Gym life comes with a litany of code words and phrases that can baffle the ears of an outsider. Wander into any high street gym, and you can be forgiven for not quite knowing your DOMS from your WOD. Let alone understanding the difference between ketogenesis and tabata.
It’s not just the movements that can be confusing, either. And while we’ve already broken down exactly what the humble protein powder is, and why you should take it, we thought it’d be a good idea to turn our attention to pre-workouts. Specifically, what are they, when should you take them, and how can they help you get pumped?
What Exactly Is A Pre-Workout?
Everyone wants to get the most out of the time they spend exercising, and pre-workout supplements claim to help you do exactly that. “Put simply, a pre workout is a supplement you take before carrying out a workout, used to enhance your performance. They usually have a combination of supplements in, that have different effects on your body,” explains Third Space personal trainer Leo Savage.
Taking in the right fuel for your body at the right time is vital, as it will influence how you feel, how you perform and your recovery, adds Tim Hayes, PT and founder of the training app, Peach. “The purpose of having a pre-workout is to stabilise your blood sugar during exercise which will help prevent glycogen depletion and reduce muscle protein breakdown during your workout.”
“Pre-workouts can come in a variety of forms, typically a powder that can be added to water or a supplement pill,” continues Harley Street Nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert, author of Re-Nourish. “The ingredients will depend on how they make work and what effect they have on the body. Ingredients may include caffeine, BCAAs or creatine for example.”
Lambert goes on to explain that several studies have shown that taking either creatine or caffeine, may be a great aid to boost performance. The data around BCAA’s on the other hand, is a bit more shaky. While they may contain ingredients that increase blood flow, increase heart rate and increase blood flow to the skin, these effects don’t in and of themselves help make people bigger, stronger, or faster.
What Kinds Of Pre-Workout Are There?
In Hayes’s opinion, the term ‘pre-workout’ is a tricky one to pin down. “[It] covers a broad area in terms of nutrition in sports and exercise. Fitness professionals, nutritionists, dieticians, sports people and doctors all have their own, often differing, views on it.”
Lambert agrees that ‘pre-workout’ is a broad term, which can mean different things to different individuals. She explains, that “Ideally, a pre-workout should be food. Pre-workout meals can be consumed 2–3 hours and up to 30 minutes before workouts. Carbs help maximise glycogen stores for high-intensity exercise, while fat helps fuel your body for longer, less intense workouts. Protein may also be included as it improves muscle protein synthesis and helps with recovery.”
In short, Lambert laments the fact that “people are now being drawn to pre-workout supplements instead of actual food.”
But there’s a reason for this. And it’s the same reason we use shakes instead of downing more time-consuming sources of protein, like chicken breasts. A good pre-workout is not only convenient, but it packs in a lot more nutrients and electrolytes than a natural alternative. Which in turn will benefit your performance to a greater degree.
“As a nutritionist, I would advise having something good to eat before exercising, like an egg on toast with some avocado or Greek yoghurt with fruit,” says Lambert.
But, should you not have time for this, Lambert suggests you look for a pre-workout supplement containing caffeine, because it’s one of the most researched performance enhancing drugs and can benefit individuals before they exercise.
A similarly well-researched supplement is creatine, which has shown strength-building benefits especially in resistance training, especially when combined with beta-alanine – a form of natural amino acid.
Leo Savage elaborates, explaining that when it comes to the ingredients list, “Simpler is always better, there is no need to choose a pre-workout full of ingredients that you can’t pronounce. Nor is there a need to take a pre workout that has double the dose of certain ingredients, as it isn’t always essential or beneficial to increase dosage.”
He goes on to explain that you should always try to understand the purpose of each of the listed ingredients; that way you’ll know exactly which formula should work for your fitness goals.
Fernando Madalena, PT at Ultimate Performance agrees, warning “What works for your friend might not work for you, and your training plan and goals. Our bodies are all different, so there is no right or wrong. Talk to you PT about finding the best pre-workout that will suit your training needs and demands. Sometimes you shouldn’t be using any products at all.”
When Should I Take It?
To demonstrate how pre-workouts could work in action, Madalena explains his daily routine. “As a PT I take my pre-workout very seriously. I wake up at 5am every day, where my first drink is one scoop of collagen + a few drops of 40,000 volts electrolytes concentrate, blended with warm water, followed by a cup of tea or apple cider vinegar. At 10am I take BCAA to prevent muscle damage during client training and to prolong protein synthesis, maximise the pump during my workout and enhance insulin sensitivity.”
All of which sounds rather… joyless. Joseph Welstead, former international swimmer, commonwealth games finalist for Scotland, and founder of Motion Nutrition, offers a different take. “I like to use pre-workouts for early morning training. It helps me arrive at the gym awake, alert and ready to go. It might even give you a mental edge over the sleepy faces you see around you.
