Fitness and sports nutrition trends are constantly evolving – one of the most recent trends are performance-enhancing supplements labeled as pre-workout supplements. These supplements make claims to up adrenaline, get you into “beast mode,” give you “amplified pumps,” and promise a lot of other aggressive adjectives. A few popular brands are C4, Optimum Nutrition (ON), and MuscleTech.
Pre-workouts are simply a supplement taken before workouts. BodyBuilding.com describes these as supplements “designed to support increased energy, focus, and endurance in the gym. When you feel like hitting the hay instead of the gym, grab one of these top selling, high quality pre-workouts to get moving and destroy your workout.”
DESTROY, they say.
Many athletes believe supplementation prior to training will result in greater focus, quicker reaction time, and increased power, according to the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition.
As for why a pre-supplement would appeal to the average recreational athlete or fitness buff, recently blogged about trends point to a lot of “go big or go home,” “more is more,” “no pain, no gain” culture that is circulating on t-shirts, in Instagram memes, and around gym floors.
At this point, it’s important to revisit what the word supplement means – which is to complete or enhance something when added – and understand if the addition or enhancement of these substances are even necessary or useful to the human body.
The Issues with Pre-Workout
Marketing is persuasive and it can be easy to take the claims and boasts at face-value and overlook ingredients and the possible toll they can take on your overall health.
Several pre-workouts have even been banned because they contained substances known to increase the risk of heart attacks, bleeding of the brain, and even death. In 2014, an untested stimulant (DMBA) was found in at least a dozen dietary supplements. FYI: DMBA is a substance with a similar chemical makeup of DMAA, which is banned by the F.D.A. (in 2013) because it was found to lead to heart attacks. In April 2015, DMBA was eventually banned.
The pre-workout Craze by the company Driven Sports – marketed as containing natural substances and named 2012’s “New Supplement of the Year” by Bodybuilding.com – was found to have contained lethal doses of the compound N,alpha-diethylphenylethylamine, a chemical similar to methamphetamine.
Yikes. While all pre-workouts won’t have quite the drug lacing saga that Craze had, there are still some commonly included ingredients used – so what’s in your pre-workout supplement and what is the potential impact on your health?
What’s In Your Pre-Workout Supplement?
The main purpose behind a pre-workout supplement, according to livestrong.com, is to supposedly help you get more out of your workout by increasing your energy and blood flow to the extremities – this means ingesting substances that will have an effect on your cardiovascular system.
Primary sources of these effects can come in the form of:
- Caffeine: Caffeine is the most commonly consumed psychoactive substance in the world. It blocks the effects of an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, allowing for increased activity. Studies have shown that caffeine can improve mood, reaction time, memory, vigilance and general cognitive function.
- Arginine (L-Arginine): Arginine is an amino acid normally made by the body, found in many foods that have protein. As detailed by the Mayo Clinic, Arginine becomes nitric oxide (a blood vessel-widening agent called a vasodilator) in the body. Early evidence suggests that arginine may help treat medical conditions that improve with increased vasodilation. These conditions include chest pain, atherosclerosis (clogged arteries), heart disease, heart failure, erectile dysfunction, peripheral vascular disease, and headaches from blood vessel swelling). Regarding risks with Arginine, “caution is warranted. Arginine use was associated with death in some people with heart conditions.”
- Niacin (Vitamin B3): According to the Mayo Clinic, human research has shown that niacin is effective and relatively safe for treating high cholesterol levels. Limited evidence shows that niacin may help with clogged arteries and heart disease. The question du jour is “What is niacin doing in pre-workout?” Niacin is a water-soluble vitamin, which means it is regulated by the body, so overdosing is rare when ingested naturally, via foods. Supplementation in high doses could be what’s responsible for the increased flush in your face that people report having when they take pre-workout supplements – side effects commonly related to higher doses of niacin are itching, flushing, and stomach upset. Niacin may also cause liver problems, increased blood sugar, and hormone changes.The average healthy adult should include Niacin in their diet, which you can naturally get from a serving of fish, turkey or chicken. The daily recommended dose for adults is 35g. The average serving of pre-workout contains anywhere between 20g to upwards of 60 g.
In addition to the ingredients aimed at your ticker and body parts, there are ingredients to help with taste, texture, and shelf stability, such as:
- Artificial sweeteners: The inclusion of artificial sweeteners could be to lower their calorie/sugar gram count in their nutrition labeling. Artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose (a.k.a. Splenda), maltodextrin, high fructose corn syrup, and sugar alcohols (eg. maltitol syrup) have been linked to various side effects, including diarrhea, stomach and abdominal pain. They have also been reported to alter the gut microbiota and disrupt the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar, causing metabolic changes that can be a precursor to diabetes, according to the New York Times and Nature.
- Emulsifiers: Emulsifier allow ingredients to mix smoothly or, in this case, to help products dissolve more easily. Soy Lecithin is a commonly used emulsifier that is extracted from soybeans, either mechanically or chemically, using hexane. (Soy Lecithin can also be found in salad dressings, oil sprays, peanut butter, chocolate, margarine, frozen desserts, and protein powders). Possible side effects, according to WebMD, include diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, or fullness. According to a study from Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, Soy Lecithin has been linked to negative effects on fertility and reproduction.
Pre-Workout Supplements: The Bottom Line
Often times, with trends like pre-workout, there is a gap between fitness and health.
When it comes to shooting for optimal health – being your best self – the most important question to ask is this: If you need a jolt to get you going for your workout, is that your body telling you to take a booster, or to take a look at your nutrition, sleep, relaxation, and restorative work. It’s all connected. Consider this analogy: When you apply a booster to an already careening car, does it make it more successful on the constant path, or more erratic?
Ask yourself where you can get these desired effects from things that don’t come with the possible negative side effects.
If a supplement has negative impact on you and is potentially impacting your health and even your fitness goals – how effective was your choice? Is the short-term gain worth the possible long-term effects? Is the initial research enough to reassess or exercise caution? That’s up to you decide for yourself.
How WellnessFX Can Help
If you want some snack ideas to fuel your workout – in lieu of pre-workout supplements, try these 10.
For additional blog posts we’ve penned that discuss health alongside performance/fitness, check out:
- Why You Should Be Drinking Coffee
- Is IIFYM Healthy? What You Need to Know
- 6 Protein Bar Trends (and What to Look Out For In Yours)
- Your Protein Powder Ingredients: What to Look For & the Risks
We believe that the best way to see and understand meaningful change in health and wellness is through starting with what’s inside – your biomarkers.
If you want to get started by testing and monitoring your own biomarkers, our flagship Baseline panel empowers you to understand and improve your underlying health by combining advanced biomarker analysis with an intuitive health dashboard to track your results. Include a 20-minute nutritionist consultation for personalized recommendations you can implement immediately.
The posts on this blog are for information only, and are not intended to substitute for a doctor-patient or other healthcare professional-patient relationship nor do they constitute medical or healthcare advice of any kind. Any information in these posts should not be acted upon without consideration of primary source material and professional input from one's own healthcare professionals.