Whether you’re a competitive bodybuilder getting ready to step on stage or a “normal” guy trying to build muscle and get lean for summer, we’re all looking for a competitive edge.
If you’re like most people (myself included), you want results yesterday. And anything that offers to press the accelerator down on your results is something you’re at least going to consider adding to your regimen.
And when it comes to accelerating strength and muscle gains, the most common question I get, bar far, is: “Should I take a pre-workout supplement?”
Usually, this comes from guys who are really struggling to make gains in strength and muscle, and they’re hoping the addition of a pre-workout supplement will be the thing that helps them turn a corner.
Over time, I’ve realized there’s a lot of confusion about pre-workout supplements, so I decided it was time to clear this up once and for all.
If you’ve ever wondered what all the hype about pre-workout supplements is about or whether or not their safe or even if taking one is a good idea for you right now, consider this article your answer.
How Do Pre-Workout Supplements Help Build Muscle?
First things first: what exactly do pre-workout supplements do?
Contrary to what most people think, pre-workout supplements aren’t some magical potion that are going to help you pack on muscle like The Rock.
The most common ingredients in pre-workout supplements are caffeine, branch-chain amino acids, “proprietary blends” (more on this later), and artificial sweeteners and colors.
While these ingredients make work together to increase blood flow, increase heart rate, increase focus, and increase blood flow to the skin, it’s often doing little more than helping you feel more “on it” during your workout.
A typical pre-workout supplement contains anywhere from 135 mg – 270 mg of caffeine, the equivalent of 12-24 oz. of coffee.
Taking in that much caffeine within the few minutes it takes to gulp down your pre-workout can give you a pretty intense energy rush, and you’ll feel that in your workout.
So you walk around feeling like The Hulk for 45-60 minutes, and maybe you lift a little more weight than usual. This extra intensity and boost in performance can lead to gains in muscle and strength over time.
It works out like this…
Let’s say on a normal day, you can bench press 200 pounds for 5 reps. But, if you take a pre-workout and get that energy rush, you can do 7 reps with 200 pounds.
Obviously, by doing 2 more reps than you could normally, you increase the likelihood of building muscle.
If we stop there, taking a pre-workout seems like a really good idea. But it’s not quite that simple (which I’ll get into more in just a minute).
Two important takeaways at this point:
- It’s not the ingredients in the pre-workout that are necessarily doing anything to help you build muscle; it’s the the short-term boost in energy and focus that allows you to have a better workout (lift more weight, do more reps, create more muscular tension). There’s really nothing overly special about the concoction of ingredients in your pre-workout other than the fact that you will likely have a more intense workout.
- The potential upsides offered by taking pre-workouts don’t come without potential risks. More on this now…
Pre-Workout Supplements: Is The Risk Worth The Reward?
We know that the only real benefit of a pre-workout supplement is that it’s going to give you a significant energy rush and you’re going to be able to bring more intensity to your workout.
And let’s be honest: that’s a pretty significant upside. But you gotta know that this benefit doesn’t come without any risk.
There have been serious health risks associated with the use of pre-workouts, sometimes even leading to death.
How is this possible?
One thing many people don’t realize is that the supplement industry is completely unregulated – meaning, no one is really keeping close tabs on these companies to make sure that what’s on the ingredient list is actually what’s in the container.
Anytime you see “proprietary blend” on the ingredient list of a supplement, that’s basically just the supplement companies way of saying “there’s a mixture of stuff in here and we’re not going to tell you what it is”.
And by law, they are allowed to do this. For anyone who cares what types of things they are putting in their body, this should raise some concern.
Testing of some of these products has found the presence of illegal substances that are banned by the FDA.
I’m not suggesting every pre-workout supplement is dangerous, but the fact that you’re taking something that could contain life-threatening ingredients that are banned, and you could be consuming this stuff without even knowing it should be a bit concerning.
I want to have a good workout and progress as much as the next guy, but I’m not going to risk my life over adding 5 pounds to my bench press.
I’m not going to tell you what to do, but before heading to your local supplement store to pickup the latest, greatest pre-workout supplement, at least consider… how important is it for you to get the benefits provided?
Even with this in mind, there are many who will still pursue pre-workout supplements. If that’s you, here a few other things to consider…
When Taking A Pre-Workout Supplement Is A Bad Idea
A few years ago, I found myself in a precarious position. Juggling the responsibility of being a new father while working 50+ hours per week and trying to maintain my fitness.
