Pre-workouts are supplements or combinations of supplements, often in powder form, that you take before a workout session in order to improve your performance and boost training adaptations. As fitness culture has exploded and grown by leaps and bounds, so have the available pre-workout products that promise to boost your workout performance.
Some of the things that pre-workouts claim to do:
- Improve energy utilization
- Increase muscle protein synthesis
- Boost the anabolic response
- Provide fuel for muscles
- Improve performance
But does pre-workout work? Let’s go through some of the most popular and common pre-workout ingredients and see if they actually help as advertised.
Creatine helps us store more phosphocreatine in the muscles, which is one of the most potent fast-acting energy systems for high-intensity rapid movement like weight lifting. Taking creatine:
- Improves performance in every lift that’s been studied, particularly more complex multi-jointed compound lifts like squats and deadlifts.
- Improves strength and muscle gains, even in elderly.
- Improves sprint performance.
Creatine works. It improves strength training performance, and it’s one of the few remaining supplements I still take on a daily basis. Creatine is especially important for vegans and vegetarians who aren’t getting any dietary creatine from meat and fish.
L-citrulline is an amino acid that increases nitric oxide synthesis and improves endothelial function. In short, it improves blood flow. This enhanced blood flow to your heart and muscles:
- Improves performance during intense activity.
- Improves the “pump,” that feeling of your muscles being engorged with fluid and blood. Important subjective feedback that makes lifting more pelasurable. Arnold Schwarzenegger famously compared the feeling of the pump to the feeling of sex. Exercise scientists generally discount the importance of the pump, but I find it correlates strongly with a better workout and improved adaptations.
L-citrulline works. Enhancing blood flow to all areas of your body is great for performance—in all areas, not just the weight room.
Beta-alanine is most effective in longer sessions. In bouts of exercise lasting under 60 seconds, it doesn’t seem to help. In bouts of exercise lasting over 60 seconds, beta-alanine begins to show beneficial effects on performance and capacity.
You know beta-alanine is working when you get the “tingly” feeling in your muscles. It’s not necessarily a pleasant feeling, but it does mean you’re ready to start training and if you have a great session, you’ll learn to appreciate the tingles. Given the overall modest effects of beta-alanine in the literature, I’d wager that the tingles act as a placebo of sorts and provide a psychological signal to your muscles that they’re ready to work hard. That isn’t to discount them.
Caffeine might be the most effective pre-workout supplement in the world. It’s certainly the most ubiquitous. I wrote an entire post about using caffeine before a workout, but here’s the gist of what it can do for you as a pre workout:
- Enhances upper body strength in women.
- Improves the desire to workout.
- A funny illustration of just how effective a pre-workout caffeine is lies in one study where a combo of ketones/taurine/leucine had no effect on performance unless you added caffeine. Sounded great on paper but boring old caffeine was needed to make it work.
Salt is the most important electrolyte in our bodies, and exercise increases our requirements. When you sweat, you’re losing salt. When you’re losing salt, your muscles can’t contract effectively. When your muscles can’t contract, you lose strength and performance.
Instead of waiting for you to sweat all the salt out, get a head start by adding a pinch or two (or three) of salt to your water as a “pre-workout.”
Ketone supplements are a way of having your cake and eating it too. The idea is that you can be on any diet you want, take ketone esters or salts, and get the benefits of ketones without having to follow a strict diet. There is some mixed evidence that exogenous ketones can help top-end endurance training performance, but it’s not clear how helpful they are to the average exerciser. They still have utility for many different health conditions. For more info, read my post on exogenous ketones.
Be careful, though. Some ketone supplements when taken in excess will have you running to the bathroom. It’s hard to perform in the gym when you have to take a bathroom break every half hour.
Branch chain amino acids—leucine, isoleucine, and valine—are potent stimulators of mTOR, the pathway of growth, of anabolic recovery, of muscle gain. Most people don’t need BCAA supplements, before a workout or ever, but they can help certain people.
BCAAs are most useful for people engaging in fasted training, because they preserve muscle, stave off muscle loss, and improve mTOR signaling post-workout.
BCAAs are also helpful for people abstaining from animal products, as meat, eggs, and dairy are the best sources of them.
Baking soda reduces lactate accumulation and acidity in the muscles, allowing you to train longer and harder without getting as fatigued. Reducing muscle acidity also allows energy transfer to improve and muscles to contract harder. Take it about a half hour before your training or competition and you will enjoy several interesting effects:
- Improved time to exhaustion. You can work out longer and harder. One study found that baking soda increased time to exhaustion while cycling by 20-30 seconds.
- Improved recovery. Lowering muscle acidity allows your muscles to recover quicker.
- Increases rep count. Baking soda has been shown to improve the number of reps a lifter can complete.
- For all you runners out there, baking soda may reduce runner’s high by suppressing endorphin release. Those endorphins, it turns out, are a response to acidity.
- Baking soda definitely works. To minimize GI upset, take in smaller doses throughout the day totaling up to 1-2 teaspoons and avoid taking it close to meals.
Though not a classic pre-workout that increases performance acutely, collagen when taken before a workout with 60 mg of vitamin C does improve collagen deposition in connective tissue. It’s more of a pre-workout with a long term goal of building tissue resilience and strength.
Is there a Primal pre-workout?
If I were putting together a pre-workout, here’s what I would do. Actually, here’s what I do:
- Fill my bottle with 32 ounces of water. I usually use Mountain Valley Spring water and a stainless steel bottle.
- Add a packet of LMNT. This is a great electrolyte supplement providing a gram of sodium plus magnesium malate (which has ergogenic effects) and potassium. Tastes great, works great. Essential for Miami heat.
- Add a scoop of creatine. 5 grams, give or take.
- Add two scoops of collagen peptides.
- Give it a good shake and sip on that in the minutes leading up to the workout and right on through it.
Baking soda would be a good addition here if you can tolerate it. You could add a source of caffeine, but I prefer to just drink coffee. I’ll occasionally add 20 grams of whey isolate powder if I’m doing a particularly hard, energy-intense session and I haven’t eaten. This is a quick and dirty way to supplement BCAAs (which taste horrible).
That’s about it. I don’t like to get into crazy pills and powders—those days are long gone. What about you? Do you take a pre-workout?