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Do pre-workout supplements actually work?

A woman wearing a hoodie drinks from a protein shaker at the gym

Find out how to maintain and enhance your energy levels

A woman wearing a hoodie drinks from a protein shaker at the gym

Whether you’re hitting the gym, swimming, power walking or running to get fit, it’s natural to want to maximise the benefits of your exercise. So if you could safely get a better workout by taking a supplement before you start, why wouldn’t you?

To find out what pre-workout supplements are, whether they work and what else you can do before exercising to boost your performance, we spoke to Gary Slater, Associate Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics and spokesperson for Sports Dietitians Australia.

What are pre-workout supplements?

Tipped to help you exercise harder, faster and smarter, pre-workout supplements are single or multi-ingredient stimulants which usually come in powdered form. The mixture is typically added to water and consumed before a workout, with the most common ingredients including caffeine, creatine monohydrate and beta-alanine.

Thanks to beverages like coffee and coke, you’re likely on a first-name basis with caffeine, but the other ingredients might not sound so familiar. Here’s a quick rundown.

Creatine is a naturally occurring compound found in skeletal muscle and the brain. It is involved in the regulation of energy production and acts indirectly to help supply the body with adenosine triphosphate (ATP) – also known as the body’s fuel currency.

Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid that produces carnosine, which is said to reduce lactic acid in your muscles leading to improved exercise performance.

A group of young men and women wearing workout gear walk along a sidewalk

Are pre-workout supplements effective?

While increased creatine stores can potentially enhance fatigue resistance and lead to performance improvements during high-intensity exercise, it needs to be consumed daily for weeks before muscle levels change enough to impact on performance. Taking a small dose of creatine as part of a pre-workout supplement pre-training won’t affect those muscle stores, so it won’t reduce fatigue.

Likewise, beta-alanine supplementation can boost muscle levels of carnosine, a critical buffer to help you tolerate lactic acid, but again needs to be consumed for weeks on end before any benefit is evident.

Are pre-workout supplements safe?

A recent study published by Gary and fellow SDA staff found of the commonly sold pre-workout supplements on the market, there are huge variations in the caffeine content between brands and a concerning lack of quality control. This is a problem considering that excessive caffeine intake can lead to anxiety, heart palpitations, diarrhoea and in serious instances, even death.

Of the fifteen pre-workout supplements they tested, the content ranged from 91 to 387 mg per serve, the per cent of caffeine present ranged from 59% to 176% of packaging claims and only six supplements included details about caffeine content on nutrition information panels.

What is a safer pre-workout alternative?

While excess caffeine intake is not recommended, there is evidence to support the use of some caffeine before exercise. A simple cup of coffee might be just what you need to up your game.

“Everything else that is added to the pre-trainer, aside from the caffeine, hasn’t demonstrated any benefit as a pre-workout supplement – so there may be just as much benefit, if not more, from a pre-training coffee. It also tastes a whole lot better,” Gary says.

If you do fancy using caffeine, consider drinking one or two shots of coffee around 60 minutes before exercise to allow the caffeine to reach peak levels in your blood. And don’t overdo it! Gary says drinking larger amounts of caffeine does not appear to have further benefits but will increase the potential side effects like sleep impairment and potential heart events among vulnerable individuals.

Muscle energy levels are a reflection of training and diet over the last one to two days, not the last one to two hours.

Healthy alternatives to pre-workout supplements

To help maintain your energy levels, Gary recommends a pre-training snack high in carbohydrates. Pick an option that’s low in fibre and fat, especially if you have issues with your gut or if you’re feeling nervous as foods overly high in fat are slow to digest.

“It’s important to remember that muscle energy levels are a reflection of training and diet over the last one to two days, not the last one to two hours,” Gary says. With that in mind, here are a range of SDA approved pre-workout meal ideas you can try:

  • A small bowl of cereal with chopped fruit and yoghurt

  • Crumpets with sliced banana and drizzle of honey

  • A small bowl of pasta with a tomato-based sauce

  • A fruit smoothie

  • Raisin toast with jam

  • A tub of creamed rice with canned fruit

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