Let’s be honest: You likely don’t need a pre-workout supplement.
Humans sweated and exercised for thousands of years before pre-workout supplements were invented, after all, and they did just fine without today’s scientifically designed formulas.
They also had no idea what they were missing, or even knew they were settling for “just fine.”
By supplying your body with energy-boosting compounds and performance-sustaining nutrients, a pre-workout supplement can give you the extra oomph you need to not only tackle a tough sweat session but also to squeeze a bit more out of every rep.
But with supplement aisles packed with products with names like Frenzy, Ripped Freak, and Off The Chain, selecting the right pre-workout supplement can feel overwhelming (and not just a little intimidating).
“Many supplements on the market today contain a cocktail of ingredients that lack synergy, and may even conflict with one another,” says Nima Alamdari, Ph.D., co-creator of the pre-workout formula Beachbody Performance Energize.
In short, choose the wrong one, and instead of boosting performance, you may very well sabotage it.
That’s all the more reason to educate yourself before you spend your money, starting with the ingredients you’ll often find on labels.
Common Ingredients in Pre-Workout Drinks
There’s no one-size-fits-all formula. Ultimately, the best formula for you depends on your fitness goals, training program, and unique physiology.
But most pre-workout drinks contain a combination of the following substances.
If anything can be considered a common denominator for pre-workout drinks, it’s caffeine.
And there’s a reason for that: “Caffeine is a proven ergogenic [performance-enhancing] aid that also boosts mental focus and concentration,” says Maria Spano, R.D., C.S.C.S., C.S.S.D., a sports dietitian for the Atlanta Hawks.
It may sometimes appear in the form of an unfamiliar ingredient, like yerba mate, but odds are it’s there.
Research published in the journal Sports Medicine shows that caffeine might be particularly effective for “speed-endurance” activities lasting 60 to 180 seconds, such as sprinting.
But other studies show that its benefits extend to longer bouts of exercise as well.
“Caffeine can enhance performance in a diverse range of exercise protocols and sports, increasing endurance during submaximal exercise lasting more than 90 minutes, high-intensity exercise lasting up to 60 minutes, and short, supramaximal [extremely high-intensity] exercise lasting up to 5 minutes,” says Alamdari.
Along with caffeine, creatine is one of the few proven ergogenic aids.
Research shows that regular supplementation can not only help delay fatigue and prolong peak strength and power, but it can also reduce recovery time between sets.
“The increases in muscle mass and strength associated with creatine supplementation are likely because of the increased training load that can be achieved during high-intensity, repetitive forms of resistance training,” says Alamdari.
Research even suggests that it can help endurance athletes recover faster after intense exercise by accelerating the replenishment of glycogen (the stored form of glucose, the body’s primary fuel source).
But that’s the only situation in which creatine’s benefits are acute. In all others, including strength training, you’ll only notice a difference after sufficient levels have built up in your body through supplementation, so there’s no real reason to include creatine in your pre-workout drink.
“The best time to take it is after a high-carbohydrate meal, or with a dose of protein post-exercise,” says Alamdari, explaining that both situations create an environment in which creatine uptake is maximized.
For a more in-depth discussion of creatine’s potential performance benefits, click here.
Once inside a cell, this amino acid combines with another one (called L-histadine) to form carnosine.
Why is this important?
Because carnosine can attenuate that deep muscular burn you feel during high-intensity exercise.
“Beta-alanine helps buffer hydrogen ion buildup in muscles, which causes acidosis [the cause of that burning sensation],” explains Spano.
So why not just supplement with carnosine?
Because in order to utilize it, your body must first break it down into its component parts (beta-alanine and L-histadine), and then transport both into your muscle cells, where they are reassembled into carnosine.
Since your body typically has plenty of L-histadine on tap, it’s more efficient to just supplement with beta-alanine and skip the whole disassembly step.
The effects of beta-alanine are particularly pronounced during repeated bouts of intense exercise lasting 1 to 4 minutes, according to a review in the journal Amino Acids.
That makes it an ideal choice for high-intensity interval workouts.
“I use beta-alanine with my high-intensity, intermittent-activity team sport athletes [e.g., soccer and basketball players],” says Spano. “But because it takes 4 to 6 weeks to build up in your system, it doesn’t matter when during the day you take it.”
In short, a pre-workout drink is a convenient delivery system for beta-alanine, but there is no “best” time to take it.
