If you're a gym habitué, you probably already know what a pre-workout is. You've likely already found the ones that work best for you and make it a point to take them in before every workout.

However, if you are like any average person - aware that a regular fitness routine and physical activity, in general, is a good idea, you might wonder what a pre-workout is.

Does it mean stretching and warming up before getting into the heavy lifting? Could it be a pause, maybe a bit of meditation to put yourself in the right frame of mind?

Those are both great ideas but neither of them matches the 'pre-workout' definition.

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What Is a Pre-Workout?

As we've already ascertained that a pre-workout is neither a period of rest before working out, nor is it warming up to get your body ready for a workout, there's only one other guess to venture... but you don't need to; we'll just go ahead and say it.

Simply put, a pre-workout is some form of intake - food, supplements or enhanced beverages for a boost of energy that will help you maximise your workout.

Some people like to add protein powder to their pre-workout drink
For some, adding protein powder to their pre-workout drink works well. Photo credit: Paul 李加乂 Li on VisualHunt.com

We're not talking about doping, anabolic steroids or anything like that. The pre-workouts in question are perfectly legal and, when well researched, safe and healthy. And necessary.

You couldn't drive your car without any petrol, could you? And the right type of petrol, at that. In the same vein, you shouldn't work your body without the proper fuel.

Forget all those images of celebrities strolling into the gym, yoga mat casually slung over their shoulders and perhaps a Starbucks cup in hand that always feature in magazines. And let's give up on the idea of the upwardly mobile rushing to the gym after a hard day at the office without so much as a hardboiled egg to put between their teeth.

You might have seen such slim-suited professionals yourself, striding into the best gyms in the UK, looking for all the world like they're headed to a meeting rather than a sweat-inducing fitness session...

The human body needs fuel to work. It's just that simple. Skipping your pre-workout could actually hinder your fitness efforts and may even cause you harm.

Ideally, you would consume your pre-workout about 30-45 minutes before starting your workout so that you get the most benefit from it. Also, it should be heavy on protein and carbs. As counterintuitive as it sounds - especially if one of your fitness goals is losing weight, snacking on celery and carrot sticks will not give your workout a boost.

Pre-workouts are about fuel for your workout, not simply having something in your stomach.

Pre-Workout Ingredients to Watch For

There is a slew of pre-workouts on the market, from protein powders you can add to your fruit smoothie or water, to supplements in tablet form, to protein bars.

There is no hard-and-fast rule of what makes for a good pre-workout. Indeed, there is no such thing as a universally 'good' pre-workout because of the many factors that go into choosing one:

  • what type of workout you're doing: some types of yoga demand far less fuel than, say, bodybuilding or weightlifting
  • intensity versus endurance: you'll need a fast burn for intense activities and a longer burn for those that require stamina
  • your body type: the more muscular you are, the more fuel you'll need
  • male/female: just like alcohol, females' bodies are more susceptible to various ingredients in some pre-workouts
  • your health: if you have health issues, some pre-workouts would not be right for you
  • your personal preferences: taste, texture and ingredients are all a matter of personal choice

There are, however, a couple of guidelines to follow in helping you choose the right pre-workout.

  • you should be able to recognise every ingredient - think 'nuts' and 'honey' versus 'pyridoxine hydrochloride'
  • the fewer artificial ingredients - flavourings, sweeteners and fillers, the better
  • watch out for 'hidden' sugars (in dehydrated fruits, for example), especially if you're insulin sensitive

With those few rules of thumb established, let's look at the three base ingredients a pre-workout should contain.

Labels do not necessarily disclose everything about what's in a protein supplement.
Casein, a type of protein found in milk, is likely not the only ingredient in this supplement; despite its name being on the label, you should still read about the other ingredients. Photo credit: SuperfitNutrition on Visualhunt.com

Caffeine delivers the energy boost; it also helps sharpen your focus. On the downside, if you have a caffeine sensitivity, you will have to be very selective in the pre-workout you choose. Some protein bars and supplements have about as much caffeine as a cup of coffee while others really load up.

Conversely, some have no caffeine at all.

If you have high blood pressure or heart palpitations after drinking coffee, you should be especially careful in selecting your pre-workout. Ditto if you plan to work out in the late afternoon or evening as the caffeine may keep you awake long after your workout.

