5 Best Pre-Workout Supplements: Are They Right for You?
The world of pre-workout supplements can be extremely confusing and overwhelming. Doing the proper due diligence to find out which one is right for you will help you maximize your workouts. This article will break down a some of the most common pre-workout supplements and explain which type of workout they are best for.
First, what exactly is a pre-workout supplement? In a nutshell, it is a performance enhancer that is taken before exercising. The intended benefit is extra energy to help maximize gains.
Something worth noting is that it is important to be in good health and get a physical from a doctor before consuming any pre-workout supplements or participating in rigorous exercise. Make sure to tell your doctor about any medications you are taking as well, as certain drugs may interact negatively with pre-workout supplements.
Creatine is one of the most popular supplements on the market. If you have spent any time in a gym, chances are you have heard the name creatine. This is an amino acid that occurs naturally in the body as well as in seafood and red meat.
Creatine is located primarily in the brain and muscles. It is stored in the muscles where it is readily available to aid the body with extra energy. Stored creatine helps re-synthesize ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, in between muscle contractions.1 ATP is important because it powers all our body movements.
Although there’s no way to directly increase the ATP your body produces, a creatine supplement can help the body boost ATP levels. Creatine may also be taken with CoQ10 and B-complex vitamins to further enhance production of ATP in the body.2
Because of its short life-span, creatine is most useful for high-intensity, short-term exercises.3
BCAAs, or branched-chain amino acids, act as a form of protein synthesis. This is important when an athlete encounters something called catabolic crisis.4 Our muscles have a stored fuel source called glucose or sugar. After the glucose is depleted, our body then taps into the glycogen reserves. Glycogen is made in the liver and stored in the muscles for precisely this time.
The problem for athletes is that once the glycogen is depleted, the body will begin to digest the next most energy efficient morsel: muscle. For individuals working to make more muscle, this is counterproductive. BCAAs aid in the formation of protein which the body will use as fuel instead of muscle. One study showed that when subjects went through a glycogen-depletion protocol, the individuals who consumed BCAAs before exercising had better outcomes than those who drank the placebos.5
BCAAs are best for individuals looking to do glycogen-depleting exercises. This could be long-distance running for 90-120 minutes or a 20-minute high-intensity (HIIT) workout, for example.
A whey protein shake is often considered a post-workout supplement. Recently, there has been evidence of benefits related to using it as a pre-workout supplement. Whey is abundant in leucine and is absorbed quickly, so it aids significantly in muscle protein synthesis.6 Numerous scientific studies show that subjects who consumed whey protein showed significant muscular growth.
One such study examined specific exercises such as knee extensions and bench press. In this study, the group who was given the placebo showed less lean muscle growth.7 Another study used axial magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure muscle growth. The body composition in those who consumed the whey protein increased more than those who had the placebo.8
Because whey offers quick absorption of leucine, it is an excellent supplement for those who are looking to improve their musculature.
During exercise such as running and cycling, the glucose stored in the muscles is broken down. This glucose is converted into a substance called lactic acid and then lactate. Lactate produces hydrogen ions which cause the muscle to become more acidic by lowering the pH. The buildup of muscle acidity reduces the muscle’s ability to contract and causes fatigue.
How does beta-alanine help with the buildup of acid in the muscles? Well, this supplement has been shown to elevate a substance called carnosine.9 Carnosine acts as a buffer against the acid, enabling the muscles to endure longer. This can be very beneficial, as intramuscular acidosis is the leading cause of fatigue during intense exercise.10
Although somewhat controversial in the world of professional sports, beta-alanine does not seem to have any detrimental side effects. It is most useful for individuals who are participating in intense exercise lasting a few minutes and those who participate in endurance exercises11 such as long-distance running and swimming.
Citrulline is an amino acid produced by the body. It plays a key role in the urea cycle, which in turn plays an important role in metabolizing nitrogen-containing compounds in the body. Because it has been shown to increase blood flow to body tissues,12 citrulline may help increase muscle performance and endurance.
One study of citrulline displays its effectiveness for weight training. In this study, one group was given citrulline malate while the other was given a placebo. Those that took the citrulline did 52.9% more reps and also had 40% less muscle soreness afterwards.13
There are two types of supplements you can take to increase citrulline levels in the body: L-citrulline and citrulline malate. Citrulline malate is the better choice of the two if you are looking to increase endurance and boost performance. Citrulline is often paired with L-norvaline in pre-workout supplements to boost nitric oxide levels as well.
Choosing the right pre-workout supplements
As opposed to taking pre-workout supplements individually, there are a number of products on the market that combine them together to maximize benefits and increase convenience. However, you should be aware that these products are not regulated, which means they are not tested for safety.
Certain dangerous ingredients have been found in a number of pre-workout supplements. In 2011, for example, two US soldiers died after using JACK3D, which contained the banned substance DMAA. The NSF International, an independent public health and safety organization, works to analyze these products and outlaw when needed.14 Until the FDA regulates supplements, however, it is best to analyze the ingredients of anything you ingest.
In addition to ensuring that it is free of any banned substances, other things to look for in an all-in-one workout supplement include:
- Contains the right supplements for your type of exercise (muscle building, endurance, etc.)
- Contains the proper dose of each supplement
- Does not contain a large amount of caffeine
- Does not contain artificial sweetener (sucralose)
- Is free of artificial dyes
- Is not marked as a “proprietary formula” (this is often a way to hide the ingredients from the consumer)
Don’t forget a healthy diet
Lastly, don’t forget that a pre-workout supplement isn’t a replacement for healthy eating! Good carbohydrates, protein, and fat are all great for fueling the body and recovering from exercise. You may find that diet alone is sufficient to fuel your workouts. But if you find that you need a boost to get more from your exercises, the right pre-workout supplements in the right amounts can certainly help.
About Mikaila Zapata
Mikaila Zapata obtained her bachelor’s degree with an emphasis in health promotion. She is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Public Health at Purdue University. A certified exercise physiologist, she specializes in helping individuals create healthy and sustainable lifestyles.
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