Tuesday 29 May 2012

Q & A: Pre Workout Drinks

Q: I was wondering what your thoughts are on pre workout drinks. I am looking to get some and was wondering if you could make any recommendations? 
A: Save your money. 5-7 years ago it was the post-workout drinks that were all the rage, now pre-workout are the latest, greatest thing. Yes, the concept is good, but the importance/need is hyped up to get you to buy the product. Remember, the supplement industry is big-business. I tell people whenever you look at nutrition - follow the dollar.

There definitely is good research to support protein/carb supplementation before/during and after training. The addition of certain amino acids (e.g. glutamine, BCAA's) may help but you have to determine if the benefit is actually worth the cost. For example, I work a lot with student athletes. I recomend to them that they buy and eat a greater amount of healthy food as this will give you a much bigger bang for your buck. Also, whey protein is already high in glutamine and BCAA’s.

Pre-workout drinks also contain stimulants. These definitely give you a buz. However, they do not work as well over time as your body adapts to them. Many people use stimulants to try to make up for lack of sleep/rest and poor nutrition. Often, they become dependant on them. The world is full of people who "need" their morning coffee to function.

Personally, I hate the idea of being dependant on something. Many people who use stimulants and pre-workout drinks get to the point where they cannot (at least psychologically) train without them. Because I am not one of them, I know I can have a good session anytime. I would never want to show up to train, realize I did not have my pre-training drink and say, "well, I guess I can't train hard today." I refuse to be dependant on a supplement, music or anything else people think they “need” to have a good training session. Eat well, rest well and work on appropriate sport psychology techniques to get you psyched up naturally.

You also have to be aware that if you use stimulants regularly, your body will adapt, down-regulate its metabolism and you will find yourself using stimulants not for a buz, but just to feel someone normal.

If you are considering the use of stimulants, you need to be aware that stressing the body with a stimulant and then further stressing the body with the stress of training can be too much on your body. I have heard anecdotal reports of people having heart problems from taking pre-workout stimulants.

Athletes also have to consider drug testing. Some pre-workout supplements contain stimulants banned substances. One of our intern strength coaches Joel McCain told me that many of the popular pre-workouts including ones such as: superpump, 1MR, Jacked 3d and Decimate contain an IOC banned stimulant called Methylhexeanamine which will mess up a drug test.

Still another thing to consider is that many of these drinks are mixed products. As a result, they add things that do work (e.g. sugar, caffeine, creatine, protein) and then justify the ridiculous cost by also adding over-priced products that do not work (e.g. NO2, HMB) and trace amounts of things that may help in higher doses (e.g. BCAA’s).

One thing to consider when looking at the research is whether the study is real-world relevant. For example, if you and I both fast for 12 hours, then you get a pre-workout drink and I get nothing and then then we both ride a bike to exhaustion it is obvious that you will do better then me. Great controlled science experiment, but is in real-world relevant? In the real world, if I eat a normal meal an hour before training and you have a liquid protein/carb supplement 15 min before training, it may be harder to see a significant difference.

Besides the marketing hype, one of the main reasons you get people see a positive difference when adding pre/post training shakes is that most athletes eat way less food than they should and thus under-recover. Adding 200-500+ extra calories a day that many athletes should be eating but are not can make a big difference.

Remember, tthousands of people before we were even born got great training results without even hearing the phrase “pre-workout drink”.


  1. This makes total sense for regular training, although I've heard of athletes who will take "pre-competition" drinks (in addition to healthy eating) shortly before competition instead of regular during training and have had positive results. I could see how this scenario makes sense if competitions are far enough away from each other where you don't get that adaptation and dependency. Is this valid or are you recommending against these drinks in all situations?

  2. Rob, great question. Used sparingly will have the best benefit. However, I would still in this situation suggest coffee over a pre-workout stimulant.

  3. What is the exact difference between pre workout and post workout?

    1. Great question Audrey - sorry for the delayed response - I missed seeing the comment. Typically a pre-workout contains stimulants to try to get you buzzed before training. Post workout drinks typically just contain protein and carbs (with the possibility of other things such as glutamine, BCAA's and creatine).