We've all been there. After a grueling day at work, a long commute or a restless night of tossing and turning, you get to the gym or lace up for a workout and find your body's fuel tank completely bone dry. With no energy to power through your session, what's an athlete to do? Do you forgo the workout entirely, delaying your progress another 24 hours? Do you muscle up the courage and struggle through your exercises, knowing your performance will not be at its peak? Or do you mix up a quick shaker's worth of pre-workout, feel your body come alive and blast off into your regimen with a full battery and laser-sharp focus?
Yeah, that's what I thought.
As one of the most popular nutritional supplements on the market today, it's hard not to be enticed by the power that pre-workouts can bring to your training. On paper, they seem like a cure-all for getting your physique ready for mind-blowing workouts, but is this an absolute necessity when it comes to your fitness journey? Can you maintain adequate energy levels for training without this magical, flavor-rich dust? What are some of the potential risks that come with relying on pre-workout as an energy source for in-gym or on-road progress?
Before we get the scoop on these inquiries, let's take a closer look at what pre-workout actually is, and which ingredients you can expect to find across the varying mixes.
What Is Pre-Workout?
In general, pre-workouts are supplements designed to help improve energy and focus ahead of a strenuous training session. Typically found in powdered forms, these nutritional accessories can be great for a quick burst to help fight off any lingering fatigue or lack of motivation, both of which can be detrimental to your in-gym performance. Most pre-workouts recommend consuming the product between 20–30 minutes prior to training to reap the most efficient results.
As far as ingredients go, it should come as no surprise that caffeine is the driving force behind most pre-workouts due to its impressive influence on the central nervous system in terms of energy levels. Other common ingredients found in pre-workouts include beta-alanine to help delay muscle fatigue, creatine to aid in the increased production of ATP, L-citrulline and L-arginine for improved blood flow (think of that "pump" feeling bodybuilders and gym bros are always talking about) and branched-chain amino acids, BCAAs, for better muscle growth, retention, hydration and lessened fatigue. While the amount of each ingredient found in your specific pre-workout can vary by brand, having these five ingredients showcased within the blend can be a good sign — provided the dosage is aligned to your personal health limits.
Speaking from experience, I've had plenty of positive reactions to various pre-workouts and definitely believe there are some benefits to adding them to your supplement regimen. You do feel a boost in energy and I've also experienced more focus when in the throws of a workout. I like the increased blood flow at times, too, as seeing your muscles pump up after a hard-fought set can be the perfect motivation to stick to your regimen.
With all the perks, however, there are some negatives that can come with using pre-workout. While some might be minor inconveniences, others can lead to serious health issues, so it's wise to outline and analyze them before dashing out to get a tub or two.
The Potential Negatives of Pre-Workout
You could get the jitters or some unwanted anxiety.
Ever have an extra morning cup of coffee and suddenly find yourself with a nagging headache or sense of uneasiness? That's because you've surpassed your caffeine tolerance, and everyone's is different. Research published in Food and Chemical Toxicology cites that 400mg of caffeine a day is a good watermark for most adults, but some pre-workout powders can shoot far beyond that with a single dose. This can lead to shaky training scenarios that sort of fly in the face of pre-workout's pre-conceived benefit of better focus.
It's also vital that you take your caffeine tolerance into consideration in regards to your heart health. Excessive caffeine can lead to serious complications like palpitations and arrhythmias, which might be a chance not worth taking for the sake of getting through one workout session. If you are nervous or are unsure of your heart health, consulting with your personal health professional prior to supplementation is always a good precaution.
What's that tingling?
One of the weirdest side effects that can come from consuming pre-workout is this skin sensation that feels like you're being poked and prodded with thousands of pins and needles. Additionally, for some, your skin can begin to warm and redden, making your physique look something like Larry the Lobster for a few minutes (at least he's strong, right?). While these symptoms are harmless and do subside after a while, they can definitely be an inconvenience, and for newcomers, a bit of a scare.
