One of my most frequently asked questions is about whether I recommend taking pre-workout supplements.
If you aren’t familiar with pre-workout, it’s an energy supplement designed to give you a huge energy boost during your workout. Pre-workout is a powder substance that is formulated with specific ingredients to increase your energy, your heart rate, blood flow, endurance, strength and improved focus during your workout. I will discuss the pros and cons of taking pre-workout, as well as my personal experience and recommendation.
A few of the main ingredients that make up an effective pre-workout supplement are:
The most popular and well-known stimulant, caffeine, has been proven to increase energy levels and improve endurance for short periods of time. Since caffeine is widely used by many, those who are already accustomed to a regular intake of caffeine may need a slightly larger dose as their tolerance grows.
Recommended Dosage: 200-500mg. Do not exceed more than 600mg per day
BCAA are Branched-Chain Amino Acids which are the building blocks for your body. They make up 35% of your muscles and are required for molecular growth, regulating protein metabolism and protein synethsis, and they assist in preventing protein breakdown. Essentially, BCAA help to protect your muscles and prevent your body from turning to muscle as an energy source. (You want only fat to be your energy source).
Recommended Dosage: 3-5g in pre-workout, 10-15g total through the day, or up to 20g if you are an athlete.
This will help you keep the intensity up throughout your workout and is what will help you get through those last, and most important reps. Beta-Alanine is also where that “tingling” sensation comes from that many report feeling after taking pre-workout. This is called “parethesia” and different people may feel it to different degrees depending on their stimulant tolerance level.
Recommended Dosage: 1.5-5g
4. Vitamin B12
Its basic purpose is for proper metabolism function, for forming red blood cells, and also keeps your nervous system healthy, reducing depression and stress; all of these are assisted by a proper amount of vitamin B12 in your diet. Vitamin B12 is found in meat, eggs, milk, cheese, and some varieties of fish, so those following a plant-based diet need to supplement their diet with Vitamin B12 when removing these food sources. However, in the context of improving athletic ability, you need them in an even higher amount, more than what you can get from food, so many pre-workout brands add vitamin B12 to their formulas. The benefits of additional vitamin B12 in your diet for athletic purposes are: increased endurace, improved recovery rates, improved immune system and improved energy levels.
Recommended Dosage: 500mcg per serving
5. Creatine Monohydrate (optional)
I am including creatine here because it IS a common pre-workout ingredient and you may want it, or you may not, depending on your workout routine and your goals. Creatine is most commonly thought of as a supplement for men, but it’s not just for men. As I mentioned, it depends on your goals. Creatine is what will help assist you in powering through lower rep, higher weight workouts. It saturates your muscles and creates what is commonly referred to as “a pump”. A pump is when your muscles swell up during your workout, but then go back to normal afterwards. Often times, you see people taking selfies, flexing during or after their workout when they have this “pump”, but then their muscles go back to their normal, relaxed state post-workout. (Guilty! :P)
Recommended Dosage: No more than 5g.
*There are other ingredients pre-workout will contain, these are just 5 of the most popular / common ingredients.
When should you take pre-workout? Most labels say 30 minutes before but I believe that’s way too long. I recommend taking it no sooner than 10 minutes before you start your warm-up or workout. The reason being: if you take it 30 minutes before, or say if you’re in traffic and on your way to the gym; that tingling feeling can kick in and if you’re not moving (exercising), it can start to get painful. I don’t want that to deter you from trying it, you just need to know not to take it too early. Personally, I will take pre-workout right when I’ve parked at the gym.
Additionally, I would be aware of the timing you take pre-workout in relation to when you go to bed. I found if I take pre-workout after 5-6pm, it will impact my sleep and keep me awake, so I will take it only before that time of day. If you do work out later in the evening and need an energy boost, I would recommend testing out half a scoop to see if that’s enough to get you through your workout without keeping you up at night. (Or try an espresso!)
Aside from the individual dosage recommendations of each of the above ingredients, if you’ve never taken pre-workout before, I recommend taking half a scoop your first time trying it. Each person responds to pre-workout differently, and especially if you don’t have a high tolerance for caffeine, one scoop could be too much. Start with half, see how it feels, then work your way up to one full scoop from there.
Over time, your body will adjust and get used to the pre-workout formula you’re taking, so I do recommend cycling pre-workout and either trying a different pre-workout brand, or taking a break every few months entirely.
As I mentioned above, everyone reacts differently to pre-workout and stimulants. The ingredients I listed above are just a few of the main ingredients to look out for, but there will be several other ingredients in the formula. It is possible there could be an ingredient you don’t respond well to, and while I personally have never had this happen, Luca has. The particular ingredient he is sensitive to is Yohimbine and he gets flu-like symtpoms anytime he takes pre-workout with this one ingredient, so he has to steer clear. If you feel anything out of the ordinary (aside from tingling and intense energy) after taking pre-workout, it could be the cause. In that case, I recommend trying a different brand with a different formula.
