When looking through the workout supplements section at a store or online, it can seem like there is a never-ending selection of pre-workout supplements. Manufacturers and proponents of pre-workout claim that consuming these products before exercising boosts energy and performance.

Some studies back these statements, but the effect of pre-workout powders can also be overhyped. Let's take a look at both sides.

What Are Pre-Workout Powders?

Technically, there is no specific definition of what a pre-workout supplement actually is or what one must contain. These products usually use ingredients like protein, caffeine, and a variety of nutrients, as well as additives like sweeteners to make them more appealing.

Different options will contain different components and claim to help with different workout aspects. However, they all aim to “improve” an exercise routine.

protein pre-workout powder on a kitchen scale



Pre-workouts come in a variety of flavors, sizes, and brands, each touting their own unique benefits. However, they generally fall into a few categories based on what they are attempting to improve:

  • Strength and size supplements: improve muscle growth and recovery
  • Endurance supplements: keep energy levels high and boost workout performance
  • Nootropic supplements: newer ingredients to improve cognitive and mental focus
  • Non-stimulant supplements: provide additional energy without stimulants like caffeine
  • Combination products: use a medley of ingredients to provide multiple benefits at once

shelves full of protein and workout powders


Potential Benefits

According to many studies, pre-workout powders and supplements may improve certain aspects of a workout. In anaerobic cycle tests, study participants who ingested a pre-workout containing caffeine had noticeable improvements in average power output over the course of the test, as well as their peak power.

Other research efforts show that pre-workout powders may reduce fatigue and improve cognitive function and recovery.

Woman at the gym lifting heavy weights at her shoulders


Overhyped Claims

Manufacturers make many claims about their pre-workout supplements, such as immediate increases to strength levels. Many of these claims come from biased tests or exaggerate mild enhancements.

Overall, research indicates that pre-workout supplements are unlikely to cause noticeable short-term increases in upper or lower body strength unless they contain an extreme amount of caffeine. For any changes in strength to occur, a person must ingest the pre-workout powder regularly for a significant length of time.

very muscled arm of a man loading a barbell


Common Ingredients

Most pre-workout powders use the same core ingredients:

  • Caffeine to boost energy levels
  • Beta-alanine, an amino acid that buffers muscle pH levels during intense exercise, improving performance
  • Nitrates to improve blood flow, potentially lowering the oxygen cost of exercise and improving efficiency
  • Creatine to boost muscle strength and recovery over time
  • Artificial flavors, sugars, and sweeteners to improve taste

man filling his fitness drinking bottle with protein powder


Potential Side Effects

Along with the potential benefits, pre-workout supplements and powders also carry many possible side effects. High levels of caffeine can lead to headaches, digestive issues, heart rate changes, and insomnia, and exacerbate anxiety.

Beta-alanine may cause a tingling sensation. Other additives can cause digestive discomfort, water retention, and bladder issues. Some ingredients may interact with certain medications.

woman at the gym having a headache


Who Needs Pre-Workout?

While a good workout is achievable at any fitness level without pre-workout, the powders may be appropriate for both experienced and untrained people looking to improve their fitness efficiency. However, ingredient formulations can dramatically alter the effect and quality of the product.

It is important to research any product and its ingredients before taking it regularly, to avoid potential side effects.

smiling older women at the gym


Who Should Avoid It

While most health experts consider pre-workout powders safe, it is worth noting that there is a lack of research into their long-term effects and safety.

People with chronic health conditions should speak with a doctor before using any supplements. People who are pregnant or plan to become pregnant should also speak with a medical expert. Individuals who are sensitive to stimulants like caffeine may wish to avoid most pre-workout powders.

pregnant woman walking on a treadmill at the gym


Creatine Supplements vs. Pre-Workout Powders

Some experts and professional athletes feel that pure creatine supplements are more effective than pre-workout powders that contain a variety of ingredients.

Some evidence shows that pure creatine is incredibly effective if a person sticks to their dosing schedule. This also avoids the potential side effects of short-term performance boosters like caffeine. However, there is a lack of evidence indicating which is objectively better.

creatine monohydrate written on notepad with creatine powder in scoop


Diet First, Supplements Second

Medical professionals, nutritionists, and professional athletes alike stand by the idea that a healthy diet is the most effective way to improve workout performance. Taking supplements is simply a way to add more nutrients or performance boosters that a diet may lack.

In addition to what people can add to potentially increase ability, limiting or removing alcohol from the diet also has a positive effect, and drinking plenty of water will dramatically boost energy levels and muscle recovery. We can also more accurately control our caffeine intake if it is not in a mixture of other nutrients.

young woman drinking a healthy nutritional smoothie while wearing workout clothing


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This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.