If you are looking to work out harder and longer, a pre-workout supplement (commonly referred to as simply “pre-workout”) may help you get the most out of your gym session.
Have you ever wondered what a pre-workout is? Or what do pre-workouts do? We’ll walk you through what you need to know about pre-workout supplements before you start adding them to your routine. Let's take a look at everything you need to know.
What Is Pre-Workout?
A pre-workout can come in many different forms, including capsules, powders, chews, canned drinks, and more. These are supplements that can help boost your workout performance if you take them before you hit the gym.
Most supplement and nutrition brands have a pre-workout supplement formula of their own. This means that there is no single recipe for a pre-workout supplement, and many pre-workouts differ in terms of their ingredients.
When shopping for a pre-workout supplement, it's a good idea to take a look at what is in each product so you can choose the ideal option for you.
In general, pre-workout formulas help boost your energy levels. This is done through a combination of antioxidants, carbs, B vitamins, and more.
Many pre-workout formulas are both calorie and carb free. Some of them have amino acids like arginine, ornithine, and citrulline, while others might contain beet juice or caffeine.
What does pre-workout do, though?
Some research has been conducted in regards to the efficacy of different pre-workout supplements. This study looked at how a proprietary pre-workout impacted performance and strength and found evidence that the supplement provided greater gains for some participants.
While more research is needed regarding the positive effects of these supplements, anecdotal evidence points to the fact that pre-workout can help boost your energy levels, increase your gains, and improve your overall athletic performance.
How Long Does Pre-Workout Take to Kick In?
It typically takes between 30 and 60 minutes for the active ingredients in your pre-workout to reach peak levels in your blood. Basically, you’ll get the full benefits of your pre-workout supplement if you take it 30-60 minutes before starting your session, or before the peak effort during your session.
If you normally work out in the morning, a pre-workout with caffeine might be a good choice. Be careful about taking a stimulating pre-workout too late in the afternoon or evening, though, as it might prevent you from falling asleep.
How Long Does Pre-Workout Last?
How long your pre-workout supplement lasts may depend on the specific formula. It also depends on a number of different factors, including:
- Your age, muscle mass, and weight
- The amount of water you drink every day
- Your diet
- The type of supplement you take and its quality
- Your caffeine tolerance and the amount of caffeine you consume
- Your sleeping habits
- The dosage of each ingredient within your pre-workout
In most cases, you can expect a pre-workout to last between 1.5 and 2.5 hours. You may even feel residual effects for up to six hours. Luckily, this timeframe should cover most workout routines.
Pre-Workout Stim vs. Non-Stim
One thing to consider when taking a pre-workout is whether or not you want it to have caffeine, and if so, how much. When shopping around, you’ll often hear caffeinated supplements referred to as "stim" and non-caffeinated supplements as "non-stim."
Caffeine boosts your energy because it blocks the adenosine receptors in your brain. High levels of adenosine are known to cause sleepiness, and caffeine can help keep your adenosine levels low. This allows you to feel alert and energized, allowing you to approach your workout with gusto.
This does not mean that supplements without caffeine can't energize you. In fact, they can help increase your focus and alertness with the aid of a number of other ingredients. Many of these ingredients help to improve blood flow, such as Nitrosigine, beta-alanine, and TeaCrine.
Pre-workout supplements with caffeine can work well for people who:
- Love early morning workouts
- Metabolize caffeine quickly
- Have fat loss goals
On the other hand, people who work out in the afternoon or evening or who metabolize caffeine slowly may want to choose non-stim workout supplements. If you drink caffeine too late in the day you might find that you have a difficult time falling asleep. If you are extra sensitive to caffeine, this type of stimulant supplement can leave you with unpleasant side effects, such as:
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding will likely want to avoid caffeinated pre-workout supplements. It is always a good idea to check with your healthcare provider before taking any kind of supplement if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
What Are Common Pre-Workout Supplement Ingredients?
You have your pick of the litter when it comes to pre-workout supplements. Since they all contain different blends and formulas, it’s helpful to become familiar with what these different performance-boosting ingredients can to do help you reach your goals. You’ll also want to research how much of each ingredient you should take.
As mentioned above, caffeine is a classic pre-workout supplement ingredient. While some people might find caffeine to be a big help in their morning workouts, others might find it leaves them jittery and unable to sleep at night.
Caffeine can help improve exercise performance, memory, mental alertness, focus, and fat burning.
Citrulline is an amino acid that is becoming more and more popular as an exercise performance and health supplement. Citrulline is found in foods (like cucumber, watermelon, and pumpkins) and naturally produced in the body where it plays an important role. Unlike other amino acids, citrulline isn't used to build proteins.
Citrulline increases vasodilation, which means that it widens the veins and arteries. This is associated with increased blood flow and lower blood pressure.