The tingling and redness is a result of the beta-alanine and vitamin B3 often found in pre-workout blends. When neurons present in the human skin responsible for signaling an itch interact with beta-alanine, sensory neurons trigger a reaction that sends an itching feeling to the brain, hence the pins and needles. Vitamin B3 causes the redness because you've probably hit your daily threshold for this micronutrient already, and the added dose is perceived by your skin's immune system as an intruding allergen, thus triggering a reaction that causes vascular dilation, increasing blood flow and leading to the reddish glow.
All that energy can implode your stomach.
Caffeine might be great for spiking your alertness, but it can also generate some energy in your digestive system, too. Some athletes can experience gastrointestinal movement when consuming caffeine, leading to less time in the weight room and more time in the locker room. The bold flavorings often present in pre-workout can also lead to some nausea and discomfort in some, and that's never a good side effect to endure when trying to push through a final mile or grind through a heavy benching session.
Say goodnight to regular sleep patterns.
This potential negative is all related to when you're working out. All that energy you gained from pre-workout can take some time to burn off, even long after your workout has ended. If you train in the evening, this means that you're probably going to have some difficulty catching some Zzzs, leading to some tossing and turning and lessened performance the morning after. If your normal training schedule falls in these nighttime hours, be sure to dose your pre-workout accordingly, otherwise you'll be trading tomorrow's daylong energy supplies for maybe a few hours of in-gym work, if that.
Stick to the pot (of coffee).
Good ol' joe. You rely on this bean-based beverage to get your mornings started, so why wouldn't you give it a go before your next training day? Plus, choosing a cup of coffee or shot of espresso can be an easier way to cap your caffeine intake without running the risk of overconsumption. If you opt for this pre-workout alternative, make sure to choose black coffee without any cream or sugar, as these can begin to turn your stomach once you get into the throws of a workout.
Take a cold shower.
Ever step in a shower before it reaches temperature and felt that rush of chills? That your nervous system cranking itself up to 11, increasing blood flow to aid in warmth as well as a slew of hormones activating. While it might not be the most pleasant experience when trying to get ready for the day, it can be a good way to get your body fired up for a workout. Even 60 seconds spent in the water can be enough to get you going, and plus, if you've survived the cold water and come out motivated, surely you're able to successfully complete a lift, right?
Eat a quick meal.
Pre-workout is a supplement, meaning you're supplementing nutrients that you can get from your daily diet, albeit in a more convenient and streamlined manner. To get a quick hit of these nutrients before embarking on another gym session, simply sit down and eat a quick meal or snack containing some carbs, protein and other vitamins. Fruits like bananas and berries are always a good option, while oats, peanut butter and bread can make sufficient pre-workout meals as well.
My personal go-to is a tablespoon of crunchy peanut butter over toast when I'm not as enthusiastic about downing pre-workout. Just don't overindulge with a full-fledged feast before training, however. That practice can leave you too full and lethargic to move and perform at your best.
Get a good night's rest.
If you're looking at pre-workout as an option in the first place, it means that your energy balances are depleted. What's the reason for that? They weren't full in the first place. Catching a good night's sleep has plenty of effects on your next day's output, and if you're staying up long into the night and only catching a few hours or even minutes of non-REM sleep, that doesn't give your energy balances enough time to recharge, putting yourself in debt day after day.
If you know your training schedule and want to promote a better charging time, take the steps needed to hit the pillow properly — turn off your devices, let your brain wind down, get your setup nice and comfy and dream about the sets and progress ahead.
So, Do You Really Need Pre-Workout?
In short, no. If you're looking for a nice jolt to get your engine running, try one of the above methods. With that said, there's nothing wrong with taking pre-workout, either. As long as you're listening to your body, understand what your limits are and utilizing the effects at the proper time of day, you're good to go. Like I said before, I've had plenty of positive experiences with and without pre-workout in my arsenal. You don't need to be locked into one energy source just to see progress in training. There's more than one fuel type to keep your body running at full capacity.
If you are interested in giving pre-workout a try, we've done the heavy lifting for you already. Below are a handful of our top recommended pre-workouts, ready to add some spark to your training capabilities.