Part One – Energy Boosting Pre-Workout Supplements
We’re all looking for ways to maximise the return on the time we spend in the gym. To do that many gym-goers use pre-workout supplements in the hope of increased energy and improved performance.
That makes it no surprise that pre-workouts are among supplement companies’ best-selling products. However, despite their popularity, there are still many questions surrounding the effectiveness of pre-workout supplements, particularly when it comes to the inclusion of unproven or poorly-dosed ingredients in their formulas.
Most of the time it can be hard to tell what supplements are supported by robust scientific evidence or just good (dishonest) marketing. There’s a huge difference between findings in a petri dish and controlled, double-blinded experiments on humans, however many supplements are sold in the hope that you won’t dive into the research yourself. So we’re here to do the leg work for you and look into the science behind pre-workout ingredients and help you make an informed decision on what you should be taking.
This blog is part one of a multi-part series looking at the science behind common pre-workout ingredients, in this blog, we’ll be taking a look at ingredients that claim to boost your energy and we’ll assess whether or not they’re beneficial to your performance and energy levels based on the current scientific evidence.
Popular Energy Boosting Pre-Workout Supplements
There are many different supplements that claim to boost your energy so that you can perform at your best in the gym. However, sometimes these claims are made with little to no scientific evidence to back them. In this blog, we’ll look at 3 popular pre-workout supplements; BCAAs, B vitamins, and Caffeine, and whether or not the evidence supports the claims surrounding them.
Should I Use Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) Before a Workout?
There are 20 different amino acids that combine to make the different proteins in the body. Nine of them are essential amino acids, meaning they cannot be made by the body and must be obtained through the diet.
Three of the essential amino acids are called branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), these are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. BCAAs are found mainly in animal products and have some research to support their ability to increase muscle growth, muscle repair, and reduce muscle soreness, making them an incredibly popular sports supplement.
However, BCAAs are often marketed in a way that implies they increase your energy levels, to our knowledge there is no strong evidence to suggest that supplementing with BCAAs pre-workout will improve exercise performance or energy levels as they are essentially just very small doses of protein.
Studies that find performance benefits from BCAA supplementation tend to compare BCAAs to a non-calorie matched placebo in fasted conditions. It’s therefore likely that the additional calories from BCAA intake are playing a role in benefiting performance rather than a unique characteristic of BCAAs themselves. For example, there is no benefit of pre-exercise BCAAs on exercise performance when compared to pre-exercise carbohydrates.
Furthermore, many studies that report the beneficial effects of BCAAs on muscle growth and recovery fail to compare BCAAs to protein supplementation or fail to report information on participants’ total protein intake, making it unclear if BCAAs have any advantage over an increased protein intake in general.* The current body of evidence suggests that BCAAs are only beneficial if your daily protein intake is insufficient, if you consume adequate amounts of protein (1.2 g/kg/day<) you are unlikely to see any benefits from taking them.
If you’re looking for a supplement to increase your protein intake, it would make more sense to use any reputable protein powder (e.g. whey, casein, milk, or vegan powders) as these contain sufficient BCAAs while being significantly cheaper gram for gram.
Here are a couple of our favourite alternatives:
In our opinion, no as there is only (very) weak scientific support for claims that they increase energy levels. While some studies show BCAAs have a beneficial effect on energy levels or muscle recovery, they are limited by the fact that they are being compared to a placebo. Once a suitable control group is chosen, i.e. carbohydrate or protein-consuming groups, these improvements are no longer seen.
To summarise, if you’re looking for a similar energy boost you’d get from a serving of BCAAs, just consume 20-30 grams of carbohydrates instead (e.g. a banana). If looking to improve muscle growth or recovery, opt for a reputable protein supplement such as whey, casein or vegan protein powders. Both will give you similar, if not better results and will leave less of a dent in your bank account.
Should I take B Vitamins Before a Workout?
B vitamins are essential for good health, but likely have no significant short-term effects on exercise performance. They play a vital role in a number of different processes in the body, including energy production, amino acid and DNA synthesis, blood cell formation, and brain and nerve cell function.
The assumption is that supplementing with something that plays a role in energy production will give you more energy, however, B vitamins merely help with normal energy production.
Whilst they’re an extremely common pre-workout ingredient, to our knowledge there are no studies that report an increase in exercise performance or energy when supplementing with B vitamins alone.
While supplementation may benefit people deficient in B vitamins, if you obtain adequate B vitamins (which is extremely likely as they are easily obtainable in a balanced diet) you will experience no benefits from supplementation.
B vitamin deficiency can manifest in a variety of ways, with symptoms varying depending on which B vitamin is lacking. Some common symptoms of B vitamin deficiency may include:
- Fatigue or weakness
- Poor or decreased appetite
- Numbness or tingling in the hands and feet
- Skin rashes or cracking around the mouth
If you think you may need to up your B-vitamin intake, here’s a summary of some foods high in B vitamins:
- Fortified breakfast cereals (B1, B2, B3, B6, and B12)
- Soy products, such as tofu and tempeh (B1, B2, and B6)
- Whole grains, such as quinoa and brown rice (B1)
- Legumes, such as lentils and chickpeas (B1 and B6)
- Dark leafy greens, such as spinach and kale (B2 and B9)
- Nuts and seeds, such as almonds and sunflower seeds (B1 and B6)
- Avocado (B6)
In our opinion, there a very few cases in which you should supplement with B vitamins. There are some exceptions such as during pregnancy, B vitamins can (specifically B6, B9, and B12) can help minimize the risk of birth defects as well as relieve some symptoms of pregnancy.
However, it’s important to note that these sorts of supplementation protocols should only take place under the supervision of a medical professional. Otherwise, it would be best to consume more B Vitamins in your diet.
