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UPDATED for 2021.
You were on your way to the gym, enthusiastic about your workout. But thirty minutes into the workout the dreaded fatigue started to kick in.
You told yourself that this time things would be different. That no matter how hard your gym sessions would be you’d push through and see your goals through.
But as each minute goes on, you start to fade. You’re getting sluggish and you feel drained. The mind eventually falters and gives in to fatigue.
If you’ve ever found yourself in this situation, then you might have wondered; “what the answer?”
A natural, powerful and performance-boosting pre-workout. That’s what!
Pre-Workout 101: What are Pre-Workout Supplements?
Welcome to our Pre-Workout supplement guide!
Pre-workouts are designed to be taken prior to exercise to supercharge your physical and mental performance. Pre-workouts typically come as powders that you mix with water and drink 15-30 minutes before training.
Pre-workout supplements usually consist of a mixture of natural ingredients, such as vitamins, creatine, and caffeine. They may also contain amino acids which boost your blood flow – enhancing and prolonging muscle ‘pumps’.
Essentially, a pre-workout gives you the power, strength, endurance, and stamina of a top-level athlete.
Pre-Workout Supplements are Becoming Increasingly Popular…
As a fresh, exciting kind of performance-enhancers, pre-workout supplements are the result of hundreds of peer-reviewed clinical studies. As research around them grows and scientists learn more about what your body responds best to, new and innovative products continue to come out.
Imagine a supplement that could ‘hack’ your physiology, turning you into a leaner, fitter, and stronger version of yourself. One that doesn’t fall on the floor after a few rounds of sprints, or crumble under a load of heavy lifts.
This is what a pre-workout essentially does… and it works amazingly well.
Who is a Pre-Workout for?
If you’re someone who’s always full of energy and motivation to crush your workouts, then you probably won’t need a pre-workout. But let’s say you want to hit the gym after a hard, long day at work…
Well, in this case, a pre-workout could give you that extra ‘push’ to get to the gym, and smash your sesh once there.
So, who is a pre-workout supplement for? It’s for anyone who:
- Needs more energy and motivation to stick to their fitness goals
- Wants to have bigger muscle pumps from working out
- Looks for a safe, legal, and natural way to increase their physical and mental performance
- Wants to improve muscle recovery and growth
Since the benefits of a pre-workout aren’t just confined to physical performance but also mood & mental function, these supplements are becoming increasingly popular amongst gamers, CEOs, and other high-performing individuals.
How do Pre-Workouts Work?
A good pre-workout supplement is completely legal and safe – and it only contains natural ingredients. It uses clinical research of optimal dosing and targets specific physiological pathways to maximize human performance.
Specialized ingredients in a pre-workout supplement work by:
- Stimulating the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine – better energy and endurance
- Boosting nitric oxide blood levels – wider blood vessels giving you that ‘swole’ look
- Enhancing neurotransmitters – sharper focus, increased drive
- Shortening recovery – handle higher training loads and recover quicker
- Optimizing mitochondria – crush fatigue and hit new PRs in the gym
Are you sensitive to caffeine? Then you should know that many pre-workout contain stimulants. Luckily, there are plenty of stimulant-free (aka ‘stim-free’) options, many of which use alternative energy-enhancers (such as L-Carnitine, PQQ, BHB salts).
Benefits of Pre-Workout Supplements
1. They Boost Your Stamina and Endurance
As you work out, your muscles can get fatigued prematurely. To prevent this premature exhaustion you’ll want to look into a pre-workout supplement.
However, you’ll want to take pre-workouts that nourishes you with the best nutrients and stimulants. This way, you’re priming your body to perform at your peak level, so you make every rep count and don’t ‘crash’ before the workout has finished! A good pre-workout will keep you energized even after the workout is finished.
2. They Maximize Your Exercise Performance
If you take a pre-workout before you do exercise – be it weightlifting or anything else – it could go a long way to supercharing your performance, helping you to hit your target.
Pre-workout often include amino acids like beta-alanine, which have been shown in several clinical trials to extend time to fatigue and help you power through those intense training sessions.
Many pre-workouts also contains nutrients that get depleted from hard training. These include creatine, B vitamins, and minerals like zinc and magnesium. It’s been discovered that natural pre-workout ingredients like these can enhance your performance during short bursts of intense activity – such as deadlifts, sprints, and so on.
3. They Optimize Your Mental Function
The gym environment can often be distracting. Be it the loud music that may not be your cup of tea, or the people who seemingly go to the gym just to chat and hang out, or just general noises and clanking of the weights!
And once you get side-tracked, it can be hard to get back into ‘the zone’. Therefore, it makes sense to take a pre-workout prior to working out to maintain that razor sharp focus. Many good pre-workout contains powerful doses of caffeine which acts facts on your central nervous system – improving concentration in the process.
