Pre-Workout Supplements: Learn How To Optimize Energy, Recovery & Results
Introduction and Benefits
Welcome to the Expert Guide on pre-workout supplements. The aim of this guide is to teach you about the ingredients and products available that can help improve your workouts, and your results! We’ll show you what ingredients can be beneficial to take pre-workout and the recommended dosage. You’ll also learn how what to look for in the plethora of pre-workout products on the market.
Pre-workout supplementation is a rather new concept. It was not long ago that pre-workout supplementation was just starting to gain popularity. Luckily, in recent years much research has been done on the subject and many discoveries have been made that can benefit hard training lifters.The benefits of taking pre-workout supplements are numerous and can propel your workouts to new levels.
Pre-workout supplementation is designed to:
- Improve performance
- Increase strength
- Increase endurance
- Decrease muscle breakdown during training
- Increase protein synthesis
- Improve energy and focus
- Improve nutrient delivery and assimilation
- Increase metabolic rate (fat burning)
- Create an optimal hormonal environment
Obviously, these improvement areas are beneficial to anyone, no matter what their training goals are. A well rounded approach to pre-workout supplementation can help you get the most out of your efforts in the gym. For anyone that is serious about training and results cannot afford to neglect this important area of nutrition.
Enter “The Zone”
We have all been there before. You know the feeling. You walk into the gym and you can just tell that this is not going to be a typical workout. You feel energized, ready for action, and seem to have a pump before you even touch a weight. As the workout gets started, you are warming up with weights that you usually use on working sets. There are simply not enough plates in the gym to meet your needs. You are in “The Zone”. As you finish your last set your skin feels like it can’t possibly stand any more stretching from the pump. Finally you leave the gym thinking “where did that come from, and how do I get that again?”
Those days of being in “The Zone” can sometimes be few and far between. Fortunately with proper pre workout supplementation you can make “The Zone” a frequent occurrence. The right pre-workout supplements can help improve every single aspect of training including, strength, energy, endurance, and focus. Different ingredients will improve various aspects of the training session.
Strength + Power
If getting stronger is your primary goal, then these are the ingredients you need to look for in a pre-workout supplement. These supplements can help improve your strength and power in the gym, meaning you keep progressing and lifting more weight.
Creatine is one of the most popular supplements on the market. The reason for this is simple. It works. Creatine has the ability to maximize strength which will lead to new growth.
During training there are many processes that take place that allow you to continue a set. Adenosine Triphosphate, or ATP, is the only source of energy that can drive your muscles to contract. Unfortunately, muscle only stores enough ATP to support muscle contraction for a few seconds, therefore it must be replaced. Your body then replaces your ATP stores by breaking down creatine phosphate (CP) for more energy. This releases energy for fast replenishment of ATP, allowing the set to continue. If creatine stores are low then failure during the set will be reached sooner than if creatine stores were full.
This is where creatine supplementation benefits strength. Taking creatine before every workout will ensure that muscle creatine stores are topped off, allowing maximum weights for maximum reps on each set. If your goals are gaining muscle and strength, then make sure your pre-workout has creatine.
You can also take creatine by itself pre-workout. For best results take 5 grams of creatine monohydrate 30 minutes before every training session.
Taurine is an amino acid found within the body that is produced from cysteine. Taurine is different from most other amino acids because it is not incorporated into proteins but is involved in a wide array of physiological process. These processes include control of muscle contractions, helping control fluid balance within the body, cell membrane structure, as well as antioxidant actions.
In terms of training performance there are several thoughts on how taurine may be beneficial. One hypothesis has to do with taurine’s role in modulating contractile function of skeletal muscle tissue. Although taurine’s exact role in muscle contraction is not fully understood one thing is clear, exercise causes a drop in muscle concentrations of taurine. For this reason it is theorized that taurine is essential to muscle contraction. If muscles do not contract efficiently then performance and strength will suffer. This is simply one of many different benefits of taurine.
