About 30 minutes before beginning one of his regular strength training workouts, Nick Dio takes a Go Pill. A pre-workout supplement packing ingredients that most people would need a pocket M.D. and a medical pronunciation guide to explain—pyruvic and succinic acid, creatine magnapower, and something called “cognizin,” among many others—he swears that he perceives a noticeable difference once it’s in his system. He likens the sensation to tossing back a triple shot of espresso, or maybe to what Bradley Cooper’s character felt in Limitless. Either way, Dio says, it helps set the tone. “I started taking pre-workout during my freshman year of high school,” he explains. “Once I take it, I know I’m going to focus my energy on the workout and nothing else.”
Dio isn’t the only one reaching for a boost before hitting the weights, as the market for pre-workout pills and powders that promise to boost performance has exploded in recent years. But could something that makes prominent use of, say, deer antler velvet—yes, deer antler velvet—really be what takes your brawniest efforts to the next level? And are these dubiously-flavored products worth their $30+ price tag? Here’s everything you need to know about the world of pre-workout supplements.
1. Most of them include the same four ingredients
Brands throw lots of things in their supplements, but most of them are formulated using one or more of the following: caffeine, amino acids, carbohydrates, and beetroot juice. Other exotic-sounding additions to the ingredients list typically turn out to be a derivative of one of those four things.
Good news, coffee heads: Research backs caffeine’s ability to boost energy levels, alertness, and arousal, and this remains true even if you are a heavy caffeine user outside the gym, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.
Amino acids and nitric oxide
Our bodies can’t produce “essential” branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), including leucine, isoleucine, and valine, which must be obtained via diet. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and help to increase energy levels. One 2016 study showcased their ability to dramatically enhance endurance performance over two consecutive days in college runners.
As for nitric oxide, you’ll typically see this displayed on labels as arginine, another amino acid. Essentially, nitric oxide is a gas that your body produces to help cells communicate better with one another. As a supplement, it is touted for its ability to dilate blood vessels, which increases protein synthesis. While research on its efficacy is mixed, one 2010 study found that male cyclists older than 50 who used a powdered arginine supplement exhibited a 16.7 percent increase in their anaerobic threshold—the point at which lactic acid starts to accumulate in the muscles—after three weeks. Men given a placebo didn’t see any increase.
Ah, who doesn’t love an excuse to down some of that thing that we all try to stay away from otherwise? Carbohydrates in pre-workout supplements help to fuel muscles with glycogen, which your body uses as an energy source while lifting.
Seriously. Whether it’s a component of your supplement or you’re sipping it straight, this nitrate-rich food has been proven to dilate blood vessels and increase blood plasma nitric oxide levels. One 2015 study found that men who drank the juice over a 15-day period were able to work out longer, and experienced greater muscle growth as a result.
Even though these four ingredients have had at least some proven success in the past, every athlete—or every guy who just wants to hit the bench press every now and then—will react to them differently. “Everyone’s body is unique,” says Dennis Cardone, DO, chief of primary care sports medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center. “Even caffeine, which is common in most pre-workout supplements, can cause an athlete to feel jittery, nervous, or nauseated, and can exacerbate underlying heart conditions.” Try different formulations and see which one makes you feel best without also making you feel worse, if that makes sense.
2. They’re not regulated by the FDA…
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Like others supplement, pre-workout is not regulated for safety by the FDA, which means that these products can be sold until there is a reason for the FDA to pull them from stores. Translation: Too many guys experience wonkiness, and complaints are rampant.
“Regulation of pre-workout supplements is not the same as pharmaceutical medicines,” says Jessica Alvarez, RD, an assistant professor of medicine at Emory University. “That means that supplement companies don’t have to prove that their products are safe, or of high quality, or effective before they hit the shelves.” For better assurances that a supplement contains only what the label says, Dr. Alvarez suggests that you look for popular independent certifications, like those issued by NSF, Informed-Choice, and the Banned Substances Control Group.
3. …which means that some of that “oomph” could be the placebo effect at work
Even if you don’t feel the same ready-for-anything edge without pre-workout, Cardone is skeptical that the supplement’s ingredients are responsible. “I’d argue that pre-workout supplements mostly provide a psychological edge,” he says. “At best, in an elite athlete who is already training very hard, there may be a small, short burst at the extreme range of exertion.”
4. It’s possible to overdo “safe” ingredients
Just like that Friday evening stop at your nearest whiskey bar, too much of a good thing can be disastrous. “Excessive amounts of caffeine can cause nausea, restlessness, anxiety, and insomnia,” says Alvarez. “Nitrates can cause gastrointestinal discomfort. The list goes on.” She advises users to be careful of products that don’t list the amounts of each individual ingredient. Without that breakdown, she explains, there is no way to tell if there is enough of an ingredient to be effective—or, at the other end, if you are at risk of ingesting too much of it.
What are the right amounts? Experts suggest maxing out at 400 milligrams of caffeine daily, and limiting the pre-workout dose to about three milligrams per kilogram of body weight. (That’s 243 milligrams of caffeine for a 180-pound guy.) For carbohydrates, shoot for 30 or 40 grams between one and four hours before you set foot in the gym. For beetroot juice, 250 milliliters hits the sweet spot. Most popular amino acids supplements use a serving size between five and ten grams, which research suggests is just about right.
These are all rules of thumb, not medical advice. Be sure to consult your doctor—not a trainer at the gym who wants to instill his knowledge of bro-science in you—about what works best for your body.
5. Whole foods can give you some of the same benefits
If you’re not down to get down with a bunch of known and unknown ingredients, whole foods can deliver many of the same benefits. Bananas, reduced-sugar sports drinks, and coffee—extra points for cold brew or nitro varieties—are all great options that you can actually pronounce. Besides, incorporating more of those foods into your diet will help you fuel your body better at all hours, instead of just during the 90-minute period before you put on the compression shorts.