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. Some taste pretty good too.

How do I take a pre-workout supplement?

Most products come in powder form that you mix with water in a protein shaker 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

A Sports Nutritionist’s Recommended Pre-Workout Supplement Ingredients

“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.

Caffeine

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.

Beta-alanine

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.

BCAA

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.

Creatine

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.

Vitamin B6

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.

Nitrates

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.

The Best Pre-Workout Supplements You Can Buy

It’s one thing understanding what goes into pre-workout supplements. It’s quite another deciding which tub is worth buying. While we aren’t’ scientists and can’t authoritatively speak to how effective each product is, we can chug down a load of them and tell you which we’d buy. Coach contributor Rory Mellon took on the task, and here are his impressions along with the vital stats. Supplements are listed in alphabetical order, and the ones Mellon has kept using have been labelled as recommended.

BSN N.O.-Xplode

Putting aside the awful name, N.O.-Xplode is a powerful pre-workout supplement that has been around for more than 15 years. In each 20g serving you’ll find 150mg of caffeine, 1.3g of beta-alanine, 3g of creatine, 3g of L-arginine and plenty of vitamins to support your metabolism doing its thing. A decade and a half on, this formula is still one of the best around.

Blue raspberry taste test: Pro tip, N.O.-Xplode really froths up, causing some spillage after a particularly vigorous shake. This is a very sweet drink, probably too cloyingly sweet for some, but if you can’t stomach the sour kick that comes with some other pre-workout powders, it’s a great choice.

Bulk Powders Elevate

Elevate combines 12 active ingredients in a unique formula. The inclusion of vitargo (10g per 33g serving), a sports performance carbohydrate, and an impressive 5g of citrulline malate to assist blood flow helps Elevate offer more than just an energy boost. There’s also 3.5g of beta-alanine and 200mg of caffeine.

Orange and mango taste test: This sucralose-sweetened drink tastes a lot like orange squash, but with a slightly sour kick. It mixes rather well and, unlike some supplements on this list, has a really pleasant aftertaste. It’s not especially filling, though, and since you’re advised to take it on an empty stomach, you’ll be working out hungry with this one.

Buy from Bulk Powders | £34.99 for 660g

Bulk Powders Elevate Zero

This tweaked version of Bulk Powders’ pretty great pre-workout supplement has slightly less sugar (from 0.27g down to 0.22g per serving) and a lower carb count (10.5g down to 1.76g) compared with the original. There’s no vitargo here, but there’s still 2.5g of beta-alanine, 5g of citrulline malate and 200mg of caffeine.

Pineapple and grapefruit taste test: Unsurprisingly, Elevate Zero tastes a lot like regular Elevate, except that ditching some of the sugar leads to quite a bitter aftertaste. A large quantity of tiny brown flecks collected at the bottom of the shaker as well, which made the final few sips very unappealing.

Buy from Bulk Powders | £29.99 for 440g

Maximuscle Pre-Workout Powder

Each 20g serving of Maximuscle’s pre-workout formula contains 200mg of caffeine to help you work longer and harder (you get something like 63mg in a shot of espresso), 1.6g of beta-alanine to prevent lactic acid building up during exercise and 5g of monohydrate creatine to improve your weightlifting performance. The recommended dose is three scoops before working out, so I got a real kick with this one.

Pink lemonade taste test: The label proudly boosts that this is a sugar-free product, with the sweetener sucralose added to compensate. This results in a rather artificial taste which definitely makes it one to chug, not sip. The powder does mix very well though, making for a drink that isn’t thick or gloopy.

Buy from Maximuscle | £25 for 300g

Myprotein THE Pump

With no added caffeine, THE Pump aims to give your evening workout a boost without having a detrimental effect on your sleep. Containing 300mg of VASO6, a patented ingredient containing catechin (which is said to help weight loss), as well as a dose of vitamin C and 3.2g of beta-alanine, this pre-workout powder hits quickly and had me itching to get moving.