To offset the drop in muscle taurine concentrations due to training, supplementing 1-2 grams of taurine 30 minutes before your workout is recommended.
Anyone that has ever lifted a weight has muscle growth as one of their goals. Weight training in and of itself will bring about muscle growth, but our goal is to optimize this effect. Luckily there are supplements that will enhance the muscle growth response from training and increase protein synthesis. Here is the list of recommended ingredients for muscle growth:
The 3 branched chain amino acids are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. It has long been know that taking BCAAs before training can reduce muscle tissue breakdown. This is because BCAAs are metabolized in the muscle tissue rather than the liver. This means that they can be broken down and used for quick energy when the body needs it. Supplementing with BCAAs before training will prevent your body from robbing needed aminos from your muscle tissue and it will take what is already in the blood stream.
Newer research is now showing that taking BCAAs before training can have a profound effect on your hormones. In a recent study, it was shown that when athletes were given BCAAs prior to training, post-workout testosterone levels remained elevated for several hours, whereas the control group noticed a significant drop in testosterone once training ceased. The same study also showed that the group consuming BCAAs had higher insulin levels as well. Insulin is an extremely anabolic hormone that also prevents muscle tissue from being broken down and used as energy.
One of the branched chain amino acids, leucine, has also been making waives due to new studies showing that is can actually influence gene expression through the mTOR pathway. The mTOR is located within the cells and is responsible for detecting an excess of amino acids. Recent tests have shown that when leucine is taken orally it interacts with the mechanism of mTOR, protein synthesis increases, and cell growth occurs. This newer research is really exciting and will have some big applications in the world of bodybuilding.
To take full advantage of all the benefits of BCAAs, 3-10 grams should be consumed immediately before (and/or during) your workout.
Whey protein is most often thought of as a post training option and not usually considered a pre-training supplement. Whey is a high quality protein that contains high levels of BCAAs and is quickly digested. This rapid digestion is what makes it a great choice post workout. Taking whey post training will halt the catabolic (muscle wasting) effects of training as well as increase protein synthesis (muscle growth).
Even though whey protein is a great post workout choice, it has just as much if not more benefits when taken before training. Research has shown that ingesting whey protein before training can increase protein synthesis just as much as, and in some cases more than, ingesting whey protein after training. Also, the full spectrum of amino acids will raise insulin levels higher than simply consuming free form BCAAs. Higher insulin levels will further increase protein synthesis and mitigate muscle tissue breakdown during training.
For best results take 15-30 grams of whey protein immediately before training. This does not mean that you should forgo your post workout whey protein though. Ingesting whey both pre and post training can maximize protein synthesis.
High Glycemic Carbohydrates
High glycemic carbs are essentially carbohydrates that are digested quickly. Fast digesting carbs may not be considered a very glamorous supplement, but they can have a profound difference on muscle growth and performance.
To understand the importance of carbs, you must first know how your body uses different forms of energy during and in between sets. During training the body uses ATP to drive muscle contractions. After ATP stores are depleted your body turns to creatine phosphate (CP) for energy. Your body only stores enough CP for about 8-12 seconds of maximal effort.
At this point your body switches to glycolysis, this is when your body uses stored glycogen (carbohydrate stored within the muscle) and blood sugar to replace ATP stores. Your body repeats this process for every single set that you perform in the gym. Carbs come into play during glycolysis. Then, in between sets, muscle cells use the glycolytic pathway to restore ATP. This means that you can preserve muscle glycogen and stay strong throughout your workout by having carbs before training.
The primary reason for using fast digesting carbs as opposed to other carb sources is because of the effect it will have on insulin levels. High glycemic carbs cause a much greater insulin release than slow digesting carbs. Insulin may just be the most anabolic hormone in the body and it also has an antagonist relationship with cortisol. Cortisol is a muscle wasting hormone that typically spikes during every workout. Since insulin and cortisol are opposing hormones this means that when levels of one is high, levels of the other must be low. So by ingesting high glycemic carbs before training you will get the anabolic benefits and anti catabolic (muscle preserving) benefits of the hormone insulin.
