July 29, 2021 1 Comment
Pre-workout supplements often contain stimulants such as caffeine but are they needed? We will take a look at pre-workout with stimulants vs non-stimulant pre-workout to examine the differences to determine which is better for you. This post will go over some of the most common ingredients used in pre-workout formulas today. By the time you're done reading you should have a better understanding of what's in your pre-workout and how these substances effect your training performance.
A stimulant is a substance that increases the activity of the central nervous system and the body. Stimulants can be both legal and illegal but for the sake of this article we will stick with the role of stimulants in athletics, bodybuilding and fitness in general.
Stimulants have been used in the fitness world since in the late 1800’s when cyclists in Europe would mix wine with coca leaves or cocaine to get increased energy and endurance. Stimulants have been popular in the realm of fitness because of their direct effect in improving physical and mental performance.
Let's have a look at some stimulants below that have been used at one time or another in pre-workouts:
Caffeine: The obvious substance when most people think of a legal stimulant caffeine is consumed daily by people around the world. It’s in chocolate, energy drinks, fat burners, pre-workouts, guarana, yerba mate, kola nut and super popular beverages like coffee tea. People tend to build a tolerance to caffeine so they start looking for other stronger stimulants. The most powerful caffeine is caffeine anhydrous meaning it is a processed, dehydrated form of caffeine.
Caffeine leads to an energy boost because it blocks the brain’s adenosine receptors. Adenosine is a neuromodulator in the central nervous system that has special receptors and when adenosine binds to these receptors then neural activity slows down causing sleepiness. By blocking these receptors caffeine makes you feel awake and alert, giving you energy. It also can increase the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine. Another benefit of caffeine for fitness is that it decreases airway resistance and stimulates respiration.
Yohimbine: This is the active chemical in yohimbe bark. This the yohimbe tree is an evergreen tree found in central and western Africa. Yohimbe has multiple uses but is frequently used for its hallucinogenic effects in its native setting. The bark of the tree contains roughly 6 percent yohimbine.
There’s also a synthetic version called yohimbine hydrochloride (HCI). Research has been completed on this substance demonstrating that it can be useful for fat-loss and as a sexual stimulant. Yohimbine increases blood flow and nerve impulse transmission especially in the genitals.
The science is out on many of the claims you will see listed on products so make sure to do your own research and consult with a doctor before starting any new supplementation.
Dendrobium: Coming from a plant called Dendrobium Noble, a member of the orchid family, this is a newer stimulant to show its face in the Western world. It has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for a thousand years as a strengthening tonic under the name shi hu.
After DMAA was put on the blacklist of substances for supplement companies they’ve been looking for replacements like Dendrobium. However, since a highly publicized class action lawsuit against US -based Driven Sports for its pre-workout Craze, this ingredient isn’t seen much these days.
Theobromine: Similar to caffeine it is also one of the methylxanthine compounds. Theobromine is in tea, chocolate and kola nut but in minimal amounts. It is about 10% the strength of caffeine so it isn’t a very efficient stimulant. Interestingly though, theobromine has been shown to decrease blood pressure unlike other stimulants that increase blood pressure.
Eria Jarensis: Eria Jarensis Extract is or N-Phenethyl Dimethylamine is derived from an Orchid species native to South East Asia. It is a powerful stimulant found in pre-workout supplements these days even with it being banned in certain countries like Australia.
This neuromodulator acts on the central nervous system producing cognitive benefits as it increased levels of dopamine and noradrenaline in the body. As in many new substances on the market more research needs to be done but many people report euphoric mood boost, enhanced stimulation and improved mental focus.
DMHA: Dimethylhexylamine, Octodrine or DMHA originally used as a drug to alleviate nasal congestion has now morphed into an ingredient found in pre-workout supplements. This stimulant is similar to DMAA which is still in legal battles.
DMHA is said to be about 80% the strength of DMAA and is a psychoactive central nervous system stimulant that helps support fat loss, increase energy and produces feelings of euphoria. Not enough research has been done on this compound regarding its effectiveness and safety.
