Health & nutrition insights.

Pre-Workout Supplements: Helpful or Hype?

Pre-Workout Supplements: Helpful or Hype


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As sports dietitians, we have been using the words “pre-workout” for years, but what most people think about when they hear “pre-workout” is totally different from what we have been talking about. Nowadays, the term “Pre-workout” is more about which pre-workout supplement you use instead of “what is your pre-workout food and fluid”. We are going to dive into what pre-workouts are, if they work, are they safe, and our recommendations for achieving your best workout in a safe way!


Pre-workouts are a big business, worth 14 billion dollars in 2020 and based on growth trends, expected to be almost 24 billion in 2027. That is a lot of money, which is bound to attract people who want to get some skin in the game!  They are in the supplement section of consumerism, which basically means anything goes. Unfortunately, before hitting the shelf, there is no one looking at the ingredients and amounts, whether they have what they say they have, quality testing, or looking for anything that might hurt you, such as pharmaceuticals, contaminants, or banned or illegal substances. 


It makes a lot of sense that people are drawn to pre-workouts. We have all been there!  You want to get a great workout, but you are tired and too busy, had a long day or not enough sleep, feel mentally and physically drained and just don’t have that extra bit to give for the effort you want to put out. In comes your savior: the pre-workout…with promises to give you energy, clarity, focus, power, speed, and enhance the results of your workout by achieving better performance and by helping your muscles recover better. Who wouldn’t want that- we certainly don’t blame you for being pulled in! 


During my research, I stumbled upon the “forbidden pre-workout” which is the practice of looking at texts from your ex before a workout instead of using a supplement. This is a unique idea, but not the best for your mental health since it relies on negative emotions to drive your workout-it is very creative, though! We will break down the types of pre-workouts, their ingredients, what science says and our recommendations so you can be educated to make the best choice for you! 


What are the ingredients and what do they do?

  • Caffeine
    • Central Nervous Stimulant, which makes you think you are not working as hard as you are
    • Improves performance outcomes in most events
    • Increases brain function during exercise
    • Protocol: 3-9 mg/kg body weight 60 minutes before workout 
  • Creatine
    • Important for carrying energy and providing direct energy to the muscles
    • Improves performance outcomes in sprint events
    • Improves recovery between sprint events
    • Protocol: rapid loading 4 x 5 g/day for 5 days or 3-5 g/d for 4 weeks. Maintenance at 3-5 g/day
  • B-alanine
    • Amino acid that works with histidine as a buffer in your muscles
    • Improves high intensity exercise capacity and performance in activity lasting 30 sec to 10 min
    • Protocol: 3.2-6.4 g/day  (65 mg/kg body weight) for 2-12 weeks 
  • Nitric Oxide/arginine/alpha-ketoglutarate/beetroot/citrulline
    • Promotes vasodilation/enhances blood flow and ability to carry oxygen
    • Improves muscle efficiency
    • Some studies show improvements in anaerobic and aerobic performance, especially in untrained athletes, but effect in trained athletes is not evident
    • Protocol 6-10 g/day citrulline 
  • BCAA
    • Amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine metabolized when carb stores are low in the body
    • Can improve immune function with hard training
    • May decrease post-exercise muscle soreness
    • Protocol: 5-20 g/day divided doses
  • α Glycerylphosphorylcholine (A-GPC)
    • Affects nerve muscle connection and shown to increase choline in the body
    • Limited research has shown improvements in the ability to maintain reaction time in exhausted muscles, jumping ability and power and velocity improvements
    • Limited research-more research needed to see if there is an outcome benefit
    • Protocol: 600 mg/day 


What does the research say?

  • A 2022 placebo controlled study showed some benefit in force production in an isometric squat test (holding a squat position for a specified amount of time), but no improvements in leg press, bench press or squat. Supplements with caffeine added did have an improvement on subjective feelings of energy over non-caffeinated supplements or placebo.
  • A 2018 review of multi-ingredient pre-workouts concluded that pre-workouts might improve endurance and subjective mood and increase lean mass with training, but there are mixed results for improved force or power production. Most studies they found were short, so long term use safety is unknown. They also cautioned that formulations may intentionally contain banned substances or unintentionally contain contaminants, which can cause a safety issue. More research is needed in this area. 
  • A 2019 study in over 1000 people who used pre-workouts for an average of 4-5 days for over a year reported that 14% used double the dose and 18% used it more than once a day. 54% of people using it even once a day experienced side effects including skin reactions, heart abnormalities and nausea. 
  • A 2023 randomized controlled trial (gold standard!) in male athletes aged 18-31 years old. The pre-workout was standardized to include 200 mg caffeine, 3.3 g creatine monohydrate, 3.2 g B-alanine, 6 g citrulline malate, and 5 g branched chain amino acids (BCAA). Significant improvements in jumping, agility, minimum power, and fatigue were seen in the pre-workout group. There was no difference between placebo and pre-workout for sprinting, peak power, aerobic performance, or blood lactate levels. 
  • A 2023 randomized controlled trial in male cyclists completing a time trial and high intensity endurance cycling test. They found a significant increase in peak power in the time trial and significant increase in the time to exhaustion in the cycling test. There were no differences in average power, time to completion, and perceived exertion between the two groups. 
  • A 2022 randomized controlled trial in females showed that 1000 mg of  alpha-glycerylphosporylcholine (GPC) before a workout helped the participants recover their blood pressure and heart rate significantly faster than with a placebo 
  • A 2016 randomized controlled trial in males showed that a pre-workout compared to placebo improved anaerobic power, but there was no effect on upper body power, lower body power, or upper body strength.  
  • A 2017 randomized controlled trial showed some jumping improvement, but no benefits for strength movements and pull movements with A-GPC supplementation. 


Limitations of research:

  • Not standardized for ingredients
  • Very small sample size 
  • Mostly males
  • Limited results in outcomes of improved health and performance 


Bottom Line:

  • Focus on food first-your supplements should always supplement a healthy, whole food eating plan for your activity, regardless of your level of competition. The impact of consistent healthy eating, staying hydrated, fueling your workouts, getting enough sleep, and proper training/recovery cycles is so much more impactful than supplements. 
  • General non-supplement pre workout suggestions:
    • 100-300 calories of easy to digest carbs 
      • Graham crackers, toast, oats, bar
      • Fruit, sports drink
    • 8-16 oz fluid 
      • Water
      • Electrolyte water
      • Sports drink
      • Tea
      • Coffee
    • 150-500 mg caffeine
      • Coffee (approx 100-150 mg/cup depending on strength)
      • Tea (approx 25 mg/cup or bag depending on strength)
  • Some of the ingredients commonly found in pre-workouts have been shown to be helpful in performance outcomes 
  • Placebo effect is powerful and as long as a supplement is not unsafe, can help improve workouts. Often 1-2% improvements can mean a lot for a competitive athlete.
  • We do not recommend pre-workouts for non-competitive athletes, kids under 18 or anyone that is pregnant or breastfeeding. 
  • If you decide a supplement is right for you, we recommend:
    • Only use a NSF certified safe for sport pre-workout so you know what you are getting and have less of a risk for contamination or banned substances. Check out the website to search for safe supplements. 
      • Klean 
      • Garden of Life
      • Ladder
      • Thorne
      • Promix
    • Check the ingredients for types and amounts of the ingredients in order to receive a benefit. You might be paying for a supplement that does not have the correct amount to promote a benefit
    • Look for active ingredients without fillers, extras or things you don’t need, like added sugar or artificial sweeteners and colors
    • Track your results and see if the pre-workout is helping you and is worth the cost



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