If you’re reading this article, you’re most likely a health conscious trainer, looking to improve your performance and physique, but rather than just clicking on any link that promises to shred “so many pounds of fat” or similarly add a ridiculous amount to your bench almost instantly, you are taking the time to research the subject and ingredients carefully and intend to read as widely as possible. Good for you!
Now... as a discerning consumer, the very notion of a drink that promises to increase performance quickly should pique your scepticism, as this runs contrary to one of the immutable laws of strength and athletic training that we are all too aware of.
It usually takes time to see results.
The time by which someone can achieve the physique they want or win a strength competition can take years or even decades (depending on your personal goals)… a time span similar to building a stone house by hand or a growing bonsai tree, coupled with dedication that would sometimes make even Mr Muyagi at times frustrated with plateaus in progress.
And like magic, a simple drink promises to create almost instant performance gains and improve your workout?
The purpose of this article is to show that some of these products do in fact have the ability to improve your workouts in a comparatively short time period, how to take them and to discuss their comprising ingredients which may help you achieve your fitness goals.
What does a pre workout do?
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s actually establish what the aim of a pre-workout and when they are consumed, for those unfamiliar with the concept. The intent of a good pre-workout supplement is to be an aid for the trainer in assisting their workout (and also the all-important post workout recovery) and is usually taken 0-60 mins prior to the commencement of the workout. The time period quoted above is by no means an “industry standard” definition, more so an arbitrary time period to distinguish the specialised pre workout supplement regime that many trainers follow, apart from their usual dietary intake.
When should I take a pre workout supplement?
This is a complex question and will be highly dependent on the individual, their dietary habits and the actual ingredients in their pre workout supplement.
However on an empty stomach, generally peak plasma levels occur from most compounds in an hour or so. That being said, the effects of some of the ingredients in popular pre workouts, such as caffeine or phenethylamines, may be experienced by the trainer very shortly after ingestion (<15 mins) which is when many trainers will begin their workout. The rule of thumb here is, find a product that works for you, experiment with the period of time before commencing training and see what provides the result you’re after.
Stimulant vs non stimulant pre workout ingredients
This is the obvious demarcation line to split the myriad of pre-workout ingredients on the market, by the defining feature of whether or not they are compounds which stimulate the CNS (central nervous system) to promote feelings of energy and wakefulness or work in some other way.
First we will explore the perhaps less contentious, “non-stimulant” ingredients. If the reader has no interest in these, feel free to scroll to the Popular stimulant ingredients in pre workouts section below.
Key non stimulant pre workout ingredients
This ingredient, common in many quality pre-workouts is an amino acid precursor, and has been well documented to reduce fatigue and increase short term endurance in many studies. When metabolised by the body into carnosine, beta alanine reduces the acidity which is experienced in exercise due to lactic acid build-up.
Where this becomes of interest to the trainer, is that this may improve short term endurance (say in the 0-60 second range) which may enable them to achieve an extra rep or two on those hard sets – which could be a personal best!
A standard dose for beta alanine is 2-5g a day. It should be noted that excess ingestion of beta alanine can cause a tingling sensation named paraesthesia caused by activation of the peripheral nerves. This can be mitigated by splitting the doses prior to the training session with no subsequent reduction in any beneficial effects.
This important amino acid can be hard to obtain through diet alone, as it is not found in large amounts in a normal diet – which is a shame as this amino acid improves the ammonia recycling process and nitric oxide metabolism.
Theoretically, anything which improves these processes should reduce fatigue and / or increase performance, but this hasn’t been confirmed to a satisfactory degree in any study to date - however there are some studies which show promise.
The main benefit as to why this should be included in your pre workout supplementation though is a noted benefit in reducing delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, which whilst many of us find a somewhat satisfying indicator of a nice, hard training session, is ultimately something we want to recover from faster… so we can grow and then train again sooner!
This amino acid is found in many dietary sources, such as fish and eggs. It should be stated that this formally classified as a non-essential amino acid, meaning that under normal conditions, your body can produce enough of it from other amino acids, if enough hasn’t been consumed from diet. This may raise questions as to why this amino acid needs to supplemented at all, given its ability to be made “in-house” - however, the body only has a limited capacity to do this, which may be exceeded under very strenuous training conditions.
The effect of L Tyrosine in the body is important for the role it plays in mitigating stress. Your body uses L Tyrosine to produce catecholamines (a natural response by the body to mitigate stress) and has been shown to have a role in nor-epinephrine and dopamine production in the brain*. These neurotransmitters create feelings of well-being and wakefulness.