Creatine helps build muscle cells. We already have creatine flowing through our bodies; the creatine in pre-workouts supplements what we naturally have.

Amino acids help minimise muscle damage and soreness while also aiding to build muscle. These branched-chain amino acids, AKA BCAAs help to control protein use throughout your body.

Effective pre-workouts should contain other essentials - vitamin B-6 and L-tyrosine, just to name two. It's worth consulting with your personal trainer, who can help you decide which pre-workout ingredients would be best for you.

Types of Pre-Workouts

From YouTube and social media adverts to store shelves to the tiniest newsagents' shops, pre-workouts are everywhere. Anything from caffeine-laden energy drinks to power bars that look like granola snacks and, of course, supplements touting their energy-boosting properties in the form of capsules, tablets and pills... And let us not forget those mega-containers of protein powders.

All of these are pre-workouts, and the selection is overwhelming. So, let us take a look at each of them.

Pre-workout drinks may be the easiest to use and they are, by far, the most popular choice for fitness enthusiasts. They may be pre-mixed or you could buy a powder to add to your favourite beverage. The advantages of these drinks are: their portability, their dual purpose - quenching thirst and providing energy, and relatively lower cost.

On the downside, your energy supply will be diluted and spread out over the course of your workout unless you drink the entire beverage before your workout.

Pre-workout supplements are popular for some fitness devotees, especially the herbal kind. They are ultra-portable, easy to take and some even tout an energy time-release, like some medicines. The downside of these tablets, powders and capsules is that they are not tested or regulated, and the labels may not show all of the ingredients.

Indeed, they may cloud harmful ingredients behind innocuous-sounding words.

Pre-workout food is, perhaps, the safest choice. Fitness experts recommend eating a full meal about 2-3 hours before exercising and, if that's not possible, a smaller intake of food 30-45 minutes before working out.

If you choose to eat a full meal, make sure it contains plenty of protein - lean meat, eggs or protein from soy, and lots of carbs. Those might come from starchy vegetables, rice or even pasta.

Finally, if you're running short on time, munching on a protein bar and banana or slurping Greek yoghurt with fruit as you head to the gym is your best option.

Regardless of which way you go - and depending on your fitness type, taking your pre-workout with food will reduce some of the negative side effects non-food pre-workouts can have: jitters, insomnia and bowel discomfort among them.

You can prepare your pre-workout yourself if you don't trust powders and supplements
If you're wary of what powders and supplements might contain, you can prepare your pre-workout yourself. Photo credit: evansville on Visualhunt.com

Choosing the Right Pre-Workout

If you're wary of what unregulated supplements might contain and not keen to read tiny print on endless rows of pre-workout selections in the shops, your best bet might just be preparing your pre-workout meal yourself.

It doesn't have to be a sit-down meal with all the trimmings. A bodybuilder friend of mine packed chicken breasts and hardboiled eggs to work, which he ate, cold, about an hour before leaving the shop. Thus, he was completely prepared to expend all of that energy in the gym before heading home for a good night's sleep.

The only downside to his routine was the monotony of it. We worked together for several years; every day, he ate the same thing. The risk of gym burnout is high enough; you don't need your pre-workout to drive you there faster.

Feel free to mix things up. One day, you might have a few ounces of lean beef in a sandwich, the next hardboiled eggs and cold, boiled potatoes, the third might see you dipping a power bar into your Greek yoghurt and finishing up with a banana - the closer to green, the better.

There's less sugar and more dietary fibre in newly ripened bananas, don'tcha know.

Or, if you're feeling adventurous, try adding protein powder to your home-blended fruit smoothie. The advantage here is that you can add chia seeds - also packed with protein, and include any flavour you want. As we slide into winter and the temperature drops, you might blend yourself a warm stew smoothie; just make sure the salt content isn't too high.

Some soup stocks contain a lot of salt, which could affect your blood pressure and cause you to retain fluids.

For convenience's sake, if you don't have time to do a lot of cooking, you can investigate pre-workouts online. Just make sure that your sources are qualified, not social-media-driven or from adverts.

And, as you're going to do all that studying anyway, why not find out how you could become a personal trainer?

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Sophia

A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.