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Should I be taking pre-workout?
WHEN I FIRST started lifting weights, my friends and I talked almost as much about what was in our shaker bottles as we did about the number of plates we could stack onto a barbell. I would watch as they took bombastically labeled tubs of neon-colored powder out of their gym bags, bragging about how jacked up they were about to get before we hit the free weight floor. They were all chugging pre-workout, the gym supplement industry’s jet fuel, a mix of caffeine and other substances meant to provide an extra boost of energy and focus to power your workout.
I never joined them. Like you, I wasn’t sure if I should be taking the stuff. Rumors about sketchy side effects and banned products scared me off, and I wasn’t willing to shell out cash for more supplements than the discount protein powder if I wasn’t sure exactly what benefits I’d be getting from it.
I eventually established my own workout routine without my group of buddies, and pre-workout wasn’t part of it. Still, I’ve sometimes wondered if I was missing out. Could I supercharge my training with a few sips from the right shake? To get to the bottom of the bottle, I talked to some experts about the place pre-workout might have in a well-rounded training plan.
What Is Pre-Workout?
You might be wondering exactly what pre-workout is if your only source of information about it is jacked-up fitness influencers on TikTok or your most excitable training buddy. Generally, pre-workout supplements are drinks or powders meant to be consumed shortly before exercise to provide extra energy for your training session.
Men’s Health Nutrition Advisor Dezi Abeyta, RDN, says that some key ingredients in many pre-workout supps are beta alanine, which can help to promote muscle endurance, L-arginine or L-citrulline, which can help to optimize blood flow, and of course, caffeine for extra energy. Pre-workouts also often include electrolytes, other amino acids, and creatine, all of which can help you perform your best in the gym and make major muscle gains. “People really love the pump, people really love that energetic feel of going to the gym,” Abeyta says. “The way that I would look at this is that a pre-workout can actually facilitate some really responsive and beneficial things.”
That sounds great—so is there a catch?
Are Pre-Workout Supplements Effective?
The biggest question I go back to about pre-workout is whether or not it can actually provide benefits I can't get elsewhere. According to Abeyta, that all depends on your habits and behaviors outside the gym.
“I always tell the clients that I work with that a supplement can't ‘out-supplement’ a really bad and imbalanced diet,” he says. If you’re chugging pre-workout after loading up on unhealthy foods—or without eating enough to fuel your session—you’re not going to get the benefits. “If you're under-fueling, your pre-workout is going to provide you with energy, but it's not actually going to give your body what it needs from an energy perspective as it goes into a workout and as it goes into that recovery period, where it needs you to be taking those nutrients and sticking to those recovery tactics to grow and to continue to perform.”
Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., says that pre-workout can be effective—but that doesn’t mean you should depend on it to drive your training sessions. “Big-picture, you don’t want to grow over-reliant on the focus that comes from a bottle,” he says. “Half of training to build muscle is about building your own mental strength, developing a strong mind-muscle connection and an ability to push yourself, and, at least sometimes, you should work to develop that without pre-workout.” Think of this like wearing a lifting belt or grips: You should use it only once you’ve exhausted your own ability.
Another important factor to consider (as you would with any other supplement) is whether you can trust that you’re taking matches with the claims on the bottle and that it’s safe. Abeyta says that you should make sure that whatever you’re using is third-party tested, meaning it has a label from Informed Choice, Informed Sport, or NSF Certified for Sport.
How Should I Use Caffeine with Pre-Workout?
I drink a lot of coffee. Maybe you do, too, or you have some other caffeinated drink that you enjoy as part of your diet. That means we’re already consuming caffeine—and it’s important to make sure that we understand how that might fit with a pre-workout supplement.
Citing FDA guidelines, Abeyta says that around 400 milligrams of caffeine per day (about four cups of coffee) is considered “safe and moderate consumption.” “Going a step further, 200 milligrams is considered a safe single serving,” he continues. If your pre-workout caffeine content is above that limit, or if you’re stacking your intake shortly after a cup of coffee or soda, you’re putting yourself in a bad spot. “We want to make sure that the serving size is actually done in a way that is not only intentional, but mindful.”
One major factor you need to consider for taking pre-workout with caffeine is the timing, since intake later in the day can throw off one of the most important factors for your recovery: sleep. “We also know that as little as 100 milligrams [of caffeine] in the body can produce some bad sleep habits or some bad sleep quality,” Abeyta says.
He recommends instituting a “caffeine curfew,” or a hard cutoff for your intake. “Anywhere from two o'clock to three o'clock is a really good time to abstain from caffeine,” he says. Along with this more mindful intake, Abeyta also recommends working to establish a consistent bedtime routine and consistent meal times, so that you’ve established a healthy baseline of behaviors. If you're an evening lifter, this means that pre-workout won't be a good choice for your gains.
Should You Take Pre-Workout?
We’ve established that pre-workout can be effective, and that there are some major caveats you should know about its usage. That isn’t exactly a clear answer to the original question: should you be using it for your workouts?
The answer comes down to your foundation, according to both experts. “My general rule on pre-workout is this: It’s not bad, but it shouldn’t be a replacement for proper rest and recovery between workouts,” Samuel says. “Pre-workout doesn’t fix three hours of sleep last night.”
Abeyta is even more focused on the other pillars of your routines and behavior. “Before we even engage with this idea of taking a pre-workout, we want to make sure that the foundation is there,” he says. “Are you sleeping well? Are you eating well? Are you moving well? And are you getting to a place where you are engaging in stress management well?” Once you can say yes to those questions—and you’ve considered the timing of your supplementation—you can think about saying yes to pre-workout.
If that’s a bit too abstract for you, or if you are really desperate for a training boost, consider this plan from Samuel: limit your intake to once a week (or twice a week max, if you’re someone with a heavy training load). “Reserve your pre-workout usage for the workouts that you least want to do, or the days when you’re feeling wiped out,” he says. This will help in two ways, according to Samuel: You’ll maximize the effect of the caffeine, and you’ll force yourself to be attuned to how your body feels rather than depending on it as a matter of practice. Think of pre-workout as your own secret stuff, deployed when you really need a boost, and it won’t become your kryptonite.
Brett Williams, NASM
Brett Williams, a fitness editor at Men's Health, is a NASM-CPT certified trainer and former pro football player and tech reporter who splits his workout time between strength and conditioning training, martial arts, and running. You can find his work elsewhere at Mashable, Thrillist, and other outlets.