I take pre-workout or caffeine pills everyday before I lift. I’m never really sure if I need it, or if it has become more of a safety blanket. I’m typically believe the latter, but I figure it can’t hurt right? Generally I don’t lift until late in the afternoon. That is after some number of lectures, anywhere from 2 to 6 in a day, some kind of lab for 2-3 hours a few times a week, and my actual lab work that I get paid for. So by the time I get home I feel like I need that zap of pre-work in my getting-ready-for-the-gym ritual to get me ready to lift. The problem I’ve always had with the concept of pre-workout though, is that I’ve never seen any real proof that it works other than friend recommendations, internet reviews, and my own general feelings about a product. But is it really the product making me feel good or I just so happen to be having a good day and being a human so therefore needing to justify my current condition has being a direct effect from some specific cause. I decided to look into this question and found an article that provided some interesting answers:
(skip to take home message for direct answers)
The most common ingredients in pre-workout products are: caffeine, branch chain amino acids, creatine, beta-alanine. Previous research has shown these ingredients to have synergistic effects- when exposure to one substance causes a dramatic increase in the effect of another chemical (1+1=20). There have been various studies that have looked into the physical effects caused by taking pre-workout. One study noted greater lower body training volume with a 6×10 back squat workout at 75% of 1RM. Another study noted an improvement in choice reaction speed and fatigue after taking pre-workout. In theory with improvements in acute exercise performance, people might be see enhanced training adaptations over time improvements. So the concept is, if you try harder and perform better on days you take pre-workout, it should make you better overall overtime.
The purpose of this particular study was to investigate the acute effects of pre-workout supplementation on strength performance, lower body power, and anaerobic capacity, as well as mental alertness, energy, and focus. It was hypothesized that pre-workout would increase all of these areas and decrease fatigue.
This study used 12 college-aged men who were division III football hopefuls that had been resistance training 2-3 times per week and had been back squatting and bench pressing for at least 2 years. The study was randomized, double-blind and placebo controlled cross-over consisting of an initial physical assessment then two separate and non-consecutive training sessions. Basically this was a longitudinal study where participants received different treatments- one time they got pre-workout and one time they got the placebo in a randomized and unknown order to both them and the researchers.
The first session was just an overall physical assessment of participants. There was a body composition assessment, counter-movement vertical jump test with the highest out of 3 jumps being recorded and converted to power, and a 5 RM for back squat and bench press.
At the beginning of the second session a questionnaire survey rating mental alertness, fatigue, energy, and focus was given to all participants. The men were then given the supplement or placebo drink and waited 20 minutes. They completed the CMVJ test, 5×5 BS at 85% of 5RM plus 1 set until fatigue (being defined as failure to achieve 70% of average power output on 2 reps measured by a linear position transducer), and then repeated with bench press after a break. Then a 25 second maximal effort sprint test. Blood lactate levels were measured after each activity and the questionnaire was repeated 2 more times. The third session was identical with the only factor being the participants unknowingly being given the opposite drink previously received.
Overall peak and average velocity declined from sets 1 to 5 for both conditions for back squat and bench press. Peak and average velocity for bench press declined in a linear fashion with reps 3-5 being significantly slower. For back squat, average velocity decreased beginning at set 4 for both conditions- pre-workout and placebo. There was a difference seen between peak velocity for back squat between the 2 conditions, still maintaining a consistent decrease between reps 3-5.
Pre-workout trails reported less fatigue and more alertness. Blood lactate levels increased at each time point that were taken but with no difference between conditions. Pre-workout trials resulted in greater number of repetitions to failure for the bench press. No difference was observed in back squat repetitions to failure. There was no difference in lower body peak or mean power determined by the CMVJ. During the anaerobic sprint test, there was a significant increase in mean power with the pre-workout condition.
For both conditions, bench press and back squat average velocities declined over sets. Pre-workout trials resulted in more repetitions to failure during the bench press and more power during the anaerobic sprint. Although there was no significant effect on back squat performance, the improved ability to maintain peak velocity might help to improve performance over time. Pre-workout seemed to acutely help upper body performance with enhanced endurance and increased training-volume load allowing for greater reps to failure. Following pre-workout ingestion, participants reported less fatigue, more focus, and more alertness than placebo trials.
Take Home Message
Pre-workout increased the number of reps to failure on bench press- so it did actually help. There was not an acutely positive effect on the back squat, but it might help over time by improving mean power output allowing for enhanced training adaptations. So inconclusively, pre-workout might help in this situation by slightly improving workouts allowing for better training accumulation over time. It did not help the CMVJ test- pre-workout did not make participants more acutely powerful. There was a significant increase in mean power during the anaerobic sprint test, but not other factors. There was no effect on blood lactate. There was a positive influence on alertness, focus, and feelings of fatigue. So big picture, pre-workout does not make you a beast. It will not make or break your workout. A shot of caffeine is always a nice pick me up, and pre-workout can make you FEEL better and more invested in your lifts. It might help you squeak out a few extra reps, and abstractly make you better over time because if you feel better when you lift, you try hard, and (hopefully) trying harder will make you adapt and enhance your training over time.
Important note: this study does have some opposition to other studies but you must consider different variables were in place, such as different pre-workout products, different exercises (leg press vs back squat), and different factors measured.