This amino acid is converted into another amino acid called arginine, and then again into a molecule called nitric oxide. This molecule helps relax the smooth muscle cells to cause vasodilation of blood vessels. This may lead to a better “pump” during your workouts.
Even though citrulline isn't used directly in the process of building proteins, it can help to increase protein synthesis. It accomplishes this by stimulating a signaling pathway that is significant during muscle building.
Citrulline might also decrease the uptake of certain amino acids by the liver, preventing their breakdown. Both this and citrulline’s effects on protein synthesis can help increase or maintain muscle mass.
Are you interested in training for everyday health? You can learn about creating a functional fitness routine here.
Arginine is a semi-essential or conditionally-essential amino acid. This means that under certain specific circumstances it becomes essential, including infancy, trauma, critical illness, and pregnancy.
This is the amino acid that is produced when you take citrulline before it is converted into nitric oxide (which can't be produced without arginine). Arginine is also a precursor to a whole host of other amino acids, including proline, glutamine, and creatine. Essential for the functioning and overall health of your immune system, arginine deficiency can lead to a long list of negative health consequences.
You can get arginine from certain protein-rich foods and supplements, or it can be synthesized in your body from citrulline.
There is some evidence that suggests that arginine can boost exercise performance by increasing the amount of nitric acid in the body. As mentioned before, this improves oxygenation and blood flow to muscles—potentially leading to a better pump.
People also take arginine for a variety of other reasons, including:
- Blood pressure regulation
- Critical illness management
- Blood sugar regulation
- Improving blood flow
- Erectile dysfunction treatment
- Treating and preventing preeclampsia
There are a number of additional conditions and circumstances for which people take arginine, like boosting weight loss and decreasing the chance of getting the common cold.
Beta-alanine is another amino acid used in many of the best pre-workout supplements. A non-essential amino acid that doesn't synthesize proteins the way other amino acids do, beta-alanine produces carnosine in conjunction with histidine.
Carnosine can help improve athletic performance by reducing the amount of lactic acid that builds up in your muscles when you are working out. By increasing endurance, reducing fatigue, and boosting performance in high-intensity training, beta-alanine has been found to be a useful workout aid to many athletes.
Some research has found that beta-alanine can help you work out longer, which is great news if you are looking to take your sessions to the next level. In one study, four weeks of supplementation with beta-alanine increased the endurance of cyclists by 13%.
Not only can beta-alanine help increase your time to exhaustion, it can also boost shorter-duration exercises. If high-intensity training is a big part of your workout routine, you might find that your performance benefits from beta-alanine supplementation.
High doses of beta-alanine may cause flushing and tingling. If you experience these side effects and find them unpleasant, you’ll want to look for pre-workouts with lower doses or minus beta-alanine altogether.
Wonder how much water you should be drinking? Check out this handy article!
If you ask around about the best pre-workout supplements, chances are you'll hear "creatine" as a common answer. Research has shown that creatine can help increase strength, muscle mass, and exercise performance. These factors all help you get the most out of your time at the gym.
On top of that, there are a number of additional health benefits associated with creatine supplementation, and it is one of the most tested and researched supplements available.
Creatine is found naturally in muscle cells and it helps produce energy in your muscles during high-intensity exercise and heavy lifting.
Your body is able to produce creatine from arginine and glycine, but there are a number of factors that can impact your body's creatine storage. These include exercise, meat intake, your muscle mass, and your levels of the hormones IGF-1 and testosterone.
There are a number of ways that creatine may help boost athletic performance. These include:
- Improved cell signaling, which aids muscle repair and new muscle growth
- Increased cell hydration, which may play a role in muscle growth
- Allows for higher total volume of work in a single training session, which can boost long-term muscle growth
- Reduced protein breakdown, which can reduce muscle breakdown and increase total muscle mass
- Raised anabolic hormones such as IGF-1
- Lower myostatin levels, which can inhibit or slow muscle growth
On top of all that, supplementing with creatine can increase your brain's stores of phosphocreatine. This can help prevent neurological disease and improve overall brain health.
Check out our complete Guide to Creatine to learn more about what creatine is, what creatine does, and potential creatine side effects.
Is Adding a Pre-Workout Supplement to Your Routine the Right Choice For You?
Including a pre-workout supplement as part of your exercise routine may seriously help take your workout to the next level. With the increased energy and improved exercise performance than can result from taking pre-workout, you can get the most out of every single training session.
You can certainly benefit from exercise without taking pre-workout supplements. However, if you're serious about gains, supplementation may help you reach your goals faster.
When shopping for pre-workout supplements, make sure to look for a stamp that indicates it was tested at an independent lab—that’s how you’ll know you're getting the highest quality ingredients.
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