Ephedrine: Still legally available in some countries this strong stimulant is sold as a nasal decongestant. It used to be sold in caffeinated weight loss or fat burner products in the US until it was banned after it was linked to some deaths.
It comes from an herb used in traditional Chinese medicine called ma huang as a treatment for breathing ailments. A big issue with ephedrine is that is a non-selective alpha/beta-receptor agonist, meaning it affects all types of adrenergic receptors which can lead to high blood pressure and increased heart rate. Questionable safety and negative side effects led to this stimulant being banned in dietary supplements.
DMAA: Similar to ephedrine but not as strong, DMAA or methylhexaneamine an extract of Geranium was used as a nasal decongestant. First patented in 1944 by pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly it was sold under the name Forthane in 1971 as a nasal decongestant until other better solutions such as ephedrine took its place. DMAA also became a party pill in New Zealand during the 1970’s.
It wasn’t until 2005 when Patrick Arnold, of the infamous BALCO steroid scandal, rediscovered DMAA and started using it in a product called AMP’d. From then on many supplement companies started using DMAA in their pre-workouts and fat burners until the FDA sent warnings out in 2011 to supplement makers telling them to stop using it. Dangers were likened to increase in blood pressure and heart rate.
Yes! Many pre-workout supplements can contain up to 300mg of caffeine per serving which is roughly 3 cups of coffee. As mentioned previously caffeine has proven health benefits especially when it comes to increasing energy levels. In 2018 the Journal of the International Society of Sport Nutrition reviewed 80 studies that looked at pre-workout formulas coming to the conclusion that pre-workouts might benefit mood and muscular endurance during a workout. They also mentioned that pre-workouts can have positive effects on long-term body composition through hypertrophy when combined with resistance training.
A stimulant free pre-workout is a supplement that doesn’t have caffeine or other stimulants. Most pre-workout supplements whether in powder or pill form contain some type of stimulants. Pre-workouts with stimulants like caffeine work on the central nervous system leading to increased heart rate and alertness while enhancing focus.
Stimulant free or non-stim pre-workout is perfect for people who want to the other benefits that typical pre-workout supplements offer like more pump, more focus, enhanced recovery and longer lasting endurance without experiencing the effects of stimulants. Good non-stimulant pre-workout products should provide energy in other ways by improving alertness, blood flow and focus through other substances such as beta-alanine, nitric oxide, creatine, taurine and others.
Yes, stimulant free pre-workout can work if it contains the right ingredients. Non-stim pre-workouts usually contain ingredients such as beta-alanine, nitric oxide, amino acids, creatine, betaine amongst others. There are plenty of stimulant free pre-workout supplements on the market however it’s difficult to distinguish what ingredient is living up to the claims as they are usually proprietary blends. We’ll take a look at some of these other non-stim ingredients and their benefits below.
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If it is a pre-workout with a stimulant then it will contain a stimulant, usually in the form of caffeine. There are a number of other common ingredients found in both stim-free pre-workout and pre-workout with stimulants listed below with short descriptions of each:
Agmatine Sulfate: Agmatine comes from the amino acid arginine when it’s decarboxylated. It is naturally produced through microbial activity in the intestines and is found in some fish, meat and plants. The supplement you see in many pre-workouts is in the form of agmatine sulfate. It helps to prevent the break down of nitric oxide which in turn improves blood flow resulting in bigger muscle pumps and more vascularity. Recommended doses can range from 7.5-15 grams taken up to 30 minutes before your workout.
Arginine: Also known as L-arginine this amino acid aids in healing wounds, helps to purify the kidneys, maintains immune and hormone function and dilates and relaxes arteries. This last point is why it’s found in many pre-workouts as it changes to nitric oxide (NO) which is a strong neurotransmitter that improves circulation and relaxes blood vessels.
