It appears that in the Instagram and YouTube fitness universe it’s become part of the course to use some sort of pre-workout (PWO) supplement. These supplements are marketed with flashy brand names like ’C4’, ’N.O. Xplode’, ’Crazy Hayes’, Plata o Plomo’, ’Jacked 3D’, ’Mr. Hyde’, ’Gnar Pump’, and claims that they’ll help you, to use Dom Mazetti’s words, train like a freak beast, and have the gnarliest most savage workout of your life and explode your muscles into growth.
I was suitably dubious about the whole thing, but then I caved in and I decided to give it a try. After reading into the topic a bit, I ran into BulkPowders.com Complete Pre-Workout Caffeine Free, which seemed to be one the more level headed products. The reason I went for caffeine free was that it has somehow more sensible composition overall and I get enough caffeine from coffee as it is. The result of this one-man human experiment was mildly positive, as having the PWO seemed to improve focus and energy during workout. Thus I was interested to explore this experiment further to make my own recipe inspired by Omar Isuf’s YouTube videos on the topic, which I will elaborate below.
I’m not an expert in medicine or exercise physiology, and I’m not advising you, the reader, to take any supplements. Normal healthy food comes first, and on top of that, you might take supplements if you need to. I encourage you, the reader, to read about your supplements, their effects and side-effects for yourself. The following discussion is for illustration and I do not recommend that you copy anything I do.
Further, I’m not supported or sponsored by any supplement company, nor do I particularly endorse any. All references to brands or existing products are for illustration and convenience.
For you to understand the choices I’ve made, here’s the usage scenario: A male in mid-thirties, in kind of an okay shape but not great, trains 2-3 times a week, 4 on the outside, two of them 2h rugby practice sessions and Saturday match days during the season, and on top of that the occasional 5 km run and/or strength training session. Works at a full-time office job that is reasonably demanding, but fairly sedentary. besides exercise. Usually trains after work.
What this means that the workouts are about 6 pm, several hours after lunch, and I’m already tired and hungry, I feel weak and unmotivated. The specifications follow: needs to provide energy and satiety first, improve workout performance second.
What does the science say about the ingredients
Looking at the popular PWO ingredients are in no particular order BCAAs, leucine, citrulline malate, beta alanine, caffeine, creatine, arginine alpha-ketoglutamate (AAKG), creatine, vitamin B -family substances, such as choline bitartrate, taurine, and plenty of other fancy-sounding mysterychemicals.
In terms of exercise physiology, most of these substances are meant to lessen fatigue symptoms and possibly improve protein synthesis and hence muscle growth. In terms of meta-analyses of high quality scientific studies, the only supplements (not classified as PEDs or otherwise controlled substances) that consistently aid specifically in muscle hypertrophy and strengtht/power growth are proteins and essential amino acids including BCAAs, and creatine that has been consistently found to improve power production in short bursts of exercise. That’s the basis then. Besides that I looked into these other substances that seem popular, to find out what are they supposed to do and is there any evidence that they work. I’m not going to formally review the list of popular ingredients in full, but rather discuss my selection based on the above specifications with assessment based on Examine.com and Lihastohtori by Dr. Juha Hulmi (2016, Fitra Oy, Finland, ISBN: 978-952-6618-53-1). So, to conform to industry standard of gaudy branding, behold the Minotaur Pre-Workout:
- Whey protein contains in fact most essential amino acids that are needed for protein synthesis and consequently muscle growth. Protein also makes me satiated i.e. not hungry and ready for the workout. I include 30 grams of whey powder for about 25+ g of net protein, which would be by and large a clinically effective dose for a medium-sized person. And by means of clinically efficient, I mean that you have to have a certain level of certain amino acids, especially leucine, in your blood to trigger the mTOR signalling path that starts repairing muscle tissue and thus starts hypertrophy. You can use the cheapest kind of protein powder, or just ordinary milk as having some net carbs does not matter in this cocktail.
- Flax seed powder contains good fats and fiber to boost satiety without too much calories. No contribution to muscle growth or performance as such. A heaped tablespoon for about 15g.
- Short chain simple carbohydrates provide fast-absorbing energy that is essential for muscle and brain function. This has nothing to do with the mythical anabolic insulin spike thing that’s been going around in bro science for ages. It has been however found that even the taste of fast carbs slightly improves energy levels in sports. I use 0-20g of Vitargo for good measure, but you can use anything from waxy maize; maltodextrin, dextrose, and fructose in some combination; to apple juice.
- Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a type of amino acids, i.e. building blocks of proteins. They’re not strictly speaking necessary to add separately as whey protein has plenty of them, but they’re cheap and there is evidence that having BCAAs in your blood during workout may reduce fatigue for novice trainers, and support hypertrophy, so I add these for good luck. I include 5g for good measure. Also to note, leucine is a BCAA that in sufficient quantities triggers the mTOR signalling to start protein synthesis and consequently hypertrophy. To be clear, it’s included both in BCAAs and whey already so there shouldn’t be a need to include leucine yet again separately like some PWOs do.
