Four Pre-Workout Supplements To Consider
Caffeine helps you train harder for longer because it reduces pain and delays fatigue. A University of Illinois study found that taking 5mg per kilo of bodyweight (equivalent to two to three cups of coffee) an hour before the gym did the job.
2. Green tea extract
It’s packed with a compound called EGCG, which has been shown to increase energy expenditure by releasing stored body fat for fuel. The desired dose is up to 1,000mg – the same as five cups of green tea, so a supp might be easier.
This amino acid is the key precursor to nitric oxide, which opens up blood vessels to give you a better “pump” when lifting. A study in the Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research also found it stimulates the release of growth hormone.
It’s found in many pre-workout formulas because it enables you to lift heavier for longer by preventing the accumulation of hydrogen ions in muscle cells, which is what causes fatigue. It’s best taken 30 minutes before training.
RECOMMENDED: The Best Supplements
Pre-Workout Supplements FAQ
What’s the big deal with pre-workout supplements?
These supplements have boomed in popularity among gym-goers because they’re formulated with ingredients and compounds, such as caffeine, beta-alanine and BCAAs, that can lead to better workouts. Because they allow you to train harder for longer, you move towards your physique or performance goal faster. Oh, and they taste pretty good too.
Do I need to take a pre-workout supplement?
If you want more successful workouts, the answer is yes. Most products come in powder form that you mix with water and consume in the half-hour before your training session so the compounds can get to work in your system to improve mental and physical performance.
Are there any downsides to using a pre-workout supplement?
As with any medicine or supplement there’s a chance you may have an adverse reaction so always check the label for known allergens or the manufacturer website for side effects. Many pre-workouts contain high doses of stimulants, so it’s best to experiment with a trial dose and see how you respond before increasing the dose to the manufacturer’s recommendations. And the stimulating effects means pre-workouts should not be taken too late in the day so they don’t affect sleep.
Should I take them before every session?
As long as you don’t have any adverse reactions to the pre-workout supplements you take, there’s no reason to ration how often you take them. However, just like how the stimulating effect of a coffee or even tea can weaken if you drink them all the time, the same can be true of pre-workout supps. They commonly contain caffeine as well after all. For that reason, it’s best to save them for your tougher sessions or when you’re feeling flat going into a workout or ahead of activity like a post-work five-a-side match. Otherwise you might become too over reliant on them and blow off opportunities to exercise if you run out or leave your supps at home
A Sports Nutritionist’s Recommended Pre-Workout Supplements
If you want to have better training sessions, no matter what your exercise goals are, it’s vital to consider your pre-workout nutritional strategy. “Pre-workout supplementation should be an important component of your overall approach to nutrition, whether you are training for increased muscle mass, a reduction in body-fat levels or better sport or athletic performance,” says Aaron Deere, a sports nutritionist, functional medicine consultant and advanced personal trainer at the KX Gym in London. “The nutrients you consume just before training can have a big impact not only on gym performance, but also how quickly your body recovers.” Here are Deere’s three key recommendations.
How does it help? This naturally-occurring amino acid has been shown in studies to increase the levels of a compound called carnosine in your muscle cells, which buffers muscular fatigue to allow you to train harder for longer.
How do I take it? Beta-alanine is a key ingredient in many supplements designed to be taken before a training session – and you’ll know if yours does because it usually causes a tingly or prickly feeling in your skin. If you’re creating your own pre-workout supplement stack, the standard dose is 2-5g, according to independent research firm Examine.
How does it help? Caffeine has a fat-burning effect because it instructs your fat cells to release their fatty acids for fuel. Studies have also shown that it lowers your perceived rate of exertion, which makes training hard feel easier.
How do I take it? “Doses of 3-9mg per kilogram of bodyweight have been discovered to deliver an ergogenic or fat-burning effect,” says Deere. “The exact effective dose is dependent on your caffeine tolerance.” For a 75kg man the lower end is around 225mg of caffeine, which is the equivalent to about two cups of filter coffee. If you use a pre-mixed pre-workout product, check the label for exact caffeine dosages.
How does it help? Branched-chain amino acids are a combined form of three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. BCAA supplementation before and during training prevents muscle tissue being broken down and encourages new tissue to grow, giving you bigger, stronger muscles.
How do I take it? “A dose of around 6g of BCAAs before training has been shown to elevate blood and muscle amino acid levels by approximately 130%,” says Deere. “The higher this is, the more primed your body is to build muscle and burn fat.” BCAAs can make you deficient in other nutrients, specifically vitamin B6, so take a preventative daily multivitamin.
Debate: Should You Take Pre-Workout Supplements?
Two top sports nutrition experts debate the benefits of supplementation before a session
Yes, says Ross Edgley, co-founder of The Protein Works and former S&C coach at the English Institute of Sport
Pre-workout supplements aren’t essential in the same way as macronutrients (fats, protein and carbohydrates) and certain micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are. But the active ingredients of some pre-workout supps can absolutely improve some aspects of your fitness.
How beneficial they are depends on the specific ingredients. It’s easy to assume all pre-workout pills and powders are stimulants, but there are loads of great ingredients not based on stimulants. An awareness of the science-tested benefits of each could help you increase strength, muscle size and speed, accelerate fat loss, reduce fatigue and more.
Once you know what to look for on a label, you can tailor your pre-workout supplement to your needs. If you struggle to get to the end of your session because of discomfort caused by lactate build-up, take beta-alanine, which has been shown to delay its accumulation in your blood. If you’re aiming to pack on muscle, look for a product containing arginine, which has demonstrated the capacity to increase muscle size by encouraging protein synthesis during and after a session. Caffeine will improve fat-burning and boost energy, while citrulline malate improves stamina.
No, your body doesn’t need pre-workout supps in the same way it needs protein to get results. But if you’re stuck on a plateau, or if you’re an athlete looking to gain an edge, they can be valuable and effective. If you could get better results from the same hard work in the gym, why wouldn’t you?
No, says Ben Coomber, performance nutritionist, public speaker and creator of iTunes #1 rated UK podcast Ben Coomber Radio
Whatever form it comes in, drink, spray, gum or pill, all pre-workout supps are designed to do one thing: enhance performance. The benefits can include increased energy, buffering of lactic acid in the blood, improved endurance and an overall better work output. You should know why you are taking a product and the benefit it serves, but for most average gym-goers the desired effect is often just the pick-me-up effect of caffeine – something you can get cheaper and often in more sensible doses from a pre-gym espresso.
In my view most people who use pre-workout products do so for the wrong reasons, and 90% of people who train would benefit from not using them in the long term. It’s easy to become reliant on them, they’re often loaded with additives, they create a mindset where you’re only happy training after you have taken one – and many contain enough caffeine to leave your adrenal glands puffing and wheezing in a state of mild shock for the rest of the week.
You don’t need a million magic ingredients for your body to perform at its best. Effective sessions in the gym result from good sleep and a balanced diet with varied natural sources of protein (for muscle gain goals) and carbohydrates to match your energy output. You can have a bit of caffeine as an energy boost, but only when you really need it. If you generally struggle for energy without caffeine it’s because you’re not getting your diet, recovery and lifestyle on point. Optimal energy comes from nailing the basics, not a magic pink drink.