Are Pre Workout Supplements Bad For You?

You want to get the most out of your workout, so you do everything right. You eat right, get enough sleep, and stay hydrated, but could it be better?

There’s a lot of buzz lately about pre-workout supplements, but is the hype justified by evidence? Surprisingly, it is! A recent research review suggests that taking a pre-workout supplement can help you perform better during your workouts by increasing energy, focus, and even strength.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Well, not so fast. There are literally hundreds of pre-workout supplements out there, each claiming to be the best. Take a walk down the health and fitness aisle in any store, and you will be bombarded with a wide array of products claiming to help you achieve peak athletic performance. 

But are they as great as all those labels claim? Do pre-workout supplements really work? More importantly, are they good or bad for your health?

Well, there’s a lot of misinformation out there; naturally, it’s hard to distinguish fact from fiction. This article will clear up the confusion and help you make smarter choices when shopping for a pre-workout supplement.

What Do Pre-Workout Supplements Do?

pre-workout supplements

Pre-workout supplements typically come in the form of powders or ready-to-drink beverages that are to be consumed about 20 to 30 minutes prior to working out. By design, they are intended to provide increased focus and a sudden energy boost. Some pre-workouts supplements are even formulated specifically for women or men.

By consuming a pre-workout supplement before hitting the gym, you can improve performance, train harder, and push yourself to achieve new personal bests, whether it’s an extra mile on the treadmill or more weight on the bench press. Certain ingredients, such as beta-alanine, supplemental creatine, and caffeine, are well known to increase performance by delaying fatigue and improving energy production.

Pre-workout supplements are also designed to increase focus. They help you ignore the distractions and get down to the business of working up a sweat. This not only helps you stay on task and focus better during your workout, it also increases your determination and motivation.

Many pre-workout formulas are also chock full of beneficial vitamins and minerals that can help increase blood flow, enhance vitality, and provide organ support. All of these, while not directly affecting or enhancing your workout, do help make training more beneficial. Even better, some pre-workout supplement formulas are completely organic.

So, it’s vital to read the labels and know exactly what you are putting into your body. Knowing what ingredients are in your pre-workout supplements, what they do, and how they should be taken is essential.

What Does Science Say about Pre-Workout Supplements?

pre workout supplements

Many studies, reports, surveys, and trials have found that pre-workout supplements can improve or enhance a person’s workout. The science behind these products looks pretty compelling.

An article published in the January 2014 issue of the International Journal of Medical Sciences concluded that certain pre-workout supplements have significant positive effects on muscular performance, lean mass, and an all-around better workout. Generally, subjects who take a pre-workout supplement are able to train longer and harder than those taking a placebo. They also report feeling more wakeful and focused during their workout.

A study in 2012 looked at the effect a specific supplement containing amino acids, B-vitamins, beta-alanine, caffeine, and creatine would have on the body and how performance might be affected. At the end of the study, researchers found that the pre-workout supplement significantly improved lower body muscular endurance and agility choice reaction performance compared to a placebo.

More simply, the subjects given the pre-workout were able to perform more reps on the leg press and had quicker, more accurate reactivity when challenged with audio and visual cues. They also had increased “perceived” energy while “subjective” fatigue was reduced.

All in all, there’s good evidence to support the use of pre-workout supplements. The catch is that these supplements need to be used more methodically and conservatively than your average supplement.

Are Pre-Workout Supplements Bad?

pre workout supplements

There are typically two ways that pre-workout supplements could be bad for you: dangerous ingredients and misuse of the supplement. Unfamiliarity with the product or simply being “pre-workout inexperienced” can also increase the risk of adverse effects.

