A Sports Nutritionist’s Recommended Pre-Workout Supplements
We all want to have an incredible session every time we work out. It’s the only way to keep moving ever closer to your physique or performance goal. While a varied and nutritious diet and high-quality sleep are essential in allowing you to attack every single workout as hard as possible, there are some supplements that can help you gain an even greater edge so you can perform harder for longer to build a better body.
“Whether you’re training for more muscle mass, lower body fat levels or better athletic performance, pre-workout supplementation should be an important component of your nutrition strategy,” says sports nutritionist Aaron Deere. “What you consume right before training can have a big impact on both exercise performance and how quickly your body recovers from it.”
Pre-workout products are designed to be taken around 30 minutes before training and contain compounds that manufacturers say enhance focus, performance and increase blood flow to improve the delivery of nutrients to your muscles. Here are six of the most common pre-workout ingredients and how they can give you the edge.
What Caffeine is the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive substance, used for its stimulant effects.
Why Studies have indicated that it lowers your perceived rate of exertion, which makes training hard feel easier, and increases fat burning by releasing fatty acids from fat cells for use as fuel.
How Most pre-workout supps are caffeinated because of the proven benefits it provides. However, you can get caffeine-free formulas if you train after work and don’t want disrupted sleep. In fact, if you don’t take a pre-workout product, a strong black coffee 20 to 30 minutes before a morning or afternoon session will be enough to improve your focus and attention, as well as providing fat-burning benefits.
What Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid, meaning that it can be synthesised in the body.
Why It’s been shown in studies to increase the levels of a compound called carnosine in your muscle cells. This blocks the build-up of waste products that cause muscular fatigue, allowing you to train harder for longer.
How Beta-alanine is a key ingredient of many pre-workout supps because of its exercise-enhancing effect. For some it can cause a strange but harmless tingly feeling in your skin. The ideal dose is between 2g and 5g, according to independent research firm Examine.com.
What Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a combination of three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine.
Why Taking BCAAs before and during training prevents muscle tissue being broken down and encourages new tissue to grow, giving you bigger, stronger muscles. Many brands blend BCAAs in a 2:1:1 ratio, which research suggests initiates greater muscle growth.
How Taking around 6g of BCAAs before training has been shown to increase the levels of amino acids in the blood and muscles by 130%, and you can also take them during your workout to limit muscle tissue breakdown. However, BCAA metabolism reduces your levels of vitamin B6, so look for a product that also contains this vitamin, or take separate supplements.
What Creatine is found in red meat and is a source of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the main energy supply for cells.
Why It improves your muscles’ ability to perform intense exercise such as weightlifting or high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Supplementing with creatine monohydrate – the cheapest form, which studies have shown to be as effective as more expensive versions – helps increase your body’s natural muscle stores. There’s strong evidence that taking creatine supplements is safe and effective for increasing muscular power output.
How A daily dose of 5g is enough to improve power output, according to Examine.com. People with more lean muscle mass may benefit from a dose of up to 10g. Take it with water alongside meals.
What Found in many plant and animal food sources, vitamin B6 is a water-soluble vitamin, which means your body can’t store it like it can fat-soluble ones and needs constant topping up.
Why This vitamin is involved in the metabolism of protein, carbs and fats, acting to free up more of the energy from the food you eat. Some supplements, specifically BCAAs, can deplete levels of vitamin B6, leading to fatigue and poor mental and physical performance.
How If your diet is rich in meat and veg, especially leafy greens, you’re unlikely to be at risk of a B vitamin deficiency. However, if you take a lot of BCAAs it might be worth taking a vitamin B6 supp or a daily multivitamin as insurance.
What When you consume certain foods, like leafy greens and beets, your body breaks them down into compounds called nitrates.
Why They improve the body’s ability to produce ATP from the food you eat. They are also turned into nitric oxide (NO) as needed, and elevated NO levels during exercise improve anaerobic and aerobic endurance, blood flow and work output. The result is enhanced muscle recovery between bouts of intense exercise, such as sprint intervals.
How The best way to supplement with nitrates is by eating around 500g of high-nitrate produce, such as spinach and beetroot, one to two hours before exercise. Blending them into a smoothie increases the rate of nitrate absorption because you’ll digest them faster than solids.
