If you step into any gym, health store, or supermarket supplement aisle, you’re going to see pre-workout supplements. Most of them come in shiny, slick packaging covered in promises to boost your energy levels and cut your recovery time.
While these supplements take many forms, they usually contain the same ingredients. But what exactly are those ingredients, and what are they supposed to do?
You’re usually going to find caffeine, which is how the supplements boost your energy. Other ingredients like creatine, beta-alanine, L-citrulline, and amino acids are supposed to help your muscles recover faster.
These all seem like great reasons to snag a pre-workout supplement before your next gym day. However, there are some very important things that aren’t on those product labels… and they may have you reconsidering your purchase.
Here’s what you need to know about popular pre-workout ingredients before you buy:
The FDA might not be perfect, but the organization does a fairly good job of keeping unsafe products off the market. There are, unfortunately, loopholes. And some of those loopholes allow unverified products to make it onto store shelves, even if they’re technically regulated.
This is not to say that all pre-workout supplements are dangerous. Rather, it means that most of the ingredients—and their effects—haven’t been well-tested.
They might do exactly as the project claims… or they might have no effect. Or their effects might be worse than not taking the supplement at all.
If you’re still certain that you want to try a pre-workout supplement, opt for one that has completed third-party testing on their product. This means that they sent their supplement to another laboratory so that the impartial, third-party lab could ensure the product contained only what it advertises.
Of course, this doesn’t solve the issue of ingredients that don’t necessarily do what the label claims they do. But it will at least ensure that you know exactly what you’re putting in your body.
Not all pre-workout supplements are dangerous, as I’ve said. Many of their side effects are still being studied, but there are a few that are well-known.
The worst of these possible side effects is the strain that pre-workout supplements put on your cardiovascular system. Most of the strain comes from the high levels of caffeine in the vast majority of supplements.
But some pre-workout supplements—including the now-banned original supplement known as Ultimate Orange—use ephedra, which is much more dangerous to your system. Even sites that promote pre-workout supplements typically encourage people to be careful if they want to mix a supplement with an intense workout.
This is a bit counterintuitive, since the supplements are supposed to boost your workout performance. But if a product already puts strain on your heart and lungs, then adding stress from a high-intensity workout is a quick way to bring on serious problems.
And when I say serious, I mean serious. Ultimate Orange faced lawsuits and, eventually, a complete ban after the product was proven to increase the risk of heart attacks. Unfortunately, this risk was only investigated after several deaths were attributed to the supplement.
Consistent use of pre-workout supplements can also cause acute liver toxicity, as well as stomach problems that range from cramping to much more volatile reactions. This might vary from aggressive trips to the bathroom to nausea and vomiting.
If you use a fitness tracking app, there’s a good chance you log the food you eat. While there are potential harmful effects of fitness apps, this can be a great way to help you keep track of your calories and your macros.
However, pre-workout supplements are going to throw off your numbers.
Many pre-workout supplements are sold as drink mixes. While this makes it easy to throw them into your water bottle and chug them down on your way to the gym, it also means they have to taste good. For most companies, this means adding a ton of sweeteners.
It doesn’t matter if the sweetener is sugar or an artificial version, they all have their issues. And if you’re drinking a serving every single day before your workout, you’re going to be taking in a lot of added sugar!
The caffeine in your supplement may also change how your body metabolizes your food. Prior to pre-workout supplements, body builders would reach for a cup of coffee before their workouts. While coffee obviously still has caffeine, it contains much less than your average serving of pre-workout supplement.
The amount of caffeine in many pre-workout supplements may upset your stomach and change the way your gut deals with the food you take in. If you take your supplement long enough, it will end up affecting the accuracy of your food tracking apps. And if you’re invested in using them to track your food, that renders your apps almost useless.
As of today, the FDA recommends that nobody use pre-workout supplements without talking to a doctor first. And while this might not be easy for everyone, it certainly beats an embarrassing stomach issue… or worse, a heart attack.
Pre-workout supplements may have their uses, but with so many questions about their ingredients and so many high-risk situations related to various formulas, it might be best to stick with the old classics instead.
Mix a cup of coffee into your protein shake or breakfast smoothie. Aim to get plenty of rest before your workout.
And use something a little less invasive—like an intense playlist—to get your energy levels where they need to be.