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When it comes to spending time in the gym, most of us will take any reasonable advantage we can get. Anything that motivates us to get there, maximize our training while we’re there, or improve our results. In this effort, many people opt for special meal plans or learn techniques and strategies to better build muscle and burn calories.
But some people also use dietary supplements to get a boost. Such supplements may include individual powders or capsules, but many people take the so-called all-in-one dietary supplement combination known as a pre-workout. “The market for pre-workout drinks and powders has exploded in recent years with more and more products on the shelves,” says Matthew Anastasi, MD, a consultant in the division of orthopedic sports medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona.
Knowing what these products are and whether or not they are safe can be helpful.
What are pre-workouts?
Pre-workout supplements are powders, drinks, chews, or capsules that are marketed as having the ability to improve athletic performance. Different pre-workout brands contain different ingredients that are advertised as working together to protect against fatigue and keep energy levels high during exercise. These ingredients may include amino acids, protein, ashwagandha, calcium, and creatine. Some also contain vitamins D and B, as well as minerals such as sodium and potassium. Other pre-workout products offer “fluids, carbohydrates and electrolytes,” says Leslie Bonci, MPH, RDN, a Kansas City Chiefs sports nutritionist and founder of Active Eating Advice. Most brands contain a variety of any of the above ingredients and more.
But perhaps the most desirable ingredient in most pre-workout brands is the energy-boosting stimulant caffeine; “which is often included in very large amounts,” says Uma Naidu, MD, director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of Calm Your Mind with Food. pre-workout brands (Onnit Alpha BRAIN Pre-Workout) pack 200 mg of caffeine, half the maximum amount of caffeine that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends staying under. in the day.
What do pre-workouts do?
That’s not to say that all pre-workout components are problematic. When taken in recommended daily amounts, many pre-workout ingredients have proven health benefits. Vitamins, minerals, proteins, and amino acids, for example, are certainly important parts of a healthy diet.
And Bonci says some pre-workout supplements “may be beneficial for endurance or exercise.” Certain ingredients can also “optimize strength, speed and endurance” and “provide an exogenous fuel source so the body doesn’t have to use protein as a fuel source during exercise,” he says. Many pre-workout electrolytes can also help with hydration.
“For some people, doing a pre-workout can improve concentration, focus, and provide increased energy and better muscle building,” echoes Naidoo.
Are pre-workouts safe?
But it’s not all good news, as some pre-workout ingredients are less well-studied, dangerous, or included at levels that exceed the recommended daily allowance. This can occur because dietary supplements are not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration in the same way that foods and drugs are. And no supplement can take the place of proper nutrition. “I generally caution people about pre-workout safety,” Naidoo says. “While some of these supplements contain healthy vitamins and amino acids, many are also loaded with sugars and artificial sweeteners and extreme amounts of caffeine, which can harm mental fitness and gut health.”
Anastasi agrees and advises “everyone to pay close attention to the ingredients that are actually in the pre-workout, as they can vary greatly.” In high doses, some ingredients in pre-workouts can cause digestive problems, high blood pressure, and irregular heartbeat. Certain components can also compensate for the individual work done to excel in athletic endeavors. “It’s important to test all pre-workout drinks and powders before using them before a big race or other competitive environment,” he says.
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