The Beginner’s Guide to Pre-Workout Supplements

In the last few years, pre-workout supplements have gained popularity among fitness enthusiasts and athletes. These supplements offer you all the essential nutrients packed in a single product to get an extra boost for exercise performance and endurance.

But pre-workout supplements are available under various brand names and they tend to contain different types and concentrations of ingredients. To select the right product, it is of utmost importance to understand the requirements of your body based on your sex, age, health conditions and the physical training you are undergoing.

Read on to get a complete understanding of pre-workout supplements and their effect on the various measures of performance such as anaerobic power, body strengthening, recreational training and so on.

What is a Pre-workout Supplement?

“Pre-workout supplements are a specialized category of dietary supplements intended to be consumed prior to exercise that includes a blend of ingredients purported to increase performance”. (1)

Pre-workout supplements contain multi ingredients that are designed to boost energy and enhance exercise or athletic performance.

What Do Pre-Workout Supplements Contain?

taking pre workout supplements

Pre-workout supplements are engineered in a manner that they are consumed prior to an exercise with the understanding that they will enhance the quality of the training session over time. These products contain an assortment of ingredients such as caffeine, taurine, beta-alanine, creatinine, amino acids, and even various herbal extracts. (2)

Pre-workout nutrition can be in the form of a meal, snack or a supplement. Amino acids are a common component in them as it supports muscle stability and growth. Blends have a slight difference. Some have B-vitamins, some have nitric oxide agents. (3)

Pre-workout supplements usually contain a proprietary blend of ingredients. The quantities vary between brands. An uplift in energy is supplied through carbohydrates. Glucose increases glycogen in blood sugar that makes energy available to be used.

In most brands the common ingredient to provide energy is caffeine. There are different types of caffeine. For example, purified caffeine anhydrous, natural caffeine and fast release caffeine citrate. There are patented products of caffeine that are part of the ingredient list of a pre-workout supplement. (4)

Some supplements also contain L-citrulline malate that promotes circulation, delivering nutrients and oxygen to muscles. (5) The malic acid of malate furnishes energy for the muscle cells. (6)

Summary: Pre-workout supplements are purported to offer nutrients specific to improve strength, endurance and boost energy. Amino acids, B-vitamins and certain nerve stimulants like caffeine are the components present in it.

How Do Pre-workout Supplement Work?

The ingestion of pre-workout dietary supplement significantly improves the anaerobic peak power and mean power in trained athletes.

Anaerobic power is the power that is used in high-intensity bouts of exercise which lasts fewer than 10 seconds. It is the energy that is stored in muscles, accessed without oxygen and is utilized during endurance sports. (7) It is this energy that provides the triathletes with the force that sets them apart from their competitors.

A study in 2016, concluded that ingestion of pre-workout supplement did increase the anaerobic power in trained athletes with no side effects. (8)

Summary: Pre-workout supplement increases the anaerobic power that allows us to perform high-intensity exercises. It improves both the anaerobic peak power and mean power in athletes.

Timing and Nutrition: Pre vs Post-Workout Supplements

If you are a professional athlete, a fitness enthusiast or someone who takes the health and exercising seriously, then you should be keenly looking into nutritional health as well. The right nutrition for your body accompanied with workouts will propel you towards achieving your health goals.

The timing of a nutritional diet or supplement also plays an important role in optimizing each training session. Knowing what to eat and when to eat can be a little daunting for the uninitiated. Read on to find out the steps involved in understanding the principles that govern them.

Pre-Workout Supplements

Most pre-workout supplements contain caffeine, creatine, BCAAs ( branched-chain amino acids), and beta-alanine. Caffeine works as a stimulant and promotes cognitive and physical performance.

Creatine aids in building and maintaining muscles. Apart from helping to gain muscle mass, BCAAs are also a source of energy. Some examples of pre-workout snacks are bananas, smoothies, a toasted piece and boiled egg, and a honey sandwich. Foods that are easy to digest should be considered for a pre-workout diet.

The best time for a pre-workout supplement to be taken can vary on several factors but generally 30 minutes before the workout should be good enough. If it is a light food that can be digested easily. Complex food needs to have a gap of 2-3 hours before a workout.

Summary: Pre-workout supplement is designed to give you a quick boost of energy before your workout. Even though the formula differs, they mostly are a bouquet of easily digested amino acids and simple energy releasing carbs.

