What’s the Scoop on Pre-Workout?

By Max Zhu, ’23

What even is pre-workout? It’s often thought of as a somewhat magical powder that makes you bounce off the walls and lift more weights. Aside from caffeine, I doubt many people really understand what’s in their container of “electric blue razz” and if the ingredients are even effective. Looking at a label and seeing an ingredient list longer than YML’s tests and with components even Mr. Bohnen can’t recognize might seem worrying. 

Pre-workout supplements are taken to temporarily boost performance in the gym. It often takes some experimenting to find something that suits you. Depending on your preference, there are formulas focused specifically on aspects like pump, energy, and focus or some even have a mix of all 3. Here are a few brands I recommend: 

Batch 27 – good all-around formula; blend of focus, pump, and energy.

Supernova – focus-based blend that has a good pump, low on caffeine but makes up for it in nootropics.

Domin8 – practically an amped-up version of Batch with a more complicated ingredients list.

Super Set – large scoops but pump-focused formula, good blend of ingredients.

Pump Addict – for stim addicts, maximum amount of caffeine with a simple yet effective formula without beta-alanine.

Caffeine (TLDR – start with 200mg and test tolerance, half-life of 6hrs, different sources have different concentrations, and interacts with other medication):

The holy grail of not only pre-workout but also sought-after in many popular energy drinks and coffee. The range of caffeine can vary from 0mg to 400mg, I generally begin with 200mg for beginners and find 300mg to be a nice middle ground. It should be noted that the Government of Canada along with the FDA and other health organizations strongly advise against over 400mg. 

Caffeine is a stimulant and is added mainly to increase energy and alertness, but it also increases heart rate, anxiety, blood flow, and blood pressure (although the effects aren’t permanent, and blood pressure is not affected in the long run). The results can take as little as 15 minutes to 2 hours to kick in and can be influenced by the foods you eat, due to caffeine being absorbed by your gut before moving into the bloodstream. Upon reaching the brain, caffeine mimics Adenosine (a depressant) and attaches itself to the receptors. Generally taking fibre-rich foods, being pregnant, and taking contraceptives slow down the onset of the effects and smoking may actually increase them. Caffeine has a half-life of 6 hours and regularly taking it can cause tolerance or withdrawal. Many ingredients work in conjunction with caffeine to have their effects kick in faster or for caffeine to work in a “delayed release system.”

Not all sources of caffeine act the same, but the effects are similar. The most popular name you’ll see on pre-workouts is caffeine anhydrous. This is pure caffeine in the sense that there is no water and it is taken from many popular plants used to make coffee. This comes out to a white and bitter substance that allows it to be taken in a pill or powder. 

Nootropics (TLDR-  different dosages for different substances but they overall improve your concentration and help with focusing on various aspects of your workout)

Nootropics are not a particular supplement, but it’s more of an umbrella term for supplements that help boost cognitive function. There are many supplements that “technically” fall under this category. Pre-workouts that have high concentrations of nootropics are generally geared toward the focus element. Many brands will have their own blend like Supernova’s Peak O2 but the two main ones are Lion’s Mane and Alpha GPC.

Lion’s Mane 

Lion’s mane, also known as Hericium Erinaceus, is a type of fungus in the form of a powder. Taking it before workouts is proven to help with concentration and endurance. It’s often praised over other nootropics because it’s not only natural, but it also helps with NGF (natural growth factor) production, reduces inflammation, strengthens the immune system, and speeds up recovery. They can be found in pre-workouts at various ranges but I generally recommend taking 1g. This may seem on the higher side when compared to other supplements, but since its intentions are for short-term use, the effects are most noticeable then. It’s made of Hericenones A-H, Erinacines A-K, mycelium, lectin, sterols, and polysaccharides. Through the Hericenones, Lion’s Mane increases NGF, which helps maintain neurons. Hericenone B in particular inhibits signalling from collagen to release arachidonic acid, which reduces blood clots and maintains blood pressure. The polysaccharides in particular are used to reduce inflammation through the release of TNF-α and IL-β. 