Also, if you struggle with any heart conditions such as arrhythmia, I do not recommend taking pre-workout as it could lead to cardiac arrest. Another case in which I recommend against taking pre-workout is if you are pregnant, trying to become pregnant or if you are breastfeeding.
The last caution about pre-workout is that like most supplements, they do not require the FDA’s approval before hitting the market. The manufactures and distributors themselves are responsible for making sure their products are safe. Unfortunately, there have been charges filed against a few supplement companies in the past after their pre-workout products were linked to severe health problems. These instances are few and far between, but I want to mention this to emphasize the importance of researching brands, checking reviews, and looking into possible side effects before taking any new supplement.
While there is a wealth of information out there these days, we are still learning about what is safe, about new ingredients and new formulas. On top of that, remember that different things work for different people. Your priority should first and foremost be your health and my personal viewpoint when it comes to pre-workout and supplements in general is that less is more. Aim for pre-workouts that have a minimal list of ingredients and if possible, limit your pre-workout consumption to a few times a week at most.
One question I am often asked in regard to pre-workout is how clean it is. To be honest, it’s not all that clean. One of the premises of “clean” eating is to minimize additives and processed ingredients; pre-workout doesn’t quite pass that test. So why do I take it? When I first started working out, it was later in the day after school when I was exhausted, and pre-workout was the only thing getting me to the gym. Many of you are familiar with my 80/20 approach, and since my diet is so clean, I filed pre-workout under the 20% category. It made such a big difference in my workouts and helped me push myself further, whereas if I hadn’t used the pre-workout, I likely wouldn’t have been as motivated to work out knowing I had so little energy. So for me, pre-workout was worth it. Pretty much since the beginning of my journey, I’ve taken pre-workout. That is, until I moved to Rome and discovered espresso. See, I’ve never been a coffee person. I’ve never been an energy drink drinker and I even didn’t drink soda because I really disliked any mood-altering substance, like caffeine. I never liked the idea of being dependent on any one stimulant and I never wanted to need to take something in order to feel “normal”.
After some time of taking pre-workout, I will note that it eventually turned into a sort of placebo effect for me. Since my body adjusted to taking pre-workout, it wasn’t so much the pre-workout itself that was pushing me than it was the fact that I was taking pre-workout, and that fact alone made me push even harder. I don’t necessarily think this was a good mentality to have because the days where we ran out of pre-workout, or I forgot it at home, I would instantly decide the workout was going to suck because I didn’t have that boost. It was almost more of a mental dependency than a physical one, which is exactly what I’ve disliked about stimulants my whole life.
So when I moved to Rome where drinking espresso is the norm, it took some time; well over a year before I would try my first espresso. Eventually I realized that if I was having pre-workout anyways, espresso was a more natural energy booster, so I started alternating pre-workout and espresso for my workout energy needs. For the last two years, I would have pre-workout on my FBG Strength Training Days and an espresso on my cardio days. Fast-forward to today, and I’ve entirely switched to espresso, with maybe the occasional day of taking pre-workout if I decide to lift heavier or if I am really struggling with energy that day.
Is pre-workout or espresso required for a good workout?
NO! Neither pre-workout nor espresso are required for a good workout. Whether you want or need to take them, it’s entirely up to you. It depends on your natural energy levels and simply what you’re used to! Some people have never worked out a day in their life taking a stimulant and they’ve done great and crush their workouts.
The only time I recommend pre-workout, or espresso, is if you find that you’re consistently lacking energy during your workouts and need an extra boost.
Please also note that energy levels are also (primarily) affected by your overall diet, water intake, and sleep habits. Taking pre-workout will not fix any of those issues alone and if your lack of energy is a result of one of those, the problem needs to be fixed at the source before you see any real improvement.
A bit of real talk about pre-workout and supplements in general… no supplement is required for living a healthy lifestyle. If someone tells you that you absolutely need it, they are likely trying to sell you product. There’s nothing wrong with buying that product when you know its uses and feel you could benefit from it, but there is no magic pill that will entirely transform you or your journey. Anyone who is tells you otherwise is selling you on false hopes. A healthy lifestyle and significant physical change comes first and foremost from a healthy, balanced diet and killer workout routine. Yes, supplements can help, but if you aren’t seeing results, it’s not because you aren’t taking supplements. The reason likely lies in your eating and workout routine, and no supplement can make up for that.
So now that we’ve covered the pre-workout basics, is there anything else you’d like to know or are still curious about?
Let me know your thoughts and if you found this blog helpful.