Pre-Workout Supplements FAQ
What’s the big deal with pre-workout supplements?
These supplements have boomed in popularity among gym-goers because they’re formulated with ingredients and compounds, such as caffeine, beta-alanine and BCAAs, that can lead to better workouts. Because they allow you to train harder for longer, you move towards your physique or performance goal faster. Oh, and they taste pretty good too.
Do I need to take a pre-workout supplement?
If you want more successful workouts, the answer is yes. Most products come in powder form that you mix with water and consume in the half-hour before your training session so the compounds can get to work in your system to improve mental and physical performance.
Are there any downsides to using a pre-workout supplement?
As with any medicine or supplement there’s a chance you may have an adverse reaction so always check the label for known allergens or the manufacturer website for side effects. Many pre-workouts contain high doses of stimulants, so it’s best to experiment with a trial dose and see how you respond before increasing the dose to the manufacturer’s recommendations. And the stimulating effects means pre-workouts should not be taken too late in the day so they don’t affect sleep.
Should I take them before every session?
As long as you don’t have any adverse reactions to the pre-workout supplements you take, there’s no reason to ration how often you take them. However, just like how the stimulating effect of a coffee or even tea can weaken if you drink them all the time, the same can be true of pre-workout supps. They commonly contain caffeine as well after all. For that reason, it’s best to save them for your tougher sessions or when you’re feeling flat going into a workout or ahead of activity like a post-work five-a-side match. Otherwise you might become too over reliant on them and blow off opportunities to exercise if you run out or leave your supps at home
Debate: Should You Take Pre-Workout Supplements?
Two top sports nutrition experts debate the benefits of supplementation before a session
Yes, says Ross Edgley, co-founder of The Protein Works and former strength and conditioning coach at the English Institute of Sport
Pre-workout supplements aren’t essential in the same way as macronutrients (fats, protein and carbohydrates) and certain micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are. But the active ingredients of some pre-workout supps can absolutely improve some aspects of your fitness.
How beneficial they are depends on the specific ingredients. It’s easy to assume all pre-workout pills and powders are stimulants, but there are loads of great ingredients not based on stimulants. An awareness of the science-tested benefits of each could help you increase strength, muscle size and speed, accelerate fat loss, reduce fatigue and more.
Once you know what to look for on a label, you can tailor your pre-workout supplement to your needs. If you struggle to get to the end of your session because of discomfort caused by lactate build-up, take beta-alanine, which has been shown to delay its accumulation in your blood. If you’re aiming to pack on muscle, look for a product containing arginine, which has demonstrated the capacity to increase muscle size by encouraging protein synthesis during and after a session. Caffeine will improve fat-burning and boost energy, while citrulline malate improves stamina.
No, your body doesn’t need pre-workout supps in the same way it needs protein to get results. But if you’re stuck on a plateau, or if you’re an athlete looking to gain an edge, they can be valuable and effective. If you could get better results from the same hard work in the gym, why wouldn’t you?
No, says Ben Coomber, performance nutritionist, public speaker and creator of iTunes #1 rated UK podcast Ben Coomber Radio
Whatever form it comes in, drink, spray, gum or pill, all pre-workout supps are designed to do one thing: enhance performance. The benefits can include increased energy, buffering of lactic acid in the blood, improved endurance and an overall better work output. You should know why you are taking a product and the benefit it serves, but for most average gym-goers the desired effect is often just the pick-me-up effect of caffeine – something you can get cheaper and often in more sensible doses from a pre-gym espresso.
In my view most people who use pre-workout products do so for the wrong reasons, and 90% of people who train would benefit from not using them in the long term. It’s easy to become reliant on them, they’re often loaded with additives, they create a mindset where you’re only happy training after you have taken one – and many contain enough caffeine to leave your adrenal glands puffing and wheezing in a state of mild shock for the rest of the week.
You don’t need a million magic ingredients for your body to perform at its best. Effective sessions in the gym result from good sleep and a balanced diet with varied natural sources of protein (for muscle gain goals) and carbohydrates to match your energy output. You can have a bit of caffeine as an energy boost, but only when you really need it. If you generally struggle for energy without caffeine it’s because you’re not getting your diet, recovery and lifestyle on point. Optimal energy comes from nailing the basics, not a magic pink drink.