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For decades, pre-workout manufacturers have been claiming that if you want to improve athletic performance in the gym and get a boost of energy to power through your most challenging workouts, you should be taking their supplements. But given the amount of buzz surrounding such products often the true facts about supplements can be overshadowed by heavy marketing gimmicks. You don’t want to be that sucker who just bought something because you saw it on Instagram. Especially if many experts say that they're potentially dangerous and totally unnecessary. So, who is right? When it comes to pre-workout products are there any real benefits? What are they doing to our body’s when consumed?
Pre-work products are basically multi-ingredient dietary formulas designed to boost energy and athletic performance. They're typically a powdered substance that you mix in water or drink before exercise.
Caffeine is a stimulant. One of the most common and main ingredients in pretty much all pre-workout products is caffeine. It wakes us up and gives us energy. Therefore, many of us look forward to that cup of coffee in the morning to help get our day started. We want that caffeine fix. A research study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's disease found that caffeine works on peoples of arousal, mood, and concentration. So, if you want to be focused or concentrate more throughout your workout, pre-workout with caffeine might be a good enhancing supplement for this. Be careful with how much caffeine might be in some of these pre-workout powders. Excess caffeine is not something we want. Excess intake of this stimulant can lead to negative side effects such as increased blood pressure, impaired sleep, and anxiety. But if you're also getting caffeine from other sources throughout the day, it might be easy to accidentally consume way too much. If you're wondering how much caffeine one should be consuming in a day. The average adult should usually be okay with consuming about 400 milligrams of caffeine in a day, which is about the same amount as four cups of brewed coffee or say two energy drinks. So, if you decide to add on a pre-work out on top of your multiple cups of coffee or energy drinks in a day, you want to keep this in mind as it may just be too much for your system.
BCAA’s are another common ingredient added to many pre-workout products. BCAAs are used to increase muscle growth, decrease muscle soreness, and reduce exercise fatigue. Sounds great for a pre workout drink, right? But unfortunately, most pre workout drinks have pixie dusted the amount of BCAAs in these drinks, meaning that they put just enough in there to say that they have BCAAs on the label, but probably not enough to be effective.
Coenzyme Q 10 (CoQ10) is another ingredient that is often in some pre-workout supplements. CoQ10 has been known to have many health benefits besides just working out. CoQ10 acts as an antioxidant which protects cells from damage and also plays an important role when it comes to your metabolism. CoQ10 also helps with the production of ATP, which is a chemical form of energy. So overall supplementing with COQ10 can help increase power during exercise and reduce fatigue. There's often not enough of this ingredient in there to make a difference and not all pre-workouts include it. Unfortunately, COQ10 is rather expensive. Your favorite pre workout drink most likely won’t have enough because it's costly to buy so they're not going to put as much in there as you hope.
Creatine is another ingredient that is often added to pre-workout products. Creatine becomes phosphocreatine which is what your muscles use for fuel during exercises involving short bursts of power. We use phosphocreatine in those initial two to five seconds of moments we do when we start our workouts. That's when we use phosphocreatine because it's instant. Your body hasn't had time to use up other energy substrates from glycolysis or Krebs Cycle carbohydrates. So, you burn up creatine in the first few seconds of a workout. On the contrary, caffeine is better for longer workouts. It's good for endurance, like running, biking, rowing to exhaustion, these long-term exercises. The reason most drinks don't use both caffeine and creatine is that it's not always as effective to have both. In fact, research has shown it doesn't help endurance performance much to include both. Some people performed worse when they have both caffeine and creatine, especially when participating in endurance training. It really depends on the type of workout you are hoping to achieve. If you are participating in a high intensity workout with short bursts perhaps creatine might be an ideal ingredient for you prior to exercise.
Beta Alanine is often added to pre workouts also. Beta Alanine increases carnosine which is an amino acid with antioxidant and immune system boosting properties. Carnosine helps reduce acidity in the muscles during intense exercises. Beta Alanine may also improve physical performance and delay muscle fatigue. Beta Alanine works best for exercises less than 60 seconds long like high intensity interval training any longer than that and the results from Beta Alanine are inconsistent because your body doesn't use the lactic acid cycle which is what causes that burn during high intensity workouts. If there is no lactic acid, then no need for beta alanine. A safety warning about Beta Alanine is a standard dose ranges from two to five grams but doses around one gram are the best because it won't give you as bad of a case of the “beta tingles”. Beta tingles are like a niacin flush. Niacin happens to be another ingredient in many pre-workout products. I have not found a reason for niacin other than causing the flush so users think it is working. Some people are more sensitive, sensitive to the flush and tingles than other people. And this side effect is harmless. It's just annoying if you are more susceptible to it.
L-Citrulline and L-Arginine. These are grouped together because citrulline is converted to arginine. Some pre workout products add both or just one of them. Citrulline turns into arginine which turns into nitric oxide. Nitric oxide helps regulate blood pressure, blood flow and muscle relaxation. Citrulline helps our bodies get rid of waste. When we eat a lot of protein. We make a lot of waste in the form of ammonia. The arginine helps your body get rid of this waste. Arginine supplements get metabolized quickly. So, the best way to help this whole waste thing is to get more arginine but the best way to get more Arginine is to get more citrulline.
