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The Pros and Cons of Pre-Workout Supplements for Athletes

Find yourself low on energy before you even start your workout? Need a boost to power through your training? You might benefit from taking pre-workout. 

What is pre-workout?

Pre-workout supplements — often referred to simply as “pre-workout” — are multi-ingredient dietary formulas designed to increase energy and provide nutrients that help you adapt and improve athletic performance over time. They’re typically a powdered substance that you can mix in water and drink before hitting the gym. 

There’s not a “standard” pre-workout formula. There are multiple pre-workout supplements on the market made by many different manufacturers, and each one has a different set of ingredients. Some of the most common ingredients found in pre-workout supplements include creatine monohydrate, beta alanine, L-Tarurine, L-Leucine and caffeine.

Common pre-workout ingredients

On the labels of almost every protein powder formula, you’re likely to find creatine and beta alanine listed as ingredients. Creatine helps support muscle strength, short energy bursts, recovery, and increases in lean body mass while beta alanine works to increase energy and decrease post-workout fatigue. Creatine is found naturally in muscle cells and helps your muscles produce energy during heavy lifting or high-intensity exercise. Studies show creatine can increase muscle mass, strength and exercise performance. Creatine helps you lift heavier weights, helping you reach your muscle gain goals. It also helps your muscles produce energy, keeping you going during a long run, bike ride, etc.


Beta alanine is an amino acid that your body produces naturally and it’s especially effective in preventing post-workout fatigue after more strenuous exercises such as weightlifting. A supplementary dose of beta alanine helps your body produce more carnosine, which can support training at a higher intensity for longer. It helps to delay muscle fatigue by “soaking” up acid generated during exercise. This means you can feel stronger for longer. 


Other pre-workout ingredients may include L-Citrulline DL-Malate, leucine, isoleucine, valine, L-Theanine and caffeine. L-citrulline is a non-essential amino acid. Your kidneys change L-citrulline into another amino acid called L-arginine and a chemical called nitric oxide, which are important to your heart health and the health of your blood vessels, as well as your immune system. Nitric oxide helps your arteries relax and work better, which improves blood flow throughout your body. Athletes take L-citrulline to help build muscles and boost their performance. More oxygen in your muscles means they can potentially work harder and more efficiently, and more oxygen transport means the lungs can work more efficiently. One study published in The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that taking citrulline malate enhances both athletic anaerobic performance and relieves muscle soreness.


Leucine, isoleucine, and valine are grouped together as branched chain amino acids, or BCAAs. These three essential amino acids comprise about 20-35% of your muscle tissue. Your body doesn’t synthesize them, so you must consume them. BCAAs are needed for the physiological response to stress and energy production — particularly for muscle health and the metabolism. Because the intake of BCAAs can reduce muscle loss and provide faster muscle recovery, many athletes look for BCAAs in their pre-workout supplements, as well as their protein powder supplements. They have been shown to improve endurance during workouts, improve strength during workouts, improve recovery and reduce soreness after workouts and stimulate muscle growth.

Then there’s L-Theanine, which when paired with caffeine, is shown to help increase focus and attention. The caffeine stimulates the body’s central nervous system, improves reaction time and reduces fatigue, allowing you to extend your workout. 

How long the effects of pre-workout last depends on the ingredients’ half-life. Most ingredients in pre-workout have a half-life of 4-6 hours. That means the pre workout will last and remain in your system for about 4 hours. That said, you may only feel the effects for an hour or two. Caffeine, for example, takes about 30 minutes to kick-in with around 1 to 1.5 hours until peak time. Creatine and beta-alanine have similar timing, taking about 30-45 minutes to kick-in and around 1 hour until peak time. Keeping ingredients’ kick-in time, peak time and half-life in mind, most people take pre-workouts 30 minutes before working out to ensure the effects will last throughout their workout.

