The REAL Truth About Pre-Workout Supplements

February 16, 2015

The REAL Truth About Pre-Workout Supplements

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It’s Monday. You got up at 5am this morning, showered, shaved, ate breakfast (cherry pop-tarts, yum!), got dressed and hauled yourself off to work. You somehow managed to trudge your way through another brutal 10 hour day at your desk and now it's finally time to head off to the gym and participate in what is commonly referred to as “International Chest Day.” You drag yourself out of your car, gym bag in tow as you begin trying to psych yourself up for the torture to come. If you are like a lot of people out there, you might be reaching for your pre-workout powder to help pick you up so you can manage to get all the way through your brutal exercise routine.

This scene is repeated all over the country more and more in recent years as the popularity of pre-workout supplements has grown almost exponentially.  What once came in the form of a simple cup of coffee, has transformed into giant buckets of exotically flavored concoctions that have a list of ingredients as long as your arm, with names so difficult to pronounce that you might sprain your tongue trying to say them. There are hundreds of manufacturers each with dozens of products out there, so how are you supposed to know what works, what doesn’t and what just might hurt you?  


Well, lucky you, I am a giant nerd who loves to peer through research studies so I can distill the “Cliff’s Notes” to share with people who want the truth but aren’t too excited about going out to find it themselves.  I’ve gone out and read, re-read and then for good measure, re-re-read a whole slew of studies about pre-workout supplements so I could share with you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about these popular pills, powders and drinks.  I decided to organize my research into three areas based on questions I have received from my own personal training clients over the years:

1. Do pre-workout supplements really work?

Ask any of your buddies what they think about their pre-workout supplement and I am sure they will rant and rave about how it made them lift 200lbs more on their barbell curls last week and they grew 5 inches on their calves in only 3 days.  Now, I am not calling your friends liars, I just don’t like to use anecdotal evidence when I make decisions on what I put in my body.  It might be a good idea for you to be a little skeptical as well.

Supplements taken before a workout are often used to improve energy, alertness, strength, power, and body composition. There are a good number of studies out there that show that the main active ingredient in most pre-workouts, caffeine, does in fact increase both energy and alertness.  There are also studies showing that caffeine can help to reduce the feeling of fatigue and actual physical fatigue. How you consume your caffeine is up to you.  Some prefer good old coffee and others like the exotic fruit flavors you will find in the wide array of pre-workouts. One thing of note to watch out for is a supplement that over does it by mega-dosing the caffeine.  Anything over 200mg of caffeine per serving won't actually give extra results but might bring about additional side effects like not falling asleep until next Thursday.


The common addition of creatine to various pre-workouts is perhaps the most scientifically backed addition to the smorgasbord of goodies you'll find thrown into one of these products.  Creatine has been studied and pressure tested for results thousands of times and always comes out as a clear winner for people looking to build strength, muscular size and increase their endurance. If you are going to try out a pre-workout, make darn sure this key ingredient is in the bottle, as it is the gold standard of the supplement industry when it comes to performance enhancement.

2. Are pre-workout supplements safe for me?

Pre-workouts list a zillion (it’s a real number, look it up) ingredients and oftentimes they keep the quantities of some of these ingredients a secret by saying they are part of a “proprietary blend.”  While this sounds all fancy and stuff, it is actually one of the more concerning aspects of the mostly unregulated supplement industry.  Not knowing what is actually in that pre-workout powder is a red flag to some folks and for good reason.

The study, “Efficacy and Safety of Ingredients Found in Pre-workout Supplements,” found that “adverse effects reported in association with pre-workout supplements include gastrointestinal symptoms, cardiac arrhythmia, blood pressure increases, and potential effects on lipids and blood glucose.”  These issues were most often seen due to more and more products being made using a “shotgun” mentality whereby a multitude of ingredients were combined into one product.  While some of the key ingredients  found in pre-workout supplements have proven benefits, the combinations used by a few suspect manufacturers have little, if any research done to show their safety. Make sure to check the label on the side of the bottle for full disclosure of the ingredients you are getting in each scoop to make sure you don't end up glowing in the dark.

3. Are pre-workout supplements worth the money?

With the secretive “proprietary blends” and mega doses of various ingredients that may or may not be of any value, this question seems more complicated than it actually is.  Just like in the energy drink market, caffeine is the active ingredient that is responsible for a good portion of the actual benefits associated with pre-workout supplements.  In addition to having a dose of  caffeine, look for a pre-workout that contains an endurance ingredient like Creatine, N-Acetyl L-Tyrosine, Beta Alanine (Carnosine), or Citrulline Malate.  These ingredients can help push you through a harder and longer workout which if you're eating right and getting the rest your body needs, could lead to improved results. You'll also want to check to see that your pre-workout of choice packs in what is known as a "vasodilator" (a substance that helps increase blood flow) like Creatine Nitrate, Arginine, or Agmatine Sulfate. Last but not least, I recommend looking for a pre-workout that has BCAAs (branched chain amino acids) added into the mix as they are known to help improve both how long you can workout for as well as being part of the recovery equation.  If your preferred pre-workout has all of these great ingredients, than you can rest assured that your money is being invested properly in a product that will yield both immediate effects and long term results in your fitness journey.

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