Do You Really Need to Take a Pre-Workout Supplement?

Some research supports the benefits of pre-workout supplements, but elite athletes are more likely to see an effect than everyday gym-goers.
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We've all heard the chatter at the gym and on social media: If you want to crush a workout, you need a pre-workout supplement.

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Superfans claim that just popping a pill or mixing a powder into your drink will boost performance, energy and endurance — not to mention ignite faster results and bigger gains.

But you might be wondering: "Should ​I​ take a pre-workout supplement?" Here's what you really need to know before you invest in one.

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What Are Pre-Workout Supplements, Exactly?

Instead of having a banana and a cup of coffee before a workout, pre-workout supplements claim to give you a little extra pep and focus to slay a challenging workout.

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Most pre-workout supplements are low- or no-calorie and contain one of the following ingredients (or a combination): caffeine, creatine and amino acids, says sports dietitian Jim White, RDN, owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios. And while these ingredients are generally safe to take, it's crucial to follow the dosage instructions for your supplement.

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Here's what you need to know about the main ingredients that make up most pre-workout supplements:

1. Caffeine

Caffeine is a common ingredient in pre-workout formulas and explains why these supplements give you extra energy. Caffeine can improve endurance, muscle strength and muscle endurance, according to a December 2016 review in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews.

"Most research suggests caffeine is most effective for workouts under 20 minutes and over an hour," says Amy Goodson, RD, LD, a certified specialist in sports dietetics. "Because it provides a boost to the central nervous system, it can help energize a workout."

Generally, about 400 milligrams of caffeine (equivalent to about 4 cups of coffee) is a safe amount for adults to get each day, according to Harvard Health Publishing. But it's important to read the product labels of your supplements and watch your intake.

Although it's not dangerous per se, getting too much caffeine can lead to jitters and anxiety, which is where most people experience issues with pre-workout (more on that below).

2. Creatine

Creatine is another common ingredient in pre-workout supplements — and one of the most researched. Naturally found in milk, red meat and seafood, your body uses creatine for energy, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Creatine helps increase muscle strength and reduce muscle damage after 4 weeks of use, per a November 2018 ​Nutrients​ study.

It helps with muscle-building and strength by providing energy to the muscles, helping improve your overall workout performance, says Lauren Manganiello, RDN, a fitness coach and dietitian who specializes in sports and performance.

Tip

Try taking creatine after your workout instead of before: Creatine was found to be more effective in increasing muscle and strength when taken immediately after a workout rather than before, according to a small August 2013 study in the ​Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.

3. Amino Acids

Many supplements also contain amino acids, aka the building blocks of protein. Usually, pre-workout supplements contain branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which include essential amino acids that your body can't produce on its own.

Supplementing with BCAAs can help improve endurance performance and reduce fatigue, according to a September 2016 study in the ​Journal of Sports Science & Medicine.​ And BCAAs may also reduce muscle soreness after you're done training, per a March 2013 study in ISRN Nutrition.

Still, other supplements contain beta-alanine, which is another amino acid. "When taken consistently, it can help buffer lactic acid in the muscles, allowing you to work harder for longer," Goodson says.

Risks of Taking Pre-Workout

The reason pre-workout often gets a bad reputation? Caffeine. As with dietary supplements, the Food and Drug Administration doesn't test individual sports supplements, according to the National Institutes of Health. So, different containers of pre-workout contain different levels of caffeine.

Reading your pre-workout's nutrition label is the key to taking the supplement safely. Everyone has a different caffeine tolerance but going too far past 400 milligrams per day can cause irregular heartbeat, nervousness, headache and insomnia, according to the Mayo Clinic.

"Caffeine can contribute to an increased heart rate, which exercise also does, and for some, that can be too much," Goodson says. "Additionally, caffeine can stimulate gastrointestinal movement for some, so for outdoor athletes like runners and cyclists, that needs to be taken into consideration."

Is Dry-Scooping Bad for You?

Taking pre-workout powder dry (aka "dry scooping") can cause some adverse side effects. The powder is meant to be diluted in water and drank more slowly. But when you dry scoop, your body processes the caffeine more quickly, which can be taxing on your heart, White says.

Plus, dry scooping isn't great for your lungs, either, White says. When you dry scoop, you run the risk of inhaling the powder, which can cause difficulty breathing or choking.

Bottom line: Although it may be a popular practice in your gym, dry scooping pre-workout powder isn't safe for your heart or lungs. Take your supplements as directed on the label.

Should You Take Pre-Workout?

So, is a pre-workout supplement right for you? It depends. While research may show that a specific ingredient improves performance, it's not a blanket guarantee that a supplement containing that ingredient will help everyone across all sports and workouts. As with all supplements, benefits (and risks) vary from person to person.

Before heading to the store, Lauren Antonucci, RDN, CDN, sports dietitian and director of Nutrition Energy, recommends pausing to look at the bigger picture.

"What are your goals? Are there other things — training-wise, food and nutrition-wise, sleep-wise — that you could address that will be more cost-effective and beneficial to reaching your goals?" she asks. "You're better off fixing those areas than adding a supplement."

While supplements are meant to add specific nutrients to your diet, you can reap all the same benefits — and then some — by eating real, whole foods.

Food provides the ingredient you're looking for with additional vitamins, minerals, healthy fats and antioxidants that you won't get from a supplement, Antonucci says.

Supplements, on the other hand, are man-made. "There's something different when you eat a whole food and get all the other nutrients from that food. The nutrients interact with each other, and you can't get that from supplements, which are chemically made," says Manganiello. "You can't out-supplement your diet."

Not to mention, supplements can be expensive, so spending money on good food like lean proteins, fruits, vegetables and whole grains can be kinder on your wallet, too.

Bottom line: You don't ​need​ a pre-workout supplement. If you are curious if supplementing may be beneficial, Antonucci recommends talking to a sports dietitian and looking into published, peer-reviewed research behind the specific supplement you're considering in order to make an informed decision.

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