One of the most hotly contested topics in the training space is the efficacy of pre-workout supplements. Take a stroll through any high school locker room or warehouse gym and you’re likely to see a graveyard of empty powdered tubs and crushed up tallboy cans. And despite more coaches saying they suggest their athletes not use them, the market continues to thrive. So instead of labeling them as “good” or “bad”, let’s shift our perspective and look at what’s going on under the hood in an effort to debunk the mysticism surrounding these drinks.
Before we dive into things, we first need to have a little come to Jesus. If you are someone who sits firmly in the camp of “it’s all a waste of money” this is for you. You’re probably someone who says “McDonalds doesn’t taste good” or “Starbucks Coffee sucks”. Do you know how businesses work? There are over 14,000 McDonald’s restaurants and over 15,000 Starbucks shops in the US alone. If they weren’t doing something right, they wouldn’t be as popular. Now, don’t get me wrong, a double quarter pounder with cheese can’t hold a candle to a 60-day dry aged ribeye…but that’s not the question. The question is: does McDonald’s taste good? And the answer is a resounding yes because it’s scientifically engineered to. And the same can be said about pre-workout supps…they work because they are scientifically engineered to. So let’s stop regurgitating an unoriginal response and arm ourselves with more valuable statements.
Kickstart my Heart
The first category of supplements we’ll look at are stimulants. These largely rely on caffeine to add a little something extra to your gas tank. And it’s not that we’re against caffeine…you can’t have the Morning Brew with the Crew without it! But the “more is better” approach of some of these drinks is where the issue lies. Looking at the market, these drinks can have anywhere from 150mg to 350mg of caffeine in one can. To put that in perspective, 400mg is the daily recommended limit (roughly four cups of joe). Now, that’s far from the LETHAL limit of 10,000mg so it’s not necessarily the safety that we’re worried about, it’s what’s not there.
A well-rounded diet is a nutrient-dense diet. And guzzling down one of these cans of rocket fuel gives you all the caffeine you need but nothing else. Naturally occuring caffeine, as found in coffee and green tea, is accompanied by micronutrients and phytonutrients that can benefit the body more than simply revving the engine. If you’re going for caffeine, why not get as many benefits as possible? Or, even more important, why do you go for caffeine in the first place? Are you trying to put a bandaid on an out-of-whack sleep schedule? Proper recovery, which includes quality sleep, will have a far greater return on investment than any sort of supplementation of caffeine. If you need a stimulant to get through your daily workout, take that as a sign that you should pump the breaks, hit some Iron Flex, and try to cash in on some more sleep for the next couple of days instead.
Chase the Pump
While caffeine will help your heart pump, let’s talk about something more important: a bicep pump. The next popular category of pre-workout supplements are considered “vasodilators”. That is, they contain compounds that open your arteries up to flood your muscles with blood and other nutrients during training. These are highly effective at preventing fatigue which, again, is why pre-workouts DO work. But what are vasodilators? Most supplements rely on nitric oxide to act as the primary vasodilator agent. And this is a well-known and universally accepted mechanism for vasodilation. But are pre-workouts the only place to get nitric oxide? NO, chemistry pun intended.
While nitric oxide is tough to find in its final form, nature is filled with dietary nitrates. Nitrate, or NO3, can be found in your leafy green and dark red plants. Upon ingestion of things like beets or spinach, your saliva converts NO3 to Nitrite (NO2) and then as this is digested, it’s reduced down to nitric oxide. And, much like the caffeine found in coffee or tea, these food items are loaded with several other beneficial micro and phytonutrients that your body can use. So by simply crushing your daily rainbow of plants, what we deem your ROYGBIVs, you should be topped off with all the nitric oxide your body will need. Again, it’s not that the supplements don’t work, but their value in the overall nutrition and recovery landscape is low.
Speaking of low-value items, let’s talk about the biggest culprit: amino acids. Many of these supplements boast high levels of these protein derivatives and their ability to help with muscle growth, tissue repair, reductions in soreness, and loads of other benefits. Those claims are largely made on false pretenses (1). But there are certain scenarios that warrant the supplementation of amino acids: primarily if you are a weight-restricted athlete in a significant caloric deficit. I’m not talking about those of you looking to lose a little weight by going into the typical 500cal a day deficit. I’m talking about your combat athletes or weightlifters who are in the middle of a horrendous water cut and are taking in 500 total calories. Which, by the way, if that is you: email me ASAP so we can talk about better, healthier ways to approach cutting.
And why does the benefit seem to be limited to those who are starving? Because we can get all the amino acids we need for the greatest food source on this flat Earth: meat! If it had a face, mother, or soul, it is chock full of amino acids! A well-balanced nutritional approach of getting 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight from high quality sources as listed in our Eat With Abandon manifesto will top you out on all the aminos you need with one exception. Creatine is a non-protein amino acid that we could all use some extra of. A daily supplementation of 5g creatine monohydrate will do the trick.
There’s nothing more dangerous than professing absolutes in this field because there is ALWAYS the exception. But, hitting the nitro during a typical gym session does nothing. Any improvement you see because of these supplements is just that: they’re due to the supplement. That’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s the truth. So where does the exception fit? It’s where the perspective shift really takes hold.
Instead of talking about pre-workout supplements, let’s reclassify them as “pre-competition” supplements. If you are an athlete who needs to perform, you want every legal advantage possible. These supplements are great additions to your game day routine though I would strongly suggest discussing strategies for best implementation with a pro. And, if you’re someone thinking “I don’t have competitions so training IS my competition!” I want you to walk over to the closest mirror and talk yourself back to reality. If you aren’t competing, you aren’t training…you’re working out. And if you’re working out, your goal is health…not performance. Sorry for the double dose of tough pills.
Do It Better
There you have it. Pre-workout supplements do work! But, a well-rounded, nutritionally dense diet made up of various whole foods and a structured approach to recovery works better. It will give you everything you can find in those scoops of powder, but it will also give you more. It will give you the empowerment of knowing how to properly fuel your body because alongside these primary ingredients comes a plethora of other nutrients that your body needs. So while taking two scoops of powder to the dome might lend you an extra 10lbs on your squat today, taking in your ROYGBIVs, quality proteins, and getting restful sleep every day will give you continued improvements. Quit with the bandaids and start fixing the problems.
If you are someone who needs help coming off your reliance on pre-competition supplements for a daily workout, or you’re someone who is trying to maximize their performance on gameday, we’re here to help. Fill out the form below to get in contact with one of our nutrition coaches and take the necessary first step to optimizing your routine!
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Williams, M. Dietary Supplements and Sports Performance: Amino Acids. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 2, 63 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-2-2-63
Ben grew up a football player who found his way into a swimming pool. Swimming for four years, culminating in All-American status, at a Division III level, Ben grew to appreciate the effects that various training styles had on performance and decided to pursue the field of Exercise Physiology. After receiving his M.S. from Kansas State University in 2013, Ben moved on to Indiana University - Bloomington to pursue a PhD in Human Performance. While in Bloomington, he spent some time on deck coaching swimming at the club level, successfully coaching several swimmers to the National and Olympic Trials meets. He also served as the primary strength and condition coach for some of the post-graduate Olympians that swam at Indiana University.
Currently, Ben is finishing his PhD while serving a clinical faculty member at the University of Louisville, molding the minds that will be the future of strength and conditioning coaches. He also helps support the Olympic Sports side of the Strength and Conditioning Department there as a sports scientist.
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