Anyone who has kids knows how challenging being a parent can be. Combine this with stress and lack of sleep, and I was downright exhausted.
My workouts were suffering. I was struggling to gain strength and most of the time I had very little motivation or energy to hit the gym with any kind of intensity.
So I did what many do, and picked up a pre-workout supplement. And voila, the problem was solved. I’d chug down the potion 30-minutes before training and I felt unstoppable during my workouts.
Sure, I experienced the typical “crash” a few hours later. But I just figured that was part of the game.
Unfortunately, after a month or so, the effect was lessening and I started to fall back into a funk. No worries, I thought, I’ll just increase the dose.
And that worked to, for a while.
But a few months down the road, I was taking the full dose advised and my energy and motivation woes had returned.
Here’s what I learned the hard way: If you’re taking a pre-workout supplement because you’re exhausted, stressed out, and struggling to have good workouts, you’re playing with fire.
At first, adding a pre-workout will probably seem like a great idea. You’ll get your energy and motivation back and you’re workouts will revive.
But over time, you’ll notice that the effectiveness starts to decrease, and you’ll have to increase the dose to get anywhere near the initial result.
The post-workout “crashes” will continue to get worse, and eventually you will very likely find yourself back where you started, struggling to have the energy, focus, motivation, and drive to train at a high intensity.
Only now, you’ll be dosing yourself with a bunch of stuff that is digging you further into the “fatigue hole.”
The reality is, lack of motivation and drive to workout is a sign from your body that you’re overdoing it. Tossing a kitchen-sink of stimulants to solve the problem may work in the short-term, but long-term you’re just creating more issues for yourself.
Ironically, when you “need” a pre-workout supplement the most, it’s probably the worst thing you could do.
If energy/motivation/focus is an issue during your workouts, pre-workout supplements are not the answer. It’s the easy solution (at least in the short term), but long term it will come back to bite you in the ass.
You need to address lifestyle factors by finding a way to decrease stress and improve sleep quality.
And if that’s not possible, decreasing the intensity of your workouts should be considered before opting to toss a grenade of stimulants into your system.
When Taking A Pre-Workout Supplement Could Be Considered
In the right situation, for the right person, adding a pre-workout may be something that has more pros than cons.
If the following describes you, then adding a pre-workout may be beneficial:
- You get 7+ hours of uninterrupted, high-quality sleep per night
- You already go into your workouts with a good dose of motivation, focus, and drive
- You live a relatively “low stress” life (or you’re taking active measures to reduce stress — meditation, etc.)
- You’ve been training for a few years consistently, have made some significant strength and muscle gains, and have hit a plateau and/or want to take things to the next level
… If you can say “yes” to all of those (notice: I said “all”, not one… or even a few…), and you want to give a quality pre-workout supplement a try, I’d say go for it.
Not many people are going to fall into this category (at least very few of us over 22 with a real job, maybe a family, and other “real life” stuff going on).
And at the end of the day, call me old, but as much as I love building muscle and the Iron Game, I’m not putting something in my body that is potentially dangerous. Something that’s going to give me a “sick pump” for 30-minutes and leave me feeling like crap the rest of the day when the “crash” hits.
My Advice: A Better Alternative To Potentially Dangerous Pre-Workout Supplements
I’m not going to tell you what you should or shouldn’t put in your body. If after reading this article, you still want to go out and buy a pre-workout supplement, then go for it.
But know this:
- You don’t need it to build muscle or get strong. Sure, the intensity you get from it will help – and honestly may accelerate the process. But, remember the risk. Long-term use could do more harm than good.
- There are safer alternatives, that while may not give quite the same intensity, bring a lot of the benefits your after. Speaking of…
Not to leave you hanging, there is a much safer alternative to traditional pre-workouts that can still yield some of the strong benefits that we’re looking for.
It’s a rare, prestigious plant often sourced from exotic countries…
The locals of said countries call it “coffee”, and it carries the main benefits we look for in pre-workout supplements without the potential negative side effects of questionable ingredients.
The moderate amount of caffeine that you’ll get from 8-12 ounces of coffee will give you the boost in energy and focus to help you get after it each workout.
Contrary to the questionable ingredients in many pre-workouts, coffee is chalk-full of antioxidants which can protect your cells from free radicals.
If you’re the kind of guy that wants to dominate workouts and get in great shape, and you actually care about optimal health and the quality of what you’re consuming, you can’t go wrong with a cup of black coffee 15-20 minutes before your workout.