Do you need a pre-workout supplement? Not surprisingly, the real answer is, “It depends.” Let’s talk about why you do—or do not—need a pre-workout supplement.
Pre-Workout Fueling: The Basics
We’ve discussed our pre-workout food recommendations in detail in It Starts With Food, but those recommendations come with a caveat. While these recommendations apply to the majority of our readers, there are contexts in which our generalized pre-workout (pre-WO) recommendations are not ideal, or simply not adequate. These would include:
- Race or competition days; our health-focused guidelines may bend a bit on these days.
- Dedicated fat loss efforts using context-appropriate fasting protocols. (Note, these are few and far between in our experience.)
- Participation in very long training sessions; over 60-90 minutes of continuous, hard movement like trail running or cycling.
- During a dedicated mass gain program.
There are dozens of additional specific situations in which our general recommendations are imperfect. However, our pre-WO guidelines work very well for the majority of our readers, seminar attendees, and consulting clients.
Pre-Workout Fueling: Supplementation
Let’s discuss a few common pre-workout supplement ingredients.
Carbohydrate sources. These are typically sugary bottled drinks or powders, or powdered starches such as maltodextrin or waxy maize. The purported purpose of these drinks is to supply sugar (glucose) to hard-working muscles.
The reason you probably don’t need to use this sort of pre-workout supplement is that, assuming you are eating plenty of vegetables (including starchy squashes and roots), fruit, and possibly some potatoes or white rice as a concentrated carbohydrate source, you already have substantial amounts of carbohydrate stored in your muscles and liver in the form of glycogen. Unless you’re on a purposefully low-carb diet or you’ve recently completed an hour or more of continuous high-intensity exercise (depleting your glycogen stores), it’s unlikely that you need to jam in more carbohydrate right before exercise.
Protein and isolated amino acids. This group of ingredients includes milk proteins (like whey protein), egg white protein, glutamine, and branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which may prevent training-related muscle catabolism (breakdown) and offer some immune support.
For people with specific mass gain goals, strength and power athletes, and athletes with very grueling training programs, these can play a very useful role. However, we do not recommend long-term use of large doses of isolated amino acids (such as BCAAs), since over time they may deplete amino acids in the brain that are precursors for serotonin and dopamine. We also recommend against casein as a protein source in general—plus, its relatively slow assimilation makes it a poor pre-workout choice anyway. Not everyone tolerates whey well, and since whey (and liquid food in general) is highly insulinogenic, it makes little sense for people with insulin resistance or those who have difficulty losing weight to use whey protein as a pre-workout supplement.
That being said, for lean, hard-training athletes, a good quality whey supplement (preferably from hormone-free, grass-fed cows and without artificial sweeteners) may be very helpful to reduce training-induced catabolism, and especially as a post-workoutprotein source. Just remember that it’s not at all nutrient-dense—it’s just a fast, easy way to get amino acids and bioactive peptides into your system.
Fat sources. These are far less common in pre-WO supplements, but some companies understand the important role of certain types of natural fats can have in providing energy for prolonged, low-to-moderate intensity exercise, especially for people who eat a diet low in refined carbohydrate and are well adapted to utilizing fat as an energy source. (For example, SFH adds coconut fat to some of their whey protein supplements.)
Caffeine. Coffee, “energy drinks” like Red Bull or Monster, and myriad of powdered and bottled drinks rely heavily on caffeine to get you fired up for your exercise. While caffeine has well-documented ergogenic effects, it is not always appropriate in a pre-workout supplement, especially if your exercise is in the afternoon or evening. Studies suggest most people metabolize caffeine rather slowly, increasing the likelihood that it will interfere (even subtly) with sleep that evening—and if you’ve been following us, you’ll know we prioritize quality sleep over hard exercise.
Other stimulants. There are dozens of different stimulant compounds (like synephrine and yohimbe) added to pre-workout supplements, and we recommend avoiding most of them. There is limited research on the safety and efficacy of most of these compounds, and relying on a psychoactive drug to prepare you for exercise session should raise some serious red flags.