Post-Workout Supplements

A post-workout supplement provides for recovery and muscle gain. A supplement where glutamine is the main ingredient can be taken after a workout or before going to bed. Branched amino acids can be taken during or after a workout. If the recommendation is to take 2 scoops, one can be taken during the training session and the other at the end of it.

As casein protein supplement takes much longer to digest it is best to take it before bedtime. These nutrients in the post-workout supplement help muscles to recover and promote muscle synthesis. If your health goal is to increase mass, then a post-workout whey protein supplement will be beneficial.

A post-workout meal should always be consumed. The body needs refueling and replenishment of energy stores. Nourishment after a training session prevents muscle protein breakdown. It should contain proteins and carbs, and healthy fats. Ideally, it should be consumed between 30 to 60 minutes after a workout.

Some examples of post-workout nutrition are grilled chicken with roasted veggies, spinach and egg whites omelet, salmon with brown rice and sweet potatoes.

Summary: Post-workout supplement has the components that help the muscles to recover and increase muscle synthesis after a rigorous workout. It should be consumed within an hour after the workout to assist the body in recovering.

5 Key Ingredients in Pre-workout Supplements

There are certain main components in pre-workout supplements that help to enhance strength, endurance, and performance.

Caffeine

caffeine article

Caffeine is naturally found in coffee beans, kola nuts, cacao beans, tea leaves, yerba mate and guarana berries. Coffee and tea are the most popular sources of caffeine. Certain performance improvements such as physical endurance, increasing mental alertness, and decreasing fatigue are assigned to the effect of caffeine.

It is surmised that caffeine enhances sports performance with low to moderate dosages (3 to 6mg for every kg) but does not cause an increase in performance when the intake is increased.

It does so by increasing the time to exhaustion, preserving the muscle glycogen content, delaying the feeling of fatigue, and decreasing the perception of pain and effort. (9)

Summary: Caffeine is frequently used in pre-workout supplements to increase energy and focus. As a stimulant, a moderate dosage of 3-6 mg/kg can enhance your sports performance immensely.

Creatine

supplement creatine

Creatine is produced endogenously by the liver, kidney and to a lesser extent pancreas. The remaining is obtained through the diet. Animal proteins are the most important source of creatinine in the diet. They are red meat, salmon, herring, poultry, cod, tuna, and pork.

Studies have shown a positive relationship between creatine uptake and an increase in exercise performance. Creatine supplementation increases creatine storage and promotes faster regeneration of  ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which provides energy in the body, between high-intensity exercises. (10)

It is reported that when creatine supplementation is combined with heavy resistance training, the result is enhanced physical performance, increased fat-free mass and improved muscle morphology. (11)

Summary: Creatine in a pre-workout supplement increases the energy-producing ATP molecules, which in turn enhances physical performance and endurance.

Beta-Alanine

It is an amino acid that is produced in the liver and promotes nerve signal functions. Studies have suggested that supplementation with alanine may delay the onset of neuromuscular fatigue and improves athletic performance. (12)

During workout, muscles break down glucose that is available in the body for energy. This results in the release of lactic acid and the continuous process increase muscle acidity. As the pH level starts decreasing, the muscle’s ability to utilize additional glucose is diminished.

Supplementation with beta-alanine increases the carnosine level in the muscle that acts as an acid buffer and reduces the acid level. This improves the duration of work that the muscle can perform.

Summary: Supplementation with beta-alanine increases the carnosine level in the muscle that nullifies the accumulation of lactic acid that is produced during exercise. This, in turn, improves muscle performance and endurance.

Taurine

It is a non-essential amino acid that is naturally found in a variety of food sources like meat, milk, and seafood. The benefits of taurine are linked to better cardiovascular function, muscle efficiency, and improved cognitive stimulus.

It is believed that taurine supplementation before exercise leads to skeletal muscles becoming more responsive to exercise, strengthening of cardiac muscles and improved capacity under duress. (13)

Summary: Taurine in a pre-workout supplement reduces fatigue and muscle damage during the workout. It makes the muscles more responsive and efficient.

Betaine

Betaine is an amino acid that is found in beet, spinach, and quinoa. Studies have supported the fact that consuming 1.25 grams of betaine twice daily increased their muscle strength by 25 percent and muscles by 20 percent.

It increases protein synthesis in comparison to placebo. It speeds up muscle growth, lowers the level of lactate thereby delaying muscle fatigue. (14)

Arginine and citrulline are amino acids that boost nitrogen dioxide. (15) Arginine works as a vasodilator expanding veins and arteries for easy blood flow and delivery of nutrients to muscles and organs of the body.

