How to tell if you need a pre-workout supplement – Articles

How to tell if you need a pre-workout supplement - Articles
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Why you should consider using a pre-workout supplement.

Do you need a boost?

Physically, mentally, emotionally?

How about just an uptick in energy and focus for your workout today?

Think for a minute…. What would it be like to power through your gym session with energy to spare?

Read on to get an idea why you should probably add a pre-workout supplement to your routine. 

What Is an “Ergogenic Aid,” and why might I take them?

Commonly referred to as a “pre-workout supplements,” an ergogenic aid is a mixture of ingredients that professionals, enthusiasts, and beginners alike consume prior to a workout in an effort to boost performance. An ergogenic aid is officially defined by the USDA as “substances that are claimed to help enhance energy utilization and performance in the body.”[i]

If you Google “pre-workout supplements” you’ll be bombarded with hundreds options ranging from pills, shots, powders, and even chewing gums that promise enhanced energy, stimulation, focus and vasodilation (better blood flow) among other things. Many of these formulas are nothing more than doctored up super-doses of caffeine laced with synthetic colors, flavors and artificial sweeteners. 

Some ingredients are well-studied and well-understood like caffeine, taurine, rhodiola, pine bark, creatine, beta-alanine etc. On the other hand, many popular ingredients are not so thoroughly researched or recommended.

For example, the FDA banned DMAA (1,3 dimethyleamine) in 2013, due to reports of death or serious injury as it may cause cardiac episodes through vasoconstriction.[ii]

Other questionable ingredients include glycine propionyl-L-carnitine, purported to boost sprint performance (benefits do not seem to extend beyond conditioned performance cyclists)[iii]. Be suspicious of “proprietary blends” too, as this is one way many supplement formulators under-dose key ingredients. By hiding multiple ingredients into a “blend” they don’t need to disclose the exact amount of each component of the blend; it often just makes the label look good.   

While we clearly should avoid certain ingredients, that doesn’t mean we should forgo the benefits that a safe and effective ergogenic aid brand might offer.

Let’s unpack this further. Which ergogenic aids are safe and effective? Is taking a pre-workout supplement a good option for you?

The Multi-Dimensional Power of Ergogenic Aids

A well-formulated pre-workout supplement should be designed to boost your acute workout performance (i.e. help you today) and build your fitness capacity over time (i.e. build endurance, strength, and/or power). In other words, a great pre-workout should improve your entire fitness program!

That is, if you’re paying money for a supplement that will help you enhance your workout performance, you should get more than just an energy boost. Your ergogenic aid should be part of a smart system of supplementation – one aimed at improving performance and supporting recovery efforts.

Keep in mind that a GREAT pre-workout supplement should do 5 things:

1) Support Energy Production

A great pre-workout supplement should make your body more efficient at getting energy from foods and fat stores into your muscle cells for peak performance while you exercise. Vitamins B12 and B6 have been extensively studied and shown to play a key role in releasing energy from food at the cellular level, which supports muscles throughout your workout (endurance)[iv]Creatine, perhaps the most rigorously studied performance-boosting supplement of all time, supports the energy availability and restoration of ATP in muscle cells both during and following maximum intensity or override efforts (strength, power and agility)[v],[vi],[vii]. Creatine is naturally found in red meat and fish, but gets destroyed when the meat is cooked, so unless you’re eating plenty of rare steak you may not have optimized creatine stores, and especially if you avoid red meat altogether.

2) Promote Blood Flow

A great pre-workout supplement should improve the way blood, nutrients and oxygen circulate from your heart and lungs to working muscles. Citrulline malate (found in Watermelon rind) and pine bark extract (AKA pycnogenol) both increase vasodilation (blood vessel expansion) by way of nitric oxide production in the body[viii],[ix]. This enhanced circulation improves aerobic activity and, thereby, better muscle recovery and fat burning!

3) Enhance Lactate Tolerance

A great pre-workout supplement should support your ability to work out hard (to “feel the burn”) but also to help you tolerate it! Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid that can reduce the perceived intensity of exercise[x]. Consistent use of beta alanine over time also helps increase carnosine levels in our muscle cells, which helps shuttle more fat into our mitochondria to be burned for energy, while simultaneously helping buffer lactate produced when muscles are taxed near the top end of their capacity. In other words, it makes it easier to sustain higher-intensity training bouts for longer and possibly reduces recovery intervals between sets.  

You should know that taking too much beta-alanine at once can cause a harmless sensation known as paresthesia or “itchy skin,” which can be easily eliminated by reducing dosage or taking an extended release form of beta alanine (you also don’t need to feel the “pins & needles” of higher dosing to get the benefits of beta alanine).

4) Protect cells from excessive damage from exercise itself. 

A great pre-workout supplement should protect cellular health and function under new loads of more intensive exercise. Antioxidants like citrus bioflavanoids and taurine have both been shown to shorten recovery periods and buffer DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). Additionally, betaine is an especially promising compound found in quinoa, beets and spinach that enhances performance, improving recovery times as well[xi].Though more research is forthcoming, it may even protect your muscles from damage related to acute, exercise-induced dehydration[xii].