Really good pre-workouts will also include so-called ‘nootropic’ compounds, natural substances that are shown to boost cognitive function, especially during high-intensity exercise. Such ingredients include L-Tyrosine, CDP-Choline, and Acetyl L-Carnitine among others.
Common Pre-Workout Ingredients
Here are some of the best ingredients you’ll find in pre-workout supplements. Note that ‘the dose makes the posion’. Even though a pre-workout ingredient might be beneficial per se, it can cause side effects when not dosed properly.
We’ve handily listed optimal dose of each ingredient mentioned below – check for yourself:
Natural CNS stimulant that enhances vigilance during extended hard training, as well as periods of sleep deprivation.
When it comes to legal, safe, get-amped-up powerful supplementation, be it for your next party or gym sesh, caffeine is your number one nutrient.
Caffeine works in several ways, but mainly by inhibiting your brain’s adenosine receptors. These receptors keep you sedated and calm. But throwing caffeine in the mix blocks theses receptors. Thus, helping switch your body into a full-on mode.
Caffeine also triggers a ‘fight-or-flight’ response by raising circulating levels of epinephrine. The result?
- Higher levels of alertness and mental arousal
- Elevated blood flow, breathing, and heart rate
- Faster reaction time
- Increased concentration and focus
- Prolonged time to fatigue during intense exercise
- Increased muscle strength and force
Do you know how Arnold Schwarzenegger once said; “no pain, gain?” He said that by pushing past your pain, you’ll push past plateaus in your gains.
As it turns out, caffeine has been shown to significantly reduce muscle pain from exercise. One study showed that pre-workout caffeine reduced DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) by a whopping 48%.
Optimal Dose: 150-300mg. Depending on your sensitivity, you may want to start with an even lower dose, such as 100mg. Caffeine is one of those ingredients that you don’t want to take too much of!
2. Citrulline Malate
Intensifies muscle pumps, enhances nutrient delivery, and shortens recovery.
Citrulline Malate is a dietary amino acid. Naturally found in squash, pumpkins, and watermelons, it turns to L-Arginine in your blood, resulting in higher nitric oxide (NO) levels.
When NO increases, vasodilation follows. More blood comes rushing through as your blood vessels open. Increased blood flow translates to more nutrients and oxygen delivered to your working muscles.
Have you ever wondered why you looked so pumped after a hard training sessions? Your muscles were vascular, full, and suddenly you looked like a different person! That’s nitric oxide working its magic.
Now, imagine having this ‘pump’ for hours after your workout. No need to rush for a post-training selfie!
Studies show that 6,000mg of L-Citrulline leads to significant increases in NO levels in the blood. Not only you’ll have more aggressive pumps but they’ll last longer as well.
Optimal Dose: 6,000-8,000mg. Watermelons only contain up to 300mg of citrulline, which is nowhere near the dose to achieve the optimal vasodilation effect.
Beta Alanine is an amino acid that helps you make carnosine. Carnosine is a molecule that reduces muscle fatigue by buffering lactic acid and other chemicals that slow your performance. This helps you train for longer periods at higher intensity.
Research has found that beta-alanine helps to boost both aerobic and muscular endurance. So, if you’re lifting weights for 8-20 reps or doing HIIT cardio, such as sprints or rowing, you’ll experience the most from beta-alanine. For long-distance running, on the other hand, the effects are less noticeable, but it can still help you delay time to fatigue!
Optimal Dose: 2-5g per day. Larger doses can cause a harmless side-effect known as ‘paresthesia’, which is a tingling sensation in your body, most often arms and legs.
Creatine has become the main supplement in many athletes’ stacks.
Your body produces energy from a compound called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Each time you move your arm, walk, lift weights, or run you’ll use this stored form of energy up. And just like a battery, your ATP stores need time to fully recharge.
The harder you exercise, the faster you drain ATP. Without a fast-paced system to produce more energy, you’ll feel drained after 10 seconds of sprinting or a few heavy sets, for example.
Concentrated in the muscle, but also found in your brain, liver, and kidneys, creatine is a natural compound. You get it from your diet by eating foods like meat and fish. But you also make small amount of creatine in your liver from other amino acids.
Creatine is the fastest natural way to regenerate your ATP stores. To maximize creatine’s effects, you’ll need to supplement it – you only store a small amount in your body otherwise.
A pre-workout with creatine helps you to ‘stock up’ your ATP muscle reserves prior to lifting weights. Thus, optimizing your ability to re-synthesize ATP.
Creatine supplementation offers several benefits. They include:
- Enables you to have more intense, tougher workouts
- Increases muscle growth
- Improves body composition – more muscle, less fat
- Accelerates recovery
- Improves and sustains your energy levels
One study review found that adding creatine to a daily nutrition program improved weightlifter’s bench press 1-rep-max by a stunning 45%.