Alpha GPC

Alpha GPC, aka Alpha-Glycerophosphocholine, gives the user higher focus. This allows them to focus on aspects like technique, mind-muscle connection, and avoiding distractions, as well as preventing fatigue.  Dosages are normally between 100mg-400mg and I generally recommend around 250mg or 300mg of Alpha-GPC(50%). Alpha GPC is the building block for acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that plays important roles for both the brain and body, when supplementing Alpha GPC, it first turns to phosphorylcholine which increases the creation of acetylcholine. The benefits come from the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine (for motivation), serotonin (for satisfaction), and GABA (for reducing anxiety). Sometimes you’ll see Alpha-GPC(50%) and the dosages are around 300mg which also provides benefits.

Amino Acids

Amino acids are an important part of our bodies’ production of protein, but some non-essential amino acids also have the ability to elevate your workout. When looking at a label, some may have an “L-” in the front like “L-Carnitine.” Since many amino acids have the same structure on both sides, the “L” is added to distinguish them. Since these amino acids are nonessential, our bodies can produce them on their own but in much lower concentrations than you’d find in a pre-workout. 

Agmatine Sulphate (TLDR –  same results as L-Citrulline and Citrulline Malate, but more toned down and less effective, works with L-Citrulline so if taking excessive L-Cit. then should include agmatine sulphate, aim for 1g of agmatine sulphate to 6g of l-citrulline)

Agmatine Sulphate is derived from the amino acid of L-Arginine. It is intended to increase NO in the blood to improve performance and increase vascularity. Since less research has been done and higher doses of agmatine sulphate may lead to an upset stomach, L-Citrulline is much more common. Refer to the description below of L-Citrulline to see how it works as a vasodilator. 

Beta-Alanine (TLDR – look for around 3.2 g, gives tingles, however allows you to train for longer because prevents that “burning feeling” during a long set)

The culprit for the “tingles” you feel after taking a protein powder. Although some like the sensation of worms crawling under your skin and others opt for it, beta-alanine does more than give you that itchy feeling. It can help with reducing fatigue and pushing through in explosive movements. The range of supplements can span from 0g-5g, though I generally recommend 3.2g so you don’t scratch out your skin but still are able to capitalize on the benefits. 

Picture this: your hand is raised in class and YML has his back turned, while you desperately try to get his attention your arm starts to feel a slight burn, that’s the effect of lactic acid. Lactic acid is the result of cellular respiration, which produces energy for the body. It’s obvious you won’t be taking Beta-Alanine just so you can raise your hand for longer, but when working out, as more energy is being spent, more glucose needs to be broken down to produce energy for the workout. The lactic acids that begin to build up can cause a burning sensation that may hinder your workout. Beta-Alanine bonds with histidine to produce carnosine. Since histidines are normally abundant in your body, it wouldn’t be beneficial to supplement histidines, although the increase in Beta-Alanine would be beneficial to match the number of histidines in your body. When glucose is broken down through glycolysis, lactic acid is produced and it turns into lactate and hydrogen ions. An increase in hydrogen ions (H+) decreases the pH in your muscles and the acidic blood almost stings. As the blood gets more acidic, glucose isn’t broken down as efficiently and the result is less energy being produced. Carnosine acts as a buffer, which counteracts the onset of fatigue by keeping the pH levels in balance. 

Citrulline and Citrulline Malate (TLDR – around 6g of L-Citrulline, Citrulline Malate = L-Citrulline + Malic Acid to improve effectiveness/potency, makes you look more vascular and better pumps, more oxygen is in bloodstream and muscles)

Many pre-workouts contain either Citrulline or Citrulline Malate. This ingredient is responsible for the pumps you feel during the workout and often allows you to train for longer while feeling more satisfied. Taking any form of citrulline can temporarily increase vascularity, make you seem slightly bigger, and temporarily improve endurance. Citrulline Malate is a mixture of L-Citrulline and Malic Acid. The addition of Malic Acid is believed to increase absorption rates and bioavailability, meaning the effects kick in quicker and more of the L-Citrulline is actually used. Ranges of L-Citrulline can vary from 2g-9g and I often recommend 6g of L-Citrulline while 2:1 Citrulline Malate can be anywhere from 4g-8g with my recommendation within the 6-8 category. It’s not uncommon to see many brands go above that level to achieve a better pump but above those dosages, it’s up to preference. 

The main purpose for supplementing L-Citrulline is its role in the urea cycle. The citrulline works with the other amino acids to increase nitric oxide. This is important because nitric oxide maintains our cardiovascular health and dilates our blood vessels, effectively lowering blood pressure and increasing oxygen in the blood. 

Read part 2 to learn more about Taurine, Theanine, Tyrosine, and DMAA

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