can directly promote muscle growth, such as creatine, branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), and beta-alanine.
These ingredients have all been shown to improve performance, increase muscle growth, and reduce recovery time. So, if you're looking to gain muscle, or just want to be able to train harder and more often, then a preworkout supplement can be a great option.
Which Preworkout Ingredients Should I Look For?
The best pre-workout supplement to suit your needs depends entirely on your goals. That is to say that someone focusing more on weight loss will not have the same needs as someone trying to boost their muscle growth.
Here is a quick rundown of some of the more popular and effective preworkout supplement ingredients:
The most popular stimulant on the planet, caffeine is exceptionally effective at boosting energy levels and focus. It works by binding to adenosine receptors in the brain, which reduces fatigue.
Caffeine is also a thermogenic agent, meaning it can help you burn more calories by increasing your internal body temperature.
But that's not all. Caffeine is also an ergogenic aid, which means it can improve performance. Real world results have shown that caffeine can increase both muscle strength and endurance.
As long as you are not sensitive to the effects of stimulants, you should not have any problems using a supplement containing caffeine, but keep in mind that tolerance steps in rapidly- after just a few days of consecutively using a supplement containing caffeine, you will no longer get the same results.
This is why it's important to take days or even weeks off from using any stimulant based supplement, including pre-workouts- or better yet, limit the usage to ONLY days you actually train.
One of the most popular and well researched sports supplements on the planet, creatine is an exceptionally effective ingredient for improving performance. This means both strength output and subsequent muscle gain.
It works by increasing ATP levels in muscle cells, which translate to more energy, and thus more strength. Creatine also has a role in reducing recovery time by reducing muscle cell damage.
One of the great things about creatine is that it's very safe to use, with minimal side effects. The most common side effect is cramping, but this can be avoided by drinking plenty of water and/or adding electrolytes to your supplement.
It's also dirt cheap- a jar of the good stuff with more than a month's supply will only set you back about the same for 2-3 cups of coffee.
A "relatively" new ingredient, beta-alanine is an amino acid that works by increasing levels of carnosine in muscle cells. Carnosine is a dipeptide (two amino acids bonded together) that acts as a potent antioxidant and also helps to regulate pH levels.
While this may seem of non-importance, this pH buffering action is exactly why it works so well.
As levels of positively charged hydrogen ions start accumulating in muscle cells, the ability to contract rapidly diminishes. This reaches a point at which muscle failure ensues.
Beta-alanine, or more correctly; carnosine, acts as a sort of intracellular sponge, soaking up these hydrogen ions, and thus delaying the onset of muscle failure.
This gives you more endurance, allowing you to train harder for longer periods of time. The result is more strength and muscle gain over the long term.
Side effects from beta-alanine are very rare, but the most common one is a harmless tingling sensation on the skin, typically around the face and neck. This is caused by histamine release and goes away after the first few times of using the supplement.
Remember, it only takes a few extra seconds, or that extra one or two reps to foster strength development that usually yields muscle hypertrophy and performance improvement.
Green Tea Extract
A popular ingredient in many fat burner supplements, green tea extract is more than just a weight loss aid. It's also an effective pre-workout supplement ingredient.
Green tea extract is rich in catechins, which are powerful antioxidants. But it also contains caffeine, which as we already know, can improve energy levels and focus.
This makes green tea extract a good choice if you're looking for an ingredient that will help you both lose fat and perform better in the gym.
Plus, green tea may be one of the very few real longevity aides we have at our disposal, so why not?
In the form of L-Citrulline, or better yet Citrulline Maleate, this amino acid is an excellent pre-workout supplement ingredient for a few reasons.
First, it's a precursor to L-Arginine, which means it helps to increase levels of nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide is a molecule that signals smooth muscle cells to relax, leading to vasodilation.
This increases blood flow, which delivers more oxygen and nutrients to working muscles. It also helps to remove waste products like lactic acid, which can build up and lead to fatigue.
In other words, citrulline can help you to both perform better and recover faster.
The other reason citrulline is a good pre-workout supplement ingredient is that it has been shown to improve the quality of sleep.
This is important because sleep is when your body recovers from the stresses of exercise and actually grows stronger. If you're not getting enough quality sleep, all the training in the world won't do much for you.
Adenosine-5'-triphosphate, or ATP for short, is the energy currency of the cells. It's what your muscles use to contract.
As levels of ATP decline, so too does muscular performance. This is why peak ATP is a good pre-workout supplement ingredient.
Supplementing with Peak ATP can help to delay the onset of muscular fatigue, allowing you to train harder for longer periods of time. This is achieved in part by the release of calcium into the muscle cell pool- calcium acting as an excitatory electrolyte that potentiates muscle contraction.
It can also help to improve blood flow and increase nutrient delivery to working muscles. This can lead to better pumps in the gym and faster recovery from exercise.
Similar to Citrulline, this amino acid exists in several forms such as L-Carnitine Tartrate, or Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR). However, the effects seem to differ quite a bit in this case.
In particular, the tartrate version seems more efficient at promoting weight loss and increase androgen receptor density; while ALCAR demonstrates superior nootropic activity as it enters the brain more readily.
So, which should you choose? If you want something to enhance your mental clarity and focus during your workout, go for ALCAR. However, if fat burning and leaning out aligns more closely with your objective, go for the tartrate version.
Also known as trimethyl glycine (TMG), betaine is a compound found in beets (hence the name). It's a methyl donor, which means it helps to donate methyl groups to molecules in the body.
One of the most important roles betaine plays is in the synthesis of creatine. In fact, studies show that betaine can increase levels of creatine in the body by up to 20%.
Creatine is one of the most effective performance-enhancing supplements out there. It helps to rapidly replenish ATP levels in muscle cells, which can lead to increased power and endurance.
Plus, betaine can enhance the translation of proteins, which is just a fancy way of saying that it can have a positive influence on the rate of protein synthesis. And yes- you can also get betaine from foods besides beets; quinoa and spinach are even higher in this regard.
Without a doubt, glycerol is the most underappreciate ingredient on this list, simply because it's not very "mainstream". Glycerol enables the body to hyperhydrate; or preserve water and electrolytes without signaling for the kidneys to initiate excretion of the excess.
As you know, hydration is critical to performance, and also lends itself to skin-splitting muscle pumps while training. It is especially useful when training in high heat environments that promote excessive water loss.
Do you need a preworkout supplement? While it's not strictly necessary, it can certainly help. A preworkout can help make an ordinary workout session even better.
The best preworkout supplements contain ingredients like citrulline, carnitine, betaine, and glycerol- all of which have been shown to improve performance in one way or another. If you can't find your ideal product, mix and match a few ingredients; just remember to always start with the lowest effective dose.