The Expert Guide to Pre-Workout for Beginners
There are few things that feel as amazing as finishing a workout. The rush of endorphins and confidence after a great sweat session confirms you just did something good for yourself. And it motivates you to want to perform just as well next time, right?
Next time rolls around and you … want to stay on the couch and watch Ozark. We get it. We’ve been there. Some days you’re pumped and motivated. On other days, your energy has checked out. This is when pre-workout supplements can save the day (or, at the very least, your workout).
There are as many pre-workout supplements to choose from as there are exercises. That’s why we’ve turned to two experts to help you make an informed choice when picking up a pre-workout supplement for the first time.
Different Types of Pre-Workout for Beginners
You can find pre-workout for beginners in various forms: Bars, capsules, tablets and pre-workout powders that dissolve in liquid. Most feature a key ingredient. You don’t have to be an Olympian looking to improve your athletic performance to take them, either.
“Most pre-workouts are targeted to give people an energy boost with something stimulant-based,” says Dr. Marc Morris, nutrition coach, founder of online coaching company Polyhealth, and founder of online coaching nutrition program the Dr. Marc Method.
Fyonna Vanderwerf, a 26-year fitness industry expert and owner of Hive Muskoka/Hive Hot Yoga, warns that supplements should not be used as a replacement for a healthy diet.
“They’re great to take to increase your ability and performance during a workout, and they can give your workouts a real edge for results,” she says. “Healthy eating means choosing nourishing items over stimulating ones. Supplements are not a fix, they are a support. They help you find your best in a workout, even on those days that feel slumpy.”
Let’s now take a closer look now at a few common key ingredients in pre-workout supplements.
Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid that your body produces naturally. It works by teaming up with the amino acid histidine to produce carnosine, a building block of protein.
Carnosine reduces the buildup of lactic acid in your muscles during exercise — that burning sensation that makes you want to stop — which leads to improved performance.
If you take beta-alanine, you may experience tingling in your face, neck and/or the backs of your hands. While this sensation isn’t harmful, it’s more likely to increase with higher doses of beta-alanine. A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition suggests taking no more than 800 milligrams at a time.
Citrulline Malate or L-citrulline
Citrulline malate is another non-essential amino acid that your body produces on its own, in your liver and intestine. Its job is to detoxify ammonia and dilate the blood vessels, and is said to act as an antioxidant.
When you’re exercising, your heart rate increases to pump blood to your working muscles more quickly, so they receive the nutrients and oxygen they need to work. Dilated blood vessels will help get this job done faster.
L-citrulline works similarly. It supports a more effective blood flow to working muscles, says Vanderwerf.
Potential negative side effects of taking citrulline are uncommon but may include mild nausea, indigestion, and diarrhea.
Creatine is a chemical compound your body also produces naturally, to support energy production.
Creatine supplements can increase your body’s supply of creatine, which can help you recover from exercise more quickly. It also increases strength and lean muscle mass, says Vanderwerf.
Possible side effects of creatine supplementation include bloating, weight gain, water retention, and digestive issues.
Most pre-workout supplements contain caffeine to increase mental focus and give you a boost of energy. The amount of caffeine in pre-workout supplements generally ranges between 150-200 milligrams per serving, says Vanderwerf. (For comparison, most 12-ounce cups of coffee contain 90-120 milligrams of caffeine.)
“It stays in the system for roughly five hours, so watch this if you train later on in the day,” says Vanderwerf.
Morris warns that if you have issues with ingredients like caffeine, "be it you get anxious or jittery or anything like that, a pre-workout that contains caffeine is probably not best for you,” he says.
Caffeine-free (and sugar-free) pre-workout supplements are available.
When To Take Pre-Workout for Beginners
Morris recommends taking pre-workout 15 minutes to 60 minutes before exercising. This gives the ingredients enough time to reach your bloodstream and affect your workout performance.
Vanderwerf says 30 minutes to 60 minutes before a workout is the ideal window for the majority of pre-workout supplements. Though if you’re thinking about snacking at the same time, you might want to hold off.
“Eating in addition to the pre-workout will add 20 to 30 minutes to absorption,” says Vanderwerf. “The stomach typically has 26% blood flow when not working out and 4% when training, so maximizing blood flow to the working muscles is key to absorption. And of course, double-checking the label.”
How Much Pre-Workout for Beginners To Take
Don’t think you have to take the full dose when you’re starting out with a pre-workout supplement, says Morris.
“Maybe start with half a dose, see how you feel, then go from there and workout. That’s probably one of the best practices around getting a sense of how you’ll react and feel on some of these things, especially around stuff like beta-alanine, for example, that can make people feel really flushed. The same thing with some of the B vitamins — niacin can make people feel flush, and they might not feel great taking it.”
Please note: Don’t ever take more than the recommended dosage.
What To Consider Before Buying Pre-Workout for Beginners
Vanderwerf recommends questions to ask yourself before you buy a pre-workout supplement:
What’s the research behind the supplement?
“Great ones have scientific data backed by quality peer reviewing,” she says. “If a company is not forthcoming with this kind of information, move on.”
Does the supplement and/or company have a good reputation?
“This is an industry with low regulations, and the average supplement store/drugstore doesn’t always have the knowledge to advise you on dosages and contraindications (any reason not to take the supplement). Visit a company’s website and ask questions."
What’s the quality?
Supplementdatabase.com lists hundreds of typical ingredients, quality, and research-backed product claims.
“Look out for ingredients listed as ‘proprietary blend’ — this means the brand is not transparent about the ingredients,” says Vanderwerf. “Quality products list them with pride.”
Is Pre-Workout for Beginners Necessary?
The short answer is no.
“You don’t need to take a pre-workout to exercise,” says Morris.
“If taking something like a pre-workout is going to help people participate in exercise and benefit from it, I’m all on board for them taking it,” he says. “If it’s going to help you adhere to an exercise regimen, by all means, go for it.”
Coffee and a Banana Can Be a Pre-Workout for Beginners
Pre-workout for beginners contains ingredients such as beta-alanine, citrulline, creatine, and caffeine to help increase exercise endurance and improve performance.
Any side effects from these supplements tend to be on the mild side, but please read the labels for your safety, and reconsider a supplement with caffeine content if higher doses of it make you anxious or unable to sleep at night.
If you’d like an alternative to a pre-workout supplement that will still boost your energy levels, focus, and performance before a training session, consider having a banana and just one cup of coffee with Allo protein powder — they may be all you need.
Allo, which has 10 grams of protein per serving, is specifically made to easily dissolve into your hot coffee — no clumps, sugar or gluten involved. Discover delicious flavors such as vanilla, caramel and hazelnut, as well as flavorless versions and creamer options, by browsing Allo products now.