You can't expect to turn up to every workout feeling 100%. Sometimes, you'll go to the gym feeling tired, lethargic and unmotivated, and if that sounds familiar, finding the best pre-workout may be all that's needed to alleviate your training lull.
Don't believe in the power of pre-workout? Well, a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition reported that combining pre-workout with HIIT workouts resulted in significant increases in VO2 max, training volume and lean body mass while also speeding up the rate at which moderately-trained recreational athletes lost body fat.
Still, if you decide to get in on the pre-workout action yourself, you'll want to know how to do it safely and smartly. That's why we've created a one-stop guide to pre-workout that includes everything from a professional sports nutritionist's opinion to the pros and cons of supplementing your nutrition with lifters' favourite pick-me-up.
You'll also find a guide to the products that can give you a natural pre-workout boost as well as the Men's Health-approved products.
Consider this article your pre pre-workout.
What Does Pre-workout Do?
If you don't fuel yourself properly before exercises or hard workouts, you'll be less energised, weaker and will fatigue faster than normal. That's a fact. Pre-workout is designed to help fight this, to help you keep going harder and for longer. So while the supplement can be taken in a variety of formats — from meals, to shakes to pills and more — they're all designed to boost energy levels and increase focus.
For many, pre-workout supplements are usually mixed with a drink and taken around 30 minutes before the beginning of a workout. That's because, by supplying your body with extra carbohydrates, the glucose in the pre-workout helps raise blood sugar levels and supply additional energy during a workout. In short, they're much more energising than a banana, shot of espresso or a black coffee.
What's in My Pre-workout and Is It Safe?
As pre-workout is designed to help you cruise through a particularly tough workout, it shouldn't be a surprise to learn that they supply your system with sugar, caffeine and other energy-boosting stimulants.
But it pays to read the ingredients label before you invest in a fresh pot of pre-workout. Caffeine is the key ingredient to look out for as the content can vary from mild to way too much, and in extreme cases, high levels of caffeine can cause some pretty serious health issues like anxiety, insomnia and high blood pressure.
For most men, however, pre-workout is a safe supplement to take, but, even at the safe end of the spectrum, its side effects can still cause jitters, itching and interrupted sleep, which are harmless but still uncomfortable. Our advice: if you're new to pre-workout, go for half doses to begin with and see how your body reacts.
What Pre-workout Ingredients Should I Look Out For?
Creatine Monohydrate: Another popular supplement among gym-goers, creatine is included in many pre-workouts due to its potential to increase muscle power and performance during training.
BCAAs: Branch chain amino acids have been found to improve endurance during a workout and increase strength by maintaining cellular energy and supporting protein synthesis.
Taurine: Found in various animal meats, taurine is a sulfonic acid that contributes to the metabolism of fats and fights oxidative stress during workouts.
B-vitamins: Vitamins B1, B2 B5, and B6 all play important roles in energy production and efficiency, while Vitamin B12 supports blood production and Vitamin B3 boosts DNA repair and promote healthier skin.
NO2-boosters (ex. Arginine, Citrulline): Arginine, for example, is a nitrogen dioxide booster and an amino acid that acts as a 'vasodilator'. Essentially, arginine (and other similar nitrogen dioxide supplements) expand your veins and arteries, making it easier for blood to flow around your body, delivering nutrients quicker and more efficiently.
What Pre-workout Ingredients Should I Avoid?
Research published in Food and Chemical Toxicology cited that 400mg of caffeine a day is the upper limit for adults. What does this mean to you? One cup of instant coffee contains 60-80mg of caffeine, but high street flat whites contain anything between 65mg (Pret-a-Manger) and 160mg at Starbucks.
Some pre-workout brands spill over the recommended daily dose. ProSupps Mr Hyde NitroX pre-workout, for example, houses an uncomfortable 410mg of caffeine in a 7.5g scoop.
As sports nutritionist Matt Lovell points out there are definitely some pre-workout products that you should actively avoid. "I would say any speed cousins, amphetamine cousins. Some pre-workouts basically contain ecstasy. Or close to it," says Lovell.
Is Pre-workout Dangerous?
Broadly speaking, pre-workout supplements — like the products we've listed below — are safe to take on a regular basis when following the manufacturer's instructions. Of course, when it comes to ingesting caffeine, we all have different thresholds and, with some brands tipping over a sensible limit of caffeine content, it can become a risky game. Research published in the Food and Chemical Toxicology journal cites that 400mg a day — that's around two to three cups of coffee — as the upper limits for adults, so be sure to check the per-serving caffeine content of your chosen pre-workout during your next supplement top-up.
How Long Does Pre-workout Take to Kick In?
When you start your workout, you want to hit the ground running. You don't want to be waiting around for your pre-workout to kick in, so it pays to find the sweet spot to take it. For most people, the ideal time to take you pre-workout is around 30 minutes to one hour before your workout — this should give the supplement enough time to hit your bloodstream and amp you up ahead of your session. Something to consider, however, is the 'half life' of caffeine. Generally, caffeine has a half-life of around three to seven hours after ingestion. If you're used to training in the evenings, you want to take half the recommended dose or swap it out for a pre-workout alternative. We've listed a few below.
