You’ve been diligently coming to the gym for a few months, and man, you love this stuff. Your double under’s have gone from non-existent, to spotty, to smooth as butter. Your hands bare the calluses of hard work, your feet bare the sneakers of well-crafted marketing campaigns. Maybe you aren’t going to the Games (this year!) but you will do anything to get better, so you start looking around the gym, and you notice something.
It looks like all of the firebreathers religiously drink shaker bottles full of Kool-Aid before their workouts. A myriad of Dayglo colours grace these bottles, electric blues and pinks, greens and reds so bright there is no chance a naturally occurring flavour corresponds to their brilliant hue. Quietly you glance inside the cavernous depths of a King Kong bag and see a plastic tub labeled PRE+ and it’s just all too much. You tap the bag’s owner on the shoulder and he turns his crazed eyes on you, covered in a fine sheen of sweat despite having spent the last 10 minutes foam rolling. “What is that stuff?” you ask, pointing to his shaker, filled with what looks like the ooze the Ninja Turtles crawled from.
“PRE-WORKOUT, BRO,” he responds. “GET SOME.”
What is Pre-Workout?
Not to be confused with a BCAA supplement (which is technically a pre/intra workout supp), true pre-workout generally contains at least four ingredients that aim to give you more energy, focus, pump, gains, erections, etc. during your workout. While different supps may contain other ingredients (arginine, taurine, etc.) the “Four Horsemen” (wooooo!) are: Creatine, Caffeine, Alpha-Ketoglutarate, and Beta-Alanine.
Creatine: Generally well-known and respected as a safe and useful supplement, is (put very simply) used in the production of ATP, which is basically MUSCLE ENERGY! Clinically proven to help in bouts of repetitive high intensity work, especially with brief rest periods (sound familiar), Creatine helps your muscles “recharge quicker” during a workout.
Caffeine: Yup, same stuff that’s in coffee, green tea, or Jolt Cola (miss that stuff), caffeine is a Central Nervous System (CNS) stimulant and the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug. I won’t get to science-y here, you know what caffeine is- it puts a little pep in your step, old salt!
Beta-Alanine: Known for delivering that warm, tingly, itchy feeling, beta-alanine helps keep muscles in a balanced pH state that optimizes performance.
This is pretty straightforward- Most people take pre-workout as a means of feeling more energized or less fatigued during workouts. Often people come to the gym early in the morning before work or after a long workday, so the ‘ritual” of mixing and consuming a pre-workout helps them feel readied for what they have ahead of them. The energizing/focusing nature of the caffeine paired with the palpable sensation of the beta-alanine tingle can create a powerful somatic feeling of what can only be described as “Hulk-Smash.”
This question is far more complicated, nuanced, and personal. Supplements in general represent an easy focus of energy, attention, and money in pursuit of the goal of getting better. What I always tell my athletes is that supplements are a privilege and should be reserved for those who are confident that their training, nutrition, recovery, and other lifestyle factors are already top notch.
Beyond that, two of the big ingredients found in pre-workout, creatine and caffeine, are readily available elsewhere. Check the label on your pre-workout, and use this as a rubric (remember, an 8oz cup of Starbucks coffee contains ~150mg of caffeine & 1 shot of Starbucks espresso has ~75mg of caffeine. These numbers are even higher for specialty coffee):
Low: 0-150 mg
Optimal: 150-200 mg
Tolerance compensation: 200-365 mg
Madness: 365 mg and up
So, scoop away amigos, but know your reasons for doing so. Pre-workout can be a valuable tool and get you through a tough training session or competition if you’re worn down and tired, but don’t get too comfy with that tingle in your dingle.