It promises to give you HIGHLY EXPLOSIVE ENERGY and turn you into a JUGGERNAUT SUPER FREAK at the gym, which is exactly what a lot of the gymming community wants. Pre-workout supplements also always seem to be claiming to be ‘clinically proven’ or ‘laboratory tested’, but do they have the science to back up their claims?
Before I start I would like to make a wee clarification. When I say pre-workout, I’m talking about things like “C4” and “The Curse” – the specially formulated mixture of ingredients which usually include caffeine and a bundle of other things. I will talk about products like pure creatine monohydrate as well, but when I say pre-workout I am referring to pre-made formulas like this one…
The Good Stuff
For some of the main ingredients in most pre-workout formulas, the answer is yes, there is science to back them up. There have been lots of studies which back up the use of caffeine, creatine and beta alanine in boosting performance.
First up, caffeine. Most pre-workouts contain around 150mg of caffeine per scoop. This is the equivalent to a cup of coffee or two regular red bull energy drinks. A comprehensive study published in the Journal of Food Science found that 300-400mg of caffeine was safe for the average adult, so even if you have two scoops of your pre-gym-pump-juice a day you’re not going to be overloading. Plus, caffeine has been studied and reviewed fairly thoroughly and found to be pretty good at giving you a burst of energy so you can go that little bit harder at the gym.
- The take away message? If you are going to max out your caffeine intake limit by having two scoops of pre-workout, make sure you’re not having caffeine from any other sources that day. If you can’t go without your morning mocha, make sure you factor that into your 400mg limit.
Next up we have creatine. Creatine gives you more energy at the gym by increasing your ATP stores. However not all types of creatine are created equal. Creatine monohydrate is a basic form of the stuff which has been tried and tested and works pretty well. But to see any effect you have to do it right. First of all, you have to saturate your muscles with creatine before you’ll see any effects. To do this you’ll need to take 20g per day for 2-3 days. If you buy pure creatine monohydrate that’s usually the equivalent of 4 scoops. After that 5g (1 scoop) per day should be enough to keep your muscles saturated. BUT if you read the ingredient list of most pre-workout formulas the amount of creatine in them is pretty small. It’s usually only 2-3g per max serving. That amount is almost enough for a maintenance dose, but you couldn’t safely saturate your muscles, and there have been no studies which have shown a small amount of creatine taken regularly will saturate your muscles.
- So, moral of the story? Creatine is much easier to get in high doses in pure form, as creatine monohydrate. The other forms have no research which backs up their claims and you can’t take enough of them to saturate your muscles.
And lastly, beta alanine. Beta alanine has been proven to work similarly to creatine in that it makes your energy last longer, meaning that you can smash that extra rep or those few extra seconds of sprint. So how much do you need? Most studies, like this one, reckon about 4.5g per day should do it. Just like with creatine though, it can be hard to get this much out of a pre formulated mixture. Typically they have around 3g per serve which isn’t quite enough according to the studies. The other thing about beta alanine is that it takes a wee while to kick in. Studies have shown that while the effects of beta alanine can be seen after 2 weeks, it can take up to 12 weeks to be completely effective.
- All in all, when it comes to beta alanine, make sure you’re taking enough and that you’re n for the long run.
The not so good stuff
Caffeine, creatine and beta alanine, if taken properly, will likely help you improve your performance at the gym, but there are lots of other bits and pieces in your tastebud tingling energy juice that aren’t so useful. In fact, some of them are downright dangerous!
DHEA: Steer clear! This supplement is a prohormone, meaning it can increase the levels of hormones such as testosterone in your body. But there is little to no evidence that DHEA will enhance your workout and the side effects are pretty sinister. Anything that claims to change your hormone levels should be treated with extreme caution. DHEA has been shown to have nasty side effects in men including breast enlargement, shrunken testicles and reduced sperm count as well as causing changes in facial and body hair. Eek!
Adenosine-5′-Triphosphate Disodium : This is ATP, the molecule which transports energy around our cells, in edible form. The problem is, ATP can’t be absorbed if it is eaten, it gets broken down in your intestine. No matter how much you take, it won’t make any difference to your energy at all.
B3, B6 and B12 : While these vitamins are beneficial to those who are deficient in them, such as someone who is sleep deprived or anaemic, they are not performance enhancers. They will just mean you have expensive wees.
Carnitine/Tartate : This ingredient due is involved in fatty acid transportation and has been seen to very slightly reduce muscle damage and soreness. However these effects are very very small and can only be seen if you regularly take the supplement for six months. That’s a pretty long commitment for a very small outcome.
L-Arganine: This is a chemical which just hasn’t been well studied. In the studies which have been done there isn’t any evidence that it will improve performance. There has, however been lots of evidence to suggest that L-Arganine has some pretty nasty effects on your heart and circulation, so it is fairly sensible to steer clear of this altogether.
So there you have it, a nice overview of the gym buff’s go go juice. My advice? Toss the pre mixed formulas and stick to the basics. Grab yourself a tub of creatine monohydrate, some caffeine pills and a tub of beta alanine and leave it at that. Then you’re not ingesting anything that might give you man boobs or tiny testicles and you can control exactly how much of everything you’re taking.