Orange and mango taste test: The Pump is rather sweet and the mango overpowers the orange, but it’s pleasant and very drinkable. Unfortunately, the suggested mix instructions resulted in a powdery aftertaste, so I’d advise using more water than recommended. Also, the formula leaves a foamy residue in the shaker that was annoying to wash out.

Buy from Myprotein | £26.99 for 320g

ON Gold Standard Pre-Workout

Optimum Nutrition’s Gold Standard range has long been a Coach favourite and this offering is another winner. With creatine (3g per 11g serving), beta-alanine (1.5g), amino acids such as L-citrulline (750mg) and a dose of caffeine (175mg), this has everything you’d want from a pre-workout supplement. The inclusion of a host of vitamins, which ON claims have a positive effect on your metabolism, gives this powder that extra edge.

Watermelon taste test: Between the reasonably small 11g serving size, and comparatively high recommended 350ml of water, it doesn’t come as shock that this powder mixes very well. Sweetened with sucralose and acesulfame K, it goes down extremely well. The benchmark by which other pre-workout supplements should be measured.

Buy from ON | £19.99 for 330g

The Protein Works Genesis Pre Workout

Genesis contains more than 20 active ingredients, from the usual suspects beta-alanine (2g per 9.5g serving) and citrulline malate (2g) to some slightly more esoteric ingredients, including The Protein Works’ own vitamin and mineral blend, and iBCAA (5g) – an “instantised” version of the BCAAs found in other pre-workout powders, which should help you digest it quicker. There’s also 135mg of caffeine in each dose, to give you a kick of energy.

Classic cola pop taste test: We weren’t sold on the idea of a cola-flavoured pre-workout drink and we’re still unsure of its appeal after giving it a try. The taste is like a liquefied gummy cola bottle, but the thing that really lets this drink down is the extremely unpleasant aftertaste that lingered long after the smallest of sips.

Buy from The Protein Works | £21.99 for 250g

The Protein Works Pre-Works

Each 33g serving of Pre-Works powder contains in excess of 27g of active ingredients. Pre-Works is packed with 3g of beta-alanine and 3g of citrulline malate, as well as 2.5g doses of creatine pyruvate and creatine monohydrate. Plus, three naturally occurring forms of caffeine (guarana 0.35g, Siberian ginseng 0.25g, yerba mate 0.15g) and 18.9g of protein. It’s a powder that aims to increase not just your endurance but your strength as well.

Tropical punch taste test: The Protein Works recommends a beginner’s dose of 16.5g. After the arduous process of combining five (rather than the usual one or two) 3.3g size scoops with 150ml of water, the powder mixes well. Unfortunately, the resulting drink tastes extremely sour, even though the sweetener sucralose has been added, and it was an effort to get it all down despite the small quantity of liquid.

Buy from The Protein Works | £39.99 for 500g

Supreme Nutrition Pre-Workout

Supreme Nutrition has packed this powder with good stuff to give your workouts a boost, including BCAAs (5g per serving), creatine monohydrate (5g), citrulline malate (2.7g) and beta-alanine (1.5g), plus 300mg of caffeine to keep you sharp. One oddity in the ingredients list is pine bark extract, but according to SN it reduces recovery time so we’re not complaining.

Blue raspberry taste test: The dark turquoise colour of the drink once mixed gives the impression it’s going to be sickly, but it strikes the right balance between sweet and tangy. The recommended amount of water (250-350ml) is higher than some on this list, and it creates a thin drink that went down easily, although it did leave some specks of powder in the bottom of the shaker.

Buy from Supreme Nutrition | £34 for 400g

USN BCAA Power Punch

One of the few vegan-friendly pre-workout supplements, the powder packs 6,900mg of branched-chain amino acids and 2,500mg of L-glutamine into each 11g serving – plus, it has no added sugar. There’s also an 11mg dose of vitamin B6 in each scoop, which reduces tiredness and fatigue, and helps you to power through tough sessions.

Tangerine taste test: The recommended mixture of two 11g scoops and 500ml of water creates a bright orange-coloured drink that is rather artificial in taste – the inclusion of sucralose and acesulfame-K are most probably responsible. Thankfully, the drink is thin enough to get down fast.

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. 



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