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- Pre-workout supplements, intended to boost energy, strength, or stamina, are popular fitness products that can come in powder and beverage forms.
- They include a wide variety of different vitamins, amino acids, chemicals, and other substances under different brand names.
- Insider talked to the chief nutrition officer at the supplement company designed for LeBron James to learn about the common ingredients in pre-workouts, the science behind them, and how to find a blend that works for you.
- Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more.
Pre-workout supplements may increase energy and boost your muscle-building abilities.
Pre-workout supplements – known simply as “pre-workouts” in fitness circles – can offer to increase energy, improve focus, and even add to your strength or muscle-building abilities.
But wading through all the chemistry on the label can be intimidating, as can brand names like “Xplosion,” “Rage,” and “Nuclear Garbage.”
Your best bet is to look for ingredients that supplement nutrients your body is designed to use, like amino acids found in food, according to Adam Bornstein, a certified trainer and nutrition coach who’s the chief nutrition officer for Ladder, a supplement company designed for NBA superstar LeBron James.
“What you want to do whenever possible is mirror the way the body naturally works,” Bornstein told Insider.
While some of the most effective pre-workout nutrients are found naturally in foods like green tea, coffee, fish, and poultry, supplements are more convenient and concentrated.
Here’s what to know about the ingredients in many pre-workout supplements and how they work.
Caffeine is found in nearly every pre-workout as an energy booster.
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The most popular substance in any energy product, caffeine is also ubiquitous in pre-workouts. The sources can vary – Ladder, for instance, derives it from green tea. Others will extract it from coffee beans. Pure caffeine, synthesized in a lab, is listed as caffeine anhyrous on product labels, meaning it’s in powder, not liquid, form and is more concentrated.
Just like your morning cup(s) of coffee, though, too much caffeine can have unpleasant side effects like jitters, anxiety, and a crash after the initial surge of energy. And too much of it, especially in concentrated form, can be dangerous.
Bornstein said a good pre-workout includes some caffeine but not too much, and is balanced by other energy sources. “The goal is to tackle all different kinds of fatigue at the same time, and also avoid a crash,” he said.
Creatine is popular for boosting strength and muscle gains.
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Found naturally in muscle cells, creatine is similar to amino acids, which are essential building blocks of proteins that we obtain from food. Creatine helps generate a molecule called ATP, which is a natural source of energy in the body.
Creatine in supplement form (as creatine monohydrate) can improve performance by producing more ATP and thus more energy, according to research. Studies have shown it also helps draw water into the muscle cells, which can boost growth.
However, creatine sometimes has a bad reputation as a dubious lab chemical or even a steroid.
Bornstein explained that the rumors date back to creatine’s association with professional baseball players, and their associated steroid controversies. But creatine has been studied for over a decade and has been shown to be safe in amounts of up to 5 grams a day (more than that can cause minor digestive issues like diarrhea).
While many pre-workouts combine creatine with large amounts of caffeine, there’s some research to suggest that may actually make it less effective than either alone. This is another reason to keep a close eye on how much caffeine is in your pre-workout.
Beta-alanine can help reduce muscle fatigue, but it may cause a tingling sensation.
β-Alanine or beta-alanine is an amino acid that is believed to reduce muscle fatigue by preventing the buildup of toxins in the muscles.
When you work out, your body breaks down carbohydrates for energy, producing a byproduct in the muscles called lactic acid. Although lactic acid isn’t harmful and will disperse on its own over time, it has long been associated with the burning in your muscles during intense exercise, and soreness afterward.
Beta-alanine helps reduce lactic acid buildup in order to improve performance. Research has shown that beta-alanine can help postpone exhaustion, especially during intense exercise.
“It basically acts as a buffer between lactic acid and your muscles and help flush out toxins,” Bornstein said.
However, it’s also associated with a tingling or itching sensation that some people find intense or uncomfortable, although it’s not harmful.
Bornstein recommends people sensitive to this, or who are new to pre-workouts, start with half the recommended dose to determine their personal comfort level.
Pre-workouts aren’t for everyone.
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Like all supplements, though, it’s important to note that creatine and beta-alanine are not regulated by the FDA, so if you’re going to use them, look for brands that are tested by a independent reviewer for purity, or check review sites like Labdoor.
Also, if you’re taking medication or have any ongoing health issues, especially liver and kidney problems, talk to a health professional before hitting the pre-workout aisle.