Serious lifters need massive amounts of energy and focus to fuel their intensive workouts.
Pre-workout nutrition and supplementation achieve these objectives in the most efficient manner possible.
However, the pre-workout period is also a time to promote muscle growth.
To experience the kind of muscle growth commensurate with intensive gym efforts, muscle protein synthesis must occur frequently, especially before, during, and after workouts.
Muscle functions in an anabolic or catabolic state. To experience ongoing muscle gains, the rate of muscle protein synthesis (the anabolic state) must continue to exceed the rate of muscle protein degradation (the catabolic state).
Every effort must be made to ensure the right nutrients are taken at the right times to keep growth on an upward trajectory. Pre-workout is the ideal time to prime the body for high performance, fat burning, and post-workout recovery. This article will show how.
Why Pre-workout Nutrition is important
Confusion reigns when it comes to pre-workout nutrition. Whole-food meals consisting of proteins and carbs are thought to be sufficient. Though important, whole foods pre-workout are only part of the equation. Which begs the questions: What about supplementation? What are the best options and specific ingredients?
As a committed gymgoer you may find yourself seeking answers on how to get the most from each workout through cutting-edge supplementation. Look no further. What follows is a detailed overview of the best pre-workout essentials needed to fuel workout intensity and engage the growth process.
The pre-workout meal
Before downing an effective pre-workout product, the all-important pre-workout meal must first be addressed. Aside from providing training energy, the pre-workout meal also helps to offset muscle protein breakdown. In fact, research shows training on an empty stomach increases nitrogen losses from protein breakdown by more than double.11, 14
To optimize performance and retain muscle, it’s essential to eat a solid meal within two hours before training. Poor pre-workout nutrition can lead to excessive cortisol release during training, which can lead to suboptimal fat oxidation and also muscle losses.11
Whether an early morning cardio session or an abdominal workout upon rising, always eat beforehand. No more fasted cardio or weights!
Pre-workout supplementation tops the fuel tank to increase training energy, offset fatigue, and enhance muscle growth. The pre-workout meal doesn't have to be excessive: around 400 calories comprised of 70% low glycemic carbs (vegetables and oats) and 30% lean proteins (egg whites and chicken breasts).
Since fat takes longest to digest, a pre-workout meal must be very low on this nutrient. A perfect pre-workout meal could be 100g of oats with water, one banana, and six egg whites.
A pre-workout formula stacked with high performance ingredients is essential to building muscle. Taking a pre-workout before cranking out the first rep maximizes strength, provides energy to endure, improves focus and mental alertness, enhances fat oxidation, and minimizes protein degradation (increasing muscle growth).
Gone are the days when a trainee would simply eat a meal before working out and expect to dominate the iron. Now, it's indisputable that a reputable pre-workout will significantly improve focus, reduce fatigue, and increase energy beyond that of a regular meal.
Steer clear of any product with questionable ingredients and an excessive list of artificial substances. Go only for products with scientifically proven ingredients and zero filler.
Avoid proprietary blends. Simply put, with a proprietary blend of ingredients you don't know what you are getting.
Rather than specifying exactly what quantity of each ingredient is in the product, a proprietary blend lumps a large number of ingredients together and gives them a per serving dosage. You can assume the most effective of these ingredients are included in such low dosages that return on investment is minimal at best.
What to look for in an effective pre-workout
A superior pre-workout energizer features a vast array of performance nutrients in sufficient quantities. Below are standout performers found in the best pre-workout products.
Creatine assists workout performance on many levels. By increasing ATP (Adenosine Tri Phosphate – vital for energy production) within muscle cells, creatine helps to enhance intensity levels, for longer periods of time.13
Creatine also boosts strength levels and counters fatigue, enabling more weight to be lifted before the muscles are forced to tap-out.16 Creatine monohydrate remains the most popular and recommended choice due to its proven efficacy.
