A Guide To Pre Workout Supplements




Pre-workout supplements, as the name suggests, are designed to be taken up to an hour before your workout and to provide a mental focus, physical strength and endurance boost. Most pre-workouts provide these performance boosting benefits through caffeine. It’s that simple. Lots of pre-workouts come loaded with specific amino acids, different sugars and all sorts of filler but in the end, the caffeine is the true source of any performance benefit.

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Caffeine is a well known stimulant, boosting mental clarity as well as physical endurance. If you are feeling sluggish after a long days work and struggle to bring energy to the gym, pre-workout supplements can remedy this and provide a powerful boost to all sorts of workouts from cardio to weight lifting.

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As always, don’t just take my word for it. Instead lets take a look at the science and studies which demonstrate the powerful performance enhancing effects of caffeine…

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What is caffeine?

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Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive drug (one which alters brain function).  Most of this is in the form of coffee. Delicious coffee. I need a coffee. Caffeine fits into the methylxanthine class of molecules, home to a number of other stimulants. Caffeine is a well known CNS (central nervous system) stimulant which explains its powerful effects on perception, focus and co-ordination.

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Look at that sweet chemical structure

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Caffeine has a wide range of receptor, ion channel and enzyme targets beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say, caffeine alters multiple physiological processes when consumed which explains its wide range of effects both cognitive and physical. The most important interaction to be aware of and one of the major ‘mechanisms of action’ is caffeine’s interaction with all sub types of the adenosine receptor (1).

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At these receptors, caffeine acts as an antagonist (it essentially stops them functioning for a short period of time). Whereas caffeine is a CNS stimulant, adenosine acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter or a CNS depressant (2). By antagonising adenosine receptors, caffeine stops the depressing effects of adensoine.

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Caffeine antagonism of adenosine receptors  stimulates numerous brain nuclei that control (and increase) respiratory rate, heart rate and vasoconstriction (3). Simultaneously, this receptor antagonism also promotes the release of other neurotransmitters, like acetylcholine, which provides caffeine it’s stimulatory function.

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All of these are well documented responses to caffeine intake and underpin some of the numerous physiological changes that boost physical performance.

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We known HOW caffeine should boost performance but what evidence is there that caffeine supplementation actually benefits performance during cognitive or physical tasks.

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Fatigue and Drowsiness

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A number of studies have shown that caffeine reduces physical fatigue (4) and increases the time until fatigue is reached (5). Due to this, caffeine can be used as a temporary measure to prevent or treat ‘drowsiness’ (6). Drowsiness is described as a ‘state of strong desire for sleep’.

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Fatigue can apply to the weakening of muscle contractions over time or CNS fatigue in which the nervous system itself struggles to innervate the muscles, due to reduced neurotransmission. Caffeine appears to be better at alleviating muscle fatigue rather than CNS fatigue. CNS fatigue is a more serious condition usually resulting from prolonged over-exercise and inadequate nutrition.

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You so do you cute little bastard

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Due to these effects, caffeine can be used to prevent sleep (not encouraged) and can also increase task performance when sleep deprived (7). A heavily sleep deprived brain usually performs exceptionally badly in logic puzzles and tests of co-ordination.

Additionally, and without surprise, caffeine supplementation promotes increased focus and this results in better body co-ordination in general including hand eye co-ordination (8) – applicable to a number of sports.

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What about pre-workout use in the gym. Will it actually improve your performance?

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Caffeine and physical training

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Caffeine is a powerful molecule. Numerous studies (see above) have demonstrated its strong stimulatory effects on many aspects of physiology. The most relevant being wakefulness, focus, co-ordination and power output. Grouped together, these benefits are ideal for increasing performance in sports and lifting.

What does the science say regarding caffeine supplementation and exercise performance?

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Key message:

Caffeine increases performance in numerous forms of exercise both aerobic and anaerobic (9)

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Caffeine is a well established ERGOGENIC AID in humans (10). An ergogenic aid is a substance which provides a performance boost either mental or physical.  The performance enhancing effects of caffeine have been known for decades now and are highlighted in a number of older reviews (11,12)  In most measures of performance, those subjects taking caffeine out-performed their control counterparts.

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The general finding appears to be that the greatest difference in performance is seen 1 hour after caffeine intake.

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An array of studies have shown that caffeine is an effective performance aid in a number of sports/exercises. 

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Aerobic activities especially endurance sports (13)

Improved sprint performance (14)

Improved cycling performance and power output (15)

Anaerobic activities such as weight lifting (16)

Overall caffeine also delays the onset of muscle and central fatigue (17) which improves endurance across the board.

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As previously discussed, caffeine reduces fatigue and increases focus as well, all of which benefits exercises ranging from power lifting to endurance running.

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Of all the supplements explored on this website, pre-workouts will give you the most obvious and immediate boost in the gym due to the acute effects of caffeine stimulation.  Caffeine improves focus, endurance, co-ordination and performance in both anaerobic and aerobic exercises. A supplement for use in all fitness situations.


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Potential dangers

 

‘Pre workouts’ are, in theory, the most dangerous due to their high caffeine content. Always avoid these supplements if you are highly sensitive to caffeine. Never exceed the recommended dose stated by the manufacture.  As with creatine, I’d recommend cycling pre-workout use to give yourself a break every now and then. Be warned, that these supplements are POWERFUL. My own advice is to try half the recommended dose the first time you try it and adjust accordingly there after.