- Creatine, as said, improves power as in display of strength by aiding in production of ATP and ADP. I use the standard dose of 5 g of creatine monohydrate, although some recommendation are 6-8 grams.
- Beta-alanine improves buffering of anaerobic metabolites and thus lessens the felt burning effect of quick bursts of power. In effect it may temporarily improve anaerobic work capacity, which is terribly useful in running sprints in rugby practice and speed-work in the gym. Another 5g for good measure. One thing to know about beta-alanine specifically is that it has a known side effect of making your skin tingly or itchy (technically called paresthesia), so if your skin starts to crawl with this beast of a recipe, consider yourself forewarned!
- Beta-Hydroxy beta-Methylbutyrate (HMB) is a leucine metabolite and and has weak evidence in boosting hypertrophy the same way as leucine itself, but it also may specifically reduce muscle atrophy or catabolism i.e. muscle loss in sedentary adults. More importantly it may reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) post workout, and I get the DOMS something wicked if I do volume training, so this is purely for that and good luck. I use 1,5 g HMB.
- Citrulline malate raises blood serum arginine levels more than AAKG, and while it has not shown marked improvement to strength or hypertrophy, it may improve blood flow in tissues, and work capacity as in anaerobic and aerobic endurance due to improved ammonia recycling and nitric oxide metabolism. I take 5 grams.
So you see where I’m getting at, the common theme is to give energy for training, keep on to the three muscle fibers I’ve managed to nurture to healthy growth, and to raise my fat old guy work capacity. You can also spot that much of these mysterious ingredients pivot around protein synthesis and associated signalling, as many are either amino acids or metabolites thereof.
This concoction is to be taken about 45 minutes before showtime. I usually load a shaker cup that I take to work with my training gear and then drink that while finishing up for the day before heading to the gym or practice. This will not give, me at least, that kind of a kick-in-the-head boost as some PWOs apparently do and which some people apparently like. It does however stop me being hangry. The added benefit seems to be improved mental acuity as in ability to concentrate in practice or in the gym, that aids in learning and keeping good technique and form. I get a slight tingly feeling from the Beta-Alanine with the full 5 gram dose, and in general the PWO may make you feel a bit uncomfortable or edgy at first. What needs to be considered with PWOs in general, is that if you artificially boost your energy and and work capacity past what it is, you fatigue yourself more than you would normally do. This mean you need to consider recovery in terms of enough food and sleep to balance that added stress, otherwise the PWO may do more harm than good for you gains in the run.
As I burn anything between 500 and 2000 kcal in training according to my magic fitness fairy (wrist computer), the energy from this shot is practically negligible. If you need to know, one portion is approx. 180-260 kcal (112 from whey, 40-80 from carbs, 70 from flax seed, and undisclosed however likely negligible amount from the other ingredients). For a comparison, a medium banana (approx 100g) has about 100 kcal and a whopping gram (1 g) of protein.
For taste, all of these ingredients taste altogether foul individually. Citrulline malate has this piercing acidity like sour candy, flax seed powder tastes like cardboard, and HMB just generically bitter. When mashed together, the carbs and lets say strawberry protein powder balance the citrulline and HMB and it tastes a bit like sour strawberry drops. Not my favorite taste, but palatable enough.
If you look at the prices at e.g. BulkPowders.com, the ingredients are in the bracket of 10 € per 100g or 20 portions for the more exotic ones, but in fact if you use high purity whey isolate that’ll be about as expensive part at close .5€ per portion. The price tag for the whole shebang is around 3€. The price for the Complete Pre-Workout Caffeine Free is about 1€ per portion in a one kilo bag. There you need to factor in that the dose for most ingredients is 3g and you still need to add protein and carbs separately. For me personally, the PWO is working, however compared to what Examine.com proposes that is not necessarily a clinically effective dose, especially for a guy who weighs in excess of 100 kg (or 225 lbs).
Then is the question is it worth it? You can look at it several ways: No, if you eat right and sleep enough, you don’t need supplements in the first place. But I’m dumb and lazy in that way, so I imagine I benefit from supplements to make up for the deficiency in my life style and diet. Will it make your muscles grow explosively? No, I can’t just chuck down this shake, or any other PWO, and admire how the lean mass grows. You still have to do the actual work. What the PWO does however, is that it allows me to do the work sharply and in better form than I would otherwise be able to. Then if you look at the raw price, 3€ a portion makes less than 10€ a week if you train three times. Is that a lot of money? I know that for students and other people living on a tight budget it can be, so fair enough, then you make up with good eating and lots of sleep. Then again for a price of one beer at a bar, you’ve covered two of your pre-workouts. Or for the price of a bag of chips and a couple of candy bars, or a price of a glazed doughnut and coffee, you’re covered for one portion. And these are things you probably should not be consuming on a daily or necessarily even weekly basis anyway.