BCAA: Branched-chain amino acids are usually the combination of three essential amino acids; isoleucine, leucine and valine. They offer many benefits backed by research including reducing muscle soreness, decreasing fatigue from exercise and improving liver health. The amino acid leucine is also vital to stimulate muscle growth. The building blocks of protein, these BCAA’s directly enter the blood stream skipping the gut and liver. Recommended daily dose of these BCAA’s is 5-10 grams.
Beetroot Extract: Yes you read that right, beetroot like the bright red root vegetable. Beetroot extract helps to improve blood flow resulting in increased endurance and stamina. The amount of beetroot in many pre-workouts might not be substantial so you might want to consider chugging a beetroot juice before a workout.
Betaine: Also known as trimthylglycine this is an amino acid found in beets and spinach. It’s also naturally present in the body when choline breaks down. Betaine has been proven to increase power and endurance by raising the levels of anabolic agents. It was also shown in a 2010 study that athletes who took 1.25 grams of betaine twice daily increased strength by 25% and muscle by 20%.
Beta-Alanine: This is also an amino acid that can come from foods containing carnosine like meat and fish. Daily recommended dose is 2-5 grams. It reduces the amount of lactic acid buildup in your muscles allowing you to push longer and harder on those last few reps. The increased blood flow can produce the tingling sensation which some love and others hate. Besides the itch and tingly feeling, beta alanine will provide no benefit to your pre-workout unless you are dosing it every day, which is why pre-workout without beta-alanine is becoming more common. It's simply unnecessary for most people because they aren't supplementing it on off days.
Creatine: Found in almost all pre-workout supplements, creatine monohydrate is a non-essential amino acid that’s produced by the body. Creatine helps to aid muscle recovery, improves strength and builds muscle. Creatine gives an extra boost to the muscles during exercise or heavy lifting. Daily dose can range from 5-20 grams.
Carnitine: Another amino acid, carnitine or L-carnitine is vital for energy production. It moves long-chain fatty acids into the mitochondria to be burned (oxidized) thus producing energy. It’s found in multiple foods but especially in red meat. The direct effects in exercise are yet to be fully understood but it likely helps improve performance. Recommended daily dose is around 2 grams.
L-Citrulline: Another amino acid produced by the body, the main function is to produce nitric oxide which aids in expanding blood vessels and improving blood flow. More blood flow means more oxygen to the muscles leading to improved performance. Watermelon is one of the best natural sources of this amino acid. Daily doses can range from 3-15 grams.
Glutamine: An amino acid that’s used in the biosynthesis of proteins, L-glutamine is added to pre-workouts as it has shown promise in aiding in post workout recovery and the reduction of muscle soreness. Found in food sources like fish, nuts, eggs and dark leafy greens glutamine aids in repairing the tears in muscles from hard training. Daily doses can be up to 14 grams.
Sodium Bicarbonate: You might be surprised to see this in your pre-workout because it is baking soda. This can help improve performance by counteracting the lactic acid build up that comes from intense exercise. Lactic acid is the byproduct of the body burning stored carbohydrates for energy. Some people experience upset stomachs when ingesting this.
Taurine: This is an amino sulfonic acid found in the body; mainly in the heart, brain and skeletal muscles. You’ve probably seen it listed on ingredients in energy drinks it can also come from food sources such as meat, fish and dairy. Taurine has shown benefits in enhancing endurance and reducing muscle soreness. Daily dosages usually range from 1-6 grams to see mentioned benefits.
Theanine: An amino acid found in tea and mushrooms; it is derived from another amino acid L-glutamine. Theanine releases neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid a.k.a GABA. This process leads to mood enhancement and relaxation. If used in conjunction with a pre-workout with caffeine it transforms it into “smart caffeine” where you don’t get the jitters or anxiety from the caffeine; only the upsides. It also helps reduce chances of experiencing post-workout crash. Best dosages depend on why you take it but for cognition and relaxation 100mg is said to do the trick even when used with caffeine.
