Pre-Workouts: They’re Not Overhyped, But Are You?

Everyone loves a good pre-workout. There’s nothing quite like that rush you get on your way to the gym when the pre-workout kicks in, knowing you feel ready to smash some heavy weights. But like everything else, that endorphin rush comes at a cost. In fact, in the long run, that pre-workout you rely on to fuel long or late-night workouts might be killing your progress. Here’s why.

The Pros and Cons of Pre-Workout

I think most people are familiar with the biggest benefit of pre-workout products: the extra energy! That really can’t be understated. On days when you’re really dragging, that extra energy can mean the difference between finding the motivation to train at all, instead of just skipping a workout. But even if you’re already feeling good, taking a pre-workout with moderate to high amounts of caffeine is likely to help you add a few more pounds to the bar, or a few more reps to your set. Some even contain ephedrine or ephedrine-like ingredients, nootropics, vasodilators, and other goodies. All that might add up to even better sessions, and, over time, if you’re training harder, heavier, and longer, you’re going to make more progress, right?

Well, maybe.

See, the pre-workout might well give you the energy you need to train harder, heavier, and longer — but training harder, heavier, and longer is going to take a bigger toll on your body. After the pre-workout rush wears off, you’re going to start feeling that: your body might ache a little more, your head might feel a little more foggy, and you’re probably going to be pretty darn tired. In short, you need to improve your recovery to match that harder training. And no pre-workout — in fact, no supplement at all — is going to help you recover significantly better. Only food, rest, and time can do that.

So if you’re constantly using pre-workout to enhance your training, and you’re not compensating for that by taking more light days, getting more sleep, or eating more, then you’re probably going to burn out pretty quickly.

Here’s a fantastic discussion on the subject featuring my own diet coach, Justin Harris, and legendary powerlifter Dave Tate:

Now, despite all of that, I don’t necessarily think that you should avoid pre-workout products entirely. As I explained above, they do have some very real benefits. In particular, if you plan to compete in strength sports, you need to use pre-workouts at least some of the time. That’s because they do have very real performance benefits, and you’ll be putting yourself at a disadvantage if you avoid them during a competition. However, you never, ever want to try something new on meet day. You’ll be nervous enough anyway — the last thing you need is to be surprised by a new super-caffeinated product that ends up leaving you an anxious, sweaty mess.

So in that case, you’ve got to at least practice with using pre-workouts for your heavy sessions. But even if you never plan to compete, there is an argument to be made that proper use of pre-workouts can improve your long-term progress by allowing you to train more — as long as you account for the need for extra recovery.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to determine whether you should use a pre-workout product.

  • Is strength even important to me? If you’re only after aesthetic goals, the answer is “not so much.” In this case, you should probably avoid pre-workout products containing stimulants most of the time. That’s not only because of their effects on recovery — it’s also because most stimulants are vasoconstrictors. That means they’re going to make it harder to build a sustain a good pump, and pumps are important not only for bringing nutrients to your muscles, but also for building a stronger mind-muscle connection. In this case, you might look for a stimulant-free product that does contain vasodilators like arginine and citrulline.
  • Is training heavier appropriate right now? If you’re peaking for a meet, then yeah — it’s pretty darn important, and you should take a pre-workout product that’s pretty heavy on the stimulants. But in the offseason or during a deload, then training heavier than what your program calls for is very likely to be counterproductive.
  • How is my overall recovery? Ironically, many people resort to pre-workouts when they’re faced with situations that impair recovery, like not being able to prep nutritious meals or get 8 hours of quality sleep every night. Unfortunately, when you do that, you’re just building a bigger recovery deficit in the long run. In these cases, you should resist the temptation to rely on pre-workouts, or try to limit yourself to something that provides only a mild to moderate boost, like a cup or two of black coffee.

My Pre-Workout Routine

Here’s how I structure my pre-workout intake:

  • In the off-season: I try to use very moderate volumes and low intensities in the offseason to give my mind and body a break from meet prep. For that reason, I avoid all stimulants other than coffee during the offseason. However, because I frequently incorporate bodybuilding work during the offseason for muscular balance and overall health, I do use a vasodilator product in this phase of training.
  • 12-14 weeks before a meet: I’ll swap the coffee for a pre-workout product with about 400-600 milligrams of caffeine. That’s a pretty hefty dose, so I’ll also supplement with 400 milligrams of L-Theanine to offset some of the negative side effects of caffeine, like increased anxiety. I find that taking the L-Theanine also allows me to sleep well at night even if I take the stimulants later in the day.
  • 4-6 weeks before a meet: This is where I’ll bust out all the stops, and add some ephedrine to whatever pre-workout products I’m using. I know that this will significantly increase the stress on my body, but it’s only for a short period of time, and my training is structured such that it’s an appropriate tradeoff for the ability to lift heavier percentages.
  • Deloading (including the week before a meet): I completely avoid all stimulants and pre-workout products. Rest is key here!

Now, this plan works great for me, but the key is finding what works for you. It’s worth taking a little time to experiment and find a pre-workout schedule that allows you to bump your training up when you need to, but still gives you enough space to recover between workouts. Share your favorite pre-workout in the comments!

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.