If you’re a beginner to working out, the sheer amount of information available can be overwhelming and off-putting. It seems everyone on social media is suddenly an expert in fitness and health when in reality, every body is different and there is no one-size-fits-all workout or diet.
Fitness culture has become increasingly present on social media over the last few years. There are beautiful, fit influencers filling up our feeds with their workout routines, “what I eat in a day” videos, matching workout sets, and of course, ads, sponsors, and partnerships. Out of the countless products fitness influencers promote, one popular item is pre-workout supplements. It’s the weird powder you see people dry-scooping into their mouths or mixing with water before a workout. But what is it and do you actually need it?
What is a Pre-Workout Supplement?
A pre-workout supplement, more commonly just referred to as pre-workout, is a “multi-ingredient dietary formula designed to boost energy and athletic performance,” according to Healthline.com. Pre-workout typically comes in a powdered drink mix form but can also be found in a pill or gummy variety. It is marketed to increase your endurance, strength, resistance and overall power of a workout. But how? The basic answer is caffeine. Lots of it.
While most pre-workout brands claim to have a proprietary blend of ingredients that makes their specific product most effective, the common denominator across pre-workout supplements is caffeine. It is well known that caffeine is a mild stimulant that increases alertness and energy levels; most people drink it in their coffee every day. But, in some cases, pre-workout supplements can contain 400 mg of caffeine per serving, the equivalent to four standard cups of coffee! It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that that much caffeine would result in increased energy levels.
Does it Really Work?
Like a lot of things pertaining to fitness, the answer is not black and white. A study from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found “significant differences in anaerobic peak power” when a caffeine-containing pre-workout supplement was used prior to a workout. The key information here is that these results were only seen during anaerobic exercise (quick bursts of energy performed at maximum effort), and not during strength and conditioning exercises. Also important to note, there is no scientific evidence that the other ingredients (besides caffeine) in pre-workout will result in performance improvement.
Who Needs It?
While studies on the efficacy of pre-workout remain slim, the most common consensus amongst professionals and experts is: skip it. Unless you’re an elite or competitive athlete with proper medical staff and supervision, pre-workout supplements can be dangerous. This is because pre-workout supplements do not have the same strict FDA requirements as foods. In fact, there are NO FDA-certified pre-workout supplements available. Supplement labels are not required to have a full ingredient list that includes specific dosages of each ingredient. Due to these unknowns, “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”, according to the American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy.
If you’re feeling tired or rundown in the gym, don’t jump immediately to pre-workout supplements. Changing other factors in your life such as diet, sleep regularity and water intake can often resolve your energy issues. Likewise, traditional foods such as bananas and blueberries, oats, and greek yogurt can give you an energy boost in a more natural way. However, if you’re still looking to reap the benefits of caffeine, Heidi Skolnik, M.S., a sports nutritionist, told CNN, “drinking a cup [of coffee] about one hour before you work out is optimal.”