Do Your Workouts Need a Boost? The ‘Scoop’ on Pre-workout Supplements

Did your fitness routine kinda fall off the wagon over the summer? Getting back into the habit of regular workouts this fall? Wondering if you might benefit from a little “boost” to get those results fast?

A little while ago (ok- quite awhile ago…sorry guys!) I put a call out on my Instagram story (@stephthedietitian) asking my awesome followers for suggestions for articles they wanted to see. It’s really a super sneaky way for me to be able to write about things that are interesting to people while also not having to think of the ideas myself! Genius.

Anyway, one of the topics that someone suggested was about pre-workout supplements. I  loved the idea because dietary supplements and sports supplements in particular aren’t really something I’ve written much about before, despite them being a super common topic of conversation with my nutrition and training clients alike.

So, since there’s no time like the present to have a chat about these popular supplements I’m going to be breaking down the facts vs fiction when it comes to pre-workout supplements, and provide some suggestions for what to look for in a product if you happen to be on the market.

Pre-workout supplements come in a variety of forms and carry a whole whack of different promises. Some guarantee you’ll burn more fat, have more energy, increase the “pump” from strength training and get you bigger, better results at the gym.

A quick search on some popular supplement website will turn up hundreds of results for pre-workout products. Generally speaking, they come in either a pill or powder format and are meant to be taken some length of time prior to exercise. The flavor, packaging, and obvious target market varies, and is always an interested lesson in branding/marketing strategies (You want a great example of sexism in marketing, just take a look at supplement packages!) I have to laugh a little at the way these companies market their products. Names like “Beast”, “military grade”, “Combat”, “Anarchy”, “Wreckage” boast the capabilities of their contents like most of the people who buy this stuff aren’t just working out at the local YMCA. And pink for the ladies of course. But, we’re here to talk about what’s IN the plastic tubs, not my personal opinions on the companies’ marketing tactics.

Let’s start by taking a look at the most common ingredients in these “Beast Mode” pre-workout products:


“Fat burning” pre-workout pills and pre-workout powders

The Pills: These handy little guys promise to literally melt the fat off your body. Brand names you might recognize like Hydroxycut, these supplements claim to give you the extra boost you need to look like a cover model ASAP

The Powders: A drinkable alternative to the pre-workout pills, the powders are a bit more complex and tend to have a much longer ingredient list. Just about every supplement company has a hand in the pre-workout powder market. They’ve usually got pumped up sounding names like ‘ingnite’, ‘ripped’, or ‘mutant madness’. And pink for the ladies of course.

What’s really in them?

Depending on the product (there’s endless variability between brands), most contain a combination of stimulants, electrolytes, weight loss “stuff” (like green tea extract, raspberry ketones, or CLA), herbals, animo acids, and maybe sometimes ingredients that could actually be useful (read on to find out what those might be!)

The thing you really need to know is that the major active ingredient in most of these products is actually good ol’ caffeine. And, to be totally 100% honest, this is about all they really have going for them. Caffeine is actually quite well-researched as a potential performance enhancer (if you need a cup of coffee to get you going in the morning you can definitely attest to this!). Some people experience improved athletic performance from using caffeine- however, caffeine may not be the best supplement for everyone. Genetic differences between people can alter how their bodies process and use caffeine, which means it can be great for some folks, but actually detrimental for others. (you can read more about the interactions between nutrition and your genes here)

…but, do they work?

Yes, taking a caffeine-containing substance will most likely give you a pre-workout “boost”, especially if you belong to the genotype group that enjoys performance enhancing benefits of caffeine. Some of the other ingredients like yerba mate or guarana are actually caffeine-containing plants, which is why people often feel the effects of a pre-workout supplement significantly more. Other ingredients like taurine are thought to work alongside caffeine to enhance it’s effects as well- this is why taurine is so frequently found in things like preworkout supplements or energy drinks. The risk however is that the actual amount of caffeine in these products can be unknown. A company may use a set amount of actual caffeine in their blend, but then add in a few extra sources (the amounts on the label are usually unspecified). This can put the total actual caffeine content way over the top of what’s considered safe, especially for those who don’t have a more caffeine-friendly genotype. There may also be safety concerns with some of the other unregulated and unstudied ingredients or contaiminants.

As for the other stuff? Clinical trials have not shown any meaningful benefit to taking the other herbal ingredients, and many of them just have no evidence at all.

Even if there are some useful ingredients in a product, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to take them all in combination, since you can’t control the dosing of each individual supplement. When we talk about performance nutrition or supplementation, we generally use dosing schedules using an athlete’s body weight (for example caffeine the range could be anywhere from 3-6 mg per kilogram of a person’s body weight). If you’re purchasing a supplement that contains multiple ingredients in various amounts, it’s likely you’ll wind up with too much of one and put yourself at risk, or too little of anther to have any benefit.