5) Improve and Maintain Mental Focus

A great pre-workout supplement should help you stay laser-focused on your workout’s quality and completion. A moderate amount of caffeine (~100mg) and L-Theanine (an antioxidant in green tea) can stimulate your central nervous system to improve concentration and enhance your mood so you can more easily enter a flow-state[xiii] and mentally power through the challenge of your workout[xiv]. More caffeine doesn’t always make a pre-workout formula better, though, so be wary of formulas touting mega-doses of caffeine or similar stimulants. They can actually make you more scatterbrained, jittery or even negate some of the positive effects of the vasodilators in the formula. 

Choline, a nutrient found in liver, eggs and cauliflower is the building block for acetylcholine, a powerful neurotransmitter in the brain. Supplementation has been shown to improve cognitive function and willpower[xv].

Bonus: No Artificial Junk

A great pre-workout supplement should do all of the above, but it should do so without the addition of unnecessary synthetic colors, flavors or artificial sweeteners that are often used to mask the inherently bitter or sour taste of many of the ingredients mentioned.

Until recenly, the market for these types of performance enhancing supplements has been missing a cleaner, less artificial option. 

In partnership with leading sports scientists, Life Time has done the hard work for you and put it all together – a health-conscious pre-workout supplement and branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) formula called StrengthStack.

Our PreWorkout Complex is designed to be safe and effective for any exercise enthusiast with continued use. BCAA Recovery is specifically designed to promote recovery from exercise by reducing muscle soreness and supporting muscle protein synthesis.

Should I Take StrengthStack℠?

I recommend asking two questions as you consider your answer to this question.

  1. How are you recovering? If you’re not sleeping enough eating poorly post-workout, consuming large amounts of caffeine just to get through the day, or are generally more stressed than usual, then taking any pre-workout supplement may not overcome the challenges in your program.
  2. Should you reset first? If you’ve experienced significant inflammation or hormonal changes, if you regularly use a lot of caffeine or alcohol, if you’ve very recently made major shifts in your diet, or if you’ve been operating from an unhealthy routine, consider getting a solid foothold on some positive lifestyle and dietary changes first.

Remember, a good pre-workout supplement helps you safely add intensity to your workout for the purpose of more positive adaptations to higher physical stress. It’s like flooring the accelerator to maximize the output of your system and to test its limits. If your engine needs an oil change before you up your intensity, consider a detox first to reset your system so you can maximize benefits from the start of your StrengthStack℠.

Get Ready, Get Set, Go!

As always, the choice to supplement or not is yours, but I hope I’ve enhanced your understanding of what’s out there and what you might gain by exploring the wide world of performance-focused supplementation!

Are you interested in adding a pre-workout supplement to your fitness routine, or would you like to hear more? Connect with our fitness professionals or dietitians to understand how StrengthStack℠ can work in your favor!

(Article has been adapted from its original form which can be found here.)

The posts on this blog are not intended to suggest or recommend the diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of any disease, nor to substitute for medical treatment, nor to be an alternative to medical advice. The use of the suggestions and recommendations on this blog post is at the choice and risk of the reader.




[iv] Gropper, S; Smith, J (2009). Advanced nutrition and human metabolism. Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.

[v] Volek, J. S., Duncan, N. D., Mazzetti, S. A., Staron, R. S., Putukian, M., Gomez, A. L., Pearson, D. R., Fink, W. J., and Kraemer, W. J. Performance and muscle fiber adaptations to creatine supplementation and heavy resistance training. Med Sci.Sports Exerc. 1999;31(8):1147-1156. View abstract.

[vi] Volek, J. S., Kraemer, W. J., Bush, J. A., Boetes, M., Incledon, T., Clark, K. L., and Lynch, J. M. Creatine supplementation enhances muscular performance during high-intensity resistance exercise. J Am.Diet.Assoc 1997;97(7):765-770. View abstract.


[viii] Bendahan D, Mattei JP, Ghattas B, Confort-Gouny S, Le Guern ME, Cozzone PJ (Aug 2002). “Citrulline/malate promotes aerobic energy production in human exercising muscle”. Br J Sports Med 36 (4): 282–9.doi:10.1136/bjsm.36.4.282. PMC 1724533. PMID 12145119.

[ix] Pavlovic P. Improved endurance by use of antioxidants. Eur Bull Drug Res 1999;7:26-9.

[x] Hoffman, J. R., Ratamess, N. A., Faigenbaum, A. D., Ross, R., Kang, J., Stout, J. R., and Wise, J. A. Short-duration beta-alanine supplementation increases training volume and reduces subjective feelings of fatigue in college football players. Nutr Res 2008;28(1):31-35.

[xi] Hoffman JR, et al. Effect of betaine supplementation on power performance and fatigue. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2009 Feb 27;6:7.

[xii] Armstrong LE, et al. Influence of betaine consumption on strenuous running and sprinting in a hot environment. J Strength Cond Res. 2008 May;22(3):851-60.


[xiv] Camfield DA, Stough C, Farrimond J, Scholey AB (2014). “Acute effects of tea constituents L-theanine, caffeine, and epigallocatechin gallate on cognitive function and mood: a systematic review and meta-analysis”. Nutr. Rev. 72 (8): 507–22.doi:10.1111/nure.12120PMID 24946991.

[xv] Coreyann Poly, Joseph M Massaro, Sudha Seshadri, Philip A Wolf, Eunyoung Cho, Elizabeth Krall, Paul F Jacques, and Rhoda Au (2011). “The relation of dietary choline to cognitive performance and white-matter hyperintensity in the Framingham Offspring Cohort”.

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