- Preworkouts are a common type of supplement intended to be taken before your workout, in order to enhance your subsequent workout performance.
- While these kinds of supplements became notorious a few years back, they've since fallen out of favor a bit.
- The reality is that most preworkouts are just caffeine with a few bells and whistles tacked on, and shouldn't be considered a necessity.
I’m sometimes asked about preworkouts, a class of supplement that - well, you probably get the idea from the name. The general concept is that you take this kind of supplement before a workout, and then you’ll see a boost of energy that makes it easier to complete your workout, or to workout harder than you could otherwise.
Generally, this is achieved via a bomb of stimulants - caffeine being chief among them. Their ingredient lists tend to look more like an energy drink than anything else. Preworkouts generally come in fruity flavors, electric colors, and have absurd names like NRG EXTREM EXPLOD NOS BOMB VICTOR-E (this is an exaggeration, but a shockingly slight one).
Supplements have always had an interesting relationship with the fitness industry, in part because the relative lack of regulation in the supplement industry has led to some scandals over the years. At most, supplements contribute a very small part of your results (good training, good diet, good sleep, and stress management generally mattering a lot more), and are also the most expensive part of any fitness regimen.
At one gym job, I was fired for not wanting to sell $25-75 supplements that would have contributed little to our clients’ results but which would have lined our pockets with supplement sales commissions. Worse, for every sale we made we would only make a few dollars in return, so ultimately it was really only the supplement company that won in that scenario.
A few years back, I think the supplement industry was a bit more -omnipresent - than it is today, thanks in large part to the aggressive sales of sites like T-Nation and Bodybuilding.com, which make a lot of their money on supplements. This has changed a bit as more people are getting their information from more science-based blogs and YouTube pages, plus social media personalities. It also didn't help that Bodybuilding.com ran into some legal troubles based around questionable supplements.
The first preworkouts contained levels of stimulants that were probably unhealthy - and prone to causing side effects. Jack3D was a popular supplement, released in 2005, which used DMAA, a previously banned ingredient. DMAA caused side effects, especially at higher dosages, some of which were quite serious. This led to the product being reformulated and dialed back a bit, but only meant that preworkouts had gained a kind of notoriety and dark fame among the type of people who used them.
A certain “hardcore” segment of the internet latched onto these supplements and made them fashionable. There were constant debates about whether you need a preworkout and whether you could get similar effects from caffeine alone. Memes joked about taking “three scoops” of preworkout, with the implication that taking one extra scoop will allow you to ascend your fragile meathusk and be capable of superhuman acts of strength, aggression, or heroism.
Some people swore by them, others hated them.
A general consensus emerged - while a preworkout may have some minor ability to improve the quality of your workouts, this comes with drawbacks. Constant use of stimulants will cause a quick resistance to and dependency on them - cancelling out their positive benefits and introducing negative ones. It was generally agreed that you should probably save your preworkout (if using it at all!) for those rare times when you really need it - when you’ve had a long day and would be too exhausted to workout otherwise, when you’re tackling a particularly challenging workout (or maxing out on your strength), or when you’re competing in some kind of competition and need to be your very best.
Preworkouts fell out of fashion a bit, but they’re still around and I still get asked about them. Ultimately, my opinion doesn’t follow far from the consensus - they may be useful in some situations, but it’s not a good idea to get accustomed to taking stimulants just to get by, given the negative impacts that heavy stimulant usage can have on your overall health.
If you’re not a huge caffeine consumer, it may help to add a cup of coffee or black tea a little bit before a tough workout - but that’s about all you should need.
In terms of specific supplements that may help you have a better workout, there are some instances of supplements that can do so without much negative effect. BCAA supplementation, for example, may help with endurance activities. If you're feeling a bit sluggish, a cup of tea or coffee, or a bit of fast digesting carbs to help raise your blood sugar a bit, will be a far safer and cheaper alternative. Unfortunately, there's not really any supplements (aside from old vitamin S) which will vastly improve your workouts. At the end of the day, hard, intelligent work plus genetics will be the biggest factors in your success.
You don’t need a preworkout stimulant just so you can feel EXTREME. You should select supplements based on their actual use, and not just what's popular or feels good.
About Adam Fisher
Adam is an experienced fitness coach and blogger who's been blogging for 5+ years, coaching for 6+ years, and lifting for 12+ years. He's written for numerous major health publications, including Personal Trainer Development Center, T-Nation, Bodybuilding.com, Fitocracy, and Juggernaut Training Systems.
During that time he has coached hundreds of individuals of all levels of fitness, including competitive powerlifters and older exercisers regaining the strength to walk up a flight of stairs. His own training revolves around powerlifting and bodybuilding.
Adam writes about fitness, health, science, philosophy, personal finance, self-improvement, productivity, the good life, and everything else that interests him. When he's not writing or lifting, he's usually hanging out with his cat or feeding his video game addiction.
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