Pros and cons of pre-workout supplements: Benefits vs side effects

The main appeal of taking pre-workout is the possible boosts in athletic performance. According to a 2018 review published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition titled “Multi-ingredient pre-workout supplements, safety implications, and performance outcomes: a brief review,” a substantial body of evidence suggests that pre-exercise consumption of pre-workout may positively influence muscular endurance and subjective mood. The review notes that pre-workout ingestion appears to be relatively safe, and frequent consumption of pre-workout in conjunction with a resistance training program appears to lead to beneficial changes in body composition through increased lean mass accretion.


There are a few potential side effects to be aware of, however: Pre-workout contains caffeine, and while caffeine consumption is relatively safe in healthy adults, excess caffeine intake can lead to impairments in cardiovascular function and sleep. A 2017 study titled “The Safety of Ingested Caffeine: A Comprehensive Review” published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry warns that pregnant and lactating women, children and adolescents, young adults and people with high blood pressure, underlying heart conditions, insomnia or other health conditions, such as mental illness, may be vulnerable to the negative effects of high levels of caffeine consumption. That said, healthy adults aren’t as susceptible to these effects and may see an increase in alertness, energy and elevated mood with caffeine consumption. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that consuming 400 mg of caffeine per day is not generally associated with dangerous, negative effects. (400 mg is the equivalent of about four or five cups of coffee.)


Additionally, the beta alanine in pre-workout may cause a harmless tingling sensation; however, it does not always cause the jitters. Typically, any shakes or jitters will come from high doses of caffeine. If you’re sensitive to caffeine, look for pre-workouts that contain a more mild dose of caffeine,and also may have other ingredients to reduce the jitters, such as the Gainful pre-workout. Try starting out with just half a scoop of pre-workout to assess your tolerance if you’re nervous about possible side effects.


Also note, dry-scooping does not increase pre-workout’s benefits. There is no evidence that dry scooping pre-workout increases the benefits of it, and in fact, it then becomes a choking hazard. Pre-workout will be equally as effective if mixed with an appropriate amount of liquid first. 

How to use pre-workout to boost athletic performance

The key to getting the benefits of pre-workout is knowing when and how to take it. For the best results, use pre-workout 3-4 times a week. Your body will become tolerant to caffeine over time, and you may also mentially become too dependent on pre-workout if you use it every day, so it’s recommended for workouts where you need more of a push. Limit your usage to a few select days per week, taking it 30 minutes before your workout. Be cautious of taking pre-workout too close to bedtime, as it may lead to difficulty falling asleep.  If your pre-workout supplement contains caffeine or other stimulants, it may inhibit your ability to fall asleep or stay asleep. (This is why Gainful created the low-stim version of pre-workout to allow you to take it any time in the afternoon or evening without affecting your ability to fall asleep.)


Remember: Pre-workout is not just for weightlifters or people trying to gain muscle. Pre-workout can help improve performance, strength, endurance, and workout intensity, which can benefit a wide variety of goals — including weight loss. 

The best pre-workout for athletes

The best pre-workout is one that’s formulated specifically for you and your goals. Gainful offers personalized pre-workout formulas that are created based on your type, frequency and intensity of exercise, as well as your goals and caffeine preferences. You just take a quiz to find your pre-workout, as well as your own personalized protein and personalized hydration formula, then Gainful creates your complete system and sends it right to your doorstep. 


Gainful’s pre-workout is made with L-Citrulline DL-Malate, beta alanine, leucine, isoleucine, valine, L-Theanine and caffeine anhydrous that allows for a natural energy boost. The BCAAs in Gainful’s personalized pre-workout may help reduce feelings of fatigue and muscle soreness following your workout, and the beta alanine helps delay muscle fatigue so you can extend your high level training and build more endurance. The L-Citrulline in Gainful’s pre-workout increases oxygen to muscles and supports transportation of nutrients, which means muscles can work more efficiently. The newest Gainful pre-workout formula is available in two delicious flavors: Strawberry Lemonade and Watermelon.


As part of your Gainful subscription, you’ll also have access to a Registered Dietitian, who can answer any questions you may have about your pre-workout blend, the best pre-workout supplements for your body or dietary supplements and workout products in general. 


Gainful is here to help you make the most of each and every workout, from start to finish.