Saturday, January 11, 2014

Know What's In Your Pre-Workout Energy Supplement

One of the more popular supplements out there today is the “pre-workout” energy drinks. Some examples of pre-workout products are Musclepharm’s Assault, Cellucor’s C4, and Controlled Labs White Flood. They are usually consumed 20-30 minutes prior to exercise and will give you a nice jolt of energy. They include ingredients that can help give you a mental edge, improve endurance, or even give you a better “pump.” What I mean by a pump is the sensation of blood, nutrients, and water rushing to your muscle, where the muscle feels “swollen.” Never experienced it? Hop on your nearest biceps machine and do 10 reps with good form, then drop set to lighter weight until failure. That swollen, skin bursting, feeling in your biceps is the pump.

Unfortunately, 9 out of 10 people who I know that take these products have absolutely no idea what’s in these supplements. They don’t know what the ingredients do, the dosage they need to see the optimal effect, or the side effects of specific ingredients. For example, caffeine is a common used ingredient in pre-workout drinks, and those who have high blood pressure are commonly told you avoid the use of stimulants. People just hear that this supplement will improve performance and can help you add muscle and strength so they just hop in and take it. Well, the point of this article is to explain what goes in these pre-workout supplements, how they affect you, and what dosages you need in order to see an effect. Being able to determine what dosages are needed is important because sometimes a company might under dose a particular ingredient, thus not giving you the best “bang for your buck.”

Creatine is a commonly used ingredient for companies in their pre-workout (PWO) formulas because of its ability to help replenish ATP energy stores in the muscle, thus giving you a greater training response. You can lift longer, get more reps in when you’re fatigued, and can provide a bit of a pump, since it pulls water into the muscle cell.
Common Dosage: 3-5g

Beta-alanine is the precursor and building block of carnosine, which helps get rid of acid in the muscle. By reducing this acid in the muscle during working sets, beta-alanine has been proven to help increase performance in 60-240 second range. When taking beta-alanine, users may experience a tingly sensation, also known as paresthesia, almost like their skin is itchy (I usually feel it in my hands), but it will subside after continued supplementation.
Common Dosage: Absolute minimum should be 1.6g, although 2-5g is the standard dose.

Caffeine, commonly found in tea and coffee, is the anti-sleep drug. Hence why that coffee after 7:00 PM might not be a great idea. It mimics and blocks the hormone andenosine, which induces sleepiness. Caffeine, especially for those with low tolerances and who don’t consume it regularly, can be a potent fat burner and great stimulant to provide mental focus and energy when training.  Those who have high blood pressure or taken medication for high blood pressure should avoid PWO’s that contain caffeine.
Common Dosage: 100-250mg. Doses greater than or equal to 200mg seems to elicit the best fat burning effect.
Arginine & Cirtrulline
These two I’ll group together and you’ll see why in a second. Arginine is a conditionally essential amino acid that helps blood flow and to produce nitric oxide. Arginine seems to be limited in supplement usage because of its low bioavailability after being consumed. Because of the better blood flow, users can experience better pumps in the gym, which can help give you an additional mental edge in the gym.

Citrulline turns into Arginine after absorption and being broken down by the kidneys, and is much more bioavailable than Arginine itself. Therefore if one wants the benefits of Arginine (Better blood flow, better pumps, etc), supplementing with citrulline seems to be the better more efficient route.
Arginine Dosage: 3-6g is usually seen, but 5-6g seems to be most effective
Citrulline Dosage: 6-8g prior to exercise

Tyrosine is also an amino acid that produces noradrenaline and dopamine. When we train, our body undergoes great stressors. These two hormones help create the fight-or-flight response in the human body when we experience these stressors. They will directly increase heart rate, prompt the release of glucose from energy stores, and increase the blood flow to skeletal muscle. Those who supplement with Tyrosine note an increase in overall cognition and focus when training.
Common Dosage: 500-2,000mg

Taurine is an amino acid with sulfur in it, and is commonly found in animal meats. It helps reduce cramping, and offers other heart and blood health benefits. Along with the health benefits, it improves blood flow, which helps again deliver nutrients to skeletal muscle during training.
Common Dosage: 500-2,000mg

Betaine is an amino acid that helps boost protein synthesis throughout the body, and also is an osmoregulator, similar to creatine. An osmolyte compound is a molecule that moves in and out of a cell and its membrane, and helps keep the cells hydrated and preserves the size of the cell. When supplementing with Betaine, the cell can keep its structure, and will become more resistant to stressors. A study published in “The Journal of The International Society of Sports Nutrition” have seen that when trained individuals supplement with Betaine (1.25g pre and post workout), they increased muscle mass, decreased body fat, and increased arm size in just six weeks. The methodology of the study is questionable, but the results are intriguing nonetheless.
Common Dosage: 1.25-2g Pre-workout, and if possible, 1.25-2g Post-workout

Last, but not least, you’ll find that many PWO supplements will include BCAA’s in their formulas. BCAA’s are Branched Chain Amino Acids, and the three BCAA’s are Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine. What makes BCAA’s different from other amino acids is their ability to bypass digestion of the stomach and liver, and instead go straight to muscle tissue to be metabolized. This allows BCAA’s to be oxidized by muscle tissue in order to produce energy in the form of ATP. This is especially valuable when one is training fasted or in a caloric deficit, as the body will use the BCAA’s as a source of energy rather than breaking down muscle for energy. Leucine has also been clinically proven to promote protein synthesis. Now before you go slamming down Leucine supplements every 3 hours, whey protein and food has Leucine in it as well. Despite this, supplementing with BCAA’s prior to training and during training can be quite beneficial.
Common Dosage: 5 Grams, in a ratio of 3:1:1 (In favor of Leucine) or 2.5:1.25:1.25

So What’s the Best PWO Supplement?
I strongly recommend to get samples from, or buy smaller serving sizes and try a bunch out to see what works best for you. Most 30 serving containers will cost you no more that $30, and for less than a dollar a day that’s pretty good for a month of great workouts. I’ve experimented with quite a few, and in no particular order I’m a huge fan of Musclepharm’s Assault and their Arnold Series’ Iron Pump. Cellucor’s C4 is great, as is their N0 Explode (Although very expensive). Another one that’s getting great reviews and has a great profile is Jim Stoppani’s Jym.

So is a PWO supplement necessary to build muscle and strength? Absolutely not. A great training program and nutritional program are ten times more important. However, when training is nailed down, and one has their nutritional practices in place, a PWO supplement can help give someone that mental edge in the gym and aid performance. An increase in performance with proper nutritional practices will obviously help improve body composition. A PWO supplement could also be beneficial when one is tired and groggy and may not be in the mood to workout. Tired and groggy after work at 5:30 PM? Have a scoop of Musclpeharm’s Assault mixed in 12 ounces of water on your drive to the gym and you’d be amazed how the lethargy magically disappears. Have to lift before work at 6:00 AM? One scoop of Cellucor’s C4 and you’ll be throwing around 45 pound circle weights like frisbees.

Hopefully this guide can help you sort out the PWO supplement market as it continues to grow and grow with ridiculous claims. Again, before you buy, read the label, check the doses, and know what you’re ingesting before you take a single scoop!


  1. informative and written to easily understand. Thank you.

  2. Assuming you would know that NONE of these products complies with NCAA Institutional Guidelines. Hoping athletes reading this will know that? Like the information, that point my have been overlooked,