My advice? Don’t waste your money on the fancy pills or powders. They’re over-the-top expensive, and often provide nothing more than what you can get from a cup of coffee. If you find that a little caffeine before exercises lightens your step a bit, feel free to grab a cup before heading to the gym. Caffeine is one of the most well-researched pre-workout supplements out there and it’s benefits are legit. If you’re not a regular caffeine consumer already, be sure to talk to a Registered Dietitian about how much is safe for you, and of course use with caution if you have any pre-existing conditions like high blood pressure or heart disease, or are pregnant. If you happen to be an athlete who competes, there have also been stories of products like these containing banned substances resulting in serious penalties for the athletes who take them. So buyer beware.


Creatine

Creatine is another popular sport supplement that while effective, can sometimes be misused. Creatine is a substance that our bodies naturally produce, which plays a role in energy production. When we have to generate force to lift a weight, creatine is part of that mechanism. The idea behind creatine supplementation is that if we have more creatine available in our working muscles, we will be able to generate more quick, explosive power.

Interestingly, this has shown to be true in research studies. However, that doesn’t mean that we should all just start scooping heaps of creatine into our shaker cups every day. It’s important to know the proper timing, use, and dosage of creatine as well as be aware of potential side effects.

Creatine supplementation is best used when training goals are to increase strength and power (as opposed to working on endurance training or building a lot of muscle mass).

Proper dosing includes a loading phase, and a maintentance phase, which then is followed with a break from taking the supplement at all. If we were to keep taking large amounts of creatine from supplements, our bodies will respond by decreasing it’s own production…which is the opposite of what you’d want. It’s also important if you are going to use creatine, to use creatine monohydrate which is the only type shown to work in research studies.

Should you try it?

It depends! When used properly, creatine supplementation has been shown to be effective and safe. The main side effect noted in studies is water retention, which may be a deterrent for athletes participating in very weight-sensitive sports. That being said though, if your goal is to increase high-intensity strength and power, it may be worth considering creatine alongside a well-designed training program.


Nitrate

Nitrate is a common supplement found in some preworkout powders, as well as on it’s own, usually in the form of beetroot juice or capsules. Beets (as well as spinach, arugula, and celery) contain high amounts of these naturally-occuring nitrates, which plays a key role in muscle functioning. The idea is that if you supplement with additional nitrates, you’ll see enhanced performance- due to a combination of increased blood flow to the working muscles and stronger muscle contractions. You’ll also need less oxygen to get the job done during aerobic exercise. Nitrate supplementation has actually been shown to work fairly well in research studies (for higher-intensity, shorter duration activities), but a few questions remain: Does the amount of nitrates a person usually eats in their diet impact the benefit they may gain from supplements? Is there an optimal timing of nitrate supplementation to get the most benefit?

Should you try it?

Generally speaking, nitrate supplementation has been shown to be safe and effective for higher-intensity exercise lasting less than 40 mins. The main side effect reported is gastrointestinal upset for some people, so if you do plan to try it I would suggest giving it a go carefully and near a bathroom. Definitely don’t try this one for the first time on the same day as a race or competition!


Sodium Bicarbonate

Sodium Bicarbonate is a substance found in our bodies that acts as a buffer to help get rid of lactic acid buildup in the muscles during exercise. The theory behind it’s supplementation is that if we can increase this buffering capacity we can perform high-intensity activity for a longer period of time. In research studies, it has been shown to be effective for high-intensity activity such as sprinting.

Should you try it?

There’s one fairly significant downside to sodium bicarbonate supplementation: gastrointestinal upset. Unfortunately for many athletes, the amount of sodium bicarbonate needed to improve performance is far more than their gut can take prior to exercise. So proceed with caution on this one- proper timing and dosing may be the key!


Beta-Alanine

Beta-alanine is an amino acid that acts as another type of buffering agent. It can also  help us perform high-intensity activities for longer, just using a different mechanism than some of the other substances I mentioned above. We get beta-alanine from our foods when we eat things like red meat, poultry, or fish, but some research has supported the notion that supplementing with extra beta-alanine can have positive impacts on performance during high-intensity activites. That being said though, some side effects from beta-alanine supplementation have been reported- things like skin rashes or tingling/pins and needles in the hands and feet. Given that most people who consume animal foods would be getting a good source of beta-alanine in their diet anyway, I’d probably skip this one to avoid any potential side effects.


The Bottom Line

Supplements that have solid evidence to support improving athletic performance are few and far between. The good news is, the things that do work tend to be fairly inexpensive and accessible like caffeine. Before heading out to your local supplement store though, be sure to take some time to think about your fitness goals and determine if pre-workout supplements are something you really need. For most people (especially beginners), simply being consistent with your training routine is going to be plenty to give you great results for a long time before you really need to start taking anything extra. If you’re an athlete involved in competition, take care to only use brands that can guarantee they do not contain any potentially banned substances.

As always, if you aren’t sure, a Registered Dietitian who specializes in sport nutrition can help!


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About the Author:

Stephanie Hnatiuk is a Registered Dietitian and Personal Trainer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She believes good health doesn’t need to be complicated, and that you don’t need to be afraid have your cake and eat it too.


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