The most common cons to supplements for pre-workout include:

  • Tolerance to the Product: This usually comes from the misuse (overuse) of a pre-workout supplement that leads to a decrease in effectiveness. Over the long term, you could find that your body has become less responsive to the product; it does not react the way it once did. This phenomenon is largely due the body developing a tolerance to the caffeine (and possibly other stimulants) in your pre-workout formula. You can avoid this by only taking the recommended serving on days that you actually exercise and abstaining from use on rest days.
  • Overstimulation: Naturally, most pre-workout supplements have caffeine — lots of it. This can leave you jittery and shaky as your body tries to cope with managing all the adrenaline that large doses of caffeine elicit. It should be noted that some people never experience the jittery feeling, and others don’t mind the feeling and can work around it. If it bothers you, try looking for a supplement with lower caffeine content (there are plenty of stimulant-free pre-workout supplements on the market). Eating a solid pre-workout meal can also help curb the effects.
  • Artificial Ingredients: Not all supplement companies are on the up and up. Some will sneak in artificial ingredients in an effort to cut corners and production costs. This is yet another reason why you need to always read supplement labels. There are also dangers to taking supplements with artificial or synthetic ingredients that remain unproven in research. A notable example is 1,3-DMAA, which led to cardiac arrest in several active duty soldiers taking pre-workout supplements containing this harsh stimulant. Thankfully, the Food and Drug Administration cracks down on dangerous pre-workout ingredients pretty quick.

The key here is to approach your supplement purchase with the knowledge and ability to weed out those that may not be good for you. No doubt about it, they do work very well, but you have to be vigilant and read every label. 

Always abide by the directions on the label. It may even be wise to start with half of the recommended dose just to be safe and see how you respond. If you experience nausea, headache, upset stomach, or heart palpitations, you should discontinue use of the pre-workout supplement and talk to your doctor. It also can’t hurt to reach out to the company that makes the product and let them know about your experience.

What You Don’t Want in Your Pre-Workout Supplements

pre workout supplements

So, what should you avoid in a pre-workout supplement? Surprisingly, there are several ingredients to steer clear of due to their side effects and lack of efficacy. 

Now, these ingredients do not affect everyone the same way, but they do have a reputation for causing problems in quite a few people.

The four worst ingredients in pre-workout supplements include:

  • Hordenine: The disconcerting thing about this ingredient is that there isn’t a lot of documentation or evidence backing it, yet it’s widely used in pre-workout formulas. Though, this should change, as the FDA recently banned its use in dietary supplements.
  • DMAE Bitartrate: While the claims surrounding this ingredient are that it helps improve reaction time and memory, there is very limited evidence that substantiates the cognitive benefits of DMAE in humans. It also appears that DMAE is teratogenic, meaning it can cause birth defects in unborn babies; it should undoubtedly be avoided by women.
  • 1,3-DMAA: This stimulant works much like ephedrine by providing a quick adrenaline spike to help you power through your workout. However, 1,3-DMAA is notoriously unsafe due to the side effects it has on the cardiovascular system, including high blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, and an increased risk of having a stroke or heart attack. Further, it can make you test positive for amphetamines in urine tests — obviously not what a competitive athlete wants.
  • Synephrine: Also known as bitter orange (Citrus aurantium) peel extract, synephrine is a stimulant that is commonly found in fat-burning supplements and certain pre-workout supplements. While there are some studies showing promise for synephrine, it’s not without drawbacks. Notably, this ingredient can cause high blood pressure, nausea, and even fainting. It should also be noted that synephrine is banned in the UK because of the side effects. Your best bet is to probably steer clear.

Each of these harmful supplement ingredients can undermine your workout by causing unpredictable and potentially harmful effects. As always, be sure to read the fine print on proprietary blends and know what you are putting into your body.

You want to take a pre-workout supplement that will enhance your training session by boosting your energy and concentration while providing you with vital vitamins and minerals that keep you healthy. The above ingredients are antithetical to that goal.

How to Choose a Pre-Workout Supplement

pre workout supplement

Dosages and ingredients are what make the top pre-workout supplements stand out from their inferior counterparts. Knowing what ingredients are in your supplements and how much you are consuming per serving will empower you to take charge of your workouts and reap the benefits of optimal pre-workout nutrition.

