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Fact checked by Andrew Lenau, ISSA CPT & Sports NutritionistFACT CHECKED
January 05, 2022
Pre-workout is all the rage these days because it’ll make you rage in the gym. Horrible wordplay, but there is truth in there. Over the years, the sports supplement marketplace has been flooded with preworkouts; some great and some not so great. Regardless of their quality, you can almost be guaranteed that they’ll have a cringe name like “The Rage Of Matrix 5.0”. The good thing is that even with many awful names, pre-workouts do a pretty good job at what they’re supposed to do; improve the quality and intensity of your workout. But that all depends on if you take it at the right time...
In this article, we’re going to tell you:
But first, let’s clarify what a pre-workout is.
A pre-workout is simply something you consume before you go to the gym; hence the name “pre” “workout’. So is water a pre workout? Or a protein shake because people will sometimes have a protein shake before hitting the weights? Well no.
When defining what pre-workout is, it is a nutritional supplement designed to increase your energy and intensity levels while at the gym. Still, the term “pre-workout” just refers to a type of nutritional supplement which could actually consist of a wide variety of ingredients. We’ll discuss that more below, but this is the reason it’s so important to know when to take a pre-workout.
These ingredients act quickly and have passing benefits meaning there is a window of opportunity when taking them. And trust us, you don’t want to take a pre-workout and not workout…talk about raging.
Before we talk about timing, let’s first go over some common pre-workout ingredients...
Caffeine is perhaps the most common ingredient found in pre-workouts as it gives everything you need; focus and energy. Being a stimulant, this compound is the most highly consumed drug on the planet, so there shouldn’t be any issue finding it. Regardless, caffeine has been proven in numerous studies to be effective at improving sports performance; in fact, recent studies have even shown caffeine is effective for strength and power athletes; something that many believed wasn’t true.
Most pre-workouts will use a variation of caffeine known as anhydrous caffeine, which simply dried out caffeine powder. This makes it very easy for a company to measure the desired serving and be consistent with each serving.
So, how much pre-workout do you need to get the benefits of caffeine?
Well, that depends on how much is in each pre-workout serving as different brands provide an additional amount. Regardless, to get maximum benefits from caffeine, the dosing is higher than what most people take. The ISSN (International Society Of Sports Nutrition) suggests that to get optimal benefits from pre-workout with caffeine, you need to consume 3-6mg/kg. As that’s higher than most are used to, start with a lower dose and see how your body reacts.
Be aware that some brands will also use other words for caffeine or derivatives such as green tea.
Expert Tip: If you want to go simple, get an extra large latte or Americano with an extra shot of expresso for the gym.
Beta-alanine is another very popular pre-workout ingredient…but it shouldn’t be. Beta-alanine is a non-proteinogenic amino acid that occurs naturally within the body. Many trainees take a BA supplement as a pre-workout to reduce lactic acid build-up during training. However, this isn’t 100% correct but we’ll explain.
The main compound that buffers the muscle’s pH level during exercise is called carnosine. Carnosine is synthesized in the liver by two compounds, histidine, and beta-alanine. During the synthesization of carnosine, beta-alanine is always the limiting factor. This means when the beta-alanine runs out, so does the carnosine and you can say “bye-bye” to muscle buffering.
Therefore, athletes will supplement with beta-alanine to ensure the synthesis of more carnosine. So, while beta-alanine doesn’t directly buffer lactic acid, it directly impacts that process.
However, for this to work, you must load beta-alanine similarly to creatine before seeing effects. You then maintain these levels with continuous dosing. So even though BA is usually taken as a pre-workout for the tingles, its benefits come from its chronic use and can be taken anytime.
There's the answer to the common question of "what causes pre-workout tingles?"...It's beta-alanine!
Beta-Alanine is generally thought to work as a pre-workout due to the tingling sensation you get from consuming it. This sensation is called paresthesia and has nothing to do with improving your performance. Some may think it does because they want to claw their skin off, but it doesn’t, and some studies show a decrease in performance when taken acutely.
You can learn more about Pre-Workout Tingles & Itch here.
Again, beta-alanine does work but must be taken chronically in which it doesn’t matter when you take it.
Creatine is used by our bodies to replenish our muscle’s ATP stores (a high-energy triphosphate) for high intense energy, such as lifting weights. While we consume creatine naturally, our stores sit low. Therefore, creatine supplementation simply works by increasing the body’s natural store, which allows for the production of more ATP, thus more energy for higher workloads.
While very effective, creatine is another popular pre-workout ingredient that really needs to be taken chronically, and timing has little effect on its effectiveness. In fact, if there was a better time to take creatine for a pre-workout, studies show that taking creatine after your workout may be slightly better.
Related: Pre-Workout vs Creatine Comparison
Sodium bicarbonate is a very popular and effective ingredient added to preworkouts to buffer the muscle similarly to beta-alanine. Studies have shown that sodium bicarbonate is able to result in less fatigue and improve overall work capacity in high-intense activity lasting 12-30 minutes. While this may not be suitable for a powerlifter to take as a pre-workout, other high-intensity training could definitely benefit. This includes sports such as bodybuilding with short rest breaks, circuit training, boxing, HIIT, or Crossfit.
Nitric Oxide Booster/Nitrates:
Nitrates or nitric oxide boosters are an umbrella term for a list of different compounds, including popular pre-workout ingredients such as L-arginine and L-citrulline. These work by increasing blood flow and improving nitric oxide levels in the blood. Together, these allow longer workouts and higher work output.
