Spending time at the gym is a great way to build strength and muscle, improve your endurance, and gain confidence. However, if you’ve ever felt sluggish before a workout, or become quickly fatigued during one, you may be wondering whether a pre-workout supplement can help. Do you need a pre-workout? What does a pre-workout have to offer, and how do you choose the right one for you?
What is a Pre-Workout?
Pre-workouts are supplemental products designed to help you build muscle and enhance athletic performance. Using a pre-workout could help increase your focus and energy right before and during a workout to help you get the most out of it.
While the term “pre-workout” can refer to a number of things, these are generally products made by blending together ingredients shown to improve athletic performance. Since their primary intention is to enhance energy, focus, and blood flow they’re made to be taken right before your workout.
Other Options for Pre-Workout Energy & Focus
Should you use a pre-workout? It depends. While some people find that pre-workout supplements are helpful for energy, focus, and stamina, this doesn’t mean they’re ideal for everyone or that you can’t have a good workout without using one.
Instead of a pre-workout supplement, you can find many energy-boosting ingredients that occur naturally in foods. The main difference is that they may not be found in such concentrated amounts as in supplements.
Some snacks you could try before a workout include:
A smoothie made with energy-boosting ingredients like berries, banana, leafy greens, nut butter, and a scoop of protein powder.
Apple or pear slices with almond or peanut butter.
Whole-grain crackers or a tortilla spread with hummus.
Whole-grain toast with a hard-boiled or fried egg.
Berries with cottage cheese.
For more ideas to fuel your workouts, check out my new book Fuel Your Body.
What To Look For in a Pre-Workout
If you choose to use a pre-workout supplement, there are a few ingredients to look for when comparing options. Ingredients that can be very effective for focus and energy during exercise, as well as recovery, include:
Caffeine, naturally found in coffee, tea, and cocoa, is an ergogenic aid known to enhance athletic performance. It works by stimulating the central nervous system. In other words, caffeine helps perk you up and get you through a tough workout. Your blood levels of caffeine peak at 45-60 minutes post-consumption, so for best results plan ahead and have it 45-60 min before your workout. Doses of about 3 mg/kg body mass are shown to be effective. I cover the research and benefits of caffeine more in depth in our supplement guide which you can order here.
Beta-alanine is an amino acid. It’s non-essential, meaning that your body produces it and you don’t have to get it from your diet. However, it is the rate-limiting amino acid in the process of carnosine synthesis. This means that supplementing it, like in a pre-workout, can subsequently boost carnosine stores in your skeletal muscle. More carnosine helps us endure intense exercise for longer periods. While some studies show beta-alanine to be beneficial for anaerobic exercise, it’s important to note these are relating to activities ranging from 2-4 minutes, and some studies also showed inconclusive results. More research is needed to determine the effects on strength and endurance performance beyond 25 minutes in duration. Besides supplementation, beta-alanine can also be found in fish, poultry, and meat. Recommended daily dosage is 2-5 g, for 8-12 weeks.
When you sweat, electrolytes — minerals like sodium, potassium, chloride, and even some calcium — are lost. If you’ve ever noticed feeling dizzy or fatigued, or experienced headaches or muscle cramps during your workout, this may be due to electrolyte imbalance. Replacing them before and during a workout is important for prevention. This can come in the form of whole food sources, like potatoes with salt on top or coconut water with salt, or in the form of a sports drink or powder. Learn more about electrolytes and their benefits to performance in our supplement guide here.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and skeletal muscle and help your body recover from workouts. Taking them in a pre-workout may help slow the onset of muscle soreness. Many pre-workout supplements contain the BCAAs leucine, valine, and isoleucine. There is little evidence to show that supplementation of BCAAs provides any additional benefit to performance in individuals who are already consuming adequate protein in their diet. BCAAs are present in any complete protein such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, soy products, and quinoa.
Creatine is a compound formed through protein metabolism, is naturally occurring in your body, and plays a key role in supplying energy to muscles. It’s a common ingredient in pre-workouts because it can improve focus, strength, and muscle mass, as well as improve muscle recovery. Recommended daily dosage is 5 g/day in the form of creatine monohydrate. For more guidance on who needs creatine, how to use it, and some common myths about creatine for athletes, check out my Athlete’s Guide to Creatine.
Carbohydrates — namely glucose — are your body and brain’s preferred source of energy. Glucose is often included in pre-workouts because it can help prevent muscle fatigue. Consuming carbs before a workout helps optimize how well your body can tap into muscle glycogen stores for energy, particularly for shorter or higher intensity activities. “Carb loading” is a practice of eating high-quality carbs more intentionally over the 1-7 days prior to a tough workout to help fill your glycogen stores for later use. Simpler, more refined carbs can also be used right before — or during — a workout to provide more instant fuel for your body.
L-Citrulline is an amino acid and the precursor to L-arginine, which is heavily involved in nitric oxide synthesis. Nitric oxide helps dilate blood vessels and improve circulation and oxygen availability to the muscles. Research is mixed on the benefits of citrulline on athletic performance, however current evidence does show citrulline malate to be beneficial in reducing muscle soreness at 24 and 48 hours post-exercise. Performance benefits have also been seen in healthy adult men performing high intensity anaerobic exercises. If supplementation is advised, typical doses range between 4-8 grams of citrulline malate ~30-60 minutes pre-workout. Some foods contain citrulline naturally, such as watermelon, cucumber, and squash.
Do You Need a Pre-Workout?
Not necessarily. Pre-workouts are combinations of ingredients that help improve energy and focus, but be cautious as majority on the market are loaded with fillers and junk you don’t need. Taking a pre-workout isn’t a requirement for a successful trip to the gym — as you can also use whole foods snacks for similar benefits — but choosing one made with key ingredients might be advantageous, especially for longer, more intense workouts. It’s also imperative to choose one that’s been third-party tested for safety, quality, and athletic banned substances — such as those that bear an NSF Certified for Sport® or Informed Sport seal.
Lastly, keep in mind that taking a pre-workout supplement isn’t going to do much at all for your performance if you’re not doing other things to support it, like getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, prioritizing muscle recovery, and eating enough calories overall.