To pre-workout, or not to pre-workout?

One of the most common questions I receive as a Personal Trainer & Performance Nutritionist is:

“Should I use a pre-workout??” – n00bs

The answer, like most answers should be (but often aren’t for algorithm/click-bait reasons) is; it’s context dependant.

Before we dive further into if you should use one, let’s discuss what the fk a ‘pre-workout’ is, what’s in it and the pros/cons of them.

What the fk is a pre-workout?

When most people discuss pre-workouts, what they are describing is a group of supplements that are supposed to give them ‘energy’, making them feel like moving/exercising/training hard. The idea is that they hype people the fk up so they can be crazy strong, fast & fit. Essentially, they are looking for something that will stimulate them into next year, yeet yeet. 

Pre-workouts are generally used to help motivate people into feeling like working out, more so than using them for performance benefits. Whether you decide to use a pre-workout for motivation or performance, either reason is fine, the most important thing is to be CONSISTENTLY getting into the gym at all.

Ok, but what’s in a pre-workout?

You have two main types of pre-workouts; stim & non-stim.

Stim pre-workouts contain ingredients/drugs that are stimulants, plus whatever other ingredients the manufacturer deems to be ‘performance enhancing’ (often with ingredients that claim to have performance benefits, but no/very little scientific data to support the claims).

Non-stim pre-workouts do not contain any stimulants and are made from ingredients that are purported to assist in focus and blood flow. 

The most common (and effective) ingredient included in stim pre-workouts is caffeine, the natural stimulant found in coffee, tea, cacao and most ‘energy’ drinks. It is worth knowing here that while caffeine ingestion results in feelings of increased energy, pleasure and ‘hype’, caffeine does not contain calories and, therefore, does not actually give you any energy. Caffeine arouses your adrenal system and creates the feeling of being energised and stimulated, as most people ‘need’ to get them going in the morning. 

On top of caffeine, a lot of pre-workout formulations will include products such as beta-alanine, creatine, L-citrulline, BCAAS and Taurine. Regarding performance benefits, a lot of these ingredients need to be taken chronically in doses larger than what is provided in most pre-workout formulations to unlock their full potential.

Products like Beta-Alanine and L-Citrulline have vasodilating effects, meaning it becomes easier for blood to be pumped to your muscles and increasing the effect known as ‘the pump’. Many people will take these supplements for these effects alone purely for the feedback they get from their reflection in the mirror.

So, are pre-workouts worth taking?

For most people, pre-workouts can definitely have a huge impact on exercise performance, HOWEVER, this is not the doing of pre-workouts, this is the doing of caffeine. Caffeine is one of, if not the, most studied ergogenic (sports performance-enhancing) aids of all time. In terms of sports nutrition, it’s a miracle drug.

It should be noted here that caffeine works in this way for MOST people. A small percentage of the population are known as ‘non-responders’ to caffeine, meaning they do not feel the effects of caffeine or, in some cases, will even feel more fatigued from it’s consumption. 

Caffeine has repeatedly been shown to acutely increase performance in just about every aspect of physical performance.

Strength – increased.

Focus – increased. 

Cognitive abilities – increased.

Endurance – increased.

The perceived effort of exercise – reduced. 

If you’re looking for a legally available secret weapon that will increase your physical performance, mood and ability to withstand pain – caffeine has to be up there as your number 1 pick.

When should I have it & how much??

Effective caffeine consumption comes down to three main factors: tolerance, bodyweight and timing.

Tolerance: Tolerance to the effects of caffeine will build with regular caffeine consumption. If you have not consumed caffeine before, a high dose may make you feel sick and give you the shakes accompanied by a headache. Take it slow. Samantha, a coffee addict, should not be ordering a quintuple shot skinny mocha for her friend, Jaz, who has never tried coffee before. 

Timing: Caffeine will be not peak in concentration in the bloodstream until between 45 – 60 minutes post-ingestion. This is a common misconception, even amongst trainers, as the effects of caffeine on the brain can be felt as soon as 5 minutes post-ingestion. Often, I see muppets drinking their pre-workout as they begin their training session, often finishing their session before caffeine can really have its effect! Don’t be that person. Have your caffeine 45 minute prior to commencing training. 

Caffeine also has a long half-life (6 – 10 HOURS), meaning that in 6 – 10 hours, half of the dose ingested is still active in the body. This is especially important for caffeine users to know as caffeine is a stimulant and will negatively impact a persons ability to sleep. 

(Muppets here will always fire back with, “Nah, bro, I can bang back a triple shot coffee and go straight to sleep”. You might sleep, dickhead, however, your ability to get into deep REM or NREM sleep will be negatively impacted, leading to more fatigue and less recovery).

Dose: Caffeines’ studied effective (for performance benefits) dosage is between 3 – 6mg per kilo of body weight. For example, a 100kg man/woman should be taking 300 – 600mg of caffeine to see the performance benefits. 

Studies have investigated doses up to 9mg/kg of body weight, however, this resulted in no extra performance benefit over 6mg and significantly increased the likelihood of feelings of nausea, headaches and gastrointestinal discomfort.

Final Thoughts & recommendations:

To be frank with you; I fucking love caffeine. It’s the most brilliant thing ever. It’s a legal stimulant drug, awesome. If used with the consideration it deserves, it can enhance moods, exercise performance and the ability to focus. However, I consume caffeine in accordance with some self-imposed rules to increase the effectiveness and decrease the negatives of caffeine consumption:

  1. Do not use caffeine to push through fatigue for the sake of a workout. If you are fatigued, go to sleep. Stimulating yourself through fatigue will increase the likelihood of injury and you probably won’t have a good session anyway. 
  2. Have a caffeine cut off time daily. For me, it’s 2 pm as I like to be asleep early. A general rule is: what time you’d like to be asleep minus 8 hours. 
  3. Do not exceed 6mg per kg of body weight, ever.
  4. Have my caffeine serve 45 minutes prior to commencing the first set/exercise. 
  5. Do not rely on high doses of caffeine to get myself ‘up and going’. If you find you need a pre-workout dose of caffeine to get going in the morning, you don’t need caffeine – you need better sleep.

So, should you use pre-workout? 

If you want! With the right dosing strategy, pre-workouts (caffeine) can be an incredibly useful tool to enhance your exercise performance. However, you should also be aware of the trap of becoming reliant on caffeine to have a good workout and its potential to disrupt your sleep. 

All in all, you decide. Personally, I use caffeine as a pre-workout for somewhere around 50% of my sessions, particularly, when I have a particularly large session ahead or when I don’t intend on sleeping within 8 hours of the session. 

I generally stay away from pre-workouts and rely on caffeinated effervescent tablets or caffeine pills, as most pre-workouts can not guarantee that they are completely free from potentially illegal contaminates.

Have fun, lift heavy, recover well. 

Michael x 

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