If you can’t get motivated to exercise without a chemical cattle prod, we recommend taking a hard look at your nutrition and sleep. Are you eating enough nutritious food? Are you getting enough deep, restorative sleep? If not, focus on those things and allow your body to actually recover from the beat-down. Adding a turbo boost to an engine already running at redline leads to nothing but massive destruction.
Creatine. Many pre-workout formulas include some form of creatine, a generally safe and effective way to improve performance of high-powered movements like sprints or weightlifting. While it’s not important to take creatine immediately before your workout, it is unlikely to hurt anything. If you choose to use creatine, we generally recommend creatine as part of your post-workout plan.
Beta-alanine. Beta-alanine is a specific type of amino acid that helps to buffer the acidic environment of hard-working muscles; it has been shown to improve performance in some athletes in relatively small doses. It is most appropriate for athletes who do hard training or competition that involves large volumes of high intensity exercise, such as track and field athletes or competitive cyclists. There’s not a mountain of conclusive research on it, but what we’ve read is very promising.
L-arginine. This amino acid is a precursor for nitric oxide (NO), which is critical for dilation of blood vessels, improving blood flow to muscles during exercise. This sounds like a great thing, but there’s a dark side here: long-term supplementation with arginine actually increases oxidative stress and markers of aging in blood vessel tissues. We recommend against regular use of arginine as a pre-workout supplement.
“Fat burners.”This type of supplement is a pet peeve of mine, since these products rely on promises of rapid fat loss thanks to ingredients with claims more fiction than fact. Common ingredients include garcinia cambogia, green coffee extract, green tea extract (or EGCG), and all sorts of other things. Save your money unless your functional medicine practitioner has recommended one of these supplements for a very specific reason.
You want a “fat burner?” The best fat burning tool is a well-tuned metabolism, fueled by nutrient-dense whole foods, tuned with an active lifestyle, and dialed in with adequate recovery and sleep. (As a reminder: don’t believe the promise of the shortcut.)
Antioxidants. Some companies claim that ingesting antioxidant compounds like vitamin C, vitamin E and grapeseed extract will protect your tissues from oxidative damage during exercise. While that sounds like a good idea, that logic is not well supported by the scientific literature. When you exercise, you experience structural and metabolic stress. With repeated exposure to that stress over time, the body adapts, making you fitter. (In summary, it’s the recovery from the stress of training that makes you fitter.) High-dose antioxidants do indeed help to blunt the oxidative stress of hard training, but that also means they blunt your training response, too—which means if you’re taking antioxidant supplements every time you work out, you may not be getting as fit as you could.
“Hydration” products or electrolyte supplements.If you need an electrolyte supplement before you exercise, you’re walking around dehydrated. Add a little salt to your food, eat potassium-rich vegetables like spinach, Swiss chard and beet greens (far better than bananas!) regularly, and drink plenty of water.
Electrolyte supplements are most important for people exercising in very hot and humid environments, or for those undertaking endurance events over an hour in duration where electrolyte depletion is a real issue. In these instances, we love sugar-free elete electrolytes—but seriously, you don’t need to worry about electrolyte depletion during your sprint intervals or sexy metcon.
While the promise of a pre-workout supplement is enticing, the truth is most health-focused people don’t need it. In fact, if the rest of your factors aren’t properly dialed in (nutrition, sleep, and exercise program), a pre-workout supplement won’t make much (if any) of a difference long-term, and may even end up harming your health. Instead, focus on eating enough nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory foods (like those we recommend in It Starts With Food) during your everyday meals, and eat those same foods at the right time and in the right amounts for you before and after your workouts to support your activity level.
Those who would benefit from a pre-workout supplement are generally those with a performance-focused approach (as opposed to health-focused), like competitive athletes or those on a dedicated mass gain protocol. On hard training or competition days, choose a pre-workout supplement with as “clean” an ingredient list as possible (like the new PUSH pre-WO formula from SFH), understanding that none of them are perfect or necessary for long-term consumption. Cycle your supplementation so you’re not ingesting too much caffeine or big batches of individual amino acids, and make sure your performance platform is still well-supported on a base of real food, adequate restorative sleep, and attention to recovery practices.
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