When Should I Take Pre-workout?
The all important question: if you're going to boost your performance with pre-workout, when is the optimum time to take it? Well, like we've mentioned most people take pre-workout around 30 minutes to one hour before they workout, but just because it's called pre-workout that doesn't necessarily mean you have to take it prior t your workout. "For longer sessions," says Lovell, "you could delay until an hour into the session." Always refer to the label of your pre-workout for specifics.
Should I Take Pre-Workout Every Day?
If you continue to take pre-workout on a regular basis, your body can build up a tolerance to its effects, which is why Lovell advises cycling the supplement, or coming off it for six to eight weeks at a time to give your body a chance to reset. "Cycling is the way forwards," he says. "Also get some stimulant-free ones [that] you can use most days or just some plain old tyrosine which is a very good budget pre-workout."
Can I Use Coffee as a Pre-Workout?
As we've mentioned, coffee and pre-workout share a common primary ingredient — caffeine. Found to have an effect on improving athletic performance, coffee also doesn't contain the additives and additional ingredients that other pre-workout supplements may have. Studies have shown that caffeine concentration peaks at about 45 minutes after ingestion, with effects lessening thereafter.
Simply put — yes, you can use coffee as a pre-workout.
The Pros and Cons of Taking Pre-workout
Improved performance: Research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition concluded that pre-workout supplements "have promise as an ergogenic aid for active individuals," or, in other words, they enhance the performance of people who already exhaust the gym.
Increased concentration and focus: Pre-workout is packed with caffeine, which is know to enhance cognition. As research published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease found, caffeine works on people's arousal, mood and concentration, so if you want to be focused on a workout, pre-workout is the supp for you.
The University of Córdoba found the citrulline added to pre-workout could add up to 53 per cent more bench press reps in a workout
In another study, pre-workout containing citrulline was found to give cyclists a 12% longer ride before hitting exhaustion
Negative side effects caused by overstimulation: if the jitters and interrupted sleep we mentioned earlier don't sound like fun, perhaps give pre-workout a miss.
You can build up a tolerance with over use: if taken excessively, your body can become immune to pre-workout's effects. To avoid this, it's probably best to save pre-workout for those sessions where it's either 'go hard or go home' or try cycling the supplement once in a while.
Can cause digestion problems: Ingredients like sodium bicarbonate, magnesium, creatine and caffeine can all cause digestion issues. Avoid this by trying different pre-workout supplements until you find one that works for you.
Scientists have previously linked the original class of energy drinks to diabetes, mental health problems and kidney damage
The Best Pre-workouts to Buy in 2021
My Protein THE Pre-Workout™
Blending creatine and caffeine, My Protein's signature pre-workout is designed to energise you during workouts and give an edge to your strength and fitness gains. It also contains Vitamin B6 to reduce tiredness.
Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Pre Workout
Optimum Nutrition's pre-workout contains creatine monohydrate, beta alanine, caffeine and vitamin B complex. Helping you grind through a particularly tough workout, Optimum Nutrition's Gold Standard pre-workout contains 165mg of caffeine from natural sources to help increase alertness and focus.
My Protein THE Pump™ Pre-Workout
Not a fan of the pre-workout jitters? We've got you covered. It contains ero added caffeine — making it ideal for workouts in the evening — and comes with 3.2g of beta-alanine to ward off muscle fatigue.
Cellucor C4 Original Pre-workout
Backed by man-mountain and three-time CrossFit Games champion Mat Fraser, Cellucor's C4 pre-workout is America's #1 pre-workout. Cellucor uses an in-house product development team alongside athlete feedback to create its C4 pre-workout.
Bulk Complete Pre-workout, Caffeine-free
If you're concerned about the caffeine content of your pre-workout, Bulk's caffeine-free pre-workout is a safer bet. Offering similar benefits to conventional pre-workout supplements, this contains 5g BCAAs and 3g of creatine monohydrate.
Grenade 50 Calibre Pre-workout
Explosive! Energy! During! Workouts! Grenade's 50 Calibre Pre-workout, with its battle-hardened style, is another favourite among lifters. With a goal to include every possible natural component that aids performance — including theobroma and beet extract — it comes in berry, cola and lemon flavour.
Your One-stop Supplement Guide
Coffee: A cup of black coffee (with or without sugar) before your workout is a great way to up your energy levels.
Bananas: Rich in starchy carbohydrates, one banana will contain around 14g of sugar, made of glucose and fructose – two sugar types that are ideal for athletic performance. Similarly, bananas are rich in potassium and magnesium, providing electrolytes to your body that — when lost — will cause muscle cramps and fatigue, so it's best to keep your levels topped-up. Each banana will contain around 20-27g of carbohydrates, fuelling your muscles before strenuous exercise.
Coconut Water: Like bananas, coconut water is naturally full of electrolytes. With an improper electrolyte balance leading to muscle cramps, stiffness, nausea, headaches and fatigue, drinking coconut water will help top-up your body's electrolyte supply. You'll want to ditch your energy drink too, because coconut water contains more nutrients per serving and up to 25 per cent fewer calories when compared to market-leading sports drinks.
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