Behind every killer workout is a proper nutrition strategy. Hydration, properly balanced macronutrients, and impeccably timed meals are key to making each sweat session more effective than the last. But what if you could do more than just eat properly to boost your workout, whether it’s in the gym, on the track or in the ring? We’re talking about preworkout formulas: blends of vital nutrients that can result in prolonged stamina, improved strength and better overall performance. Still skeptical about whether a preworkout formula is right for you? Read on to get the lowdown on the common ingredients found in these supplements, and how they just might give you an edge the next time you train.
Can Women Benefit?
Just like biceps curls and heavy deadlifts, preworkout formulas aren’t just for men. They’re designed to increase energy, endurance, focus and strength in all hard-working athletes, both male and female. “Research shows that key ingredients in most preworkouts, like beta-alanine and creatine, provide the same benefits for women as they do for men,” says Dwayne Jackson, PhD, director of the A.C. Burton Laboratory for Vascular Research at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada. He adds, however, that while a preworkout may help kick up your training as much as it could for the guy next to you at the weight rack, you don’t have to worry about bulking up like him. “There’s a big misconception that if you train and take supplements, you’re going to end up looking like Arnold.”
How Do They Work?
While the combination of specific ingredients varies, preworkout formulas mostly comprise essential (from your diet) and non-essential (naturally synthesized in the body) amino acids, as well as plant extracts and stimulants with scientifically proven performance-boosting properties. When you’re shopping for preworkout products, ignore the picture of the vein-popping monster on the label. Instead, turn to the nutritional info and keep these ingredients on your radar:
This non-essential amino acid could be the key to finishing your next HIIT session strong. Numerous studies have indicated that supplementing with beta-alanine can help to increase power in explosive bursts of strength (think plyometrics and CrossFit), as well as decrease your perceived exertion when taken prior to training. In one study, women performed continual cycling trials to exhaustion after 28 days of supplementing with beta-alanine or a placebo. The women taking beta-alanine showed improved anaerobic performance compared to the group taking a placebo. “Beta-alanine helps make work intervals longer and rest periods shorter,” notes Jackson. “This is especially great for the type of fitness women today typically engage in.” Data suggests that these benefits are thanks to beta-alanine’s role in preventing the lactic acid buildup that results in muscular fatigue.
Creatine has been praised among bodybuilders for decades for being a miracle muscle-builder. What this naturally occurring nutrient really does is help you train at a higher intensity and volume — meaning that you can bench with greater force for more reps, for instance — which in turn leads to improved strength and greater lean muscle mass. “Creatine is well known for increasing strength over several workouts,” says Jackson. But, he adds, it can also have immediate benefits when it comes to delaying muscle fatigue. Research shows that creatine may increase your anaerobic threshold, allowing you to plow through an extra round of a circuit.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
These three essential amino acids — leucine, valine and isoleucine — make up 35 percent of amino acids found in muscle tissue. The purpose of BCAAs in preworkouts is to deliver a double whammy of performance benefits. First, studies show that BCAAs may enhance performance and endurance by delaying “central fatigue” (basically when your brain gets tired before your muscles during prolonged exercise). Secondly, BCAAs help to prevent protein breakdown during exercise, thereby preserving that hard-earned muscle. This means improved recovery and rebuilding, which in turn leads to increased strength and performance over time. Since BCAAs are rapidly consumed by muscle tissue before you even hit the shower, it’s important to include them in your pre-training nutrition plan to keep blood BCAA levels high and ready for action.
Found in the ingredient lists of most preworkout supplement formulas, caffeine provides that extra kick in the butt you may need to destroy every race, sprint or squat. Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system to boost focus and energy, improving your performance for up to four hours. Research suggests that as little as 1.3 milligrams of caffeine per pound of body weight is significant enough to improve endurance in both aerobic and anaerobic activities. You can get that dose in an eight-ounce cup of joe if you weigh 135 pounds, so you may want to avoid chugging a preworkout and your extra-large java in one afternoon. Sensitive to stimulants? Look for caffeine-free products unless cleared by your doc.
While research is still preliminary, studies suggest that this non-essential amino acid shows promise as a performance-booster. L-citrulline has been shown to boost the production of arginine, an amino acid that gets converted into the chemical nitric oxide (NO), which promotes the widening of blood vessels, allowing for greater blood flow and nutrient delivery to muscle tissue. This means that it may not only help working muscles perform optimally, but also to reduce muscle soreness and repair time. What’s more, L-citrulline, which can also appear in the form of the nutrient combo citrulline malate (CM), has the potential to reduce rest times between bursts of maximal effort, such as when sprinting, so you can work harder in a shorter period of time.
How To Use Them
Think a preworkout formula might be right for your fitness goals? Follow these tips from Jackson on choosing and using a preworkout:
- Do your research. Go for a product from a reputable company or a brand name that you trust. Read up on any unfamiliar ingredients and check out customer reviews online to read about others’ experiences.
- Read the fine print. Be aware of any side effects or health warnings that may pertain to you.
- Take as directed. Most preworkouts are taken about 30 minutes to an hour before exercise, but read the directions before chugging. You may wish to start with a smaller dose and increase incrementally until you figure out what works for you.
- Use it appropriately. You probably don’t need to down a performance-boosting supplement before yoga or an evening walk. Preworkouts are most beneficial when taken prior to workouts that require a combination of strength and endurance, like a boot camp or strength circuit.
- Get checked out. As always, see your doctor before starting supplementation, especially if you are caffeine sensitive, pregnant or nursing.