Besides the nutrients mentioned above, all forms of vitamin B have importance in the production of energy. They support blood, nerve and bone health. They also support protein synthesis.

Summary: Betaine increases protein synthesis in the muscle delaying muscle fatigue and speeds up muscle growth. Arginine and citrulline improve blood flow during workout acting as a vasodilator.

The Effects of A Pre-Workout Supplement

man drinking pre workout supplement

Most of the ingredients in a pre-workout supplement are well researched individually and support the belief that they enhance energy availability, improve maximum strength, increase energy expenditure, improve focus and enhance the capabilities of the skeletal muscle. (16)

To prevent early muscle fatigue during intense training your body requires higher energy levels that are supplied through a pre-workout supplement. It also delays fatigue and aids in the completion of the rigorous bouts of training.

Pre-workout nutrition chosen carefully has many potential health benefits. Most often pre-workout supplements are available in powder form that can be mixed into a drink or water and consumed before exercise.

A Study on Effects of Creatine, Amino Acids and Caffeine in Pre-workout Supplements:

In the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition in 2010, a randomized parallel design study was conducted to analyze the effects of creatine, amino acids and caffeine in the pre-workout supplement, along with high-intensity interval training (HIIT) on aerobic (exercise that keeps the heart, lungs and circulatory systems active, like walking and running) and anaerobic (high-intensity activity done in a short time) outcome. (17)

Highlights of the study:

  • 24 participants who were reasonably trained recreational athletes (people who take up athletics to be fitter and not to compete) were either given an active supplement or a placebo.
  • The active supplement contained 18-gram powder with 40 kcal and had a proprietary blend with whey protein, cordyceps, ginseng, creatine, caffeine, Sinensis, and citrulline.
  • The placebo was 18 grams powder with 40 kcal and had maltodextrin, with natural and artificial flavors and colors. The two groups consumed the nutrients 30 minutes before any training or testing. They consumed it with 8 to 10 oz of water.
  • The groups undertook 3 days per week training for three weeks. Testings were conducted before and after every training session. Cardiovascular readings of the maximum use of oxygen by the heart and lungs were recorded (Vo2 max).
  • Four high-speed runs to exhaustion were also undertaken by both the groups and the distances were plotted. The volume of training was tracked, body fat percentage and lean body mass of all the participants were noted.
  • At the end of the given timeline, it was observed that the Vo2max, the critical velocity and the Anaerobic Running Capacity (ARC) increased manifold in comparison to the placebo group.
  • In addition to this, the lean body mass increased, the body fat percentage decreased and the training volume was nearly 12 percent higher.

The study recorded that: “Results indicate a significant increase in reaction performance, with no effect on anaerobic power performance. In addition, ingestion of this supplement significantly improves subjective feelings of focus and energy in male strength/power athletes.

Summary: Studies have noted that pre-workout supplements with ingredients such as creatine, caffeine and protein lead to a significant increase in reaction performance, focus and energy during strength training.

The Pros and Cons of Taking Pre-Workout Supplements

In the last couple of years, pre-workout supplements have gained a lot of popularity, not just amongst obsessed bodybuilders but also gym-goers and athletes.

The key ingredients are carefully combined to give a boost of energy and increase endurance and focus. But, all of them contain stimulants like caffeine to improve mental alertness that brings forth several possible side effects.

Pros:

  • Improved performance
  • Increased concentration and focus
  • Increase in the VO2 max
  • Increase in anaerobic power
  • Increase in endurance

Cons:

  • Jittery feeling and interrupted sleep
  • Can cause digestive problems
  • May cause headache and trigger mild reactions
  • May increase water retention

A better understanding of the mechanism of the components that make the pre-workout supplement and their individual side effects will help us avert the negative effects and enjoy the positive benefits of the supplement.

Creatine and Whey: Should You Take Both?

Creatine occurs naturally in the muscles of your body. It supports energy production during strenuous workouts. (18)

Whey is a by-product when the cheese is made. Whey is a top protein nutrient and is popular among bodybuilders and athletes. Some propositions are made that the combined intake of creatine and whey will result in greater benefits than when taken separately. (19) However, many studies have no such indications.

The objective of a study held in 2010 was to ascertain the effects of creatine and protein on the strength gains in middle-aged and older men. (20)

42 men in the age group of 48 to 72 years were divided into 4 groups, namely, resistance-trained placebo, resistance-trained creatine, resistance-trained protein, and resistance-trained creatine and protein.