Tyrosine: An amino acid that is produced in the body from another amino acid called phenylalanine. It plays an important role in producing neurotransmitters including epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine. It’s found in high protein food sources such as meat, dairy and nuts. Tyrosine helps with focus and alertness and is usually taken in doses that range from 500-2,000 mg 30-60 minutes before exercise. There’s more research needed to be done to determine the exact effect tyrosine has on exercise but it has been shown to be beneficial when exercising in heat.
Vitamin B: Helps to send oxygen to muscles and aids in the production of red blood cells. B12 is often added in BCAA to ensure your body is boosting protein synthesis and/or slowing the process of protein breakdown. You might also see niacin or B3 as B vitamins help to power your workout and boost energy amongst other health benefits. The recommended daily dose is 2.4 micrograms although over doing this won’t necessarily lead to negative effects but that your body can only absorb a certain amount at a time.
The reason to take stimulant free pre-workout is to power you through intense training sessions without the negative side effects of pre-workouts with stimulants. Some of the benefits of taking a stim-free pre-workout include:
The difference between stim and non-stim pre-workouts is if there’s some form of stimulant in the supplement or not. Both have shared common end goals; to improve your workout performance which should give you better training results.
Some people do better with stim-free pre-workout supplements. Here are a few variables that might help influence whether or not you should look to take non-stim pre-workout:
Most pre-workouts have stimulants for a reason; they work. Have a look at a few aspects that you should consider before purchasing a pre-workout with stimulants, most likely in the form of caffeine:
Can You Stack Stimulant and Non-stimulant Pre-workout?
Yes, it’s possible to stack both stimulant and non-stim pre-workout supplements. Make sure to check daily recommended dosage of any pre-workout you take. Some people will stack pre-workout powder or supplements to gain benefits from both types. Mixing half a dose of both can provide the positive results while limiting the possible negative effects of caffeine and/or other stimulants.
Here are some answers to frequently asked questions regarding pre-workout supplements:
It’s best to follow the directions on the label of the pre-workout supplement you take because various ingredients have different timing as to when they kick in. If your pre-workout has caffeine in it then the best time to take it might be 45 minutes before exercise as this study showed 99% was absorbed within that time. Regardless, if your pre-workout has stimulants or not the best course of action is to follow the instructions relating to the specific supplement you’re taking.
Related: Why Pre-Workout Timing is Important
As with any supplementation you should consult with your doctor before beginning any new regimen. However, some research shows that pre-workouts are for the most part safe and if any side effects are present then they’re usually mild. The side effects can range depending on ingredients used in the formula.
Some side effects can include:
It’s important to note that there still needs to be more long-term research done on pre-workouts as they haven’t been around for a long time and most research trials only last for 8 weeks. Equally important, you should do some self-research on the supplement and the brand you plan to take beforehand as the supplement industry isn’t prone to following strict FDA guidelines due to weak enforcement. Supplements of all types have been found to contain substances that they shouldn’t, including heavy metals, toxins and other banned substances. Check for products that have been tested by third parties like NSF.
Related: Pre-Workout Pros & Cons
You should read the label to see if your particular pre-workout should or shouldn’t be taken on an empty stomach. The main difference is that you will feel the effects faster if taken on an empty stomach. You can test both to see what works best for you as some people might experience stomach discomfort or other side effects if taking pre-workout on an empty stomach.
When buying pre-workout or any other type of supplement it's important to look for companies with a long standing reputation selling products that have been tested by third parties. We buy our stim-free pre-workout and regular pre-workout from Amazon - C4, ON, Pump Surge are good options.
Related: Best Pre-Workouts to Buy
Pre-workout supplements both stim and non-stim are here for the long-run because they are effective in increasing energy levels and overall performance. It’s important to take into consideration your personal situation and health condition before you decide on taking pre-workouts with stimulants or not. People can have various reactions, both positive and negative when using pre-workout. Be cautious and educated about the pre-workout you’re using to determine if it’s the healthy choice.
Learn more about pre-workout:
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