A question I get a lot is this: should I be taking preworkout supplements. Now that’s a pretty broad question with a variety of answers. The first is pretty simple though: No. There is no supplement that you ‘should’ be taking if you have a fully complete and healthy diet.
I’ve tried lots of different supplements with varying effects so hopefully I’m qualified enough to say this. If anyone tells you differently, check the following:
1. Are they actively selling preworkout supplements?
2. Do they work for a supplement company or are they ‘sponsored athletes’?
3. Are they a classic gym bro with only a rudimentary understanding of science and the sport?
If the answer to any of these questions is ‘Yes’ then you’d be better off looking else where for advice.
That’s the problem with a lot of web and print based information on supplements. Most people are selling them in some way or other. Preworkouts are a supplement that companies can sell all year round. This contrasts with things like fat burners that sell better in January and the run up to summer holidays.
A different way to phrase the question would be: Is there any advantage from taking a preworkout supplement? Now that’s a different question altogether but not necessarily easily answered. My answer to this question would be: it depends.
It Depends? That’s not Very Helpful!
I know right? I bet you’re going to click off this post RIGHT NOW! Oh, still here? I’ll keep going then.
Using a preworkout supplement depends on the effect you want it to give you. Legitimate and realistic effects are:
Increased pump during exercise which re-inforces the ‘reward’ part of the habit loop and also makes you look like a vein popping muscular beast for 20-30 minutes.
Improved focus to concentrate and be mindful during your workout. This is especially important if you are training early morning or after work when you’re concentration levels and energy may be waning.
But younger or more gullible lifters take preworkout for the wrong reasons for example:
You like the shiny writing and lightning strikes on the tub
You heard from a friend that ‘It’s like totally taking steroids, bro’
Your favourite body builder uses it and swears that it’s the secret to his success (not the testosterone, insulin and HGH he’s injecting).
You liked the name because it sounds ‘hardcore’ (JACKED UP MUTANT FREAK OUT BLAST anyone?)
Preworkout Supplements Fall in Two Categories
These days, preworkouts are divided into two main types: Stim and Pump. Some claim to be a combination of both but I’m never convinced with this claim. Those that claim to do both often don’t do enough of either to be taken seriously.
Stim Based Preworkouts
There used to be a product on the market called Jack3d. Although you can still get this brand, it’s not the same stuff.
Original Jack3d used a stimulant that came from the Geranium root called 1,3 Dimethylamine or DMAA for short. DMAA was basically an alkaloid of amphetamine.
And man, it worked. One scoop was all you needed and you’d be in the gym for 2 hours or more. The rub would come when the staff wanted to close and had to drag you out of the doors kicking and screaming.
The only drawback was that you crashed hard and if you were subject to drug testing, you’d probably fail that too. It was eventually banned in the UK after being erroneously connected with the death of a marathon runner.
So stim preworkout supplements aren’t quite what they used to be. That’s not to say they don’t work. Many are loaded up with caffeine anhydrous and other stimulants. If you’re sensitive to stimulants, you probably don’t want to be taking this stuff after about midday.
I don’t always take a preworkout but when I do, I’ll normally go for a stim based product. That’s because I train early morning and it can be a drag, especially in winter when it’d cold, dark and wet. A little pick me up in the mornings helps A LOT.
Caffeine also improves concentration. Concentration is important in the gym for reasons such as:
Focusing on your set and not the girl who’s always in doing ‘shoulders’
Making sure you don’t drop a 30kg dumbbell on your foot.
Harnessing the ‘mind-muscle’ connection
Its always best to start off with a small amount of any stimulant based product to test your tolerance. I also try to limit my coffee intake during the day if I’ve taken preworkout.
If you need an energy boost to get you motivated and concentration then a stimulant based product is going to suit your needs.
Pump based preworkout supplements contain compounds that increase blood flow through different mechanisms. One if these is ‘vasodilation’. This means that the blood vessels enlarge allowing your muscles to take on more fluid.
Common ingredients for pump based supplements include the amino acid l-arginine or different forms. This is a known vasodilator. Other supplements that are associated with increased muscle pumps are things like creatine monohydrate.
Pump products can give your ego a nice boost and may have some physiological function in improving recovery. Some even suggest that the pump is necessary for increasing muscle size.
Many pump products work well with simple carbs. I’ve taken them with sweets and beetroot smoothies (which contain nitrates, also a vasodilator) for an extra boost.
Closing Thoughts on Preworkout Supplements
If you have the cash and want to try something a little bit different. Or you feel like you need a little extra boost in the mornings then it may be worth trying a preworkout supplement or formula.
Remember, there are no magic pills or shortcuts to a fit and healthy body. No one needs a preworkout supplement and I’ve trained mostly without them. That said, they do have a place for intermediate and advanced lifters. Try a few and see what your body responds to best.
None of this is medical advice and you should always speak to a doctor when taking a new supplement or starting a new exercise regime.
P.S. Do you have any training or nutrition questions you’d like me to answer? Leave a comment or send me an email through the website and I’ll do it on here or on my YouTube channel.