31 Jan 2019

What is Pre-Workout?

If you’re a novice trainer, pre-workout probably means shuffling into the gym changing rooms, getting into your training gear and shuffling back out.

And for a good many of us, that’s as far as our workout build-up goes aside from a few token stretches.

But is there more you can do to make all that grunting and sweating for the next hour beneficial? Is there one magic formula you can adapt to take your exercise routine to a whole new dimension of effectiveness?

Well, kind of, but let’s not over-promise. It might not be quite the magic formula you’re after, but it is a formula.

More specifically, it’s a pre-workout supplement consumed, as the name suggests, before you begin a period of concerted exercise.

So, the big question is, are pre-workout supplements all they’re cracked up to be? Will they actually help you to become bigger, faster or stronger?

What are pre-workout supplements?

Basically, they’re concentrated stimulant powders. And as a rule, they contain three core ingredients – caffeine, beta-alanine and creatine – all regarded by those in the know as proven performance enhancers.

So let’s have a look at each in isolation.


A standard coffee or energy drink will contain between 80mg and 150mg of caffeine. Generally, your better pre-workout supplements will include anything from 130mg of caffeine to 300mg; that’s a big difference at the top end.

Caffeine is almost entirely absorbed in about 45 minutes and tends to accelerate the performance of runners and cyclists in isolation. Caffeine is, as we tend to think, more about speed than strength.

That said, it’s one of the key ingredients in any decent pre-workout supplement.


Beta-alanine is an amino acid and, strangely, it’s not an essential amino acid in the pre-workout formula equation. Our bodies can produce it perfectly well. Pre-workout supplements merely produce it in much larger volumes.

Why? Because the beta-alanine in pre-workout drinks helps your muscles to endure the rigours of heavy exercise.


Creatine is the third key ingredient in pre-workout drinks, creatine helps to reduce fatigue and give us an additional energy boost during high-intensity workouts. While creatine is produced naturally, sports dieticians have found that those with the lowest natural creatine stores stand to gain the largest workout benefits via supplements.

Will a cup of coffee do the same thing?

In a word, no. While coffee can give you a nice little buzz to see you through a tough mental assignment, it won’t do anything to enhance a physical workout; not on its own. That’s not to say caffeine has suddenly fallen out of favour.

Many reputable studies conclude that moderate coffee consumption is beneficial for overall health and energy levels. Just know that supplementing your workout with high amounts of caffeine alone will simply create a wide-awake workout with an increased heart rate, but not much else. It won’t improve your performance or build muscle mass.

The same applies to energy drinks, not regarded as an effective pre-workout supplement.

Should you use pre-workout supplements?

The three ingredients covered here have all been thoroughly tested and shown to be safe and, probably, effective as a workout supplement. The risks start when workout supplements combine other ingredients with these.

So the best advice would be to read labels thoroughly and avoid any supplement containing unverified combinations and speak to a sports dietitian to know more.

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