What is Pre-Workout, and Do You Really Need It?
Table of Contents
- What is Pre-Workout?
- What Are the Most Popular Pre-Workout Ingredients?
- What Proven Pre-Workout Ingredients Should You Use?
- Pre-Workout Ingredients to Avoid
- Types of Pre-Workout Supplement Formulas
- Are Pre-Workout Supplements Actually Effective?
- Pre-Workout Supplement Side Effects and Risks
- Should I Take a Pre-workout Supplement?
- What Does it Feel Like to Take a Pre-Workout Supplement?
- Final Words
Pre-workout supplements entered the fitness and sports scene in the 90s. To say they’ve had tremendous success among professional athletes and amateurs alike would be a massive understatement. To give you an idea of the popularity of fitness supplements, especially pre-workouts, the industry is worth over 150 billion dollars!
But what exactly is a pre-workout supplement? Why are they so popular and how do they work?
Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of pre-workout supplements, potential side effects, and how to use one to improve your workouts.
What is Pre-Workout?
Pre-workouts are supplements that are meant to be taken, as their name suggests, before you exercise. They are designed to delay the onset of fatigue and improve fitness performance.
Often, neurological tiredness sets off before muscular fatigue. Therefore, pre-workouts aim to support the muscles and mind through a combination of targeted ingredients. 
The way they do this depends on the type of pre-workout supplement. In general, there are two types of pre-workout supplements:
Stimulant-based: Easily the most popular type of pre-workout, this type of supplement helps give a quick energy boost with the help of stimulant ingredients. The most popular pre-workout stimulants are caffeine, yohimbine, theobromine, and theacrine.
Non-stimulant: Usually referred to as “non-stim,” this pre-workout only contains natural energy boosters that don’t rely on the stimulants mentioned above. You can take a non-stim close to bedtime and you won’t have any issues falling asleep.
On average, pre-workouts last from 2 to 6 hours. The longevity of the pre-workout effect mostly depends on the ingredients.
What Are the Most Popular Pre-Workout Ingredients?
Pre-workout products are usually made with a blend of ingredients that could include stimulant compounds, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, all intended to support different biochemical pathways in our body during our training sessions.
Caffeine is a stimulant that supports endurance and performance while increasing alertness, concentration, and fat oxidation. Increased fat oxidation is particularly important in fitness settings, enabling athletes to train for longer by saving glycogen or blood glucose for energy production until later in the workout.
Stimulant-based pre-workouts usually contain 100 mg to 300 mg of caffeine per serving. 
Made through a combination of L-citrulline and organic malate salt, this ingredient increases the bioavailability of L-arginine. It also promotes the production of nitric oxide, a compound that widens blood vessels by relaxing their walls. This leads to increased blood flow and increased delivery of oxygen and nutrients to your muscles. Acute intake of L-citrulline malate may also help delay the onset of fatigue during high-intensity strength training. 
Creatine is an ergogenic aid that can significantly improve strength, performance, and recovery.
It does so by increasing the amount of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) that is available for your muscle cells to use during a workout.
Creatine is one of the most studied supplement ingredients, and it has been shown to effectively increase strength performance, especially during heavy resistance training. 
It is also used for preventing muscle wasting and supporting recovery.
L-Carnitine is an amino acid that is popular for its ability to increase the use of fat substrates for energy production. This means that glucose and glycogen are spared, ensuring they will be used to produce energy at a later point in the workout and potentially delaying fatigue and improving performance. Carnitine also appears to improve maximal aerobic capacity during aerobic training. 
This amino acid has a favorable effect in high-intensity exercise as it mitigates neurological fatigue and improves resistance in higher volume training. 
Consistent consumption of beta-alanine has also been shown to increase the concentration of intramuscular carnosine, which works as a muscular buffer and calcium regulator. That means it could potentially have a beneficial effect on performance as calcium functions as a catalyst in muscle contractions. 
It’s important to note that it’s completely normal to experience a tingling or flushing sensation when taking beta-alanine.
Some studies indicate that L-Tyrosine reduces the effects of acute stress, suggesting that it could be a potential ergogenic aid to reduce or delay neurological fatigue during exercise. More studies are needed to confirm this. 
