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. Super fans 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 hop on the trend.
What Are Pre-Workout Supplements, Exactly?
Instead of drinking a cup of coffee and eating a banana before a workout, these pre-sweat session supplements claim to give you a little extra pep and focus to slay a challenging workout.
Most pre-workout supplements are low- or no-calorie and contain one of the following ingredients (or a combination): caffeine, amino acids, creatine, nitric oxide. Many formulations also include carbohydrates, to fuel your body during workouts. Research shows that these ingredients may improve exercise performance.
What's in Pre-Workout Supplements?
Caffeine is a common ingredient in these products. Athletes have long relied on everything from coffee and tea to caffeine-enhanced gels and gum to enhance alertness and energy levels. And studies have found that caffeine can improve endurance, muscle strength and muscle endurance, according to a review published December 2016 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."
Creatine is another common ingredient in pre-workout supplements — and one of the most researched. "It helps with muscle building and strength" by providing energy to muscles, says Lauren Manganiello, RDN, a fitness coach and dietitian who specializes in sports and performance. However, some studies — like one published August 2013 in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition — suggest that creatine may be more helpful post-workout than pre-workout.
Many supplements also contain amino acids, the building blocks of protein. In particular, branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) supplements have become popular recently. Some studies, like one published September 2016 in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, have found that supplementation of these "essential" amino acids — those your body can't produce on its own—improves endurance performance and reduces fatigue. And others, such as one published March 2013 in ISRN Nutrition, suggest that BCAAs may also reduce muscle soreness.
Still other supplements contain beta-alanine, another amino acid. "When taken consistently, it can help buffer lactic acid in the muscles, allowing you to work harder longer," says Goodson. However, you need to consume it for a month to reap the benefits.
There's also arginine, a precursor to nitric oxide. "It helps dilate the veins and in theory delivers more oxygen and nutrients to the working muscle," Goodson says.
If you have an existing medical issue or history of a medical condition, make sure to consult with your doctor before taking any supplements.
Should I 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. Benefits can vary from person to person.
For example, if you're sensitive to caffeine, watch how much you ingest before working out. "Caffeine can contribute to an increased heart rate, which exercise also does, and for some, that can be too much," says Goodson. "Additionally, caffeine can stimulate gastrointestinal movement for some, so for outdoor athletes like runners and cyclists, that needs to be taken into consideration."
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 says. "You're better off fixing those areas than adding a supplement."
Pre-workout supplements can have a place, though. According to Manganiello, creatine supplements may be helpful if you're hitting the weights or about to do a HIIT workout. And sometimes, supplements can just be convenient. If you have a 5 a.m. workout on tap and the thought of eating that early in the morning turns your stomach, a pre-workout supplement can provide the fuel you need, says Antonucci. However, in general, Antonucci says that pro and elite athletes are likely to reap greater benefits than an everyday athlete.
The downside? Pre-workout supplements aren't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the same way that, say, medications are monitored. That means they don't have to go through rigorous safety testing, and the companies that sell them don't even have to prove that they contain the ingredients listed on the packaging (and don't contain unlisted ingredients) or that they actually deliver what they promise.
"If you choose to take a pre-workout, you should look for a product that's been certified by a third party like NSF Certified for Sport or Informed Choice. This can help insure the purity and quality of the supplement," says Goodson.
A Better Workout Boost
While supplements are meant to bolster specific nutrients, you can reap all the same benefits — and then some — by eating real, whole foods. "Food provides other things in addition to the one ingredient you're looking for," like vitamins, minerals, healthy fats and antioxidants that you won't get from a supplement, says Antonucci.
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.
- Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews: "A review of caffeine's effects on cognitive, physical and occupational performance."
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "The effects of pre versus post workout supplementation of creatine monohydrate on body composition and strength."
- Nutrients: "Effects of 4-Week Creatine Supplementation Combined with Complex Training on Muscle Damage and Sport Performance"
- Journal of Sports Science & Medicine: "The Supplementation of Branched-Chain Amino Acids, Arginine, and Citrulline Improves Endurance Exercise Performance in Two Consecutive Days"
- ISRN Nutrition: "Branched-chain amino Acid plus glucose supplement reduces exercise-induced delayed onset muscle soreness in college-age females."
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration: "Dietary Supplements"