Do pre-workout supplements work on their own?

TRuth: Sometimes boppin’ beats and a big, audacious fitness goal aren’t enough to get you pumped for your workout. Some days you just need a little something extra – to hit the gym and hit it with intensity. Could a pre-workout supplement — like the one littering your FitTok and Fitstagram feeds — be just the thing to light your training on a little fire?

Well, it depends on the pre-workout, as well as how you pre-workout.

What is pre-workout, exactly?

“There is no universally agreed upon textbook definition of pre-workout because different brands make different versions of the product,” says dietitian and strength coach Albert Matheny, RD, CSCS, COO of ARENA Innovations Corp. and co-founder of Soho Strength Lab in New York City.

Basically, ‘pre-workout’ is a term for a supplement category designed to be taken right after you exercise to give you a little extra boost. oomph. “The idea is that they help you train harder and/or longer without them,” says certified sports nutritionist Alison Sizemore, online fitness instructor at Couture Coaching.

Usually sold as a powdered drink mix-in that is added to water, pre-workout formulas on the market contain a variety of ingredients. Some tubs may contain substances that have been shown to enhance physical and/or mental performance, such as caffeine, creatine, beta-alanine, arginine, and/or nitric acid, Sizemore says., while others do not. Antioxidant blends, glucose (sugar), flavorings, and B-vitamins, electrolytes, and carbohydrates are other common ingredients.

But you don’t necessarily know how much you’re getting: a 2019 study revealed nutrients found that nearly half (44 percent) of the 100 pre-workout supplements studied were made up of proprietary blends, meaning the ingredient dosage per serving was not included.

Pre-workout supplements don’t always increase energy

According to Matheny, it’s common for pre-workout supplements to contain caffeine, usually in the form of green tea extract, coffee bean, yerba mate or caffeine anhydrous. After all, caffeine is one of the best, most studied supplements on the market, shown to improve muscular endurance, muscular strength and throwing performance, as well as a wide range of aerobic and anaerobic sport-specific actions.

However, there is Caffeine-free pre-workout formulas, usually marketed as ‘non-steam’ pre-workouts. These versions won’t provide the same jolt of energy as those containing caffeine derivatives (duh). But depending on their specific ingredient lineup, a stimulant-free pre-workout can still improve mental focus and increase blood flow to muscles.

Want to try a pre-workout before your next gym session?

You are the power really Needed before a workout

Caffeine doesn’t actually fuel your gym activities—calories do. Scientifically speaking, calories are units of energy that the body uses like a car uses gasoline, Matheny explains.

Calories, of course, come from carbohydrates, proteins and fats in food. Right before a workout, you’ll want to stick with simple carbohydrates initially, according to certified sports nutritionist Rachel Fine RD, CSSD, CDN, owner of To The Point Nutrition. “Eating easy-to-digest carbohydrates like toast, pretzels or crackers 30 to 60 minutes before your workout will help top off glycogen stores,” she says. The body stores carbohydrates as glycogen in the muscles, he explains, so replenishing them before exercise ensures you’ll have enough energy to last the duration of your workout.

If you strength train, you may want to add some protein to promote muscle recovery, adds Matheny. “Protein digests more slowly than carbohydrates” and so the body doesn’t typically use it as energy when you exercise, he explains. However, 20(ish) grams of protein before exercise – the equivalent of three eggs or three ounces of chicken – has been shown to support muscle recovery.

So… are pre-workout supplements enough?

“Most pre-workout supplements are no- or low-calorie,” says Matheny. It may be useful for morning movers to experiment with fasted cardio. But everyone else needs to pair their pre-workout mix with some good ‘ole fashion real food. “You could, for example, eat a banana and eggs or oatmeal with protein powder before going to the gym, then do your pre-workout in the car,” says Sizemore.

If your workouts still feel a little ‘blah’ after dialing in your nutrition, Matheny recommends drinking more water throughout the day. “Many people who feel flat in the middle of their workout routine are simply dehydrated,” he says. As a starting point, Adrienne Dowd, a nutritionist at Parsley Health, previously told Well+Good that she recommends consuming half your body weight in ounces of water per day for optimal hydration.

And don’t forget bedtime: You want to make sure you’re getting enough sleep, Matheny adds.

A pre-workout supplement by itself won’t get you through a workout if you’re not rested, fueled, or hydrated enough. As Matheny says, “It’s always better to cover the basics before adding supplements.”

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