What is pre-workout?
You might have heard it thrown around the gym or at your running club - but what exactly is pre-workout?
Put simply, it’s a supplement that boosts your energy and could help you with a more sustained and focused workout.
But one scoop doesn’t fit all! Here’s our comprehensive guide to pre-workout, plus a few of our best vegan, keto, and beginners’ choices.
What is pre-workout made from?
Each pre-workout supplement is different, but you’ll most likely find they contain:
- A substance that improves your energy levels and/or focus
- A substance that helps reduce muscle soreness and delays fatigue during a workout, leading to better endurance
- A substance (like caffeine) that helps reduce pain perception during exercise¹
- A substance that reduces the likelihood of muscle fatigue after exercise
Creatine, caffeine, beta-alanine, L-taurine, and BCAAs are some of the main ingredients used to support a more effective workout. You’ll likely find some flavourings and sweeteners in there, too.
Types of pre-workout
Everyone’s workout regime is different – and, luckily, everyone’s pre-workout can be, too.
Choose a caffeine-based pre-workout to give your energy levels a boost as you get going. Caffeine can improve your physical endurance and reduce fatigue, offering you a longer and less strenuous workout. ²
It also stimulates the nervous system and helps the brain to focus; great if you’re having an off-day.
However, not everyone wants caffeine to play a part in their workout. Instead, you could go for a non-stimulant, or “non-stim” supplement.
These can still give you energy and increase your focus – but instead, they use ingredients that improve blood flow and alertness without the need for caffeine.
Forms of pre-workout
You’ll most commonly find pre-workout supplements in powder form that you can mix with water to make a drink. However, pre-workout:
are also popular.
Forms of pre-workout
Benefits of pre-workout
The main purpose of pre-workout is to give you energy before you exercise. And that might lead to some extra benefits if you’re looking to meet a certain health goal. It depends on the ingredients you choose, but you might experience:
Improved muscle strength
Many pre-workouts contain vasodilators, substances which cause the blood vessels to widen. This means an increased blood flow to muscles to provide them with more of the nutrients required during exercise. During this time, you’ll take longer to tire, and you can push yourself a little harder.
Creatine is a mild vasodilator and has been shown in some cases to help enhance post-exercise recovery and help prevent injuries during exercise. ³
Ingredients like beta-alanine also reduce the painful build-up of lactic acid in your muscles, meaning you’re less likely to stop due to muscle soreness. ⁴
Over time, you can work out for longer and increase your strength with fewer consequences for your muscles.
You may also see results with pre-workouts containing creatine. It’s been shown to increase capacity for high-intensity activity and improve lean body mass gains alongside exercise. ⁵
2. Longer endurance
Don’t be confused by your supplements’ job. Pre-workout increases energy rather than directly affecting your strength, power, or endurance. But, the more energised you are, the more you can exert yourself and slowly inch past your PBs.
3. Better cognition
Your brain plays a part in your endurance, too. If you’re not at your mental peak, it can be harder to focus on exercise or sustain the motivation to keep going. Stimulants like caffeine, or nootropics like l-theanine, can help increase your alertness .⁶ ⁷
2. Longer endurance
Let’s start with one of the most popular pre-workout ingredients: beta-alanine.
Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid, found and produced naturally in the human body.
That means we don’t have to take extra for our everyday health, but many athletes find it’s useful for a longer and less sore workout.
The burning you feel when you work out is due to a buildup of lactic acid in your muscles. Beta-alanine helps to produce carnosine, a substance which reduces this lactic acid buildup. ³
So, by taking extra beta-alanine, you’ll:
- Experience less “burning” while you’re exercising
- Endure a longer workout
- Experience less muscle soreness after you exercise
Find yourself getting jittery after your usual supplements?
Caffeine isn’t for everyone! You might want to use a non-stimulant pre-workout if:
- You’re intolerant to caffeine or other stimulants
- You’re prone to “crashing” after you work out
- You exercise in the afternoon or evening
When you take a non-stimulant pre-workout, you get your energy through amino acids like beta-alanine. Many also contain nootropics, which can naturally increase your focus while you exercise.
Check the labels before you pick a new pre-workout: many are vegan, but not all.
Many contain taurine, which isn’t an animal product in itself, but can be derived from animal sources. Most pre-workout supplements and energy drinks containing taurine use synthetic, vegan versions, but it’s always something to keep in mind.
Some artificial colours are also not suitable for vegans (but, again, this isn’t common).
If you’re on the high-fat, low-carb keto diet, you’ll want to make sure your pre-workout doesn’t disturb ketosis.
Many pre-workout supplements contain no carbs and use sweeteners instead of sugar, so they won’t affect your blood glucose level.
What’s more, ingredients like beta-alanine and creatine - which commonly make up pre-workouts - are non-glycemic. ⁸
However, it’s always worth checking, as some pre-workouts will add sugar or contain small amounts of carbohydrates.
BCAA supplements shouldn’t take you out of ketosis, as long as you exercise immediately after taking them.
Your size and activity level will affect how much it takes to kick you out of ketosis, but it’s recommended not to take a pre-workout with more than 1g of carbohydrates per serving. ⁹
Are there any side effects of pre-workout?
Everyone reacts differently to any kind of supplement. However, when you’re adding exercise into the mix, it’s particularly important to make sure you’re using a pre-workout that’s right for you.
Some people are particularly sensitive to the caffeine in pre-workout supplements.
They might experience:
- Feeling “jittery”
- Nausea or an upset stomach
- Increased heart rate
They might experience:
Pre-workouts can have as much caffeine as a few cups of coffee, so start slow and dial down the caffeine if you’re feeling on edge.
Some people also experience extra water retention with creatine, which might mean you’re bloated, experience digestive issues, or gain some weight. You can reduce this by taking smaller doses.
In more rare cases, you might be sensitive to beta-alanine and experience a (harmless) tingling sensation in your hands and feet. This can be uncomfortable, but it’s not dangerous.
Before you begin taking pre-workout, you should always:
- Speak to your GP
- Follow all dosage instructions and age restrictions
If you have any doubts about the pre-workout you’re taking, stop using it and consult your GP immediately.
The final say
Could a pre-workout help to fuel your next training session?
Maybe it’s the push you need to beat your PBs…
The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle. Before taking any supplements or minerals, it’s best to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients through your diet first. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.
Last updated: 10 January 2023