Most days it’s hard enough lacing up your sneakers and making it to the gym, let alone powering through an entire workout. If only there were an easy button of sorts—or at least something to help you kickstart a workout (and maybe also help you work out a little harder and longer).
That’s where the idea of pre-workout supplements and drinks come into play (you’ve probably seen your fittest friend pop some into her water bottle before heading to the studio). But what’s exactly in these supplements—and do they even work to help enhance your workout? Health spoke to experts—both nutritionists and trainers—to get the lowdown on pre-workout supplements and help you decide whether you want to try ’em or skip ’em.
What exactly are pre-workout supplements?
Basically, these pre-workout supplements—which often come in powdered form—are supplements meant to boost your workout if you take it beforehand.
“The main goal of pre-workout supplements, based on the research but contrary to most pre-workout claims, is to enhance the feelings or perception of a superbly charged workout,” says Jim White, RD, owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition in Virginia Beach. “Most pre-workout supplements do this by using stimulants which increase blood flow, heart rate, energy, and focus. This makes an individual feel like they can work out harder and with more intensity in order to get more out of their training.”
Just FYI: No two pre-workout supplements are the same, but many contain a few matching ingredients, like carbohydrates and caffeine for fuel and energy. (Carbs are your body’s preferred source of fuel, says Nancy Clark, RD, author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook.
Pre-workout supplements can also include nitrates, which have been found to improve blood flow and work efficiency (meaning you use less energy to perform a similar amount of work); sodium bicarbonate, aka baking soda, to help reduce lactic acid and improve short-term performance; creatine, to improve muscle strength and high-intensity performance; and potentially beta-alanine, to help balance the pH of muscles, according to White.
Can pre-workout supplements help you lose weight?
Maybe, but don’t bank on it. Supplements that contain stimulants (again, like caffeine) and other energy boosters like B vitamins could kick up your drive so much that you get a better workout and therefore, burn more calories. You just have to make sure you don’t end up eating those calories right back.
“I know many people that jazz themselves up with pre-workout supplements, burn off 500 calories in their workouts, and then eat 700 to 800 calories at breakfast,” say Clark. “It doesn’t matter how much you burn at a workout, what matters is if you created a deficiency.” Translation: Even if you do work harder at the gym because of pre-workout, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll lose weight.
Also, if exercise makes you hungrier or you feel like you deserve to eat more because of a hard workout, it’s very easy to eat those calories burned and then some. “I totally separate exercise and weight,” Clark says. “Most of weight loss is about pushing away from the dining room table and eating less food.” And that doesn’t involve pre-workout supplements.
Are there any safety concerns with taking pre-workout supplements?
Most pre-workouts contain caffeine—that’s where you get that heightened energy. But beware: some can sneak in more than four cups of coffee worth of the stimulant, according to testing done by the third-party company, LabDoor. Check to see how much you’re consuming, noting that one cup of coffee typically contains 95 milligrams of caffeine, according to the USDA.
Keep in mind: “Supplements are not regulated in the same way that foods are,” says Jen Bruning, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Looking for a label from a testing organization is a good first step in making sure your supplements contain what is listed.”
Experts suggest searching for stamps of approval from companies like Informed Sport, NSF Certified for Sport, BSCG Certified Drug Free, or US Pharmacopeia. “No supplement can ever be deemed 100% risk free, however, these certifications help to mitigate risk and keep it at a low level of possibility,” White says.
Because you can never be 100 percent sure what you’re getting in a supplement, White warns against other ingredients that could lead to problems like heart conditions, including amphetamine-like stimulates (think ephedrine, which the FDA banned in 2004 due to the serious side effects) or testosterone-promoting hormone boosters.
Also, keep in mind, that if you’re supplementing your meals with the pre-workout supplements, you could end up getting too much a good thing. “Most people can see results from the right combo of foods and hydration, and supplements simply aren’t needed,” says Bruning. “Over-consuming nutrients and other supplements can be wasteful—our bodies can’t always use the high amounts of nutrients sometimes found in supplements, shakes, mixes, and more. It can also be dangerous to over-consume some micronutrients or other ergogenic aids. Supplements can also be expensive for the results that you may see.” And those are only potential results for the price you pay.
So, should you try pre-workout supplements?
Honestly it depends. Elite or competitive athletes, for example, will probably get the biggest pay-off from pre-workout mixes, considering they need that little extra shot of performance benefit, says White.
Pregnant or breast-feeding women or kids under 18 shouldn’t take these supplements, because of the high level of stimulants, White adds. Those with conditions like heart arrhythmia, diabetes, or pre-diabetes, or those with a sensitivity to caffeine should probably skip, too.
If you have trouble sleeping, take blood pressure meds, have gastrointestinal issues, or have had issues with disordered eating, you should also be hesitant about taking pre-workout supplements, and talk to your doctor before doing so. “Pre-workout can leave you jittery and may lead to over-training and injuries in some people so it’s important to weigh all the risks with benefits of taking a pre-workout supplement,” White says.
For the most part, however, pre-workout supplements can’t do anything whole foods can’t also do. For example: While caffeine might work to boost your energy levels, a cup of coffee will do the same. And while many pre-workout powders tend to pack a carb-protein combo that fuels your body for an intense sweat, a banana with almonds will do that too. “I always trust food more than I trust a supplement. Most products have nothing magic in them, they’re just convenient,” says Clark.
Ultimately though, the decision is up to you and your needs and goals. But all the experts said you likely don’t need them.
If you do want to try a supplement, just make sure you talk to your doctor first, especially if you have an underlying health condition. And chat with a dietitian who specializes in sports—he or she can help you figure out proper dosing and other safety details.
To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter