Do you ever feel like you need a little extra boost to get your daily exercise in? Pre workout drinks and supplements are designed to help you get the most out of your workouts but buyer beware: many products over-promise and under-deliver.
Let’s get one thing straight: the overwhelming majority of supplements are complete garbage. Most are not backed by any kind of research and full of fillers, artificial sweeteners, and colors. If you are looking for a fitness-related supplement, I’m guessing that your goal is to be optimally healthy. There’s no reason to load up on a bunch of unnecessary junk. So before you go strutting into GNC ready to swipe your credit card, remind yourself that there are no short cuts in life, especially when it comes to fitness. You can’t gain muscle by drinking a mountain of protein powder and you can’t lose weight and keep it off by popping a “fat burner” every day.
That being said, there are some “extras” that you can incorporate once you are eating well and have a physical activity routine that you enjoy. Taking supplements without first addressing the behaviors that need to change won’t get you anywhere. Before you buy a pre workout, first establish a workout routine.
Why take a pre workout supplement?
The two main reasons for taking a pre workout supplement are for increasing energy and improving performance.
There are several different types of pre workout supplements. The majority are caffeine based and designed to give you an “upper” feeling. Some have quick digesting carbohydrates for energy (best for endurance exercise) and others provide performance-based benefits, like improved endurance or increased time to exhaustion.
Best pre workout supplements
As popular as they are, please skip the C4 and NOS. They have way too much caffeine than necessary and are chocked full of artificial colors and sweeteners. If a supplement turns your water the color of antifreeze, that’s your clue to steer clear.
Coffee is one of the cheapest and most straightforward pre workout supplements. The caffeine in coffee has been shown to increase mental focus, improve endurance capacity, and increase speed and power. The downside is that for many people, caffeine can cause a nervous or anxious feeling. Caffeine is absorbed quickly in the body and peaks in the blood about 1-2 hours after consumption. Aim to consume coffee about 30-60 minutes prior to a workout to gain the most benefit.
Naked Energy the best all-around pre workout you can get. It contains the same amount of caffeine as 16 ounces of coffee. There are no artificial sweeteners, colors, or flavors.
It also contains beta-alanine, creatine, and L-arginine. Beta-alanine has been shown to improve performance during short, high intensity workouts like Crossfit or HIIT. You may get a slight “tingly” feeling from taking anything with beta-alanine.
Creatine gives you that little extra push during a workout by helping you do those last 2 reps that you couldn’t get before, which in turn increases strength and helps to build muscle. Creatine is naturally produced in the body and stored in your muscles to help produce ATP, your bodies source of fuel. Behind caffeine and protein, it is one of the most popular, effective, and researched sports supplements. Read my more extensive post about creatine here.
There is less research on L-arginine, but some studies have shown some promise in its ability to increase nitric oxide production (more on that later).
Shroom TECH Sport
Shroom TECH is a capsule that combines cordyceps mushrooms, ashwaganda root, green tea extract, rhodiola (an herb), and B-12. In a clinical trial, it was shown to increase bench press reps by 12% and cardio performance by 8.8%. Not huge changes, but I’ve personally seen the difference in my workouts when taking Shroom TECH. The biggest difference is the ability to breathe through high intensity intervals. I’ve trialed this with several clients, one with exercise-induced asthma, who have seen marked improvements in their breathing capacity during exercise. I don’t get an “upper” feeling/caffeine high from taking it.
Vega Sport Pre-Workout Energizer
Vega Sport Pre-Workout Energizer is perfect for people who are going to exercise for longer than 60 minutes but don’t like to have food in their system before a workout (because it includes quick digesting carbohydrates for fuel). I also used this during the Crossfit Open for the past 2 years to give me an extra boost.
Nitric Oxide (NO)
Nitric oxide is a vasodilator, which means it opens up blood vessels to allow more blood and oxygen to flow to the muscle. Supplementing with NO has been associated with a 4%–25% improvement in exercise time to exhaustion and a reduced ATP cost of muscle force production (lower energy requirement).
Beets and leafy green vegetables are high in nitrate, which is converted to nitric oxide in the body, spurring the development of many supplements using beet powder. Here is my experience:
Beet Boost with Tart Cherry: I didn’t feel that pre workout jolt of energy but it definitely helped me get through the cardio part of my workout with ease.
Again, I did not feel a noticeable difference going into the workout, however the sprints didn’t seem all that hard to me while other people were dying (people that typically kick my ass). Another day I did box jump overs with no break for 7 straight minutes (GREAT for me). HumanN also makes Superbeets with caffeine from green tea extract if you are looking for an extra boost.
For many people, pre workout supplements that contain caffeine can cause a nervous or anxious feeling. Taking a pre workout supplement in the evenings can affect sleep. The amount of caffeine tolerance a person has depends on the individual, but if you are regularly consuming upwards of 500- 600 mg of caffeine per day, it may be time to scale back.
Don’t forget, caffeine is an addictive substance. When you build up a tolerance to caffeine, the benefits are minimized and withdrawal from caffeine can cause headaches and irritability.
Disclosure: I was not paid by any of the companies above to review their products. One or more links are affiliate links. All opinions are my own.
About the author: Megan Poczekaj, RDN, LD, is a registered dietitian nutritionist in Orlando, FL. She owns the private practice, Nutrition Awareness, where she teaches other entrepreneurs how to maximize their productivity and performance with nutrition. She is the author of the book The Optimized Life: A Nutrition Guide for Entrepreneurs and co-host of the Nutrition Awareness Podcast.
IOC consensus statement: dietary supplements and the high-performance athlete
Today’s Dietitian: Ergogenic Aids
Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition
Sports Dietitians Australia: Beta Alanine