As there is no evidence to suggest B Vitamin intake prior to exercise will impact your energy levels or performance. We don’t recommend using them as an exercise supplement.
Should I Use Caffeine Before a Workout?
Caffeine is the key ingredient in the majority of pre-workout supplements, its benefits for athletic performance have been extensively researched and it’s been shown to be the best legal performance-enhancing exercise supplement. It works by blocking adenosine (a hormone that increases feelings of tiredness) from binding to its receptors in the brain, improving your energy levels, focus, and athletic performance.
The optimal dose of caffeine for exercise performance is 3-6 mg/kg body weight. Although, there’s recent evidence that suggests that you can benefit from caffeine in doses as low as 0.9-2 mg/kg body weight.
The current body of evidence shows that in doses of 3–6 mg/kg bodyweight consumed 60-90 minutes before exercise, caffeine can improve endurance by 2–4%, muscular endurance by 6-7%, muscular strength by 2 to 7% and vertical jump height by 2-4%. All of which are large enough improvements to significantly improve performance in any sport and in the gym.
For strength and power exercises, caffeine improves performance by increasing the firing rate of motor neurons, increasing the recruitment of muscle fibres, and increasing force production, allowing you to lift more weight or get in some extra reps.
For endurance exercise, caffeine improves performance by increasing the mobilisation and utilisation of fat as a fuel source, helping spare muscle glycogen and delay fatigue. Caffeine also reduces perceived pain and fatigue during exercise, allowing you to push past your psychological limits and run further and faster.
Usually, a single serving of pre-workout will contain 150-400 mg of caffeine which is often an effective performance-enhancing dose for most people and potentially excessive for some. It’s also worth noting that some pre-workouts contain additional ingredients that contain caffeine such as green tea extract or di-caffeine malate, which is sometimes unaccounted for in the overall caffeine content of a serving.
Unfortunately, caffeine is often overdosed in comparison to other pre-workout ingredients. Therefore consuming less than the recommended dose of pre-workout will likely not induce any benefits from the other pre-workout ingredients as you’ll be consuming less than their suggested dose. This can put pre-workout users in a difficult position, where they may opt to use a full serving of pre-workout to benefit from other ingredients (e.g. creatine), but in doing so are exceeding their optimal dose of caffeine which can lead to unpleasant side effects such as jitters, anxiety, rapid heartbeat, and insomnia.
Due to these issues, it’s more practical to use caffeine on its own. By taking other ingredients out of the equation, using caffeine alone allows you to accurately dose your intake to suit your needs. You can also choose different sources of caffeine that best suit your needs.
By consuming more suitable doses of caffeine, you’re less likely to experience issues with sleep as it’s most common for gym-goers to use their pre-workout in the evening, after a full day at work or school. Consuming high doses of caffeine late in the day is obviously highly likely to negatively impact your sleep, although there are some ways to mitigate the effects of caffeine on sleep, which you can learn more about in our blog: How To Reduce Caffeine’s Effect on Sleep. In short, if you still want to use caffeine you can either consume less, consume it further from bedtime or use a caffeine source that leaves your system faster.
A lesser-known fact about caffeine is that depending on the source, it can be absorbed in 2 ways: The most common way being through the stomach and digestive system e.g. coffees, energy drinks and tablets. The other being through the mouth and gums – also known as buccal or sub-lingual absorption e.g. caffeine chews and gums.
One of the main advantages of buccal absorption of caffeine for exercise is that it allows for faster absorption and onset of effects compared to absorption via the stomach. This is because the lining of the mouth is richly supplied with blood vessels and has a high permeability to many substances, allowing caffeine to be quickly transported to the bloodstream.
So products like Caffeine Bullet can kick 3x faster than traditional sources, making them great for your pre-gym energy boost. Not only that but because chewed caffeine enters the system faster it can also leave the system faster, reducing the likelihood of caffeine disrupting your sleep, making it a solid alternative to other pre-workout supplements.Should You Take Caffeine Before a Workout?
In our opinion, anyone looking to maximise their athletic performance should be using caffeine in low to moderate doses (1-6 mg/kg body weight). We recommend starting with a lower dose if you’re new to caffeine and gradually increasing it to avoid unnecessary side effects. We also recommend using caffeine from a source that suits your needs, if you’re looking for a faster, more convenient kick we recommend Caffeine Bullet, but you can never go wrong with the traditional cup of coffee.
So, Should I Use Pre-Workout Supplements?
If you want to save money and only use the best science-backed ingredients to boost your energy, we don’t recommend using pre-workouts that contain supplements such as BCAAs and B vitamins, as they have no evidence to back up their claims of boosting your energy.
If you’re looking for a quick energy boost, stick to consuming 1-6 mg/kg body weight of caffeine and some carbohydrates pre-workout to save yourself the money and the tingly skin feeling you get from dodgy pre-workouts.
Why We Created Caffeine Bullet
We created Caffeine Bullet to cut through the marketing bull that comes along with exercise supplements. Caffeine is the best legal performance-enhancing substance, backed by hundreds of scientific studies. Caffeine Bullet contains no filler, just caffeine that kicks 3x faster than traditional sources. With a controlled dose of 100mg* per chew, it offers a reliable way to get your caffeine fix, especially for those who prefer not to consume sugary drinks or coffee.
Our fast-acting formula is perfect for getting a quick burst of energy before a workout or just for staying alert during a long day and because it leaves your system faster you’ll still be able to get a good night’s sleep. If you want to try Caffeine Bullet, use the code BULLETPRE for a 15% discount on your next purchase.
In the next part of this series, we’ll be taking a look at the science behind creatine, beta-alanine, and nitric oxide boosters. If you have any suggestions of what other supplements you’d like us to cover or any questions then email us at: email@example.com