Deciding how many carbs to consume before training depends on whether you are currently trying to lose fat or gain muscle at the moment. As a guideline it is best to consume between 20-60 grams of high glycemic carbs immediately before training.
Energy + Focus (Cognitive Enhancers)
Energy and focus are a huge advantage during any training session. When is the last time you witnessed someone yawning their way through their sets proclaim that they are having a great workout?! Great workouts are energy fueled and to the point. The days where you are really “on” you are not talking to friends or texting. You are focused on the task at hand. The ingredients below can help with both energy and focus.
Caffeine may just be the most popular performance enhancer on the planet since even those that do not train use caffeine on a daily basis.
Caffeine is a stimulant that acts upon the central nervous system in humans. It is also a metabolic stimulant since it increases the metabolism. Caffeine works as a metabolic stimulant by releasing fatty acids into the blood stream to be used as energy. This means that when caffeine is taken before training it works as an excellent fat burner.
From a muscle growth standpoint caffeine is a potent performance enhancer that increases wakefulness, creates faster and clearer flow of thought, increases focus, and better general body coordination. This leads to stronger lifts that will translate into muscular gains. Contrary to popular belief, moderate doses of caffeine are best for improving athletic performance. If doses of caffeine are too high then it can actually impair coordination and performance.
The amount of caffeine you consume pre-workout highly depends on your tolerance level. Most pre-workout products recommend you start off with a small serving to “access your tolerance” and work up from there. Caffeine can be used by itself, where most products contain dosages of around 200mg. Caffeine is in almost every pre-workout on the market (except stimulant-free products).
Caffeine’s effects do not start to work immediately, so it is best to consume your pre-workout containing caffeine around 30 minutes before training.
Tyrosine is an amino acid that has many physiological roles. Many of the benefits of tyrosine seem to be because it acts as a precursor to neurotransmitters such as norepinpherine an dopamine and that taking tyrosine can accelerate catecholamine synthesis. Because of this tyrosine has been shown to modulate the effects of acute stress which can reduce effects of over training. Along with this it can increase concentration during times of stress on the body (such as a training session) and has even shown promise as a fat loss aid.
Since tyrosine has been shown to work on so many different levels it is an important part of any pre-training supplement plan. Take 500-1000 milligrams 30 minutes before training.
Endurance during training has many different applications. Increasing endurance allows you to lift weights for more reps, train harder for longer, and pack on more muscle as a result. It doesn’t matter if you are distant runner or a bodybuilder, more endurance will be beneficial to your goals.
Beta-alanine is an amino acid that has the ability to increase levels of carnosine within muscle tissue. Carnosine is a dipeptide that is comprised of beta-alanine and histidine. Unfortunately carnosine cannot be ingested because it is rapidly hydorlyzed metabolized in blood plasma by the enzyme carnosinase. However, ingestion of beta-alanine will lead to it being transported to muscle tissue where it is resythesized with histidine as carnosine.
Carnosine increases endurance through anti-oxidant properties as well as acting through physio-chemical buffering capabilities. As an anti-oxidant carnosine may be able to offset some of the oxidative stress that is associated with fatigue. Training generally brings about a drop in PH which causes fatigue. Carnosine can act as a buffering agent which delays this drop in PH and delaying neuromuscular fatigue, allowing activity to continue. This translates into more reps with a given weight.
Beta-alanine is best taken 30 minutes before training with a 2-2.5 gram dose followed by a second dose later in the day. On a side note, beta-alanine can cause a tingling sensation on the skin. This is normal and nothing to worry about. Most good pre-workout products will contain beta-alanine.
