The number one reason anyone takes a pre-workout supplement is that they like what the supplement is claiming to do. To help you get the most out of the time you’re spending in the gym, or the most out of your run, by increasing your energy levels, muscle power, and endurance during your workout, but have you ever looked to see what’s in it? Most supplements on the market contain a mystery blend of ingredients ranging from caffeine to guarana to creatine, but do these supplements work and are they even safe to take? Here’s what you don’t know about pre-workout supplements.
Before beginning, I want to thank my friends over at Reviews.com for sending me their latest research on pre-workout supplements. Their research is the reasoning as to why I don’t promote taking supplements, because of what is hiding in them. They researched the top supplements – 309 to be exact – on the market, consulted with sports nutritionists, look at reviews, and scientific publications. Out of the 309 that they started with – and quickly narrowed down – they ended up with just three pre-workout supplements that have the most effective ingredients, without all of the fillers that do nothing. I highly recommend reading their research findings.
In all reality, many supplements may just change the way you feel while working out. Many supplements contain ingredients to make you feel as if your workout is supercharged. You’ve got ingredients that increase blood flow, increase heart rate, increase focus, improve blood flow to the skin, and give you a little tingle.
However, none of that is going to result in what many of the supplements on the market are claiming to do. Which is to make you bigger, stronger, and/or faster. Meaning most supplements are nothing more than a placebo.
Granted some supplements do have ingredients – such as caffeine, creatine, and beta-alanine – that have been shown to enhance performance in extreme athletes and bodybuilders modestly, but they only give those individuals an edge if they’re pushing themselves to the limit.
On the other hand, some supplements on the market may contain illegal and dangerous additives, such as amphetamine-like stimulants. Even supplements that contain only legal ingredients can include high levels of caffeine, which can have an adverse effect on the heart. Plus if you’re like me and can’t handle caffeine well, you could deal with one of its many other side effects like insomnia, nervousness, and restlessness, stomach irritation, nausea, vomiting, increased heart rate and respiration, etc.
The Reasoning For The Rush
It’s no secret that caffeine can give you a rush, hence why many people depend on the morning cup of coffee. Same applies to pre-workout, consume caffeine before your workout, and it can provide a physical boost to help you through your workout.
A 2012 study in the Journal of Strength Conditioning and Resistance found than men who took caffeine supplements could dead lift, bench-press, and do other heavy lifting at greater weights when compared to the men who took a placebo. Other studies have suggested that runners and rowers can increase their aerobic capacity with a dose of caffeine, although these studies also noted that the benefits of caffeine tend to diminish as people start to develop a tolerance to it.
Too much caffeine can cause health problems, and unfortunately many supplements contain more than 200mg per serving. Granted on average, an adult can have 300-400mg of caffeine a day, but if you’re drinking coffee, tea, soda, etc. on top of your pre-workout supplement, you might be consuming too much caffeine.
Have no fear, you could guzzle gallons of coffee all day – not that I recommend that – and not suffer from a real caffeine overdose, but even at lower levels, caffeine can worsen certain health conditions such as heart arrhythmia, leading to cardiac arrest.
Even though most supplements contain a safe dose of caffeine – except for one that contains 435mg of caffeine (close to four cups of coffee). By combining it with a few cups of coffee, or soda, these supplements could easily make you feel shaky, nauseated, and ill.
Another common ingredient in just about every pre-workout supplement on the market is creatine, which is said to boost energy production in the muscle cells, and also draws fluids from the blood plasma into the skeletal muscle, which can then improve muscle performance.
In small trials, creatine supplementation has been shown to have some benefits. A study in the Journal of Athletic Training in 2003 found that college football players who took the supplement had less cramping, dehydration, and fewer injuries when compared to the players who took a placebo. Plus a study of 20 athletes in the Journal of Nutrition in 2002 found that creatine increased their body mass and gave them peak power during short sprints.
The downside is that it has to be taken regularly to “build up” to a sufficient level to have any effect. Taking it once or twice a week before your workout won’t produce the necessary level to have any effect. Plus it only works when you push yourself during your workout.
Considering a majority of people who go to the gym spend approximately 90% of the time talking and resting rather than working out, you may not even be pushing yourself anywhere near where you should, to get any of the effectiveness of the ingredients.
Don’t worry though the downsides don’t stop there. Most supplements don’t even list how much creatine they contain. Personally, I like to know what something is, and how much of it I’m putting in my body, anyone else?
But don’t worry, we’ve still got proprietary blends to cover…
What does “proprietary blend” mean? This term that supplement companies love to use can be a grab bag of up to 10 ingredients, but the best part about it is that there is little to no evidence that “proprietary blends” help boost athletic performance any more than the individual ingredients alone.
For the company it saves them from having to label each product with the dose of the individual ingredient, meaning that a supplement could have close to none creatine, for example, to have an effect.
Unfortunately, the biggest risk that pre-workout supplements are known very well for is containing harmful substances. For example, the Food and Drug Administration filed criminal charges against USPLabs back in November, the makers of the pre-workout supplements Jack3d and OxyElite Pro, both of which were linked to acute liver damage, and multiple deaths.
The FDA found that these supplements contained a dangerous amphetamine precursor called 1, 3-dimethylamylamine, or DMAA, which isn’t on the FDA’s list of approved supplement ingredients.
Don’t worry testing has been done on the new formulations of these supplements, and they don’t contain the illegal DMAA. However, another supplement, a drink called Train Critical FX, contained similar amphetamine precursor, BMPEA (Beta-Methylphenethylamine). BMPEA is a doping agent that can bring heart risks and isn’t on the FDA’s list of approved supplement ingredients.
Have no fear once again; most pre-workout supplements probably don’t contain these dangerous ingredients. After all, in the supplement industry it’s all about marketing, and just about nothing to do with what the product does. Most supplements don’t do anything, without you doing 90% of the work yourself.
Some Other Things
Some other ingredients commonly found in pre-workout supplements include B vitamin niacin; which can cause sweatiness and blood flow to the skin called a “niacin flush,” and vasodilators, such as citrulline, which widens the blood vessels. No study has truly shown that these ingredients increase muscle mass, the increased blood flow to the muscles may make your muscles feel pumped, making them look bigger while working out. However, this result is transient.
What’re Your Thoughts?
In an industry that’s always pushing supplements, I’m firmly against it for the average gym goer. Even as an athlete who is a speed and distance runner; I don’t take supplements because I believe that if you combine a proper diet, proper hydration, and adequate sleep your body will do just fine. Even most sports nutritionists agree with this method for their professional athletes because if you properly take care of your body, it’ll take care of you.
Ally Gonzales is the founder & editor-in-chief of RunningSoleGirl. Along with blogging she is also juggling attending college and majoring in Exercise and Sports Science with a Sports Management minor.