“I’ll down my pre-workout with just a little food on the side – maybe a banana and some peanut butter, nothing heavy. Then I’ll save my big breakfast for after my session. I’ll confess, I’ll use pre-workout sometimes simply before a big work day, even if I’m not hitting the gym.”
Opt for 45 minutes to an hour before your workout, and you’ll be good to go.
Are There Downsides To Taking Pre-Workouts?
If, like Joseph, you’re considering taking pre-workouts pre work-work, then you might well have an advantage over your colleagues. But it may be safer to opt for your usual espresso en-route to the office for a simpler but no less effective mental boost. With that in mind, we asked our experts to break down the pros and cons of taking pre-workouts to help you decide when and how often they might work for you, and when you’re verging on overkill…
- “Increased strength and performance over time equals a higher chance of progressive overload leading to muscle hypertrophy, which can therefore lead muscle gains,” explains Lambert
- “Increased workout capacity, and increased alertness and focus,” says Savge
- “They may help you feel strong throughout a tough session. This is most likely by widening the blood vessels, which, in turn, delivers more oxygen to your muscles so you can perform at your peak,” says Madalena
- “Pre-workouts may actually have long term beneficial impacts. A common piece of feedback is that the pre-workout has helped with skin conditions – which can be explained by the improvement in blood flow,” says Welstead
- “Supplements can be expensive over long periods, and you may become tolerant to caffeine, meaning a higher dose is required,” warns Lambert
- “I would stay clear of using high-caffeine pre-workouts at all times…with servings often reaching over 200mg of caffeine, you’ll be at risk of causing adrenal fatigue, perturbing your circadian rhythm. You might find yourself in a high cortisol, high stress vicious circle,” adds Welstead
- “[There’s a risk of] shaky hands, mood swings and poor sleep,” adds Welstead
- Madalena also warns of possible side effects including: “Insomnia, diarrhoea, dehydration, headaches, high blood pressure, and tingly or prickly sensations.”
So Should I Take Them Or Not?
In short, yes. Taken responsibly, pre-workouts can provide a great boost, and help you push further when you find your energy levels lacking. Just don’t rely on them before every single workout. And, of course, you should never overlook natural alternatives, as Hayes points out.
“Your body responds to food groups, e.g glycogen, converted from carbs/sugar, proteins and fats. For high intensity training, a banana and a boiled egg would be a great alternative, and for duration training, seeded toast with lashings of peanut or almond butter would see you through. In short you want a blend of protein and carbs and the higher the intensity and longer the duration the more carbs you should take on board.”
If you do opt for pre-workouts, it’s best to choose one with all natural ingredients. Many, like Motion Nutrition’s range, feature caffeine (from matcha), a blood flow aid (from beetroot), and powerful natural tonics including maca, guarana and panax ginseng. It ticks all the boxes of a pre-workout, helps with your performance and your mood, but happens to be fully natural and organic.
“Applied in the right ways, and with guidance from the right healthcare team, pre-workouts provide benefits, including increased energy levels, improved workout performance, a more regulated metabolism and faster recovery times,” says Hayes.
Welstead, meanwhile, has the final word on pre-workouts.
“Buoyed by brands seeking impossibly high dosages of caffeine, the pre-workout craze has gone way too far. A pre-workout should simply be an energy kick, something to lift your mood, focus and energy levels. They work by improving blood flow and, usually, providing a source of caffeine – you might consider the humble espresso one of the best pre-workouts out there. And indeed, many athletes do, including some of the world’s greatest swimmers I’ve had the chance to come across.”
So there you have it. Like all training aids, pre-workouts have their uses, but to over-rely on them is to put your health at risk, and also trick yourself into thinking you naturally have more in the tank than you might actually have. Pick up an espresso en-route to the gym, or have an egg on toast before leaving the house, and you should be set for all but the most gruelling of workouts.
Your Pre-Workout Shopping List
As we’ve discovered, not all pre-workouts are created equal. Here we break down what to use, and when.
Best For: Lifting
Caffeine and jitter-free, this pre-workout packs in everything you need to push through your next eye-watering shoulder workout, only without the added stimulants that can leave you on a post-lift comedown. Ideal for natural muscle.
Best For: HIIT
These pre-workout pills are packed with B-vitamins to fight fatigue, and beta alanine to reduce lactic acid build-up during a heavy workout. Ideal for sprints, spinning, burpee workouts or circuit work.
Best For: Endurance
Whether you’re training for a half marathon, or aiming for a new sumo deadlift PB, this powder has you covered. Packed with BCAAs, it’s designed to reduce your perception of effort, as well as aiding aids recovery, whatever your body’s just been through…
Best For: Your Morning Run
With guarana, maca, matcha and lucuma, this powder boosts mood and bolsters energy. Ideal for your pre-work lap around the block. Mix it up with apple juice for best results.