** For more information on neurotransmitters such as dopamine, feel free to scroll ahead to the “Stimulant Ingredient” part at the end.
Schisandra / Schizandra (understandably sometimes misspelt)
This is an extract from the plant Schisandra chinensi, and is used in traditional Chinese medicine and is popular in Western alternative medicine as an adaptogen, a compound which may be beneficial in situations which are either physically or mentally demanding. There are supposedly some reports in Russian about documented increases in athletic performance, however these have yet to be replicated in Western medical journals. This isn’t to say that this compound isn’t effective as a pre workout, more so that additional study is required.
That being said, many users find this a useful addition to their pre workout supplementation, by providing an increase in focus, without any subsequent “crash” which can be experienced by CNS stimulatory ingredients. Additionally, the long history of use from Traditional Chinese Medicine should give confidence that this ingredient likely has a relatively benign safety profile as well.
This promising supplement is derived from the essential amino acid l-arginine and seems to assist the user in achieving those satisfying muscle pumps as a result of its ability to minimise nitric oxide metabolism and is well known in the nootropic community for a perceived increase in focus and mental energy. More research is needed on this supplement but for the reasons above, makes a worthy addition to any pre-workout drink.
Popular stimulant ingredients in pre workouts
The benefits of feeling energetic whilst training should be very obvious, especially to anyone who has attempted a workout whilst jet-lagged or after a long night working or studying. We can safely say that very few think it’s beneficial to feel like having a snooze in the gym when they do their sit ups or to snuggle up on the bench...
But how do these ingredients increase athletic performance, whilst making you feel less tired or more energetic?
These ingredients broadly achieve this by stimulating the central nervous system (CNS) and are extremely well documented in many studies to have this ability and improve athletic performance and endurance, so much so, there is almost no contention at all.
Almost everyone is familiar with this compound and is readily available in various delicious forms, such as that provided by your baristas’ coffee, various energy drinks on the market or in most pre workout products. Of course, the dose in a quality pre workout product is going to be not only a lot higher than that available in coffee but also more consistent.
This fact is worth exploring in detail, to remind the anti-pre-workout / pro-coffee crowd of what they are potentially missing out on. Plus, Boutique café made coffee is also much more expensive than most quality pre-workouts, dose for dose.
The amount of caffeine from commercial coffee varies not only from brand to brand, but also from batch to batch and the baristas’ technique. A range of 47mg – 64mg has been found in espresso shots, whereas a quality pre workout will contain a higher dose that should be very close to the stated amount on the ingredients list.
This last point is important, particularly for those who benefit from caffeine, but are somewhat caffeine sensitive. From the author’s observations, wholly undocumented of course, suggests that almost everyone will have a point where additional caffeine consumption will either decrease performance via technique breakdown or cause feelings of unwellness. Not something we want to gamble on prior to an important training session or an athletic competition!
How does caffeine work?
For those who really must know, caffeine works by blocking the adenosine receptor, which prevents this inhibitory neurotransmitter from causing feelings of drowsiness. For those unfamiliar with the term neurotransmitter, this is essentially a chemical that your body uses to enable parts of the body to talk to other parts, or to enable regulation of the bodies’ systems. Any discussion of CNS stimulants will use this term frequently and there are many great primers on the web discussing this topic.Phenethylamines - Octopamine, Hordenine, N Methyltyramine and others
For ease of comprehension, we will group these compounds as phenethylamines, even though some strictly speaking are not.
This class of compounds actually work via a somewhat more direct route and mimic the function of neurotransmitters such as adrenaline (epinephrine) nor-adrenaline (nor-epinephrine) and dopamine, to differing proportions, depending on the characteristic of the particular compound.
A further discussion could easily fill a library here, beyond the scope of this article (and the author’s knowledge!), but if you squint hard, you’ll see that the adrenaline model below looks kinda similar to the N Methyl Tyramine model, with a hexagon (called the phenyl ring) and a bunch of other stuff hanging off it.
Adrenaline - C9H13NO3
N Methyl Tyramine - C9H13NO
In our paleolithic forebears, the body released catecholamines like adrenaline prior to activities which required increased strength and speed of movement, such as when being chased by a bear or whatever, luckily this same effect can be used today to smash PBs in the gym.
However, this is where our discerning trainer may have a point. Compounds which either release, or mimic these “flight or fight” neurotransmitters are inherently catabolic.
To most people, the very thought of catabolism would (and should) cause involuntary shivers, like catching your out-of-shape father or mother-in-law coming out of the shower.
