You can’t expect to turn up to every workout feeling 100%. If you’ve been feeling tired, lethargic, or unmotivated, pre-workout may be the boost your workout needs.
The pre-workout industry is inundated with chews, capsules, canned drinks, powders, and colorful liquid in shaker bottles all promising to help you get a better workout.
But do they really work? And most importantly, are they safe? We answer all below.
What is Pre-Workout?
“Pre-workout” is any supplement—usually a powdered drink mix—that claims to boost workout performance.
Virtually every supplement brand out there that offers a pre-workout formula has its own unique blend. Meaning while some brands might share similar ingredients, no two tubs are the same.
In fact, one 2019 study found that of the top 100 commercially available pre-workout supplements, nearly half of all ingredients were part of a “proprietary blend”, meaning the amounts of each ingredient were not disclosed (1).
Typically, these ingredients include a blend of B vitamins, carbs or sugar, caffeine, and other energy-boosting stimulants like creatine, BCAA’s, Taurine, and NO2 boosters.
But without regulation or clearer labeling, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what you’re getting in a tub of pre-workout. It also means aside from boosting performance, there’s no clear definition of what a pre-workout supplement is.
Why Do People Take Pre-Workout?
Most people take pre-workout to rev themselves up for a workout, or for specific performance or focus-boosting benefits. Pre-workout supplements can help improve strength, power, and endurance, reduce fatigue, and even alter your perception of effort.
For those reasons, people may choose to take pre-workout, and some people may prefer different pre-workout formulas more than others.
Does Pre-Workout Work?
It’s a mix. Some pre-workout ingredients are well studied and can improve your performance.
For example, one study found that combining a pre-workout formula containing caffeine, creatine, and amino acids with HIIT workouts resulted in significant increases in VO2 max, training volume, and lean body mass while reducing body fat faster (2).
But less-popular ingredients might be ineffective at best, and dangerous for your health at worst.
What Are the Benefits of Pre-Workout?
Because the ingredients of pre-workout vary, the benefits vary, too. But there are a few common (and safe) pre-workout ingredients that have been shown to increase workout performance. Here are the benefits you can expect based on what is in your pre-workout of choice.
Carbs are your body’s go-to source of energy. When exercising—especially at high intensities—your body uses glucose and glycogen (stored carbs) for energy. That’s why experts recommend eating carbs before a workout to properly fuel. Topping off your carb levels before a workout with pre-workout is just one way to increase energy and performance.
You’ll find caffeine in nearly every pre-workout (minus the non-stim category). Caffeine is a stimulant known for boosting energy and alertness. One review even concluded that caffeine supplementation can enhance aerobic endurance, muscular strength, jumping performance, and speed (3).
Creatine monohydrate is often included in pre-workout formulas. Creatine is naturally produced in the body, and it’s stored in your muscles as quick energy for high output efforts. Creatine can help you put in more effort during your workout and support greater muscle growth after your workout.
Studies consistently show that in normal doses—three to five grams per day—creatine is very safe for healthy adults. Creatine has also been linked to improved cognition (4), decreased risk of depression (5), and a lower risk of heart disease (6).
Vitamins B1, B2, B5, and B6 all play important roles in energy production and efficiency. While vitamin B12 supports blood production, vitamin B3 boosts DNA repair, which all play a role in helping your body work efficiently during your workout.
HMB is a substance your body makes out of the amino acid leucine and can also be found in protein-rich foods. HMB can reduce muscle breakdown, improve muscle repair, and enhance muscle growth after your workout (7,8). A recent review also suggests that HMB supplementation could help during your workout too, by increasing muscle power and improving aerobic performance during your workout (9).
Is Pre-Workout Dangerous?
Workout performance questions aside, safety is a big concern since pre-workout supplements are not regulated by the FDA as closely as drugs. Therefore, it pays to read the ingredients label before investing in a full tub.
The only way to guarantee a product contains what it says it contains (and nothing it doesn’t) is to find a product that is certified through a third party like the NSF. The NSF even offers an NSF Certified for Sport program, which is a program that gives athletes (and regular Joe’s like you and me) assurance that the products we consume aren’t contaminated, harmful, or banned from athletic competition.
Another thing to look out for is safe ingredients that can become harmful in high concentrations—like caffeine. The upper limits of caffeine (400mg) can cause some serious health issues like anxiety, insomnia, and high blood pressure.
For reference, a standard cup of coffee contains anywhere from 60-80 mg of caffeine. But many pre-workout supplements push closer to or breach 400 mg. Something to look out for in general, and important to consider if you’re a coffee or tea drinker, too.
It’s also wise to avoid supplements that contain more than 100% of your recommended daily allowance of any one nutrient unless otherwise prescribed by your doctor.
Do You Need to Take Pre-Workout to Get the Most Out of Your Workout?
In short, no. There are many other ways to gain energy and enhance the performance of your workout. For one, coffee and pre-workout share a common ingredient—caffeine—and the same benefit, albeit at a lower (and more appropriate) dose. Coffee is a great natural pre-workout.
Most importantly, the best way to fuel your body with the energy and nutrients it needs for your workout? Real food. If you’re eating whole foods, you know exactly what you’re getting.
Plus, if you’re meeting your nutrition needs through a whole foods diet and timing your nutrition appropriately around your training, most healthy, active individuals will have everything they need to perform their best.
Bottom line, get your basics—fueling for your energy requirement, hydrating, taking rest days, and getting good sleep—in order first. From there, if you’re looking for an added energy boost, pre-workout can be the cherry on top.
(1) “Common Ingredient Profiles of Multi-Ingredient Pre-Workout Supplements.” Nutrients, 2019 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30678328/. Accessed 8 August 2022.
(2) “The Effects of Pre-Workout Supplement Containing Caffeine, Creatine, and Amino Acids During Three Weeks of High-Intensity Exercise on Aerobic and Anaerobic Performance. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2010 https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-7-10. Accessed 8 August 2022.
(3) “Wake Up and Smell the Coffee: Caffeine Supplementation and Exercise Performance—an Umbrella Review of 21 Published Meta-Analyses” British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2019 https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/bjsports/54/11/681.full.pdf. Accessed 8 August 2022.
(4) “Oral Creatine Monohydrate Supplementation Improves Brain Performance: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Cross-Over Trial.” Proc Biol Sci. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14561278/n. Accessed 8 August 2022.
(5) “A Randomized, Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Trial of Oral Creatine Monohydrate Augmentation for Enhanced Response to a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor in Women With Major Depressive Disorder.” The American Journal of Psychiatry, 2012. https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.ajp.2012.12010009. Accessed 8 August 2022.
(6) “Creatine Supplementation Alters Homocysteine Level in Resistance Trained Men” Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 2015. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25853877/. Accessed 8 August 2022.
(7) “Mechanism of Action and the Effect of Beta-Hydroxy-Beta-Methylbutyrate (HMB) Supplementation on Different Types of Physical Performance—A Systematic Review.” Journal of Human Kinetics, 2019. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6724588/. Accessed 8 August 2022.
(8) “The Effects of Beta-Hydroxy-Beta-Methylbuturate Supplementation on Recovery Following Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 2017. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07315724.2018.1451789?journalCode=uacn20. Accessed 8 August 2022.
(9) “ISSN Exercise & Sports Nutrition Review Update: Research and Recommendations.” Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2018. https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-018-0242-y. Accessed 8 August 2022.