Wondering whether pre-workout is healthy? The workout supplement can be safe if used correctly, explains Gaby Vaca-Flores, RDN, HUM’s educational specialist. But there are also plenty of real-food options to give you energy. Read on for a dietitian’s take.
Many gym-goers will tell you that pre-workout is a non-negotiable part of their fitness routine. Trust us, we get it—a quick energy boost can be the difference between actually making it to the gym or skipping a workout. But, what is pre-workout, and is pre-workout healthy?
Keep reading to learn about how safe pre-workout really is, its potential side effects, and natural alternatives.
What is Pre-Workout?
Pre-workout is a dietary supplement that helps support exercise performance by boosting energy. Some formulas also claim to have additional benefits like supporting muscle endurance, recovery, and growth.
Using a synergistic effect, pre-workout combines several different ingredients that work together to improve exercise performance. For this reason, researchers have recently classified pre-workout as MIPS, which is short for multi-ingredient pre-workout supplements.
Most pre-workouts are available as a flavored powder or ready-to-drink beverage. However, the ingredients, and their effects, can vary by formula.
What Does Pre-Workout Do?
First and foremost, pre-workout helps raise your energy levels prior to an intense physical activity. It provides energy rather quickly, usually within the first 30 minutes of taking.
In addition to energy, some pre-workout formulas can help with:
Caffeine is a primary ingredient in most pre-workout supplements. In fact, one serving of pre-workout usually packs the equivalent of one to two cups of coffee. Caffeine is a stimulant, so it can help you stay alert and focused during exercise, in addition to its energy benefits.
Multiple studies have demonstrated the importance of internal focus during exercise. An example of internal focus includes prioritizing a specific muscle movement or activity (i.e., focus on not letting your knees go past your toes while squatting).
For instance, a study found that participants who focused on using their glutes to lift their leg during a hip extension exercise saw double the muscle activation of their glutes.
Growth and Strength
Creatine is a compound found inside muscle cells. In the body, creatine supplies the muscles with energy to support daily physical activities. In pre-workout, it helps boost the muscle’s creatine supply.
Creatine supplementation can also help muscles tolerate heavy exercise loads, thereby promoting growth and strength.
Many people also enjoy taking creatine because it draws water into the muscles which gives the appearance of fuller muscles. As such, it’s popular among bodybuilders.
Some pre-workout supplements can help improve blood flow. The muscles rely on healthy blood circulation during exercise. L-arginine and l-citrulline are amino acids that help produce nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is a vasodilator, meaning it helps relax the blood vessels to improve blood flow.
After exercise, lactic acid build-up can cause muscle fatigue and damage. As a result, working out for longer periods of time can become more difficult.
For this reason, many pre-workout formulas contain beta-alanine. This amino acid can help boost endurance by keeping your muscle tissues free of lactic acid build-up, according to a meta-analysis.
Some pre-workouts can support you after exercising too. Pre-workouts made with BCAAs, or branched-chain amino acids, can speed up recovery by decreasing muscle soreness. Additionally, a systematic review found that BCAAs are especially effective when taken prior to intense physical activity.
Is Pre-Workout Bad for You?
Pre-workout is generally safe for consumption by most healthy adults, according to research looking at their use for less than eight weeks. However, it’s difficult to give a product-wide stamp of approval since there are so many brands on the market that offer different ingredient formulations. But what’s in pre-workout? Below, I reviewed some of the most common ingredients and their individual safety. Keep in mind, you should always look for supplements that feature clean, clinically-studied ingredients.
Safety profiles of the most common ingredients found in pre-workout:
Over 85 percent of pre-workout supplements contain caffeine. It has a long history of safe use in most healthy adults. However, people with certain cardiovascular conditions or sensitivities to stimulants should avoid taking caffeinated products.
Creatine is an ingredient in nearly half of all pre-workout supplements. The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) deems creatine safe for short and long-term use in dosages up to 30 grams daily.
This amino acid is safe and well-tolerated by most populations, according to multiple studies.
71 percent of pre-workout supplements are made with L-citrulline. Fortunately, it appears to be safe and well-tolerated, even in high doses.
Formulas made with beta-alanine account for 87 percent of pre-workout supplements. Moreover, the ISSN says that beta-alanine appears to be safe in healthy adults at the recommended four to six grams daily.
63 percent of pre-workout formulas contain l-tyrosine. Tyrosine is a popular BCAA that is safe for consumption by most healthy adults. However, individuals with protein-related health disorders should check with their doctors before taking BCAAs.
Percentages are according to a study published by the Molecular Diversity Preservation International (MPDI).
Dry Scooping Pre-Workout
As mentioned, pre-workout is safe when consumed correctly. This includes taking no more than the recommended dosage and consuming as intended by the manufacturer. With most pre-workouts, this involves mixing a scoop of powder into water and drinking it. (Check the label on your pre-workout supplement and follow instructions exactly.)
But as of late, dry scooping pre-workout has become increasingly popular. Dry-scooping is a dangerous social media trend that involves taking pre-workout powder without mixing it with a liquid. This practice can lead to serious heart, lung, and digestive complications. Not to mention, the high risk of choking. Research presented at the 2021 American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference & Exhibition found that dry scooping can lead to an “extremely high risk of overconsumption or accidental inhalation of pre-workout powder.”
Pre-workout side effects
Most people are unlikely to experience significant side-effects from taking pre-workout. But as with any dietary supplement, some reactions can occur.
Tingling is the most common side effect that people may experience when taking pre-workout. Tingles are mostly harmless, but admittedly uncomfortable. They are usually a result of the caffeine and beta-alanine ingredients.
Additionally, people with sensitivities to stimulants may experience mild reactions like digestive upset and headaches when taking pre-workout made with caffeine. Fortunately, some pre-workout supplements are available without stimulants. (Psst: These are some of our favorite alternatives to caffeine.)
If you’re interested in trying a pre-workout supplement, check with your doctor first.
Natural pre-workout alternatives
If pre-workout isn’t for you, or you simply want to see how you perform without the extra help, try these food alternatives to naturally charge your workout routine.
Foods that contain simple and complex carbohydrates are among the best foods to eat before a workout. The body easily breaks down simple carbs into glucose which translates into instant energy. On the flip side, complex carbs provide longer-lasting energy because they take longer to digest. For best results, try snacking on both types of carbs before exercising.
Examples of simple and complex carbs that can energize your workout include:
- Whole grain bread
- Sweet potatoes
- Fruit such as bananas, apples, oranges, kiwis, and berries
In addition, salt can help prime your body before exercise. Salt helps by promoting hydration, blood circulation, and can protect against muscle cramps. If you plan on doing a high-intensity workout or exercising on a hot day, try eating a salty snack first.
Pre-workout can be part of a healthy exercise routine. It can help energize your workout plus provide additional benefits like stamina and muscle recovery. As with all dietary supplements, it’s important to take as directed for the best and safest results.