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Hahaha…but seriously…watch the dosage

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What about caffeine-free alternatives?

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Some people don’t handle caffeine as well as others. Instead of boosting mental clarity, individuals who are very sensitive to caffeine may find themselves ‘jittery’, experiencing involuntary shaking and restlessness. If you think or know you are sensitive to caffeine, supplementation with it is probably best avoided. The good news is that caffeine free pre-workouts do exist (or you can make your own using the list at the bottom of the article)

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Although caffeine is a huge part of the pre-workout formula, other components can boost your workout mainly by increasing endurance. These major additional components include beta alanine and citrulline malate both of which can be found detailed in the ‘On a tight budget’ section found at the bottom of the article.

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It can sometimes be hard to find to caffeine-free alternatives when using google as the vast majority are all caffeine based. To give you a head start I’ve listed the names of some of the most popular brands…

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  • EVOGEN EVP
  • MusclePharm VasoSport
  • MAN Pump Powder (What a name!)
  • NO explode (caffeine-free)

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The caffeine-free market was pretty sparse just a few years ago but the market is expanding year on year so the choice is growing larger than ever before. All 4 of these supplements have great user reviews and are considered some of the best. A good place to start if caffeine isn’t for you.

 


Top Picks

 

                                             

 

 

Both of these are great pre-workout products. NO explode is the cheaper option. It is also the first pre-workout I ever used and it blew me away. It tastes good and can fit into your budget at less than 20 GBP for half a kilo. It dissolves well. Most importantly it provides a meaningful boost in the gym, clearing your head and prepping your muscles for serious action.

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I’m a big fan of optimum nutrition as a supplement manufacturer in general and recommend their micro-ionzied creatine to give yourself a long term training boost. Their pre-workout maintains the high standards seen in other Optimum Nutrition products.

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On a tight budget?

 

Pre-workout supplements can be expensive but as with most supplements, the individual components are much cheaper than the final product. If you are working on a tight budget but still want to make the most of your gym sessions then you can make your own pre-workout formulas from home for a much cheaper price.

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All you will need are the major (non-filler) components found in most pre-workout brands.

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Caffeine: This stuff is cheap and comes powdered. A quick google will give you numerous options but the base product is the same. In terms of amount, try to match the caffeine content of reputable pre-workout products already on the market which have approximately 150 mg per serving.

Creatine Monohydrate: I’ve written extensively about the benefits of creatine for weight and power lifters. Creatine essentially acts as an additional energy store for muscle contractions. This allows you to squeeze out those important last repetitions when lifting weights. Pop about 5 g of this per serving in your pre workout.

Low or non-calorie flavouring of your choice

That sums up the basic mix. The caffeine is the key ingredient providing the performance boost. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

If you are feeling fancy you can add some extra goodies on top…

Beta-Alanine: A couple of studies, explored in the link reviews,  have shown that beta-alanine can increase physical endurance allowing you to train for a longer period of time (18, 19). Aim for between 2 and 5 g per serving.

Citrulline Malate: In similar fashion, the amino acid L-Citrulline coupled to malate appears to boost performance in a limited number of studies (20,21). The most important aspect of this compound appears to be a reduction in fatigue, in theory allowing you to train for longer periods of time. Aim for around 3 g per serving.

Thanks for reading,

Any further questions or advice? Head to the comments section or email me directly at ed@scienceguysupplements.com

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References

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References can now be found linked directly in the text rather than listed in this section. Delving deeper into the research has never been easier!

If you are looking to do a bit of your own research, on any topic, PubMed and Google Scholar both have a huge literature collection.

3 thoughts on “A Guide To Pre Workout Supplements”

  1. Hey Scienceguy,
    Great article debunking a lot of myths about green team. I see so many online green tea sellers make claims about curing cancer and weight loss. Glad to see the real facts which clearly show a lack of evidence for such claims.

    I’ve seen many bodybuilding sites mention stacking aspirin and caffeine. I know this was a trend many years ago and the FDA has discouraged such supplements. Why was it so popular?

    1. I think a caffeine/aspirin stack is probably recommended on bodybuilding sites due to the combination of anti inflammatory and stimulatory effects. Hard trying can lead to low grade inflammation on muscles. It could be reasoned that aspirin may help to reduce this. Aspirin also functions to dampen pain – perhaps it is recommended because of this as well. The caffeine inclusion is obvious, as it it a powerful stimulant. The combination also seems to reduce the risk of blood clots although how this would apply directly to a body building advantage is not clear.

      The reason this stack is DISCOURAGED is because of the numerous contraindications.

      https://www.drugs.com/cdi/aspirin-caffeine.html has a full rundown of the interactions and when you SHOULDN’T take this combination of drugs. It is a long list!

      However, although the FDA may discourage its use side effects are rare and usually mild. If taken properly side effects or over dose effects are no more extreme than if you took too much caffeine or aspirin seperately. I wouldn’t be scared of using this stack but the actual benefits aren’t obvious. In my opinion you would just be better off using caffeine supplements and leave the aspirin alone!

      Cheers, ScienceGuy

  2. hello, i really like your post. I will promote your post in my facebook group. I’m sure my fans will love it. Thank you

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