Over the last decade pre-workouts have arguably become the most commonly used supplement in the world. They have gone from being “non-essential” to deeply embedded into gym culture in less than a decade.
But what are the benefits? And are they really all they’re cracked up to be?
What are the benefits of a pre-workout?
Now, something that I really do want to highlight here is that you can undoubtedly make some serious gains without pre-workout supplements.
I mean, from a muscle building perspective, as long as you are training hard, recovering adequately, and eating sufficient protein, you can be pretty certain that you are doing everything you need to maximise growth and adaptation.
However, ask anyone who has been training for a decent amount of time and they will tell you that the “training hard” part of the equation can be easier said than done.
Which is where pre-workouts really come into their own.
1. Better Focus
It is well established that many of the common ingredients found in pre-workouts increase mental alertness, leading to improvements in attention, reaction time, problem solving capability, short term memory, and judgement .
Moreover, some of them can reverse some of the mental effects that come from a lack of sleep .
Taking this back to the gym, it is highly likely that improved mental performance could cause better physical performance, and ultimately, a better workout. If this leads to more reps per session, or more weight on the bar, then we are looking at some serious improvements in gains over time.
Moreover, taking a pre-workout before your session after a bad night sleep might help you train well, even if you are feeling subpar.
2. Increased Strength
Pre-workouts have the capacity to cause substantial increases in muscle strength on a per-session basis [3, 4, 6].
This means that if you were to take a pre-workout before a weight training session, you will be able to lift more weight than you could without it. While this is cool in its own right, it happens to have some impressive long-term benefits.
If you are undertaking a long term strength training program, a good pre-workout will help you lift more weight every single session. This will lead to greater training adaptations, and more strength gains over time.
And when you think about how this effect compounds over the duration of months and years, it becomes huge.
3. More Muscle Growth
In addition to improvements in strength, a good pre-workout also has the potential to improve weight training performance at more moderate loads, by increasing the number of reps you can do at a given weight [3, 5].
For example, without a pre-workout you might be able to leg press 180kg for 8 repetitions. However, after taking a pre-workout, you might be able to leg press the same weight for 10 repetitions.
This directly increases the amount of volume you perform each training session, and is going to increase the amount of muscle growth you are likely to experience over the duration of a training block .
4. Greater Endurance
Many of the core ingredients in most pre-workout supplements play an important role in preventing the accumulation of lactic acid in your muscle tissue during exercise [6, 8].
This can in turn lead to case improvements in both muscular and aerobic endurance, while limiting fatigue accumulation during a training session.
This can also increase the amount of volume you lift per session, while simultaneously boosting the quality of your working sets. Over time you can expect this to manifest itself in improvements in muscle strength, muscle growth, and even fat loss.
5. Bigger Pumps
There are a number of pre-workouts that include ingredients that can be classified as “vasodilators” [4, 6].
While this word might sound very technical, it very simply describes a type of compound that helps relax and widen your blood vessels. This increases blood flow throughout your body and to your muscle tissue, enhancing the delivery of oxygen and nutrients.
A significantly greater pump!
This can further increase the results of your training, while simultaneously increasing the size of your guns when you leave the gym (a nice bonus, if you ask me).
6. Faster Recovery
Lastly, in addition to better gym performance, taking a pre-workout before you train will also improve your recovery after exercise [4, 5].
By increasing the movement of proteins and nutrients into your muscle tissue, pre-workouts can make sure that your body has everything it needs to repair itself after a solid session. This accelerates recovery between sessions, while also reducing muscle soreness.
The best bit here is that this improved recovery between training sessions will ensure that the quality of your training stays high over the duration of a training block -- again enhancing the result of your training.
What to look for in a pre-workout supplement?
I also want to highlight that while a GOOD pre-workout will provide the above benefits, there are some that are much better than others. Which is why if you are after a high-quality pre-workout to take your training to the next level, they should tick the following three boxes.
1. No Proprietary Blends
A proprietary blend is a combination of several different ingredients that sit within a supplement.
Unfortunately, despite being extremely common, proprietary blends are actually a loophole that supplement companies use to avoid listing how much of each individual ingredient is in their pre-workout. This makes it much easier to hide smaller doses of effective (and often costly) ingredients, while bulking it up with a larger amount of ‘filler’ ingredients.
Obviously this means the supplement is cheaper to make, but it also makes it much less effective -- even if it does happen to include some good ingredients.
So, if you are looking at a pre-workout that contains a priority blend, turn and run.
2. Too Many Ingredients
Another you want to be wary of is a pre-workout having too many ingredients -- which I would define as ant more than 6 or 7.
When it comes to pre-workout supplements, they generally have small serving sizes (5-10 grams on average). As such, the more ingredients they contain, the less of each ingredient you get.
This again makes it easier to provide you with less of the more effective (and more expensive) ingredients, making the supplement less effective.
3. Scientifically supported ingredients
Lastly, you want to make sure that the pre-workout you are taking actually contains ingredients that have been shown to work in the scientific literature -- something that is not always the case (despite what advertisements might have you believe...).
With this in mind, they should include some of the following:
- Citrulline malate
And if they don't? Put it back on the shelf and never consider it again.
Before we finish up, I want to also mention the fact that many compounds found within pre-workouts are classified as stimulants -- which means they have a direct impact on your physiological and psychological systems.
As a result, you should definitely touch base with your GP before commenting supplementation.
However, once you have done that, you can expect to see some serious benefits from taking good quality pre-workout supplements, including improved physical and mental performance, better recovery and more intense pumps, and over time, greater improvements in strength and size.
Just make sure you do your research and find a good one.
- McLellan, T. M., Caldwell, J. A., & Lieberman, H. R. (2016). A review of caffeine’s effects on cognitive, physical and occupational performance. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 71, 294-312.
- Cook, Christian J., et al. "Skill execution and sleep deprivation: effects of acute caffeine or creatine supplementation-a randomized placebo-controlled trial." Journal of the international society of sports nutrition 8.1 (2011): 1-8.
- Grgic, J., Grgic, I., Pickering, C., Schoenfeld, B. J., Bishop, D. J., & Pedisic, Z. (2020). Wake up and smell the coffee: caffeine supplementation and exercise performance—an umbrella review of 21 published meta-analyses. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 54(11), 681-688.
- Gonzalez, A. M., & Trexler, E. T. (2020). Effects of Citrulline Supplementation on Exercise Performance in Humans: A Review of the Current Literature. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 34(5), 1480-1495.
- Pérez-Guisado, J., & Jakeman, P. M. (2010). Citrulline malate enhances athletic anaerobic performance and relieves muscle soreness. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(5), 1215-1222.
- Hobson, R. M., Saunders, B., Ball, G., Harris, R. C., & Sale, C. (2012). Effects of ?-alanine supplementation on exercise performance: a meta-analysis. Amino acids, 43(1), 25-37.
- Kern, B. D., & Robinson, T. L. (2011). Effects of ?-alanine supplementation on performance and body composition in collegiate wrestlers and football players. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 25(7), 1804-1815.
- Tumilty, L., Davison, G., Beckmann, M., & Thatcher, R. (2011). Oral tyrosine supplementation improves exercise capacity in the heat. European journal of applied physiology, 111(12), 2941-2950.