While generally used in the past for endurance events, lately, they have been found to be more common in pre-workouts for strength athletes. In fact, perhaps the originally famous pre-workout, N.O.-Xplode, was named after this concept.
Now, of course, there are plenty of other pre-workout ingredients, but above are the main ones seen. A non-exhaustive list of other ingredients found in pre-workouts are:
Because no two pre-workouts contain the same ingredients or the same quantity of ingredients, each one will vary depending on their makeup. However, the general idea of a pre-workout is to improve your workout through several factors.
However, none of the advantages of pre-workout will happen if you get your timing messed up.
The great thing about taking a pre-workout is that they are fast-acting and have acute benefits. This basically means you can take them whenever you want before you go to the gym and will see the benefits in that same session. However, those benefits that come quickly also dissipate quickly, leaving you with a window of opportunity. This window will last somewhere between 30 mins after consumption to 3-4 hours after consumption.
This means that you could actually start lifting too early before the pre-workout kicks in or too late, after the effects have subsided. So to answer the question, taking pre-workout at the right time is so important because it’s the only way you’ll get the full benefits.
Related: How Long Does Pre-Workout Last?
One of the significant concerns with pre-workout is taking some and then getting caught up with life. You can’t make it to the gym but feel the neon purple juice you just drank kicking in. What’s going to happen?
Well, the good thing is you’re not going to die. However, you will likely feel a bit uncomfortable, anxious, and jittery for a couple hours. This will, of course, depend on what you took and how much. Hopefully, you’ll just have to run errands, in which case you’ll just need to make sure you don’t speed or run through any stop signs. If you do need to go interact with people, be sure to drink plenty of water and try your best to relax. In some cases, you may just need to tell the person upfront that you took some pre-workout.
If that sounds a bit much to some people, we can assure you they’ve never had a good pre-workout.
So, this brings us to the big question, when do we take pre-workout? Being it’s called a “pre” workout, we’ll assume you know it’s taken before your workouts. That being said, it kind of depends on what active ingredients are in your pre-workout.
However, generally speaking, you want to take your pre-workout 30-60 minutes before you start lifting. To be clear, this doesn’t mean 30-60 minutes before you leave your house; it means 30-60 minutes before you actually touch a barbell and start your first warm-up set.
Therefore, you need to consider the drive to the gym, checking in, warming up, and anything else you need to do between the time you drink your pre-workout and when you finally start lifting weights. And to reiterate the point above, don’t consume any pre-workout until you’re definitely going to the gym.
You also need to remember that there is a window where a pre-workout will be effective. With that in mind, the height of a pre-workouts effectiveness will lessen as time moves on so you want to try and catch it on the front end. A perfect timing would be that you start to feel it when you begin warming up (you better be using a dynamic warmup!) so after you’re loose and ready to go, you should be in full swing.
We need our sleep! This is why another common issue with trainees new to pre-workout is the latest time they can take a pre-workout and not be wired all night. Well, this will depend heavily on personal factors such as how easily you can fall asleep and how sensitive you are to your pre-workout. Also, keep in mind not every pre-workout will have the same effect on your sleep.
All that being said, you should be conservative the first time you take a pre-workout. While the effects of most pre-workouts dissipate after 4 hours, give it at least 5 hours before your planned bedtime and adjust from there.
If you still have issues falling asleep and can’t change your workout time, you may need to try using a smaller dose at first OR try a different pre-workout.
The vast majority of pre-workouts can be taken simply by mixing with water. However, you could also use it with juice, but understand that most pre-workouts are already sweetened pretty heavily. We suggest drinking with more water than less as you need to be hydrated for your workout anyways. Plus, we’re going to assume that you’ll be moving around a lot and sweating heavily, so you’ll need the extra H²O.
We also strongly suggest starting with a smaller dose your first couple of times using a new pre-workout. This is the only way to know for sure how much you need to take for optimal results. From here, you can gradually add more powder to your dose until you find the right balance.
Lately, there has been a trend on Instagram and Youtube where fitness influencers have been dry scooping their pre-workout. Basically, this just means that they take a scoop of pre-workout and pour it directly into their mouth. They’ll then usually pour a bit of water in, swish it around, and swallow it whole. This leads many to question, is dry scooping bad for you?
Meh. It’s not necessarily good for you and it’s not necessarily bad. It’s a fast way to get all of your pre-workout powder into your system making pre-workout timing a breeze. However, you should only do this if you’re extremely familiar with that specific pre-workout powder. This is because all of the ingredients will hit your stomach at the same time, meaning more absorption faster. Therefore, it can “hit” you a bit harder.
It can also cause you to choke or inhale it. While it probably won’t kill you, you’ll have nasty coughed-up powder all over your shirt.
Pre-workouts are an excellent supplement to add to your gym line of sports nutrition. Most of them contain ingredients that are proven to work, and they could be just what you need to give you an edge on days you’re not feeling it. In order to get the most out of them, all you need to do is follow the instructions on the back and follow the dosing protocol and timing.
It’s really not too complicated, so don’t make it. Just to be sure, we just told you the perfect time to take your pre-workout so that it starts kicking in at the right time. All that's left for you to do is read up on how often to take your pre-workout.
So, next time you go to the gym, mix your pre-workout with 8-12oz of water and have that completed at least 30 mins before you touch the barbell, and you’ll be killing it.
Now that you know when to take this supplement, all that's left to do is pick which of these Best Pre-Workouts on the Market will help you hit your training goals!
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