Jruth: Sometimes blistering paces and a bold fitness goal aren’t enough to get you the hype for your workout. Some days you need a little something extra to hit the gym and hit it hard. Could a pre-workout supplement, like the ones littering your FitTok and Fitstagram feeds, be just the thing to inject some fire into your training?
Well, it depends on pre-workout, as well as what else you consume pre-workout.
What exactly is pre-workout?
“There is no manual, universally agreed upon definition of ‘pre-workout’ because different brands create different versions of the product,” says dietitian and strength trainer Albert Matheny, RD, CSCSwho is COO of ARENA Innovation Corp. and co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab At New York.
Basically, “pre-workout” is a term for a category of supplements designed to be taken immediately before you exercise to give you a little extra. punch. “The idea is that they help you train harder and/or longer than you could without them,” says a certified sports nutritionist. Allison Sizemorean online fitness coach with Sewing coaching.
Typically sold as a powdered drink to be added to water, pre-workout formulas on the market contain a variety of different ingredients. Some tubs may contain elements that have been shown to improve physical and/or mental performance while you exercise, such as caffeine, creatine, beta-alanine, arginine and/or nitric acid , says Sizemore., while others do not. Blends of antioxidants, glucose (sugar), flavorings and B vitamins, electrolytes and carbohydrates are other common ingredients.
But you might not necessarily know how much of each you’re getting: A 2019 study published in Nutrients found that nearly half (44%) of the 100 pre-workout supplements studied were made from proprietary blends, meaning ingredient dosages per serving were not included.
Pre-Workout Supplements Don’t Always Boost Energy
It’s common for pre-workout supplements to contain caffeine, according to Matheny, usually in the form green tea extract, coffee beans, yerba mate or caffeine anhydrous. Caffeine, after all, is one of the best and most researched supplements on the market, show to improve muscular endurance, muscular strength and throwing performance, as well as a wide range of sport-specific aerobic and anaerobic actions.
However, there is are caffeine-free pre-workout formulas, typically marketed as “non-stimulant” pre-workouts. These versions will not give the same burst of energy as those containing a caffeine derivative (duh). But based on their line of specific ingredients, a stimulant-free pre-workout can still improve mental focus and increase blood flow to muscles.
Want to try a pre-workout before your next gym session?
The energy you really need before a workout
Caffeine isn’t really what fuels your gym activities, it’s the calories. Scientifically speaking, calories are units of energy that the body uses like a car uses gasoline, Matheny explains.
Calories, of course, come from carbohydrates, proteins, and fats in food. Right before a workout, you’ll want to stick mostly to simple carbs, according to certified sports nutritionist Rachel Fine RD, CSSD, CDN, owner of At The Peak Nutrition. “Eating easily digestible carbs like toast, pretzels, or crackers 30 to 60 minutes before your workout will help supplement glycogen stores,” she says. The body stores carbs as glycogen in the muscles, she explains, so replenishing them before exercise ensures you’ll have enough energy to last the duration of your workout.
If you do weight training, you can also add protein to aid muscle recovery, adds Matheny. “Protein is slower to digest than carbs” and so the body generally doesn’t use it for energy while you exercise, he explains. However, snacking 20 (approximately) grams of protein – equivalent to three eggs or three ounces of chicken – before exercise was shown to promote muscle recovery.
So… are pre-workout supplements enough?
“Most pre-workout supplements contain no or few calories,” says Matheny. This might be useful for morning movers who are experimenting fasting cardio. But everyone else will need to pair their pre-workout mix with real fad food. “You can, for example, eat a banana and eggs or oatmeal with protein powder before you go to the gym and then do your pre-workout in the car,” says Sizemore.
If your workouts still feel a little “mean” even after dialing in your nutrition, Matheny recommends drinking more water throughout the day. “A lot of people who feel flat in the middle of their workout routines are just dehydrated,” he says. As a starting point, Adrienne Dowd, nutritionist at Parsley Health already said good + good which she recommends consuming half your body weight in ounces of water each day for optimal hydration.
And don’t forget about bedtime: you also need to make sure you’re getting enough sleep, adds Matheny.
A pre-workout supplement alone cannot help you get through a workout if you are not adequately rested, nourished, or hydrated. As Matheny says, “It’s always best to cover the basics before adding extras.”
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