Waking up early isn’t fun. Waking up early to get to the gym is a whole lot less fun since we seldom have the energy required to get excited about the workout (never mind actually doing the workout…). Enter the pre-workout supplement – that magic stuff that promises to wake your body up, priming it for an awesome workout. Most pre-workout supplements tell you they’ll give you a boost of energy so you can work out harder for longer. But if you’ve ever read the labels on the tubs of pre-workout supplements, you’ve probably wondered if some of the ingredients are safe to consume regularly. Knowledge is power, so let’s take a closer look at what’s inside pre-workout supplements and what the potential side effects could be.

What’s in a typical pre-workout supplement?

Most pre-workout supplements will contain some (or all of) the following ingredients:

  • Caffeine: No surprises here! Caffeine is a stimulant, giving you energy and also making you feel more mentally alert.
  • Arginine: It plays a role in the production of nitric oxide, which is a powerful vasodilator. It helps more blood get to your muscles, so you can DO more. It also plays a role in protein synthesis – a process that’s very important in muscle growth and repair post-workout.
  • Creatine: This is a fuel for your body’s primary high-intensity energy system. It increases the amount of creatine phosphate in your body. This gives your muscles energy faster than glucose would which means you can perform intense workouts without tiring. It’s most quickly absorbed when it’s consumed in conjunction with a sugar, which is why most pre-workout supplements will also contain some sort of glucose.
  • Beta alanine: This amino acid boosts the carnosine levels in your muscles. Carnosine in turn has been shown to stop the chemical changes in your muscle cells that result in muscle fatigue. The more carnosine you have, the longer you can work out for before your muscles will tire.
  • Dimethylamylamine: This is a stimulant that increases your heart rate. But it’s a potentially dangerous chemical – in the USA, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has issued a warning, after an Army Private collapsed and died shortly after taking it in his pre-workout drink, that it could cause cardiac arrest.


What are the potential side effects of pre-workout supplements?

Pre-workout supplements make you feel more energised. They also make you tire less quickly so you can get in a few extra sets, lift heavier weights or run a bit further. They can also help to reduce the oxidative stress that’s the natural result of an intense workout.

The danger of pre-workouts is that they can raise your heart rate. So if you’re doing a strenuous workout, this could put excessive strain on your heart. If you have a history of heart illness, or are just starting out as an athlete, chat to your doctor before you start gulping down pre-workouts.

Another risk is the caffeine in the pre-workout. If you’re a heavy coffee or tea drinker, make sure you cut back a bit when you start taking pre-workout supplements. Otherwise you may end up consuming too much caffeine.

Also, be aware that some people experience a tingling or prickling sensation in their skin after taking the pre-workout supplements. This is a side-effect of the beta alanine – it stimulates the nerve endings in the skin.

Another consideration is the other ingredients in the supplement. These might include sweeteners, artificial flavourants, preservatives and colours. These can cause headaches or diarrhoea if you’re sensitive to them.

The advice from the pros is to invest in high-quality pre-workout supplements that has very few “funny” additives. And then chat to an expert to find out how much you should be taking (and how often), as well as how to make room for the pre-workout supplement in your regular diet.

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