Green Tea Extract
Green tea extract contains antioxidants and polyphenols, most notably, epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG). Studies have found that the beneficial compounds in green tea extract can help reduce inflammation and improve body composition through endurance-mediated fat oxidation. However, more research is needed to prove that green tea extract can directly improve performance.  
Vitamins B6 and B12
B vitamins play a direct role in energy metabolic pathways, suggesting they may contribute to reducing perceived levels of fatigue.
L-theanine is an amino acid extracted from tea leaves, and its main function in pre-workout products is to reduce perceived stress.
While it is effective on its own, L-theanine works best when combined with caffeine and tyrosine. Studies show this combination can improve movement accuracy during high-intensity exercise without influencing subjective mental states. 
Arginine Alpha-Ketoglutarate (AAKG)
Obtained from the essential amino acid arginine and alpha-ketoglutarate salts, this ingredient supports muscle growth and repair. It also contributes to blood vessel dilation, increasing the oxygen and nutrients going to muscles, which can indirectly improve athletic performance.
However, the performance boost from AAKG varies based on the training status of the individual, as it has been shown to improve tolerance to both anaerobic and aerobic training in untrained individuals while providing no effect on performance in highly trained people. 
Taurine is an amino acid that helps regulate glucose and lipid pathways. It also plays an important role in energy metabolism and the prevention of oxidative stress. Taurine supplementation has shown some improvement in endurance sports, which is why you’ll find it in many energy drinks. 
Ginseng is often used to reduce psychological stress. As a result, pre-workout manufacturers assume that this ingredient may be able to help athletes push harder in their workouts.
However, results on the efficacy of ginseng as an ergogenic aid are contradictory among studies. Therefore, there is no conclusive evidence discovered so far, although some research shows that ginseng can significantly lower blood fatigue markers following repetitive anaerobic exercise.   
What Proven Pre-Workout Ingredients Should You Use?
As seen in the previous section, a pre-workout formula usually contains a mix of ingredients, all with a quite specific ergogenic role within the supplement.
Most of the pre-workout ingredients have only been proven to provide the desired benefits in small clinical trials and are not backed by substantial data.
This does not mean that these ingredients have no beneficial properties, but more investigation is required to establish their potential ergogenic effect.
However, some of these ingredients have been studied extensively and have been shown to provide a performance boost at every fitness level. Among them, we find caffeine and creatine as the golden standards of effective pre-workout supplements. To a certain extent, we can argue that some ergogenic properties have also been found following the consumption of beta-alanine and carnitine.
A high-quality pre-workout should contain caffeine as one of the main ingredients, and ideally, look for a blend containing creatine if you perform resistance training.
Pre-Workout Ingredients to Avoid
Ideally, when shopping for a high-quality pre-workout supplement, you should avoid products that contain too many bulking agents. These filler ingredients are only there to give volume to the supplement but they don’t really offer any ergogenic effect. Here are the most common filler ingredients.
- magnesium stearate
- silicon dioxide
- titanium dioxide
- starch microcrystalline
- stearic acid
- vegetable gum
- propylene glycol
With that said, it might not be possible to avoid all of those filler ingredients, as they are very common in supplements. Just try to minimize the number of them in your supplement. It should also be noted that, unless you have specific conditions that require you to avoid a certain ingredient, there should be no reason not to use any of them.
On a different note, watch out for pre-workout formulas that include banned illegal ergogenic substances, such as DMAA, DMHA, and ephedrine. Avoid consuming any supplement containing them, as these ingredients are not regulated. They are not approved for consumption and may pose a great risk to your health.
Types of Pre-Workout Supplement Formulas
Pre-workout supplements can come in many forms: gels, powders, shots, and energy drinks. However, they’re not all designed for the same purpose.
In fact, some ingredients may be involved in improving one specific aspect of fitness, and that may not suit all training styles and goals.
In this section, we will take you through each type of pre-workout based on their effects and how they can benefit different training goals.
Pre-Workouts for Endurance
These are designed to improve long exercise sessions, such as long-distance running or high rep lifts, and focus on delaying fatigue rather than increasing maximal strength.