Something to be avoided at all costs.
But things aren’t as dire as they first might appear.
Firstly, the act of training is inherently catabolic, which may seem counter-intuitive, after all most of us are training to build muscle, not destroy it! But as anyone who has experienced crippling leg pain and weakness, the day after a hard squat session would attest, this is most definitely true. It’s the recovery time after which actually builds the muscle.
The takeaway point here is that yes, the compounds are catabolic, but the workout itself puts the body in a catabolic state anyway, the trick is to pull out of this as soon as possible with good post workout nutrition and rest.
The less motivated of readers here would be well advised, that simply putting your body in a catabolic state via the ingestion of CNS stimulant compounds does not guarantee your body rebounding with anabolism afterwards, it’s your training which encourages the subsequent anabolism, otherwise, every hard-partying rock star would be built like an IFBB pro.
Johnny Depp ain’t expected to break any bench records soon. Dig?
Do pre workouts need to be cycled?
It is probably best to cycle any pre-workout which contains ingredients which stimulate the central nervous system directly. The term “cycling” in this instance means some time off between pre-workout doses, whether it be 24 hours or up to a fortnight. As a guide, it seems most trainers who use stimulant pre-workouts save them for the harder training sessions, like leg day, one to three times a week.
The reasoning here is that even humble caffeine (not to mention phenethylamines!) can cause an accommodation effect when taken too frequently, which will result in reduced perceived benefits, tolerance and abnormal fatigue in subsequent daily activities.
The amount of “time off” between consuming stimulant pre-workouts will be very dependent on the trainer’s overall physical health and potential work capacity, their daily stress load (both physical and mental), recovery protocol and the amount of sleep they get.
For example, some people report diminished energy in the days following a dosing protocol of a couple of times a week, whereas some don’t seem to experience any residual additional fatigue at all (when taking recommended doses).
Given the individual variation, the motivation and energy levels of the trainer will be the most useful metric here on how often to dose. Failing energy levels or lack of motivation to train shouldn’t be regarded as an unpleasant symptom to be metaphorically swept under the rug via the use of stimulants and may point to excess pre-workout use, a dietary deficiency, or too high a training load coupled with lack of recovery.
Preworkout / Stimulant use key points and take aways
- The ingredients in most pre-workouts should take effect within an hour, so this is a good time to consume these products. Of course, some of the “non-stimulatory” ingredients aren’t constrained like this and can be taken many hours before training and trainers will still experience benefits, but an abundance of energy and jitters due to a large dose of caffeine, is probably wasted whilst driving to the gym, rather than training in it. The user should experiment here to find the correct time for dosing.
- When using any CNS stimulants as an aid to training, try to get back to a restful (and hopefully anabolic) state after the workout as soon as possible. Cold showers, mediation, (even Netflix!) etc. Avoid re-dosing. Do not exceed the recommended dose. Ensure you have quality post workout nutrition ready to go.
- Have your medical professional give you a check over to ensure that you have no underlying health issues which may be exacerbated by stimulant use. Feel free to ask your doctor their opinion on the safety profile on any compounds you have concern over.
- If you compete in an ASADA tested sport, please carefully review the ingredients list to ensure that it does not contain any substances that are prohibited for “in competition use”. An additional warning here should be given that some manufacturers will unfortunately produce supposedly compliant supplements on the same production lines as their products which contain banned ingredients, leading to cross contamination…. and ignorance is no defence in the case of a positive drug test result!
If this is a concern, ensure that you purchase products from manufacturers which can guarantee compliance, preferably via HASTA certification.
Saunders, B., Elliott-Sale, K., Artioli, G., Swinton, P., Dolan, E., Roschel, H., Sale, C. and Gualano, B. (2017). β-alanine supplementation to improve exercise capacity and performance: a systematic review and meta-analysis. [online] Available at: https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/51/8/658
Pérez-Guisado, J. and Jakeman, P. (2010). Citrulline Malate Enhances Athletic Anaerobic Performance and Relieves Muscle Soreness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(5), pp.1215-1222.
Mitchell, D., Hockenberry, J., Teplansky, R. and Hartman, T. (2015). Assessing dietary exposure to caffeine from beverages in the U.S. population using brand-specific versus category-specific caffeine values. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 80, p.247.
Frank, K., Patel, K., Lopez, G. and Willis, B. (2020). Schisandra chinensis Research Analysis. [online] Examine.com. Available at: https://examine.com/supplements/schisandra-chinensis/ [Accessed 12 Feb. 2020].