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What is Pre-Workout? Is it Healthy?

If you’ve ever seen your super fit friend toss a pre-workout supplement into their water bottle before hitting the gym, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. 

Do you really need to add another thing to your routine when you’re already struggling to fit your workout into your busy day? 

If so, how much of a difference do pre-workout supplements make when it comes to your performance? If you’ve been wondering about pre-workout and are curious whether it is healthy and whether you should use it, we’ve got all the information you need to know.

What is pre-workout?

Pre-workout supplements, often simply referred to as “pre-workout,” are supplements that are designed to provide energy and fight fatigue during a workout. The goal of pre-workout is to help you go harder for longer and get the most out of each sweat session. 

Pre-workout supplements come in many different forms, including pills, shakes, bars, and meals, but no matter which variety you choose, you’ll be consuming a supplement designed to help you make the most of your workout. 

Pre-workouts work by fueling your body with extra energy in the form of carbohydrates. The glucose in carbs causes your blood sugar level to rise, providing you with added energy during your workout. Most pre-workouts are mixed with water or another beverage and are consumed about 30 minutes before hitting the gym.

Each pre-workout works slightly differently depending on its ingredients, but many have certain main ingredients in common, including carbohydrates and caffeine. Some pre-workouts also contain nitrates, which help increase blood flow in the body and improve work efficiency, allowing you to perform at a higher level with less energy. Other common ingredients include creatine, which helps increase muscle strength and performance during high-intensity workouts, sodium bicarbonate, which lowers the level of lactic acid and gives you a short-term performance boost, and beta-alanine, which balances your muscles’ pH. 

Is pre-workout healthy or safe?

As is the case with all supplements, pre-workout is not regulated in the same way that foods are, so it’s important to do your research when it comes to choosing a supplement. Most pre-workout supplements contain caffeine for an added boost of energy, and while some pre-workout supplements provide a moderate amount of caffeine, others can provide up to four times the amount of one cup of coffee. If you have heart issues or are particularly sensitive to caffeine, look for a pre-workout that doesn’t contain caffeine or contains a dose that is safe for you. At high levels, caffeine can contribute to health issues like high blood pressure, insomnia, and anxiety, and it can also cause heart issues in people with irregular heartbeats.

One way to help ensure that you’re getting a safe pre-workout supplement is to look for certifications and approvals from independent testing companies like NSF Certified for Sport, Informed Sport, US Pharmacopeia, or BSCG Certified Drug Free. While no supplement can be completely guaranteed to be free of risks, certifications from these organizations help minimize risks.

What pre-workout ingredients should I look for?

When it comes to pre-workout, not all ingredients are created equal, and some are more likely to improve the quality of your workout than others. One common ingredient in pre-workout is creatine monohydrate, also known as creatine. Creatine helps to improve your muscle power and boost your performance during hard training efforts. It’s naturally derived from three amino acids and is produced by the body and stored in the muscles for quick energy. 

A 2017 literature review found that beetroot juice is another helpful pre-workout ingredient, as it increases the body’s level of nitric oxide and helps to improve cardiovascular performance. Nitric oxide helps to increase blood flow and improve cardiovascular efficiency by expanding the body’s blood vessels. Beetroot juice is so effective that it can even improve endurance and cardiovascular performance in patients with heart failure, so it’s bound to have benefits for your workout, too. 

Caffeine can also be a helpful ingredient when it comes to pre-workout, provided your body can tolerate it. It’s best to look for caffeine doses that are equivalent to no more than 1-2 cups of coffee, or 95-190 mg. Caffeine provides an energy boost that helps you feel more alert and focused, and as a stimulant, it can also help your body burn fat when used at safe levels.

What pre-workout ingredients should be avoided?

One of the biggest concerns when it comes to pre-workout ingredients is consuming too much caffeine. Studies have established 400 mg of caffeine as the upper limit of consumption per day for adults, which is the equivalent of about four cups of coffee. However, some pre-workout supplements contain more than 400 mg in a single serving, which can cause uncomfortable or even dangerous side effects in some people when consumed all at once. The higher the level of caffeine in your pre-workout supplement, the more likely you are to experience side effects associated with caffeine consumption. Common side effects of caffeine include:

  • Feeling jittery
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Headaches
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Gastrointestinal upset

It’s also best to avoid pre-workout supplements that contain sugar alcohols or other artificial sweeteners. These ingredients are commonly added because they improve flavor without adding calories, but they’re also a common source of stomach and intestinal distress. Sugar alcohols especially can cause side effects like bloating, gas, and diarrhea to occur during your workout, which means you’re going to be pretty uncomfortable and probably not performing at your peak. Artificial sweeteners have also been reported to have similar effects. Look for products that use natural sweeteners and flavoring to avoid uncomfortable side effects.

What are common side effects of pre-workouts?

As noted above, there are some common side effects associated with caffeine, which is a common ingredient found in many pre-workouts. Side effects of caffeine include feeling jittery, rapid heart rate, headaches, restlessness, insomnia, nausea, and gastrointestinal upset. Other side effects associated with pre-workouts will depend on the specific ingredients associated with your supplement but may include:

  • Headaches as a result of increased blood flow and changes in blood pressure caused by citrulline
  • Digestive upset, including laxative effects caused by magnesium
  • Tingling sensation in the hands and feet caused by beta alanine
  • Red patches on the skin caused by niacin
  • Increased water retention, weight gain, bloating, and digestive issues caused by creatine

The best way to avoid side effects associated with pre-workout is to start with a small dose of the supplement when you first begin using it, such as half a dose or a quarter of a dose. This will allow you to give your body time to get used to the supplement can help you find the right level at which you experience enhanced performance without unpleasant side effects. Each person’s body is different, so you may find that you have more or less tolerance for one supplement as opposed to another. 

Should you try pre-workout?

There are many different factors that will determine whether or not a pre-workout supplement is right for you. 

First, consider whether or not you have any existing health conditions that may interact with pre-workout, such as cardiac arrhythmia, pre-diabetes, diabetes, or caffeine sensitivity. People under the age of 18 and women who are pregnant or breast-feeding also should not take pre-workout due to the high levels of caffeine and other stimulants found in most pre-workout supplements. If you have issues with insomnia, suffer from gastrointestinal issues, have high blood pressure, or have a history of eating disorders or disordered eating, you should speak to your doctor before using a pre-workout, as taking the supplement may have more risks than benefits. 

If you’re a healthy individual who doesn’t fall into any of these categories, pre-workout might work for you. If you tend to workout at a low to moderate intensity or for relatively short periods of time, you probably don’t need a pre-workout and won’t notice a significant benefit from using the supplement. 

Competitive athletes or people who are performing vigorous exercise for long periods of time or at a high intensity may experience a boost in performance when taking a pre-workout. 

owever, it is possible to get everything you need to fuel your workout from your diet. Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet with appropriate levels of carbohydrates, protein, and fat will provide the same power as a supplement, and caffeine can be consumed by drinking coffee. However, when used properly as a supplement to a healthy diet, pre-workouts may be able to boost your performance. If you do choose to use a pre-workout, make sure you do your research to find a product that is as safe and well-tested as possible!