These pre-workout formulas tend to include stimulants and ingredients that decrease mental fatigue, such as caffeine, beta-alanine, amino acids, and a fast-digesting carbohydrate source.
Pre-Workouts to Increase Strength
Consumed before a resistance training session, this type of pre-workout supplement aims to improve strength and overall performance. It usually contains a mix of stimulants, vasodilators, and energy substrates as the main ingredients. The most common components of these pre-workouts are creatine, citrulline, and caffeine.
Pre-Workouts for Mental Focus
Also known as nootropics, this type of supplement is exclusively aimed at improving mental focus during your workout. Although they don’t usually contain stimulants, they may occasionally contain caffeine. To improve focus, these supplements typically contain alpha GPC and beta-alanine, which delay mental fatigue.
Non-Stim Pre-Workout Supplements
These are usually used by those who are sensitive to stimulants or train later in the day but still want to benefit from the pre-workout performance boost. They contain all the ingredients usually found in a pre-workout, minus the stimulating ingredients, such as caffeine, guarana, or green tea extract.
Are Pre-Workout Supplements Actually Effective?
Pre-workout supplements contain a mix of ingredients, but not all of them are backed by extensive proof of their ergogenic effect.
On the other hand, some studies have shown that consumption of multi-ingredient pre-workouts can improve anaerobic power, strength, and power output, reduce perceived fatigue, enhance attention and focus, improve reaction time, and increase endurance.
For example, a randomized, placebo-controlled trial showed that multi-ingredient pre-workout supplements significantly improve reaction time and influence vigor and fatigue measures.
Note that taking pre-workouts is not essential to get results yet may be helpful if you are aiming for maximum performance. Regular workouts, balanced high-protein nutrition, and quality recovery are still essential for almost any fitness goal.
Use a workout planner app to plan your muscle-building workouts and track your progress.
Pre-Workout Supplement Side Effects and Risks
Pre-workouts are generally safe to consume for an average healthy individual, although they may come with a set of side effects. These include the following:
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
- Upset stomach and diarrhea
- Increased anxiety
- Feeling jittery and shaky
Due to their ingredients, pre-workout supplements may also pose a risk to those suffering from specific medical conditions or those who need to follow extra precautions due to certain circumstances. They include:
Pregnant or Lactating Women
Pre-workouts contain stimulants and are not meant to be consumed during pregnancy or breastfeeding.
People with High Blood Pressure
Pre-workouts contain stimulants and vasodilators, so people suffering from high blood pressure might suffer more severe side effects.
People Who Take Medications
Some ingredients that are present in pre-workout supplements could interfere with medications.
If you are currently taking medication or you suffer from any health condition, it is highly recommended to consult your family doctor before taking pre-workouts.
Should I Take a Pre-workout Supplement?
Pre-workouts have been shown to help support performance through a few selective effective ingredients, mainly caffeine and creatine.
Pre-workouts could be an option for those who lack energy throughout the day.
If you are currently on a budget, supplementation with caffeine alone may still produce the same beneficial effects on performance while also being more cost-effective.
Overall, pre-workout supplements consumed within one hour of exercising may be a good solution for those wanting to lose body fat and maintain muscle mass simultaneously, as they facilitate energy consumption while increasing power output.
What Does it Feel Like to Take a Pre-Workout Supplement?
Pre-workout supplement ingredients may give you a tingly sensation in your skin, mainly due to the presence of beta-alanine. This is normal and usually fades away within a few minutes.
Another effect of pre-workouts, depending on their stimulant content, is feeling more alert and jittery, while any vasodilators in the blend may make you feel warm.
- Pre-workouts can contain ingredients with widely proven ergogenic effects that have a positive impact on fitness performance.
- If you want to get a quick energy boost prior to a workout, consuming caffeine (as a supplement or through drinking coffee or energy drinks) may be more cost-effective.
- If you want to increase strength and muscle mass, creatine can help you sustain higher loads with lower perceived fatigue.
- Always consult your healthcare professional before taking any ergogenic supplement to ensure it is safe for you and to avoid any unpleasant side effects.
Lastly, we recommend checking out our article about pre-workout dry scooping and the associated health risks. Always follow the directions on the packaging when taking a pre-workout supplement.