Updated: Jul 23, 2019
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Have you asked yourself this? If you have, you're not alone. Many athletes looking for a competitive edge turn to pre-workout supplements. All supplements are not created equal though, so there’s a few things to consider before adding them to your routine.
What Are Pre-Workout Supplements?
Pre-workout supplements are typically powdered mixtures or capsules taken before a workout to boost athletic performance. Generally, they contain a mixture of caffeine, vitamins, and electrolytes. Some contain vasodilators, or ingredients that increase blood flow.
Keep in mind that supplements are not short cuts. They can’t take the place of a balanced diet and a consistent training regimen.
A coffee and banana before a workout can offer the same amount of caffeine, carbs, and electrolytes for a fraction of the cost. Foods containing natural nitrates, such as beets, spinach, and watermelon, increase blood circulation to muscles while also providing an array of other nutrients. Pre-workout supplements are by no means necessary.
However, if you're interested in trying a supplement read on to find out how to choose an effective and safe option.
Benefits of Pre-Workout Supplements
Pre-workout supplements claim to improve performance through better stamina, endurance, and strength. Many of these claims are well-backed by research.
Caffeine, for example, is a very popular ingredient in pre-workout mixtures. Caffeine can boost energy and get you through a grueling workout. It can also increase power output, which is helpful in activities like weight training and sprinting.
Creatine also helps with explosive power by moving more energy into your cells. This allows you to push harder through your exercise and develop better strength.
Muscle fatigue can also be prolonged by providing nutrients that increase blood flow to the tissue and combat acid build up. Beta-alanine, citrulline, and betaine anhydrous are useful ingredients here.
Any athlete looking to take pre-workout supplements should look for the following evidence-based ingredients.
For energy and focus:
Caffeine, at least 90 mg per serving
For strength and explosive power:
Creatine monohydrate, 2-5 grams per serving
HMB (calcium hydroxymethyl butyrate), 1-3 grams per serving
For endurance and stamina:
Beta-alanine, 800 mg-5 grams per serving
Citrulline malate, 6-8 grams per serving
Betaine, 1.25-2.5 grams per serving
Potential Side Effects
Pre-workout supplements are not without potential drawbacks, though. Caffeine can cause jitteriness, anxiety, high blood pressure, and GI distress in some people. Each brand has a different amount of caffeine too, typically ranging from 100 mg-400 mg per scoop. To compare, one cup of coffee has 90 mg caffeine.
Vasodilators that allow more blood flow to muscles, such as beta-alanine and niacin, can cause an uncomfortable itchiness and tingling in the face, arms, and legs. Though harmless, this feeling can range from mild to extremely uncomfortable and will dissipate within 30 minutes to an hour.
Creatine is considered safe for the average healthy person, but it can lead to dehydration and muscle cramps if you neglect to drink enough water with it. Anyone at risk of kidney disease or an irregular heartbeat should avoid creatine. Teenagers should ALWAYS avoid creatine.
The big question when it comes to any supplement has to do with quality control. Because supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, you’ll want to know what’s really in the product.
Read the ingredients list to avoid cheap fillers, chemicals, artificial ingredients, and under-dosed ingredients. Also beware of “proprietary blends” which are not required to list the dosage of each ingredient.
Look for products that clearly list the ingredients and amount so you know exactly what you’re buying.
NSF International is the nation’s first independent supplement testing standard. An NSF certification ensures that the product actually contains the ingredients or quantities shown on the label.
Some NSF-certified brands are BioSteel, BeachBody, Klean Athlete, Thorne, and Vega. You can go to nsfsport.com/certified-products to see if your favorite brand passes their test.