Mind and Body

The science of pre-workouts: What you need to know before you supplement

The best pre-workout supplement might be the one not taken.

Originally Published: 

There’s not much that’s super dangerous you can buy at a supplement store — except for the pre-workout stacks that they sell there.

You should not buy those unless you’re really lifting heavy and need to feel like it’s the running of the bulls. Pre-workouts are not like protein powders and vitamins — stuff that’s fine in a pinch and designed to supplement a healthy diet. Instead, they have always been associated with danger.

Pre-workouts — supplements advertised to take before lifting to have a better session — have generally been divided between stimulants and non-stimulants. In nearly all cases the stimulant sort includes caffeine, and in some cases, they include unexpected ingredients, like the evergreen shrub ephedra. Stimulants promise anything from increased energy and concentration during workouts to force production, to pain tolerance, to even fat burning.

Those without stimulants vary in ingredients, but also mostly include amino acids, which are partial proteins that can help muscles. They can theoretically be taken throughout the day, and not just before a workout.

Taken broadly, caffeinated pre-workouts aren’t much different from RedBull or the drinks next to them in the fridge at a gas station. Some are stronger, or come in powders and can be ramped up, and can be dangerous if dosed throughout the day, or used too liberally by a person who doesn’t weigh a ton, and might only lift light at the gym. (Heavier or muscled-up folks might be less affected by standard dosing, and it’s easier to run through the help with heavy weight.)

The presumption is they’re taken only before a workout, and in the recommended dose. In no universe are they designed to be drunk by the case, though overuse can have deleterious effects.

A short history of the pre-workout — Pre-workouts suffer from a bad reputation too. In 2013, a popular option containing dimethylamylamine (DMAA) called Jack3d allegedly caused a soldier’s death. The family sued; the FDA ruled it illegal and similar stimulants were called into question. The blowback also affected the bottom line: GNC was banned from advertising during the Super Bowl.

Those pre-workout “stacks,” made up of different supplements stacked on top of each other, were as far from food as possible: DMAA was developed by Eli Lilly in the 1940s as a decongestant; Labdoor.com, a supplement rating site, describes the pre-workouts they test as “generally heavy on potentially harmful ingredients.” DMAA has since been pulled from shelves, and most of the pre-workouts reviewed by Labdoor are caffeine-based.

Pre-workouts evolved right away and all at once: the first one, named Ultimate Orange, was introduced in 1982 by the guy who wrote the Underground Steroid Handbook, a wide-ranging feat of scholarship and thought that is about what it sounds like. That pre-workout was made with ephedra, a sort of naturally-occurring amphetamine — and would get taken off the market about 20 years later when a New England Journal of Medicine study enumerated its adverse effects.

Pre-pre-workout history is almost quaint. Bodybuilders only started using caffeine in the 1970s — it was considered unhealthy before then — and the bodybuilder most known to rely on chemicals back then, Vince Gironda, happened to be vegetarian, and mostly supplemented with niacin pills.

It’s useful to compare the sport to baseball, which has also been chemically dominated lately. There, amphetamines were standard practice until about 2005. Players report that before testing began, in 2006, some pitchers would enforce their teams use them, lest they “played naked,” and un-alert. Clubhouses had two coffee pots, one with “greenies,” and one without. While it's unclear whether they offered an advantage, players believed they did.

Pre-workouts and exercise: Do they actually help?

Studies suggest pre-workouts are not effective: they don’t help move more weight. Still, they sell, just as protein powders or crash diets do. Athletes atop the strength pyramid use them to compete, and they’re sold in supplement stores.

Regardless of whether or not they work, there remains another question: Do people need pre-workouts? Are lifting sessions so hard that they need a two-times Red Bull cocktail beforehand?

For many lifters, it’s a yes. If you lift enough, working with weights can be incredibly tiring. Just as baseball seasons don’t seem to end, going to the gym goes on forever too. Powerlifting’s compound movements exhaust the central nervous system; weightlifting’s coordinated, taxing workouts are slogs, even before the squats. Bodybuilding might be the most brutal: an endless march of sets performed at high reps, every day, forever. Doing 40 curls, or showing up for a max squat day one more time feels like playing a matinee game hungover in Cleveland on no sleep. These types of workouts need help to focus; without that, they can seem sadistic, or unrealistic.

Some of this is because the workouts competitive powerlifters, weightlifters, and bodybuilders do aren’t designed with health in mind. Instead, they seem intended to destroy it: they’re demanding, high on volume and poundage, with a short-term, immediate goal in mind. This caliber of athlete mostly mortgages their future by training to a max and upping their poundage. Ultimately, they’re also resting less — one can see why they’d want a caffeine-filled pre-workout now and then.

One wonders if the rest of the lifting populace needs as much help as them. While so many civilian workouts are designed after elite programs, they aren’t as grueling as the long ones competitors undergo, and poundage slacks off for intermediate lifters. Still, boredom and burnout are factors. The programs most of us do run for weeks, and exercises repeat themselves.

It’s also true that, at the gym and elsewhere, presence is a pursuit: we can only hope to be more here than we were before. Pre-workouts seem like a fast way to bring focus and energy to a workout when there is none, and make it seem important when the last one and next one have to be too. We might think of a pre-workout drink like a cheaper Soulcycle fee: a $30 price tag that for some people, includes motivation; in this case, it’s only a drink.

Still, we’re likely best served staying away from relying on stimulants with a long ingredients list for every workout. Luckily, there are medium-effective ways to get the same results. When baseball players began getting tested for greenies, they upped their coffee levels and upped their caffeine. We can do the same.

Maybe the trade-off of a pre-lift espresso shot or a swig of coffee is a few fewer pounds than from Ultimate Orange. But unless we’re competing, it doesn’t much matter.

Leg Day Observer is an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column, and a home for all things Leg Day. Read past editions of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.

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