Pre-workout powders are booming on social media — but are they necessary?
“Everyone’s looking for that next edge to help them in their fitness,” says Jonathan Purtell, a registered dietitian at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. Pre-workout powders “are just one of the things that are marketed to speed up that process a little bit more.”
We asked experts whether these supplements are a heavily-marketed fad or serious fitness fuel.
They’re “absolutely not” necessary for working out, says Dr. Dennis A. Cardone, a sports medicine expert at NYU Langone Health.
While extreme athletes might need more supplementing, Cardone advises the average person to avoid powders that could have “potential harmful effects” and instead get their energy from actual food.
“We can get everything we want out of it — our protein, our carbohydrate, our caffeine, if we want to — so there’s really no need to supplement a well-balanced diet.”
By focusing on food, people can “control and know exactly what they’re taking into their bodies,” he says.
Pre-workouts could be beneficial in some cases, says Abbie E. Smith-Ryan, an associate professor of exercise physiology at UNC Chapel Hill’s Department of Exercise and Sport Science who does research on sports nutrition and exercise performance.
“Do you need it? No, probably not,” Smith-Ryan says. “Does it increase performance? Potentially. So it can help. But I wouldn’t say it’s necessary.”
She says a pre-workout powder can help give you that energy boost and “can help recovery and fatigue over time.”
But not all pre-workouts are the same. Companies have made headlines for spiking their pre-workout supplements with dangerous chemicals and ingredients. The federal Food and Drug Administration has issued warnings against certain, sometimes illegal, ingredients in such products.
Cardone says he’s concerned about pre-workout powders whose manufacturers aren’t transparent about their ingredients.
“They’re not controlled by the FDA, so we really do not know the substances or ingredients,” he says.
“You want to look for a third-party-tested seal,” Smith-Ryan says.
These companies certify that what the label says is what’s in the product. Some even check for banned substances. Common certifications include NSF Certified for Sport and Informed Choice.
“I want to know whatever I’m buying is actually what it says is in there, so that third-party-tested seal is really important,” Smith-Ryan says. ”It costs a lot of money for these companies to do that, which also shows they’re putting time and money into their product.”
Even for pre-workout powders with such a stamp of approval, people should be hyperaware when using them. Caffeine, for instance, is a popular stimulant used in pre-workout powders but could have side effects if taken in excess.
“It can make them feel jittery and make their heart race a little bit,” Cardone says. “And if somebody does have heart problems or cardiac problems, it could even potentially lead to other other possible side effects.”
Smith-Ryan says some people also take more than they need.
“Most people think more is better, and that’s not always the case,” she says. “Follow the directions because, if you’re taking too much caffeine at one given time, you can have serious complications.”
She suggests a better way to amp up your workout, is to “move around, kind of do a dynamic warmup.”
Purtell says good nutrition helps. He suggests lean meats like chicken breast, ground turkey and fish or plant-based proteins like tofu and tempeh. And if you’re looking for some energy, you can have a cup of coffee or tea.
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