Pre-workout supplements: Power up or placebo powder?

Man reading a supplement bottle

While getting ready for a workout, there are a few things you might need. Water bottle? Check. Headphones? Charged. Shoes? Tied. One scoop of pre-workout to get you going? Wait. What?

Pre-workouts are dietary supplements taken before exercising to give you a boost during the workout. The goal behind pre-workouts is to be ergogenic – meaning to enhance performance and/or recovery. But as with every dietary supplement, the question should be raised: do pre-workouts really work? 

We teamed up with orthopaedic surgeon Matt Tao, MD, and Sports Medicine program coordinator Rusty McKune, ATC, to shed some light on pre-workouts and the science behind them.

What is a pre-workout?

A pre-workout is a supplement taken before a workout to improve performance. Most pre-workouts come in a powdered form – similar to protein powder. The goal of these supplements is to help increase energy, improve stamina and build muscle.

What is in a pre-workout?

Pre-workouts include a special blend of ingredients unique to each brand. It is wise to evaluate the ingredient list as athletes, particularly collegiate and professional, are responsible for what they put in their bodies. Also, the marketing around pre-workout supplements is prone to unsubstantiated claims.

What works?

Although the hype is a given when it comes to pre-workouts, there certainly is good data behind some of these supplements. Below is a list of some of the common and research-backed ingredients you may see on the bottle.

Performance enhancement:

  • Water/sports drinks – Hydration is key. Limit the loss of body mass due to sweating, which is critical to maintain exercise performance 
  • Carbs – Maintain intake to preserve glycogen stores
  • Caffeine – Ergogenic aid for aerobic and anaerobic exercise. Caffeine helps increase energy expenditure and promotes weight loss
  • Sodium bicarbonate (i.e. baking soda) – Effective way to buffer acidity for high-intensity exercise 
  • Beta-alanine (nonessential amino acid) – Some evidence for performance benefit in terms of improving training volume and muscle mass 
  • Phosphate – May improve aerobic and anaerobic capacity

 Muscle building:

  • Protein – Higher amounts of protein are required for exercising individuals (1.4 – 2.0 grams/kg body weight/day)
  • Creatine – One of the most effective supplements to increase high-intensity exercise capacity and muscle mass
  • Essential amino acids (EAA) – Nine separate amino acids, branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) have been highlighted for their role in muscle protein synthesis
  • HMB (metabolite of amino acid leucine) – During resistance training, 1.5 to 3 grams/day can lead to increased muscle mass
Visit the Sports Medicine page to learn more about the different programs we offer or call us at 800.922.0000 to schedule an appointment.

What are some downsides?

While there are some great benefits to taking pre-workouts, there are some things to consider. Dr. Tao suggests making sure the product is National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) certified, ensuring quality control and safety. Here are a few specific things to watch out for: 

  • Creatine - When using creatine, you should have normal kidney function and stay well hydrated 
  • Caffeine - The effect of caffeine varies from person to person. Be aware that some pre-workouts have a significant amount of caffeine, up to 300 mg, which is equal to three cups of coffee. If you have a heart condition or are sensitive to caffeine, speak with your physician before taking products with large amounts of caffeine
  • Beta-alanine - Particularly known to cause itching and tingling due to its effect on certain nerves and cells within the body. Although short-lived, some people find it quite bothersome
  • Niacin - Flushing is common from niacin. This is fairly benign but can also be bothersome 

 When taking any new supplement, consider speaking to a doctor or health care professional.

How can I maximize my workouts?

Using a pre-workout may seem like a magic bullet, however, there is no substitute for an appropriate training foundation. The cornerstones of athletic performance are a well-balanced diet, smart training and proper rest. No pre-workout or supplement will make up for deficits in these areas. 

Before choosing to use a pre-workout, McKune suggests considering these questions:

  • Why am I using a pre-workout?
  • Do I need a pre-workout?
  • Are these pre-workout supplements legal?

If there is any concern about your workouts, consider going over your diet, training program and rest. Go over each aspect and make adjustments as needed. If all are in order, a pre-workout can provide a boost to your workouts and help you reach your goals.