What You Need to Know About Pre-Workout Supplements
Staying Fit
December 20, 2023
What You Need to Know About Pre-Workout Supplements

If one of your New Year resolutions was to exercise more or hit up the gym again, you may come across websites or gym goers swearing by pre-workout supplements to help them achieve their goals.

Pre-workout supplements are widely used to enhance workout performance, typically containing ingredients such as caffeine, beta-alanine, creatine, and amino acids. While they are popular for their potential benefits, such as increased energy, enhanced performance, and improved focus, it's important to be aware of their potential risks.

Understanding Pre-Workout

Pre-workout supplements — often referred to as “pre-workout” — are multi-ingredient dietary formulas designed to boost your energy and athletic performance.

They usually come in powder form that you mix with water and drink before you start your workout. There are many types, but they don't all have the same ingredients. Some might have amino acids, beta-alanine, caffeine, creatine, and sweeteners that aren’t natural. But how much of these things are in there can be different depending on which brand you choose.

And here’s a thing to watch out for: Some of these products might not have been checked to make sure they’re good quality, have what they claim to have in them or that they're pure.

While pre-workout has been around for decades, it recently resurfaced in popularity due to a social media trend among teens and young adults referred to as “dry scooping,” where people would, quite literally take a scoop of their favorite pre-workout supplement and swallow it straight down, chasing it with a swig of water after.

Dry scoopers claim this method allows the body to absorb the energizing ingredients quicker than when it is traditionally mixed with water and consumed.

“But there is no benefit to taking powder without fluid,” says Tara Collingwood, RDN, a certified personal trainer with the American Council on Exercise. “And you’re actually putting your health at risk by trying the trend. You risk breathing in the powder as you are putting it into your mouth, which can lead to dangerous respiratory problems, choking, or a lot of uncomfortable coughing.”

Potential Benefits

Before we delve into the risks of pre-workout, it’s important to highlight the potential benefits, and why it’s garnered such devoted fans.

  1. Increased Energy: Ingredients like caffeine stimulate the nervous system, providing a temporary energy boost, which can aid in you pushing harder during workouts.
  2. Enhanced Performance: Components like creatine and beta-alanine may improve strength and endurance, allowing individuals to sustain high-intensity workouts for longer durations.
  3. Improved Focus: Some formulations contain nootropics that may heighten mental focus and concentration during exercise sessions.

A review published in August 2018 in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition looked into pre-workout supplements with multiple ingredients meant to be taken before exercising to improve performance and training afterward. The study discovered that existing research hints at these supplements being helpful for short-term exercise performance. However, the researchers concluded that the evidence is not final, and there's no information about whether these supplements are safe for the long haul. Most of the studies on these supplements only lasted for 8 to 12 weeks or even less.

And it’s worth noting that each pre-workout product can vary significantly from others marketed for similar uses.

According to a study published in Nutrients, beta-alanine, caffeine, citrulline, tyrosine, taurine, and creatine are the most common ingredients in pre-workout supplements. However, the way these ingredients are put together can be very different in each product. Almost half (44.3 percent) of all the ingredients are part of a "proprietary blend," which means the amounts of each ingredient are not disclosed. This makes the composition of these supplements varied and not fully transparent.

Potential Dangers

However, as we mentioned earlier, pre-workout supplements come with potential risks and dangers.

Pre-workout contains a large amount of caffeine. Healthy adults can typically consume up to about 400 milligrams (mg) of caffeine daily without experiencing harmful side effects. This is equivalent to about four cups of coffee. But some pre-workout supplements contain caffeine levels equivalent to multiple cups of coffee, and when you’re consuming that much caffeine all at once, in addition to any you’ve already had throughout the day, you’re posing a risk of caffeine overdose.

“When higher amounts of caffeine are consumed all at once, people can experience side effects, including anxiety, tremors, heart palpitations, chest pain, and seizures,” says Kelly Johnson-Arbor, M.D., a medical toxicologist and the co-medical director for the National Capital Poison Center.

Johnson-Arbor notes an incident in which an otherwise healthy 20-year-old woman had a mild heart attack after dry scooping, likely because of a caffeine overdose, according to the National Capital Poison Center.

Additionally, because ingredients in supplements are not regulated, you run the risk of unknown ingredient reactions, mislabeling or representation and contamination. The varied ingredients in pre-workout supplements may interact differently in individuals, potentially causing allergic reactions or adverse side effects, especially when combined with other medications or supplements. To ensure safety, only buy supplements that have been tested by a third party, such as NSF International or U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP).

While technically not a class of drug, regular use of pre-workout supplements can lead to tolerance, requiring higher doses to achieve the same effects. This can result in dependency, where individuals feel unable to perform workouts without the supplement, potentially leading to withdrawal symptoms and decreased performance without it.

In addition, continuous use or misuse of pre-workout supplements, especially those with certain ingredients, may have unknown long-term effects on health, including kidney damage, high blood pressure, or disrupted sleep patterns.

So, Should I Take Pre-Workout?

Not everyone needs pre-workout formulas. If you often feel low on energy during workouts, try looking at other things like staying hydrated, getting good sleep, and having a balanced diet instead of relying on supplements.

These supplements can be tricky because they have different ingredients, making it hard to know if they really work. Plus, they can be pricey and studies haven't shown them to be better than regular food that gives you the same nutrients. For instance, having a banana and a cup of coffee can do a similar job as a pre-workout supplement and cost less.

But if you feel that pre-workout supplements help you, that's okay. Just keep an eye on what's in them and how much you take.

Here are some things to remember if you decide to use them:

Instructions for taking pre-workout supplements are usually on the package. It might be a good idea to start with a smaller amount, especially if it has caffeine or beta-alanine, to see how your body reacts.

Some pre-workouts with beta-alanine might make your skin tingle, but it's harmless. Still, some people might find it weird or uncomfortable.

Take pre-workout about 30–60 minutes before exercising so it has time to work in your body. And if it has caffeine, be careful when you take it because it could affect your sleep.

Even if you skip pre-workout supplements, eating right before and after exercising is really important. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, having carbs and protein before and after a workout can make you stronger and improve your body.

Plan your meals about 2–3 hours before exercising, like having a veggie omelet and whole wheat toast. If you're short on time, grab a piece of fruit about 30–60 minutes before your workout.

If you don't use pre-workout but still want a boost like what caffeine offers, try a cup of coffee with a snack before you exercise.

The Takeaway

Using pre-workout supplements might help improve your workout and energy, but it's important to be careful. Knowing what's in them and following the recommended amounts can lower any risks they might have. Also, relying too much on these supplements for fitness goals might make you forget how important it is to eat well, drink enough water, and get good sleep for your overall health.

If you're thinking about using pre-workout supplements, it's best to think about your health first. Make smart choices, know what could go wrong, and pay attention to how your body reacts to them.

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