- Pre-workout supplements aim to increase energy, focus, and performance during your exercise.
- Many pre-workouts contain caffeine, beta-alanine, B vitamins, and creatine.
- Depending on your training and goals, pre-workout supplements may be one way to gain performance benefits.
Pre-workout products are one of many supplement options that aim to improve athletic performance, increase endurance, and improve muscle strength. While it’s hard to confirm these claims, ingredients found in some pre-workouts, like caffeine, have been shown to provide performance-enhancing properties.
When embarking on a fitness routine, using a pre-workout supplement can help with certain physical activities. And while the supplement market offers plenty of fuel before, after, and during exercise, not all are created equal.
Read on to find out what exactly a pre-workout is, what ingredients to consider, and how those ingredients can benefit your workouts.
What is a pre-workout?
Pre-workout supplements, also known as “pre-workouts,” come in many forms, such as powders, liquids, or pills. According to Certified Health Coach and Personal Trainer Morgan Rees, “Any form [of pre-workout] exists for the purpose of increasing performance during a workout.”
When taken before endurance or strength training, pre-workouts can provide a boost to energy, focus, and performance.
What’s in the pre-workout?
Most high-quality pre-workouts contain caffeine, beta-alanine, B vitamins, and creatine, and aim to boost energy levels and aid recovery. Some may also contain ingredients like nitrate, citrulline, choline, and TMG.
Here’s what each main ingredient is and how it works:
- Caffeine: “One of the main ingredients in any pre-workout is caffeine,” Rees told Insider. “If you take one before working out, you should feel an energy spike.” A study found that caffeine helps improve performance during endurance, power, and resistance exercises.
- B vitamins: The B vitamin helps metabolize food into fuel, Rees said, so including it in a pre-workout can provide an extra boost of energy.
- Beta-alanine: Beta-Alanine helps reduce muscle fatigue and increase exercise capacity. Studies show that daily beta-alanine supplementation can improve performance during high-intensity exercise. However, more research is needed on its effects on strength and endurance.
- Creatine and BCAAs: You will find creatine in almost all pre-workout supplements. Studies show that having more creatine in your body can positively impact high-intensity exercise performance, but individual responses vary. If you supplement with BCAAs, you may also see the benefits of increased muscle protein synthesis and minimal protein breakdown, i.e. reduced exercise-induced muscle damage.
- Other ingredients: You can also find supplements with ingredients like nitrate, citrulline, choline, and tri-methylglycine (TMG). Citrulline can increase blood flow to body tissues, while choline can help reduce energy levels and muscle soreness. TMG and nitrate can also help improve overall performance.
When should you do a pre-workout?
Rees recommended taking a pre-workout supplement about 30 minutes before a workout to reap the benefits at the right time. Most pre-workout products specify a similar schedule.
Is it safe to take a pre-workout?
Unless it contains high amounts of caffeine, most evidence suggests that pre-workouts are safe to use. However, studies can be short and therefore the long-term benefits and risks are not well established. If you have a pre-existing condition or are taking other supplements, it’s always best to check with your health care provider before taking anything new.
Rees recommended double-checking a supplement’s caffeine dose regardless, as some have up to 500 milligrams, which can be too much. Look for a pre-workout with less than 200 milligrams per serving, like this pre-workout from Gnarly Sports Nutritions, which contains 180 milligrams.
What are the benefits of doing a pre-workout?
A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition reported that supplements taken before a workout are often used to “improve energy, alertness, strength, power, and body composition.”
Here are some potential benefits:
- More energyy: Caffeine and B vitamins in a pre-workout can provide more energy and mental focus.
- Less muscle pain: Studies show that creatine helps improve muscle recovery during and after a workout, although supplementation is more likely to benefit people participating in certain activities.
- Better overall recovery: Supplements containing creatine and added protein work to increase strength and power, build lean muscle mass and aid recovery. These benefits may be specific to certain activities.
What are the side effects of taking pre-workout?
Most studies show that although people may experience some side effects after a pre-workout, they are short-lived and not harmful. However, without long-term studies, no one can say for sure if these are safe over time.
For example, beta-alanine sometimes produces a tingling sensation for about 30 minutes after ingesting it, but it is not harmful and goes away quickly. To avoid this, look for a product with a sustained-release beta-alanine formulation.
Likewise, too much caffeine can lead to feelings of anxiety, tremors, or changes in heart rate. Avoid supplements with added caffeine if you are sensitive or already drink a daily caffeinated beverage such as coffee or tea.
It should be noted that supplements are not regulated by the FDA. A 2021 study found that some pre-workouts contained known substances banned by the NCAA or contained a certain amount of unknown substances.
Rees recommended taking supplements without artificial flavors or food colors, especially if you plan to take them often. Check all ingredient lists for natural flavors or natural food colors.
Pre-workouts are just one of many options to complement your weekly fitness routine, such as optimizing your nutrition, getting enough sleep, and training efficiently.
And according to Rees, if you don’t pre-workout, that doesn’t mean your workout will be less effective or efficient. Some activities may benefit from a pre-workout, and if you participate in one of these routines, it could make a difference.
“You can feel more energized throughout your workout with increased exercise capacity,” she said. “As long as your body is responding well and you’re feeling good, pre-workouts [can be] a positive addition to your routine.”