All participants trained for thrice a week for 14 weeks. The resistance training included knee extension, bicep extension, military press, lat pull-down, seated leg press, and bench press. 1 RM (maximum amount of weight that a person can lift for one repetition) for each exercise and measurements of lean body mass were recorded before and after the 14-week training program.

Each group showed a noteworthy rise in strength and lean body mass. However, there were no appreciable group effects. The study concluded that resistance training increased muscle strength in middle-aged and older men. There were no additional benefits from the supplementation of creatine and protein.

Summary: Creatine and whey, both provide us with protein that benefits the muscle and gains in strength. Even though taking both of them together is safe and effective, it doesn’t show any additional benefits.

The Importance of Pre-workout Nutrition

When you start with your muscle building, it is very important to understand your nutrition over the 24-hour cycle. It needs to be broken into very specific parts.

The pre-workout and post-workout meals are often considered extremely important as it gives you adequate calories and optimizes your physical performance. It also positively influences your recovery process.

In the pre-workout window, the body needs sufficient energy and calories to power you through intense resistance training sessions. Hence, fuelling your body adequately is a must.

The techniques like forced reps, drop sets to help build muscles need enough fuel to sustain your energy level. Hence, what you eat should be properly monitored. When you are eating to build muscles, and maximize your capacity and performance pre-workout and post-workout meals are extremely important.

The pre-workout meal should contain nutrients and calories to successfully complete the intense training that can include weight push or pull, drop sets, forced reps and many others that will determine your muscle gain. Pre-workout nutrition should accommodate the following components.

Proteins – 20 to 30 grams

A fast-digesting protein will help you to hit the gym within 30 to 60 minutes. Whey and egg protein are good for a quick protein meal or snack. If your protein source is from animals then choose from chicken, tuna or ground turkey. A meal from animal protein should be taken at least 2-3 hours before the workout session.

Carbohydrates

The number of carbohydrates to be consumed as your pre-workout meal depends on your body weight, age and macronutrient goals for building muscles. The meal should be approximately 25 to 40% of your total carb intake per day. Carbs provide the energy needed to go through a strenuous workout and to recover without issues.

Fatty Foods

Avoid foods that contain high amounts of fat. Fats should be sparingly used in a pre-workout meal. Its presence should be in small doses throughout the day. Simple proteins and carbs make for quick digestion.

Summary: Pre-workout meals are very important and should offer certain important goals. Enough carbohydrates should be included to manage the constant energy source. Adequate protein will take care of the muscles. High-fat food should be avoided as it is difficult to digest and may make you feel uncomfortable during exercise.

5 Quick and Tasty Pre-Workout Recipes

Check out some of the simple recipes for a pre-workout supplement that will charge you up for an intense workout.

Whey Protein With Oats

Plain quick oats made hot with added protein powder will make a nutritious pre-workout meal. An overnight protein meal will require you to mix oats with almond milk or cashew milk or just water. Add the protein powder and leave it to soak completely in the liquid.

Refrigerate it overnight and by morning you have a smacking delicious meal to be eaten before your training session. You can add a spinoff by including chocolate, salted caramel or French vanilla.

Toast with Egg Whites

Egg whites are fast-digesting and are a good source of protein. White bread is rich in carbs and can be digested quickly for an immediate supply of fuel.

You can begin your workout soon after (about an hour) without feeling sluggish. You could have some lean turkey to add more taste.

Rice And Chicken

If you have a couple of hours in hand, you can try out the chicken with rice. For one it is low in fat and high in protein. Rice is one of the best sources for carbs and works well as a pre and post-workout supplement.

Brown rice is a good option too, though it takes longer to digest. Rice is a good source of protein as well compared to other grains and has no fat in it. Try seasoning chicken with Himalayan pink salt and lemon pepper and garlic.

Pre-workout supplements are also a good source of valuable nutrition and will help you through your intensive training session.

Crushed Walnut-Banana Shake

Blend together 2 cups of milk, ¼ teaspoon of vanilla extract, a handful of walnut pieces, 1 tablespoon of honey and one large banana.

It contains 227 calories, 37 grams of carbs, 2 grams of fiber, 5mg of cholesterol, 130 mg of sodium, 10 grams of protein and 5 grams of fat (includes 1 gram of saturated fat).

