While pre-workout supplements may seem like a magic mixture of scientifically derived ingredients, are there any that really do a body good?
It seems like everyone in the gym is talking about a pre-workout supplement—colloquially referred to as “pre-workout.”
Carbohydrates, caffeine, beetroot juice, and creatine monohydrate (a popular muscle-building supplement) are all common pre-workout supplement ingredients that have been shown to improve exercise performance.
Carbs are pretty obvious—they’re your body’s go-to source of energy and what experts recommend eating before a workout.
After all, when exercising—especially at high intensity, cycling classes, and lifting—your body uses blood glucose and glycogen (stored carbs) as its main energy source. So boosting your levels before you start can help increase energy reserves and performance.
Caffeine is obviously a stimulant known for boosting energy and alertness. Research shows it can help improve physical performance too, although many of the studies have been done on small sample sizes.
Still, there’s a lot of research supporting caffeine’s ability to increase energy while simultaneously reducing workout pressure. The theory is that caffeine helps muscles burn more fat upfront and preserve glycogen, thereby letting you work harder, and longer, before you use up all your energy stores.
Other studies suggest caffeine simply helps improve a muscle’s ability to generate power.
With beetroot juice, a 2017 study found that it’s been shown to consistently increase levels of nitric oxide and improve cardiovascular performance. Beetroot juice actually contains inorganic nitrates, which convert in the body to nitric oxide.
A natural vasodilator, nitric oxide expands blood vessels, increasing blood flow and decreasing how hard your heart has to work under strain. It’s important to note that beet research is still young, but so far even small results are promising.
Creatine monohydrate is also often included in pre-workout formulas. Creatine is a derivative of three amino acids that are naturally produced in the body and stored as a source of quick energy in the muscles.
Some research even indicates that creatine monohydrate is likely more effective at boosting performance if you take it after each workout – as opposed to before, when your body may be more apt to absorb and store it when your natural stores are at their lowest.
Creatine is actually one of the most well-researched sports supplements over the past few decades. Studies consistently show that in normal doses—2 to 5 grams per day over the long term—it’s very safe for healthy adults.
The most common side effect is weight gained from water retention; when your muscles store creatine, they also store water. This can make your muscles look a bit larger and weigh a bit more.
A Smidgen of Common Sense
As a precaution, be careful if you have diabetes, kidney problems, or any other major health condition. It’s always best to talk with your doctor before regularly supplementing with creatine (or anything, really).