The whys, whens and hows of pre-workout supplementation are the subject of a lot of debate. While it’s good that there is a lot of information available, sometimes too much information can be a bad thing. Many athletes give up on trying to sort through it all, and instead go for an all-in-one supplement approach. By that, we mean that they take all of their pre-workout supplements every day, regardless of their workout, or they toss everything into one greens drink or smoothie and hope that everything does what it should.
The problem with this approach is that it usually works against you. A good analogy is that it’s like eating when you aren’t hungry; even if the food is healthy, it’s a waste of your calorie allotment and will probably work against your muscle-building or fat loss goals.
When most people think about pre-workout supplementation and timing, they immediately think of the workout window; the ideal timing of a pre-workout meal before they work out. But timing also comes into play based on the type of workout you’re doing. Some supplements are completely inappropriate for a specific exercise and can actually keep you from performing as you should.
There are basically two types of supplements: those you should take every day and those you should take only for specific workouts.
Most people take at least some vitamin supplementation to ensure that they’re getting all of the micronutrients they need. Obviously, it’s best to take them every day, to make sure you have enough of the nutrient on board at all times, especially those that are soluble and not stored in great quantity. The same is true of some of the more popular pre-workout supplements, especially creatine and beta-alanine.
These supplements are not fast-acting, so taking them only pre-workout isn’t going to help build your stores of ATP or carnosine and won’t help your body to delay fatigue and work out longer and greater intensity.
Taking these supplements only pre-workout is going to be a waste of money and is also going to slow your gains and lead to frustration and a loss of motivation. If you’re expecting them to help you work harder and then fatiguing too early, you’re probably going to try fixing things that aren’t broken or changing a protocol that isn’t actually your problem. So, a daily dose of these supplements is the best way to go.
Caffeine and other stimulants are another group of supplements, but they’re not one you want to take without purpose. For those of you that need that morning cup of coffee, there’s no reason to forgo it on your off days. But if you’re not a coffee drinker, there’s no reason to take stimulants if you’re not headed to the gym.
Regular use of caffeine and other stimulants has been shown to not only create a tolerance (and a need for higher and higher doses, along with a decrease in effectiveness) but also have an adverse hormonal effect (particularly on cortisol and insulin levels) that will actually prevent you from both losing fat and building muscle mass.
Instead, reserve your caffeine and stimulating supplements for pre-workout use only and if your results start flagging, consider a short deloading period. On the other side of the coin, if you don’t regularly use caffeine pre-workout, it can be a great way to push through a plateau, enabling you to work out longer and at a higher intensity.
Match Your Supplement to Your Goals
Another facet of targeted pre-workout supplementation is matching the supplement you take with the workout that you’re doing. If hypertrophy is your goal, BCAAs, carbs and nitrous-oxide supplements are best. However, if you’re going for strength and power and lifting really heavy loads, you’re much better off with stimulants and fats like palm or coconut oil or a medium-chain triglyceride supplement.
In other words, for high/rep/high intensity workouts, take the carbs and nitrous-oxide products. For low rep/heavy load workouts, go for the MCTs and stimulants like caffeine.
Pre-workout supplementation, and all the differing opinions on what to take when can be confusing. By keeping it simple, tracking your performance and progress carefully and changing things up when they stop working, you can get great results without wasting your time and money on things you don’t need.
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