Avocado-Blueberry Smoothie

This recipe has two layers. The bottom layer is a blend of 1 ripe avocado, 250 ml of plain low-fat yogurt, 45 ml of honey and juice from half a lime. Blend it all together and pour it into 4 glasses.

The second or top layer is a combination of 1 ⅓ cup of blueberries (325 ml). Frozen blueberries will bring out frothiness. Add ¼ cup or 60 ml of almond butter or peanut butter, 1 cup or 250 ml of low-fat yogurt and ⅓ cup or 75 ml of milk. Blend it thoroughly and pour it on top of the first blend.

Each serving contains 11 grams of protein, 19 grams of fat (3 grams of saturated fat), 5 grams of fiber, 28 grams of carbs 174 mg of sodium and 8 mg of cholesterol.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on Pre-Workout Supplements

Are Pre-Workout Supplements Safe?

For most people, pre-workout supplements are safe. If you are getting initiated to a supplementary diet, take only half the dose and note if your body reacts to the intake. There are stimulants, sugar, and caffeine in most of the supplements (21).

The amounts of caffeine can vary between brands. High levels can cause serious health issues. Read the list of ingredients given on the label and the amounts contained in the particular brand.

When Should I Take a Pre-Workout Supplement?

You can take it 15-30 minutes before the session. However, if the duration is going to be a long one, you can delay it up to an hour into the session. It would be also beneficial to cycle your intake.

Continuous consumption of pre-workout supplements can create a tolerance to its effects. An off-cycle break of 6 to 8 weeks will give your body a period to reset.

How to Start With Pre-Workout Supplements?

If you are healthy to take pre-workout supplements, try with single-serving samples of well-known brands to test them. 

Make a note of your physical and mental changes and energy while using each of them. This will help you in choosing the one that suits your body.

Will I Feel Jittery After Taking a Pre-Workout Supplement?

Yes, there are chances that you will feel jittery after consuming certain brands of pre-workout supplements depending on the stimulants they contain.

However natural caffeine provides less crash-burn type of energy. A euphoric energy sense is often felt from caffeine that are derived from teas.

Can I Get Rid of the Side Effects of Pre-Workout Supplements?

Yes, you can. By keeping yourself hydrated throughout the day you can counter the side effects like headaches. Taking a conservative amount of the supplement will avoid headaches.

Diarrhea can happen with certain brands. This may be due to the presence of particular ingredients that have a laxative effect. If you have a sensitive digestive system, you may visit the toilet almost immediately after ingestion.

The products may have a high amount of creatine, caffeine, arginine, taurine, magnesium, sodium bicarbonate and Yohimbe. 8 ounces of water added to the supplemental powder may not be adequate. If it does not get diluted properly the paste will cause diarrhea.

A simple way to get rid of most of the gastrointestinal issues with pre-workout supplements is to drink plenty of water during the workout and throughout the day. However, this may vary between individuals.

Is it Safe to Take up High-Intensity Workouts With Supplements?

Pre-workout supplements are often followed by ‘High-intensity workouts’ (HIIT). This can cause a rise in your blood pressure.

Even without supplements, most people can experience high blood pressure. If you have this medical condition, abstain from consuming any pre-workout supplements that have stimulants.

Why are There Pricking Sensations to These Pre-workout Supplements?

Sensitivity to specific ingredients is present and it differs between people. If the supplement contains niacin, vitamin B3 or beta-alanine, then most likely sensitivity will occur. (22)

Many brands include niacin for the very same reason. It may cause the skin to become red or itchy. A quick check on the ingredients and their quantities will help you to choose the right pre-workout supplement.

The Final Note

Pre-workout supplements include all the ingredients that are consumed by people with the singular goal of an effective workout. The name even suggests so. It is said, “ the pre-workout supplement should optimize your mind and body to maximize performance”. (22)

The most common ingredients of a pre-workout supplement are caffeine, beta-alanine, creatine, betaine, taurine, and other branched-chain amino acids. It may include other stimulants to ensure focus and total concentration. It improves both aerobic and anaerobic capacity.

For long-lasting endurance training or power exercise like weight training, the ingredients present play a very important role. The right time of intake is also very critical to ensure that burst of energy.

But, everything comes with a side effect and so does this. There are side effects to deal with. Hence, it is of utmost importance that we understand how it works, which ingredients should be present for our type of exercise, what is the right time to have it and how to deal with the side effects. It isn’t a shortcut, just a reasonable way to enhance your efficiency.