Citrulline is an amino acid that is not built into protein during protein synthesis. In this regard it is similar to taurine. It supports the body in optimizing blood flow and can be converted to the amino acid arginine. Citrulline is often paired with malate which is a TCA cycle intermediate. The TCA cycle is a major producer of aerobic energy within the mitochondria of cells.
Studies have shown that citrulline malate can reduce the sensation of fatigue as well as increase ATP production. Others studies have also shown that citrulline can also have a protective effect against blood acidity. This can delay fatigue during high intensity training. Perhaps citrulline malates greatest benefit comes from it ability to remove endotoxins that are produced during training. Endotoxins such as lactic acid can cause fatigue during training. Citrulline malate has been shown to be effective at aiding in removing these endotoxins.
Recommended dosage is 3-6 grams of citrulline malate immediately before or during training for best results. Some pre-workout products contain citrulline malate, and it is also found in some intra-workout products.
Anti-Oxidants (Muscle Protectors)
Many people have heard of antioxidants but very few actually know what they are and what their function is. Antioxidants benefit the human body by neutralizing free radicals. When oxygen interacts with certain molecules it can form atoms or groups of atoms called free radicals. Free radicals cause damage when they react with important cellular components such as DNA, or the cell membrane. When this happens it can cause cells to die. This includes muscle cells.
Antioxidants are molecules that can interact with free radicals and effectively neutralize them before they can cause damage to cells. Exercising naturally increases oxidative stress which leads to increased production of free radicals. This means that it is even more important to ingest antioxidants around your training.
Vitamin E is the most potent lipid-soluble antioxidant in human plasma and tissues. Vitamin E is an excellent anti-oxidant choice because in addition to it’s own activity, it is able to influence the activity of other anti-oxidants. Recent studies have shown that that glutathione and ascorbic acid are not able exert their full anti-oxidant benefits without adequate levels of vitamin E. This makes vitamin E an excellent choice as a pre-workout anti-oxidant.
100-400 IU’s of Vitamin E should be taken 30 minutes before training.
Alpha Lipoic Acid
Alpha lipoic acid works to benefit training and muscle growth in multiple ways. Not only is alpha lipoic acid an extremely powerful antioxidant, it can exert some similar effects as the hormone insulin. As an antioxidant, alpha lipoic acid can protect red blood cells from damage by free radicals. As an “insulin mimicker” it has been shown to increase glucose uptake by muscle cells and actually decrease glucose uptake by fat cells. This means more muscle and less fat. This is obviously a very good thing for anyone looking to build muscle and minimize fat.
200-400 milligrams of alpha lipoic acid should be consumed 30 minutes before training.
N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) is the N-acetyl derivative of the nonessential amino acid cysteine. NAC can protect the liver from toxic substances. This is mainly due to NAC’s strong antioxidant abilities and it’s ability to raise levels of another powerful antioxidant, glutathione.
Recent studies have also shown that NAC has promise in its ability to delay fatigue. NAC was shown to delay fatigue by improving potassium regulation and attenuating the decline of activity of the sodium potassium pump during training. The sodium potassium pump controls transport of sodium and potassium across the cell membrane. This process is vital to the functionality of the cell. When cells are functioning properly this leads to more efficiency and stronger lifts.
NAC is an antioxidant that works on many levels. Take 300-600 milligrams 30 minutes before training.
Using Pre-Workout Supplements
Cycle Your Pre-Workout
As with most supplements, it is important to cycle pre-workout supplements. Many supplements should be cycled from time to time to keep your body from adapting to them. By cycling it ensures that your body will remain sensitive to the ingredients. For example, if creatine is not cycled, creatine transporters in your body will downregulate. This means you will keep taking it but it will essentially be wasted because the body no longer has the ability to transport creatine to the muscle cells.
Caffeine is another example of a supplement that should be cycled. Sensitivity to caffeine will decrease over time with use. This is seen by someone who used to need only a cup of coffee to stay alert but over time it take a whole pot just to exert the same effect. Plus persistent caffeine intake will lead to lowered adrenal function. This can be avoided by simply cycling products.