L-carnitine is another potential ingredient. L-carnitine is an amino acid that helps boost the metabolism which can help burn more calories. Studies have shown that it helps the body produce energy, boost endurance, is important to heart and brain function as well as muscle movement. L-carnitine also has the benefit of crossing the blood brain barrier and therefore helps the body deliver energy to the brain and nervous system. Therefore, it could be considered a nootropic ingredient because it improves mood learning and memory but also helps your muscle mitochondria burn fat which can increase your endurance and help you recover faster when working out.
Artificial sweeteners. Most pre workout supplements have these. The artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols most pre workout products contain aren't really that good for you. Pre workout supplements frequently contain these artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols to enhance the flavor without adding calories. Some sweeteners have been known to cause intestinal distress and discomfort in some individuals. Specifically, a high intake of sugar alcohols may trigger uncomfortable symptoms such as gas, bloating and diarrhea all of which can disrupt your overall goal. If you are sensitive to artificial sweeteners, you may want to just avoid a pre workout formula that contains large amounts of these sweeteners. On the other hand, if you're going to continue forth with these types of sweeteners, I'd say try a small amount first to see how your body tolerates it.
Now you know what is in most pre workout products. If you are interested in trying a pre-workout supplement you should try to take your pre workout around 30 minutes to an hour before your workout. This should give the supplement enough time to hit your bloodstream and amp you up ahead of your gym dash. The International Society of sports nutrition indicates dosing caffeine based on one's body weight. A range for optimal effectiveness being three to four milligrams per kilogram or 1.3 to 2.7 milligrams per pound of bodyweight. For instance, a 150 pound person would be at a range of around 200 to 400 milligrams of caffeine which is a big range. So, keep in mind it may affect everyone differently. Know your caffeine tolerance before you take it. And if you've only ever taken 100 milligrams of caffeine at a time, perhaps don't jump right to 350 milligrams before an important workout.
One study out of the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition found that nitric oxide precursors, caffeine and creatine should be the key ingredients to be on the hunt for when you're in the market for a pre workout. Creatine is also a great standalone supplement. Creatine does not need to be taken at a specific time, just needs to be taken daily. Personally, my first go prior to a workout is a black cup of coffee. If I feel I do need a little extra boost, I will do a pre workout before my workout. I occasionally do use them, but I don't use them every time because I don't want my body to get used to or require a pre workout to get a workout in.
We don’t want to become reliant on stimulants to function as this has become a problem today. The overuse of caffeine and other stimulants adds more stress to our system. We need to be careful of this and try not to overdue or abuse these products. They cause a huge surge and increase in stress hormones, such as cortisol. Now keep in mind that exercise itself will cause an increase in adrenaline and cortisol. These stimulant pre-workout products are now adding to this stress as extra stress. So now that's double the stress on your body and your endocrine system. This can become a bad thing. However, that's just the beginning of the negativity.
These days most people already have adrenal fatigue due to an overproduction of adrenaline. Our lives are very complicated now compared to 50 or 100 years ago. We're bombarded with demands all day long and pulled in different directions all the time, which is very stressful. We may feel overwhelmed and unmotivated. We have more responsibilities and information coming at us all day long. From the first thing in the morning, all the way till bedtime. We work longer and longer hours and get less quality sleep. Thus, your nervous and adrenal system does not have time to recover properly. People don't even realize this because we're just now used to this. We just tolerate it.
So, what does this have to do with pre-workout supplements? Well, most people have elevated levels of stress hormones. Some individuals have it so bad that it has burnt out their adrenal glands and thus, they need stimulants such as caffeine, coffee, energy drinks and pre-workout supplements just to feel normal and get through their day. All of this can cause a massive hormonal imbalance. More stress hormones, such as cortisol, ends up causing a decrease in both total and free testosterone levels. Prolonged stress also causes negative changes in other key hormones such as insulin, growth hormones, IGF prolactin, thyroid and so forth. All of these can cause negative changes in how you look and feel. This can mean less muscle and more fat. You'll also have less motivation and drive including in the bedroom and thus lowered libido. Take the testosterone quiz.
The bottom line here is that you want to manage stress levels and not add to them. Taking pre-workout stimulants, energy drinks, coffee, and caffeine and all these other products that have caffeine and similar compounds adds to an already stressed body. Yes, you'll feel the short-term increase in performance, but the price will be decreased in long term results. Remember, you want to lower stress levels, not add to them and not increase them. If you're too tired or you need a caffeine product just to feel normal or have a good workout this could mean you are over stressed. Pre-workout supplements can have their place but try not to get in the habit of using them regularly to get to the gym. Focus on ways to help manage and reduce overall stress. Use pre-workouts more sparingly and strategically as a way to enhance workouts periodically.
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Dr. Jacey Folkers, MD/PhDBack to Blog