Here are five of the best ingredients to look for in a  pre-workout supplement:

  • L-Citrulline: This amino acid is found abundantly in watermelons and plays a role in nitrogen metabolism in the body. After consuming L-citrulline, the body converts it to L-Arginine, which goes on to produce nitric oxide (NO). Thus, L-citrulline is referred to as an NO-booster, which works by expanding blood vessels and increasing blood flow to your muscle tissue. This means that your muscle pumps while working out will be more “full,” and you’ll be able to train at a greater intensity. Research suggests that a proper dose of L-citrulline is between 4,000 to 6,000 milligrams before exercise.
  • Caffeine: This has long been the “gold standard” stimulant for pre-workout energy, and rightfully so. There are a multitude of studies backing the efficacy of caffeine for increasing focus, motivation, and athletic performance. It’s arguably the most widespread ingredient in pre-workout supplements, so you won’t have any trouble finding it in most formulas. In general, stick to pre-workout supplements that include moderate (not excessive) doses of caffeine — 100 to 300 milligrams per serving is plenty.
  • Beta Alanine: There is quite a bit of hype surrounding this ingredient, most of which is justified by human studies. Beta-alanine works by increasing muscle carnosine concentrations, which help maintain muscle pH during intense exercise. However, many users report experiencing paresthesia, or tingling in the extremities, hands, chest, feet, or face. Thankfully, this side effect is benign and goes away after about 30 minutes; it also becomes less pronounced once you’ve taken beta-alanine consistently over a period of time. 
  • L-Theanine: Research has shown that green tea–derived amino acid can improve cognitive function as well as enhance attention and alertness, especially when taken alongside caffeine. Around 100 to 200 milligrams of L-theanine will do the trick for kicking your mind into top gear before you workout.
  • Creatine Monohydrate: Last, but certainly not least, is creatine. This is the most time-tested sports supplement you can find, with literally hundreds of studies behind it. Creatine monohydrate works by helping muscle regenerate adenosine triphosphate, or ATP (cellular energy), thereby improving endurance and strength. It’s crucial that you drink plenty of fluid to maximize the benefits of creatine monohydrate, as it pulls water into muscle tissue. Most gym-goers and fitness enthusiasts stand to benefit from taking a pre-workout with 2,000 to 5,000 milligrams of creatine per serving.

Final Thoughts

When choosing supplements for pre-workout, look for a brand that has a good reputation and is transparent about both the company and the product formula. Using ingredients that are backed by science in clinically effective dosages is crucial for getting the best results from a pre-workout supplement. 

Remember, you get what you pay for. If something is excessively cheap, chances are it’s made with cheap (and possibly dangerous) junk. Also, be sure to look at the claims made on the label. If they seem to be too good to be true, then they probably are. 

Look for products with claims that are both believable and verifiable. Modesty is an admirable quality when it comes to supplement labels.

Pre-workout supplements can be a great addition to your workout, but just like anything else, if they are misused or abused, they are more likely to do more harm than good. Take the time to educate yourself on the ingredients, do your homework, and choose a pre-workout supplement that is right for you. Alternatively, you can check out our list of the best pre-workout supplements to help make the choice even easier!

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Elliot Reimers

Elliot Reimers is a NASM Certified Nutrition Coach (CNC) and M.S. candidate at Michigan State University, where he is studying Molecular Pharmacology and Toxicology. He has been a freelance science writer since 2013, centering on the topics of nutritional science, dietary supplementation, fitness, and exercise physiology. He received his B.S. in Biochemistry from the University of Minnesota and is an inveterate “science nerd” who loves fitness. He is passionate about coaching and educating people about how to live healthier, be smarter about what they put in their bodies, and perform better. In his spare time, you’re most likely to find Elliot hoisting barbells, hiking the mountains of beautiful Colorado, or working on content for Simply Shredded.