The Do’s & Don’ts Of When To Take Pre-Workout

Does science back up the "expert's" claims?

Pre-workout, like any supplement, is often the subject of debate. So when is it actually safe and recommended to take it?

Pre-workout is a supplement that people can take before their workout (its name isn’t rocket science) to help give them an extra burst of energy. The pre-workout you have may have slightly different ingredients to the pre-workout your friend takes, but generally, they contain a mixture of sugar, caffeine and other energy-boosting stimulants.

But, aside from the potential risks of consuming too much pre-workout, there are potentially times when it’s unnecessary. According to Ron Jones (@bigronjones) a “health and Wellness personal trainer,” with more than 15 years of experience, you shouldn’t take pre-workout before a cardio workout.

Watch Ron Jones explain the use of pre-workout in this video

Ron says that a friend of his told him he does in fact take pre-workout before his cardio workout. Bemused, Ron says “do you really want to use a stimulant before you intentionally train your cardiovascular system?”

He explains why he’s so confused by the practice of using pre-workout for cardio, adding “I use pre-workout to facilitate a pump. That’s because I’m going to be doing anaerobic activity, which means I’m going to be using my muscles. Aerobic activity is just using my cardiovascular, there’s no need to facilitate additional blood flow for that. Not to mention, I don’t want to have additional caffeine in my system before I intentionally raise my heart rate.”

The video received hundreds of comments, but one sticks out in particular, and Ron even posted a follow-up video quoting it. The user said, “Had a buddy feel like he was going to die after taking pre-workout before a two-mile sprint in the army. Says a lot about that.”

To this, Ron hits home his previous message, “Stop using pre-workouts before your cardio. Pre-workout is designed for anaerobic activity, cardio is aerobic activity. The caffeine involved with pre-workout can actually elevate your blood pressure. You don’t want to intentionally raise your blood pressure before you intentionally elevate your heart rate.”

So, that’s one expert’s view. But what does the science say?

A 2010 study conducted by Smith et al. and published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition looked at the “effects of a pre-workout supplement containing caffeine, creatine, and amino acids during three weeks of high-intensity exercise on aerobic and anaerobic performance.”

Image: @bigronjones

The study ultimately found “an increase in VO2 max, training volume and lean muscle mass in participants who used pre-workout before completing HIIT workouts.” This could therefore suggest that taking pre-workout before cardio workouts isn’t actually as bad as Ron Jones claims.

A separate 2012 study published in the Journal of Nutrition & Metabolism wanted to examine “the effects of the pre-workout supplement Assault on upper and lower body muscular endurance, aerobic and anaerobic capacity, and choice reaction time in recreationally-trained males.”

Participants were split into two groups, one who took a pre-workout supplement before exercise and another who were a placebo group. After completing an initial fitness test to determine a benchmark set of data, the study ultimately found the group who took pre-workout “significantly improved agility choice reaction performance and lower body muscular endurance, while increasing perceived energy and reducing subjective fatigue.”

DMARGE reached out to Advanced Sports Dietician Jess Spendlove to get her take as to whether it’s safe or recommended to take pre-workout before cardio sessions. Jess first says that “the goal and duration of the session really determine if someone should have something before they train.”

“If they are training for performance – to improve their fitness, and the session is 45-60 minutes or more, than yes they should.”

But, while she recommends people take “something” before they train, she goes on to say this doesn’t necessarily need to be a pre-workout supplement.

“Consuming carbohydrates before training is the ideal source, and in doing so, be them high or low GI it will increase blood sugar levels, as that is the body’s natural response to ingesting them. If someone is working at a high intensity and aiming for performance improvements it would actually benefit them to do so.”

“Pre-workouts (in a supplement form) are not necessary, but ingesting pre-workout nutrition before a gym session can be beneficial to help again with the performance in the session. If you are someone looking to gain lean mass I would recommend consuming some carbohydrate and sometimes some protein before the session.”

“Overall intake and distribution is important when it comes to protein but if you are training faster (ie first thing in the am) and it’s been 10-12 hours since your last meal with protein,having something prior might be beneficial – for example fruit & yoghurt.”

The takeaway from all this? The science seems to contradict the claims Ron Jones makes, but going off what Jess says, if you can substitute pre-workout supplements for whole foods instead, then you can still reap the benefits in a more natural way.

As always, as Jess rightly says, “consult with an accredited sports dietitian to determine what you need for your individual goals is best practice.”

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