Working synergistically with creatine, beta-alanine is a precursor to the lactic acid buffering amino carnosine. Low muscle carnosine levels have been shown to drastically reduce training output.9
Supplementing with beta-alanine saturates the muscles with carnosine. This encourages anaerobic output improvements and reduced muscle fatigue.
Burn fat and increase focus
Pre-workout products are closely-associated with the stimulant high resulting from compounds such as caffeine and its fat burning effects. Different types of caffeine encourage lipolysis, thermogenesis, mental focus, and myriad performance benefits.
However, a host of additional substances produce similar results in uniquely beneficial ways. Let’s take a closer look.
A potent central nervous system stimulant, Hordenine may be effective in stripping bodyfat and keeping it off. By stimulating the release of norepinephrine (an excitatory hormone that energizes the body), Hordenine activates the fight-or-flight response to prepare the body for action.7
Once activated, norepinephrine is known to give superhuman energy in circumstances where the body’s physical resources would normally falter. Hordenine also liberates, via norepinephrine, lipids (fats) from adipose tissue. These lipids are subsequently oxidized for energy, causing bodyfat levels drop.
Octopamine is a known nootropic compound highly regarded for its ability to enhance motivation and improve focus. Adopting a number of different roles, Octopamine functions as a neurotransmitter, neurohormone, and neuromodulator to optimise mental arousal and increase training intensity.6
By stimulating the Beta3 adrenergic receptors Octopamine mobilizes fat from adipocytes to be used as energy.6 As a pre-workout it increases training energy and stimulates fat loss without leading to the dreaded stimulant crash.
However, competitive athletes who use Octopamine to improve performance are at risk of failing a urine test due to Octopamine’s inclusion on the WADA banned substances list.
Much like Hordenine, Yohimbine stimulates the release of the catecholamines norepinephrine and epinephrine into the bloodstream to increase sympathetic nervous system activity, thus energizing the body.
As part of a good pre-workout, Yohimbine also supports fat loss. Some even believe Yohimbine assists them in removing body fat that otherwise refuses to budge.
A staple of all good pre-workout supplements, caffeine is also a universal pick-me-up consumed by millions of people worldwide.
Caffeine has been proven to increase blood circulation to enhance the transportation of oxygen and nutrients to working muscles, reduce workout-induced pain to extend training time, increase resistance to fatigue, boost fat oxidation, and enhance focus and mental arousal.8
Although regarded as a pre-workout substance, caffeine can assist workout performance by promoting a 66% increase in muscle glycogen uptake four hours after training.1
Special attention must be given to the amount of caffeine consumed pre-workout. Just enough is needed to encourage the aforementioned benefits (between 200-300mg, depending on tolerance level). Any more than this and the user may become jittery, nervous, and nauseous.
Priming the pump
Optimizing energy, burning fat, and stimulating the mind are key features of an excellent pre-workout product. But we cannot forget the pump. The pump assists in muscles growth by enhancing catalysts. The pump also provides a psychological edge. With it a lifter feels larger and invincible, like they can run through walls and move more weight than ever before.
The pump can be primed in many ways and a good pre-workout will include a range of pump-inducing ingredients. Let’s first look at the best of the tried and tested Arginine compounds.
A byproduct of Arginine decarboxylation, Agmatine Sulfate is considered to be extremely effective at producing pumps and vascularity.
In addition to creating lasting pumps, improving endurance, increasing lean body mass, and decreasing body fat, Agmatine is prized for its nootropic properties. Agmatine may also enhance mood and focus and decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression22. Thus, bodybuilders and other athletes may use it to recharge prior to maxing out in the gym.
Agmatine inhibits the production of an enzyme called nitric oxide synthase (NOS) and in so doing limits the breakdown of Nitric Oxide (NO) to maintain muscles pumps for longer than any other related compound. In binding with a2 adrenergic and imidazoline receptors,
Agmatine can also stimulate the pituitary gland to increase the product of Luteinizing Hormone (LH) for testosterone production and Growth Hormone (GH). This adds up to more muscle gains independent Agmatine’s aforementioned properties.
