Learn about the benefits, ingredients, and safety of pre-workout supplements
Pre-workout supplements are a combination of ingredients intended to improve your athletic performance, boost energy, and enhance muscle building. Some of the proposed benefits of pre-workout supplements include:
- Improved stamina
- Better lean muscle mass
- Faster muscle recovery
- Increased endurance
- Lower risk of certain injuries
- Improved focus
7 ingredients in pre-workout supplements
- Creatine: Creatine supplements are often used to improve muscle strength by helping you gain fat-free muscle mass. This chemical improves exercise and injury recovery and helps the athletes adjust to rigorous training schedules.
- Caffeine: Caffeine supplements increase stamina and performance by increasing the levels of brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that excite the nervous system. However, although moderate caffeine consumption enhances athletic performance, overconsumption can disturb sleep, increase fluid loss, and make you feel jittery.
- Electrolytes: Electrolyte loss can occur during a sweaty workout session. Electrolyte replacement helps prevent post-workout fatigue, cramps, dizziness, fainting, nausea, and vomiting. Electrolytes include minerals such as sodium, calcium, magnesium, iron, and potassium. They are necessary for proper functioning of the muscles, heart, brain, oxygen transport, fluid and pH balance, and blood pressure maintenance.
- Beta-alanine: Beta-alanine is a type of amino acid that helps in the formation of a substance called carnosine. Two amino acids, beta-alanine and L-histidine, are required for carnosine formation. Of these, beta-alanine is the rate-limiting amino acid. Thus, although it is naturally produced in the body, supplementing it boosts carnosine stores in the muscles. Carnosine helps neutralize the acidic environment produced in the body during exercise or vigorous physical activity. Beta-alanine supplements may give you a tingling sensation, but it is completely harmless. It helps improve your workout performance and stamina.
- Amino complex: Amino complex refers to the combination of amino acids in supplements. Amino acids are required for protein synthesis. Because muscle building requires protein, these supplements can help improve muscle mass and recovery. Amino acid supplementation may be particularly beneficial if you cannot meet the requirements of essential amino acids via diet due to various reasons (such as a vegan or vegetarian diet). The amino complex may contain either all the essential amino acids or only the branched-chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine).
- B vitamins: B vitamins are a group of water-soluble vitamins, which means that they are excreted through urine and typically not stored in the body. A deficiency of B vitamins affects various metabolic pathways and may leave you feeling drained or weak despite eating a nutritious diet. Hence, B vitamins could be added to pre-workout supplements to ensure optimal energy generation in the body.
- Betaine: Also called trimethylglycine, betaine is a derivative of the amino acid called glycine. Its ergogenic effect comes from its ability to increase creatine production, boost nitric oxide production, and maintain fluid and temperature balance. It is a naturally occurring compound extracted from sugar beet. Increased nitric oxide production by betaine enhances blood flow to the active muscles. Some other pre-workout supplements that increase nitric oxide production include L-arginine and L-citrulline.
What ingredients should you avoid in pre-workout supplements?
When choosing a pre-workout supplement, make sure that it does not contain:
- Added sugar
- Sugar alcohols (may have a laxative effect)
- Excess caffeine
- Artificial colors or flavors
- Proprietary blends
Buy supplements certified by reputed third parties, such as the National Sanitation Foundation’s global Certified for Sport program.
Are pre-workout supplements necessary?
Not everyone who engages in sports or vigorous exercise needs pre-workout supplements. If you can obtain essential nutrients through a balanced diet and enough intake of water, you may not need them. If, however, you feel too drained or are underperforming, you may consider discussing it with your physical trainer.
It is also important to remember that not everyone needs all the ingredients that are in many pre-workout supplements. For example, you may just need branched-chain amino acids or electrolytes and not caffeine or creatine. If you do high-intensity athletic activities or heavy lifts, you may need pH buffers, such as beta-alanine, in the correct dosages to push yourself through the activity.
Are pre-workout supplements safe?
Pre-workout supplements are generally safe for most healthy individuals. However, there is the risk of some products being adulterated with unwanted ingredients.
If you have any underlying health conditions (such as liver or kidney disorder) or you are pregnant or breastfeeding, consult a doctor before taking pre-workout supplements..
Some of the side effects of pre-workout supplements include:
- Tingling or numbness
- Water retention
- Stomach upset
How should you take pre-workout supplements?
Pre-workout supplements should be taken as directed. If you are a beginner, start with a lower dose. They should also be diluted in water and consumed about 30-60 minutes before the workout or athletic event.
Beware of dry scooping, which is the dangerous practice of taking pre-workout supplements without diluting them. Dry scooping can be life-threatening and lead to side effects such as choking, trouble breathing, and heart problems. This is because it delivers high and potentially toxic concentrations of various ingredients, some of which may not be indicated on the label.
Medically Reviewed on 6/24/2022
Harty PS, Zabriskie HA, Erickson JL, Molling PE, Kerksick CM, Jagim AR. Multi-ingredient pre-workout supplements, safety implications, and performance outcomes: a brief review. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018 Aug 8;15(1):41. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/326911633_Multi-ingredient_pre-workout_supplements_safety_implications_and_performance_outcomes_a_brief_review
NCPC. Dry Scooping Can Be Life-Threatening. https://www.poison.org/articles/dry-scooping-can-be-life-threatening
NASM. Pre-Workout: What Does It Do & Do You Need It? https://blog.nasm.org/pre-workout-guide
Jagim AR, Camic CL, Harty PS. Common Habits, Adverse Events, and Opinions Regarding Pre-Workout Supplement Use Among Regular Consumers. Nutrients. 2019;11(4):855. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6520716/