Indeed, until it builds up to sufficient levels in your system, you won’t notice the effects. For more on beta-alanine, click here.
There are three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) — leucine, isoleucine, and valine — all of which are also essential amino acids (EAAs), meaning that they are not produced by your body.
BCAAs are unique among aminos in that they can be metabolized directly by your muscles (a process normally handled by your liver).
That has led many supplement companies to claim that the body can use BCAAs as fuel, and that taking them can boost performance and endurance.
Unfortunately, science doesn’t agree, and the benefit of including them in a pre-workout supplement is dubious at best.
There is, however, strong evidence to support the inclusion of BCAAs in post-workout supplements.
Indeed, studies show that they can boost muscle protein synthesis (aka muscle growth) and reduce catabolism (i.e., muscle breakdown) after a tough training session.
Some pre-workout supplements also contain this amino acid, which might help prevent muscle cramping and boost strength, according to a 2009 study on rats in the Journal of Applied Physiology. After 2 weeks of taurine supplementation, the whiskered, beady-eyed participants experienced an average increase in muscle-force production of 19 percent. Do the results transfer to humans? Most likely not, as the much greater weight of scientific evidence performed on human subjects suggests.
What Makes Beachbody Performance Energize Different?
In addition to caffeine (from green tea) and beta-alanine, Beachbody Performance Energize also contains quercetin — a performance-enhancing phytonutrient found in such foods as berries, apples, grapes, and nuts.
Research shows that quercetin can not only help reduce central nervous system fatigue (much like coffee), but it can also increase the production of mitochondria, energy-generating structures within cells.
“Studies have also shown that it can increase both endurance exercise performance and VO2 max, which is your aerobic capacity, or the maximum amount of oxygen that your body can utilize during intense exercise,” says Alamdari.
The more oxygen you can utilize, the more energy you can produce, and the longer you can sustain maximal effort.
In one study at the University of South Carolina, researchers found that quercetin supplementation increased VO2 max by four percent, while increasing time to fatigue by 13 percent.
Another study at Appalachian State University found that quercetin treatment resulted in an increase in the distance covered by subjects during a time trial on a treadmill.
And the research keeps rolling in. There’s even evidence that quercetin can help fight excessive exercise-induced inflammation, and thus accelerate recovery.
Unlike many other brands, Beachbody Performance Energize is tested for banned substances.
“It’s important to have confidence in the quality and safety of a product,” says Alamdari. “Certifications that come from reputable independent third-party testing are becoming increasingly important to satisfy consumer and athlete confidence.”
Such programs screen products for substances banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), and ensure that the claims made on the labels are verified.
Don’t see either agency’s seal of approval on a label? What’s inside might not match up to what it claims.
What You Don’t Want to See On The Label
Answer: a lot of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives, or other ingredients that are excessive, unnecessary, counterproductive, or (in some cases) illegal.
Take stimulants, for example: Some products combine the equivalent of up to five cups of coffee with other powerful stimulants like yohimbe, increasing your risk of side effects ranging from nervousness and irritability to headaches, chest pain, and arrhythmia.
Sometimes there’s also extra caffeine or additional stimulants that aren’t printed on the label.
Occasionally you might even see banned substances — a product called Jack3d was targeted by the FDA in 2015 for containing DMAA (a banned stimulant).
Beachbody Performance Energize, by contrast, contains just 100mg of caffeine (the equivalent of about one cup of coffee).
“Low doses of caffeine have been shown to enhance performance in a wide variety of exercise, athletic, and sporting situations with few (if any) side effects compared to higher doses,” says Alamdari.
Other ingredients you won’t find in Energize include synthetic sugars and sugar alcohol.
“Avoid maltitol, sorbitol, and xylitol, in particular — they can cause gas and bloating,” warns Spano.
When Should You Take Your Pre-Workout Drink?
“To get the most out of the caffeine and other energy or performance-enhancing ingredients, take it 30 to 45 minutes before you start to exercise,” says Spano, cautioning that if your supplement contains beta-alanine, you might experience a temporary, tingling “pins and needles” sensation throughout your body.
Don’t be alarmed: This harmless condition is known as “paresthesia,” and most often occurs with higher doses (i.e., above 1,600mg), although some people occasionally experience it with doses as low as 800mg (the amount in Beachbody Performance Energize).