The best way to way to cycle pre-workout products is to use consistently for 6-8 weeks followed by 2-3 weeks off. Then simply repeat. You will find that when you come back to the supplements they will feel like they have been supercharged.
Occasionally cycling off of pre-workout supplements will allow your body to re-sensitize itself to the ingredients and make them much more effective once intake is resumed. Just like the same training routine and diet cannot be followed forever, the same holds true for supplementation as well.
Many users also find that cycling the products they use works very well. Using a different product every time you buy a pre-workout can have the same effect as taking a 2-3 week break. If you decide to do this, remember that it’s always a good idea to have a break from stimulants all together.
Choosing A Pre-Workout Supplement
Choosing pre-workout supplement should be based on you individual goals and budget. There are literally hundreds of products available, but there are ways to find the best products easily. Use the knowledge you have just gained from the information above to work out what product is right for you. And in addition to studying the label of the product, it’s recommended you do some research on the results that others have had with the product. Here are some tips on choosing a pre-workout product that’s right for you.
Read Product Reviews
Reviews are one of the best ways to get un-biased data about a product from people who have actually tried it. You should always read the supplement reviews before trying a new product. Look for reviews that come from experienced lifters and give the most comprehensive information about the product and the experience.
Top Seller Information
Looking at top seller information is also another important step when researching a new product. If a product is one of the top sellers in the category, there’s a good chance that it’s popular and has good reviews. Look for products that are in the top sellers for a long period of time. This is a good indication that people are repeat-buying the product and it’s not based on marketing by the manufacturer.
Cost + Servings Per Container
When assessing the cost of a product and comparing with others, always look at the cost per serving. That’s the best indicator of the cost of a product. Count the number of workouts you do per week, and calculate how long the product will last. Keep in mind you do not need to take most pre-workout products on non-training days.
Should I take my pre workout product with food?
Most pre-workout supplements should be taken on an empty stomach. If your product contains caffeine and you happen to be sensitive to caffeine, it effects can be minimized by consuming it with a small snack.
Can I combine pre workout products?
Even though it is fine to combine the ingredients that go into a pre-workout supplement it is never a good idea to take multiple products at the same time. The main reason for this is due to caffeine and other stimulants. When combining caffeine containing products you run the risk of taking too much. Likewise, you should never consume a caffeine containing pre-workout supplement with coffee or any sort of energy drink.
If I am trying to to lose fat should I still take a pre workout product?
Yes, pre-workout products will not hinder fat loss in any way. In fact, many of the ingredients will help speed up the metabolic rate and enhance fat utilization. Also, often while dieting to lose fat energy levels can run low. This makes a pre-workout product an excellent choice to keep intensity levels high while in the gym.
Should I take my pre workout product on my off days?
There is really no need to take pre-workout supplements on non training days. The purpose of pre-workout products are to improve your training session as well as the anabolic effect of your workout. Since there is no training session to enhance there is no need for the supplement Also, if the product you are taking contains caffeine then having a few days off per week will ensure that you remain sensitive to its effects. So simply save the pre-training products for your training days.
If I train at night should I still take a pre workout supplement?
Yes, but if you go to sleep shortly after your workout then it is best to look for a supplement that is caffeine free. This way you will get all the anabolic benefits from the other supplements but will not have any issues with getting to sleep.
Should I still have a protein shake after my workout even though I am taking a pre workout supplement?
Yes, post workout nutrition should still remain the same. Nutrition and supplementation is important for both before and after training. These serve to bookend your training and make for faster recovery from training and enhancing protein synthesis as much as possible.
Staying In The Zone
It is time to set yourself apart. You now have the knowledge to take your supplement regimen to the next level. Too often people sleep walk through their training sessions just going though the motions. Starting every training session with effective supplementation will get your workout headed toward “The Zone” every time. Put this info to good use and you may want to set up a meeting with the owner of your local gym. Tell him he is going to need more plates.