Optimal Dose: There are different forms of creatine available, but the cheapest and most reliable is creatine monohydrate. No need to buy expensive creatine supplements. In terms of dosing, creatine can be cycled or taken long-term. When cycling, 5-10 grams are usually taken daily for a week, after which the dosage is reduced to 1-3g per day for the next several weeks or indefinitely (as long as you prefer to take it). Alternatively, you can also take creatine without the initial ‘loading’ phase, so 1-3g per day indefinitely.
Pre-Workout Ingredients to Avoid
If you’ve ever taken a pre-workout before, then you might have experienced things like jitters, nausea, or itchy skin. So what exactly caused these side effects?
Many pre-workouts today contain potentially harmful ingredients. Or even good ingredients, but in too large doses. Thus, increasing your risk of unwanted side effects.
We’ve listed the 3 most common ingredients in pre-workouts that are not necessarily bad for everyone, but most people react negatively to them so you might want to consider avoiding them.
Also called ‘Citrus Aurantium’ or ‘Bitter Orange Peel’, this ingredient is commonly found in pre-workouts and fat loss supplements. It was first introduced as a replacement for the banned substance ephedrine.
However, since then, science has discovered synephrine has similar side effects to ephedrine – which puts its safety into question.
Potential side effects of Synephrine include:
- Racing heart
You might have also heard of this as ‘DMHA’. It’s a synthetic compound that’s considered a safer alternative to DMAA (DMAA has been linked to serious side effects).
So, why do pre-workouts include Aminoisoheptane (DMHA)? Because it’s a strong stimulant that can boost your focus, suppress appetite, and skyrocket energy levels. But it’s not as great as it sounds.
To put it simply, there’s very little research done on DMHA – meaning it’s unknown how aggressive its stimulant effects are on the body and whether it comes with any long-term side effects.
At the moment, it’s an unreliable ingredient at best, not worth risking considering there are better and proven alternatives, such as caffeine.
If you’re currently using a pre-workout with Yohimbe you’ll want to read this. Found in the Pausinystalia Johimbe tree bark, Yohimbe is evergreen tree native to Africa.
Although fully natural, one of its main chemical yohimbine is known for its harsh interaction with your alpha-2-adrenoceptors.
When activated, these receptors help widen your blood vessels and mobilize fatty acids for energy, which leads to faster fat loss. This is why you’ll often see Yohimbe in fat burners too.
However, one of the biggest concerns about Yohimbe is its safety. This stimulant is so aggressive it’s been banned in countries like the UK, Canada and Australia.
Yes, it can give you more power and endurance. But it also comes at the cost of these side effects:
- Stomach discomfort and pain
- Nausea and sickness
- Anxiety episodes, panic attacks
- High blood pressure
- Heart palpitations
Unless you’re a veteran pre-workout user, or unless you have direct approval from your MD, it’s best to steer clear from Yohimbe.
Pre-Workout Side Effects
As beneficial as they are, pre-workouts can potentially cause different side effects. This is due to a number of reasons mentioned above, including aggressive stimulant ingredients and large ingredient doses.
Some of the common side effects of pre-workouts are listed below.
Most often, these side effects can be completely avoided if you start with a lower dose of the supplement to assess your tolerance. ‘Dip your toe’ if you will.
Some ingredients may cause you to flush too much water out of your system. Additionally, pre-workouts often make you sweat more so you’ll need to stay hydrated to maintain optimal muscle function.
Elevated Blood Pressure
Caffeine can significantly raise your BP in the short-term. Some pre-workouts contain three or more times caffeine than a cup of coffee or a can or energy drink. High BP can be a problem that potentially leads to different conditions down the road.
A tingling sensation is one of the more common pre-workout side effects. It’s also known as ‘Paresthesia’. This is usually caused by beta-alanine. Despite not being harmful, this condition can be somewhat annoying.
Pre-workouts are supposed to stimulate you out of a ‘daze’. The effects of stimulants can last a long time. If you take a pre-workout too close to sleep it can lead to insomnia. It’s best to avoid taking pre-workouts less than 6 hours before you hit the sack.
This is usually a secondary side effect caused by dehydration, which is caused by some pre-workout ingredients (such as diuretics). Caffeine can also give you headaches if you’re sensitive to it, and especially when caffeine’s effects wear off and adenosine builds up.
When to Take Pre-Workout?
Pre-workout timing and serving schedule vary from product to product. Usually, the optimal time to take a pre-workout is about 30 minutes before your session.
It’s also a good idea to ‘cycle’ your pre-workout supplement, taking a break every few weeks to avoid developing tolerance and maintain the benefits.
Conclusion to Pre-Workout Supplement Guide
So that concludes our Pre-Workout guide. Pre-Workout 101 is the name of the game here – if you’re new to these products, I recommend saving this article and referring back to it when buying a pre-workout supplement.
A high-quality pre-workout can shake off the daily fatigue and help you crush your training sessions with the intensity of a pro athlete. With a blend of the right ingredients, you’ll enhance everything from physical performance and muscle pumps, to mood, focus, and drive.
So… what are you waiting for? Go out there and smash those weights!
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