Do Pre-workout Supplements Actually Work?

Ever go to the gym and see people sipping some Kool-Aid-colored liquid from their shaker bottle? That’s probably a pre-workout supplement they’re taking. In general, one serving pre-workout has about as much caffeine in it as a cup of coffee (or two), some creatine, some BCAA, niacin, and a bunch of other ingredients that are known or thought to boost energy. Hell, I even take this stuff before hitting the gym myself. It makes me feel pumped up and ready to go on those days when I’m struggling to stay awake at my desk, let alone drag myself to the gym. Pre-workout supplements are popular, but do they actually work? Do they do anything more than give you a caffeine buzz?
The short answer is yes.

The Research

Multiple studies have found that pre-workout does in some way improve physical performance. However, researchers have yet to reach an agreement about which types of physical activity are most enhanced by pre-workout supplements. No surprise there since each study asks its subjects to consume different a brand of supplement prior to working out. Also, workouts performed by subjects varied from study to study concerning the duration of the workout, its intensity, and number of times it was repeated. In short, testing conditions are differ from study to study. Nonetheless, it appears that consuming a caffeinated pre-workout supplement about 20-30 minutes before working out actually does your workout some good.

The Results

A 2016 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports and Nutrition by Jagim et al. found that on average, subjects who consumed a caffeinated pre-workout supplement prior to working out were able to perform more bench press repetitions to failure, and experienced greater power in an anaerobic sprint test in comparison with the placebo group. Those who consumed the pre-workout supplement also reported feeling less fatigued and more alert following training 1. Looks pretty good to me! I wish this study mentioned which brand they used. A different study conducted by Martinez et al. also found that ingestion of a caffeinated pre-workout supplement prior to exercising improves physical performance. They found that subjects who took the pre-workout supplement prior to working out showed significant improvement in anaerobic power, but no significant difference in lower body strength, upper body power, or lower body power 2.

Some quick jargon…

What is anaerobic power? It has to do with the amount of movement produced in a very short amount of time. Check out this article by Phil Davies which explains it better than I ever could. This article by Eric C. Stevens is another great, albeit short, read on anaerobic power that explains why you should do it. How about power versus strength? Strength is all about the amount of weight you can move in one single repetition, like bench press or squat. Power focuses more on the velocity at which weight can be moved in a given movement, like shot put. This article on Stack.com does a decent job of explaining the difference between training for strength and training for power.

The Takeaway

Researchers agree that more studies need to be done about pre-workout supplement consumption, especially given that its spike in popularity is pretty recent. Still, current evidence seems to show that it’s your endurance and anaerobic power that will benefit the most from ingesting pre-workout such it will help you feel less fatigued and more focused on your workout. This means that you might not need to take it before going for your personal 1 rep maximum record on the bench press. Save it for that next bout of burpees or maybe even spin class.

Sources

  1. Jagim, A.R. ( 1 ), et al. “The Acute Effects Of Multi-Ingredient Pre-Workout Ingestion On Strength Performance, Lower Body Power, And Anaerobic Capacity.” Journal Of The International Society Of Sports Nutrition 13.1 (2016): Scopus®. Web. 14 Jan. 2017.
  2. Martinez, Nic1, nmartinez@mail.usf.edu, et al. “The Effect Of Acute Pre-Workout Supplementation On Power And Strength Performance.” Journal Of The International Society Of Sports Nutrition 13.(2016): 1-7. General Science Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 14 Jan. 2017.

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