I owe you an apology. To be transparent with you, I've been struggling for a while with topics for this blog. My indecisiveness has to lead me into a rut of not posting more content and for that I am sorry. I believe most of my best posts are the ones where I simply answer questions that are frequently asked, so, "If it ain't broke," right? If you're reading this now because you're looking to see if you should start/continue to take pre-workout, and want an evidence-based breakdown of whether or not pre-workout is necessary you're in the right spot. If you think of any questions along the way, take the time, to ask me a question via the comments here, or on Socials. 😊
Back to the original question, is Pre-workout necessary?
First of all, what is pre-workout? Pre-workout are supplements that are intended to be taken prior to exercise and typically contain a blend of ingredients such as caffeine, creatine, beta-alanine, amino acids, and nitric oxide agents, the combination of which may elicit a synergistic effect on acute (short-term) exercise performance and subsequent training adaptations compared to single ingredients alone. Similar to most of my responses to very specific questions like that, it will start with, "It depends..." Nutrition is very context-dependent. When we look at the literature, we can see that the consumption of Pre-workout products significantly improved subjective levels of energy and concentration and tended to increase focus while reducing fatigue compared to products containing caffeine alone (something like coffee/espresso). These improvements lead to increases in gains of lean mass (muscle), muscular performance, and overall workout experience (feelings) in resistance training settings. Meaning if you're someone that is going into the gym to lift weights, this could be very beneficial for your performance in your workout. That being said, I'd err to the side of caution if you are doing late-night workouts, as it is still highly caffeinated and will impact your melatonin production if taken close to bedtime, therefore negatively impacting your sleep quality. If you're an endurance runner/cyclist you may be out of luck, but also it DEPENDS! Based on the literature, we can extrapolate a potential benefit for ELITE-LEVEL endurance athletes to consume pre-workout as it increases time to fatigue (TTF) in highly-trained runners and may allow athletes to handle a higher level of circulating lactate (known as lactic acid) before reaching exhaustion. The same has not been found in recreational endurance athletes, so if you're a casual Sunday morning jogger, consider your coffee in the morning just to wake you up, then get going!
Taking a closer look at the common ingredients in pre-workout will help you understand why top nutrition professionals may or may not include pre-workout supplementation as part of their athlete's nutrition strategy. While it's true, every company does make unique products, most of the popular pre-workout supplements have many common ingredients, in varying quantities. Three (3) of the most popular and effective substances that are added and marketed in pre-workout supplements are caffeine, creatine, and beta-alanine. These are three ingredients/substances that have scientific backing, and ample evidence to verify their efficacy as it relates to using for exercise. While these supplements are tested regularly, there are many loopholes manufacturers can take to decrease the cost of production, without damaging marketing potential, or brand reputation in the process. One thing to remember when buying any supplements is that these companies are businesses. Businesses require profit to sustain themselves and the supplement industry is no different. When we look at the Top 100 supplements tested as part of this study, nearly half (44.3%) of all ingredients were included as part of a proprietary blend with undisclosed amounts of each ingredient. "Proprietary blends" is a term used in the pharmaceutical industry whereby manufacturers can create a blend of the listed ingredients, without disclosing the quantity of each ingredient. This is something to be aware of when purchasing a supplement, if I can be honest, proprietary blends are a "loophole" for supplement manufacturers to save money. It gives them the right to list the more expensive ingredients on the label, without including the adequate quantities of each ingredient. This occurs specifically with pre-workout affecting some of the ingredients that might have the biggest influence on your performance (beta-alanine, caffeine, etc). The average amount of beta-alanine per serving size was below the recommended efficacious dose. The average caffeine content was near the low end for an effective relative dose for a 70 kg individual (3–6 mg·kg−1 of body weight). This means that nearly half (44.3%) of the top 10 manufacturers used proprietary blends to sell a product that didn't have an effective serving dosage/wasn't strong enough to be considered adequate. On top of that, each and every brand that was tested struggled with consistently providing similar products. Hypothetically, this means that the company may advertise 200mg of caffeine per scoop serving, but a scoop from one container could be 40% of that dose, while the next could be 125%. Taking a look at the above-linked data, there was a pattern of underdosing creatine. This means that many of the individuals that regularly consume these supplements might not be using an adequate amount of creatine for their nutritional strategy to be effective and should consider speaking with their nutrition professional before potentially adding additional creatine supplementation.
To summarize, taking a pre-workout supplement while in some cases might be unpredictable in serving sizes, is a safe and effective tool that can help benefit many different athletes. There is much evidence to suggest that pre-workout supplementation may improve anaerobic power in resistance-based training, which indicates that it can be helpful for a variety of strength-power athletes in the gym. As mentioned above, it can also be beneficial for muscle growth in hypertrophy training, and time to exhaustion in elite-level endurance-trained athletes. Either way, consult your Doctor and other healthcare providers before consuming any supplement, but especially when containing stimulants like caffeine. For more help navigating the confusing minefield of nutrition information contact us, or follow me on Instagram and Tiktok for free fun and informative nutrition content!