What is in your pre-workout formula?

An increasing number of products are specifically being marketed for ingestion before exercise. These pre-workout drink mixes contain a wide spectrum of ingredients that claim to boost energy and focus, augment fuel and nutrient delivery, and promote muscle pumps. Here’s a list of five common pre-workout nutrients and their touted benefits, plus some other nutrients and why you’ll see them in various formulas.



Boost energy, focus, fat burning and performance

Several studies support the use of caffeine before exercise. It stimulates the central nervous system, raising alertness and focus. If you have caffeine before a workout, it tends to decrease your perception of how hard you’re working. Caffeine also has a mild fat burning effect, which can spare carbohydrate and enhance endurance performance. Several reports have shown caffeine can increase strength as well. An effective caffeine dose is 100-200 mg, equivalent to about 1-2 cups of coffee.



Increase strength, power and muscle size

A large amount of work supports that creatine supplementation increases muscle creatine levels and high-intensity exercise performance. I would give it 5 out of 5 stars on a rating scale for athletes to combine it with weight training. Creatine boosts muscle strength and power.

Studies I conducted showed subjects got stronger in bench press and squat exercises while increasing muscle fiber size. Muscle creatine accumulation occurs over 3-5 days of multiple daily doses of about 5g. A maintenance dose is then required to keep muscle creatine levels elevated. Including the maintenance dose of 3-5g of creatine in a pre-workout formula is a good idea. On non-workout days, take 3-5g of creatine to keep your muscles saturated and primed for your next workout.



Delay muscle fatigue

Studies indicate that beta-alanine supplementation increases muscle levels of carnosine, an intracellular buffer that helps fight fatigue during high-intensity exercise. One study showed beta-alanine increased total work done during a strength training session by 20%. An advantage of consuming creatine and beta-alanine in a pre-workout formula is that blood levels will be increased at a time when blood flow is increased and redistributed to active muscles, and thus should promote greater overall delivery of the substances to muscle.

Similar to creatine, muscle levels increase over several days/weeks, so the timing of ingestion is not critical. An effective daily dose is 3.2-6.4g in divided doses. A pre-workout drink that contains at least 1.6g would give you half of the daily minimum dose, and you should take another dose during the day to keep your muscle carnosine levels elevated.



For nitric oxide production

L-arginine is one of the key nutrients in a rapidly growing segment of products that claim to promote vasodilation and better muscle pumps during exercise. L-arginine is an essential amino acid for synthesis of nitric oxide (NO). NO is a substance made and released by the cells that line your blood vessels. When released, NO causes a potent dilation of blood vessels, which translates into increased blood flow. Some studies have shown better blood vessel function after L-arginine supplementation in people with impaired vascular function, but positive effects in young healthy athletes are less clear. An effective L-arginine dose to impact NO is at least 3g.



Increase muscle-building effects

The importance of protein after exercise is well recognized, but new research indicates that pre-exercise protein is beneficial for strength and endurance athletes. You don’t need a lot; 10-20g of whey protein 30-60 minutes before a workout can increase protein synthesis by delivering more amino acid building blocks to muscle that get incorporated into proteins. The branched-chain amino acids, especially leucine, are the most important amino acids for building muscle. Leucine signals the muscle to turn on protein synthesis.

If a pre-workout drink does not have protein, you can boost its effectiveness by adding BCAAs. Protein from whey concentrate or isolate naturally contains about 22% BCAAs. Or you can take 2.5-5g of a straight BCAA powder, which would equal the BCAAs in 10-20g of whey. Maximal effects are achieved with about 3g of leucine.


Other Ingredients



Fight oxidative stress

Taurine, an amino acid, is abundant in skeletal muscle. There is evidence taurine may increase insulin sensitivity and decrease oxidative stress. It may also help burn fat in overweight individuals. Doses greater than 1g are likely needed to have any impact on cell function.



Improve focus and physical performance

Tyrosine is an amino acid that serves as the precursor for norepinephrine (NE). NE is an important hormone that acts in the brain to stimulate metabolism. Prolonged, intense physical stress can deplete NE levels, which is associated with a decrease in performance. Tyrosine supplementation has been shown to enhance NE levels and brain function in animals. In soldiers, tyrosine supplementation enhanced cognitive task performance during a demanding military combat training course. Effective doses are 1-2g.



Fuel your workouts

The basis for consuming carbs before exercise is to provide a readily available source of glucose (fuel). I suggest you avoid the convenience store energy drinks that are loaded with sugar. Almost all carbs found in energy drinks are simple sugars. The problem with these massive amounts of carbs is they spike blood sugar and insulin levels so high, you can cause a corresponding low blood sugar crash. Equally problematic, they block your body’s ability to burn fat stores. Obviously not a desirable effect if you’re trying to lose weight or improve metabolic health. If you’re exercising less than an hour, or if your workout goal is to burn body fat, you probably don’t need to consume carbs before a workout.



Replace what is lost in sweat

Providing various electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, magnesium and others helps replace the electrolytes lost from sweating. If your workout is less than an hour, then they’re not really critical, but are still an added bonus.



An array of pre-workout supplements are available for consumers. They often contain a long list of ingredients in varying proportions and doses. While there is research on many single or double ingredient combinations, the complex formulations in most products have not been studied, making it difficult to evaluate their effectiveness. Plus, many of the dosage amounts of each ingredient are not disclosed by the manufacturer, but shown in proprietary blends.

You may have to do some experimenting to find the right pre-workout formula that works for you, based on your fat loss or strength training goals. Or consider creating your own pre-workout drink by buying some of these ingredients separately and taking them in the doses that have been shown to work.

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