Arginine Ethyl Ester
The benefits of Arginine are not limited to muscle pumps. Once converted to Nitric Oxide (NO) in the body, Arginine dilates blood vessels to allow more nutrients and oxygen-rich blood to reach the working muscles. Arginine may also boost immunity and improve kidney function, making it potentially effective for healing muscle tissue and excreting excess water from the body19.
Arginine also helps the body process both creatine and nitrogen, assisting with the production of training energy and stimulating increased muscle growth. By stimulating the release of insulin, Arginine enables more pre-workout nutrients to reach the muscles, namely amino acids and high-molecular-weight carbs.
Thus, various forms of arginine can support the synthesis of new muscle tissues, aids recovery, regulates metabolism, and helps burn bodyfat.3
One of the most effective forms of Arginine remains Arginine Ethyl Ester. Formed via a process called esterification, Arginine Ethyl Ester is absorbed more efficiently in the small intestine and has greater bioavailability.
Arginine HCL combines Arginine with a hydrochloride molecule to enhance its absorption by the digestive system.20 Faster absorption enables the Arginine to reach the blood faster for maximum results. Because the hydrochloride analog’s molecules produce a neutral pH, Arginine HCL (in powder form) is also more palatable than other forms when mixed with water.
Arginine Pyroglutamate is believed to possess greater bioavailability than other arginine forms. Via its Pyroglutamate component, Arginine Pyroglutamate has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier to improve oxygen and nutrient delivery to the brain.21 Therefore, Arginine Pyroglutamate can also enhance learning, memory and, as an effective pre-workout, mental arousal.
Arginine Pyroglutamate has also been shown to elevate GH levels by several hundred percent for up to eight hours when combined with the amino acid lysine.10
Though the above-listed forms of Arginine are very effective when combined in a top-line pre-workout product, the race to create the superior Arginine product continues.
Technically an inositol-stabilized Arginine silicate, Nitrosigine is regarded as the most effective Nitric Oxide (NO) booster on the market today due to its greater bioavailability and additional muscle-building benefits. Combining the heart-healthy potassium silicate, Nitrosigine not only produces unsurpassed pumps but also strengthens arterial walls and keeps them flexible.
Thus, it increases blood flow and improves cardiovascular efficiency. Nitrosigine can also significantly reduce exercise-induced lactic-acid accumulation and inflammation, cramping, and muscle pain, allowing the user to train harder for longer and recover faster from strenuous training.18
The amino acid Citrulline malate is known for producing skin-bursting muscle pumps leading to growth increases.14 Much like beta-alanine, citrulline minimizes lactic acid production to extend training intensity.
The rate at which supplemental amino acids can be used to energize the muscles is one key predictor for enhanced workout performance. Citrulline increases the use of amino acids present in the blood to shuttle a steady supply of aminos to the muscles when they are most needed.
The part (or backbone) of a triglyceride that is not stored as bodyfat, Glycerol is instead converted to glucose and used as fuel. Not traditionally used by bodybuilders, Glycerol has instead been favored by endurance athletes for whom optimal hydration is an essential part of their sport.
Due to its strong osmotic properties, Glycerol has proven to be a very powerful hydrating agent, attracting and retaining fluids in muscles and blood vessels for long periods of time.2 Lifters at all levels acknowledge the role of proper muscle hydration in achieving skin-stretching pumps.
Glycerol is now used among such athletes to dilate blood vessels, improve vascularity, and achieve the best pumps of their lifting careers. Hydromax is the most stable and highly-concentrated form of Glycerol on today’s market.
With 65% active Glycerol, Hydromax leads to a state called hyperhydration, where muscle function is significantly improved. Muscle cell swelling stretches the muscle cell membrane to such a degree that long-term muscle growth is activated. When taken with creatine pre-workout, the positive effects of glycerol can be significantly increased.2
Whether they are used for endurance or strength training, the BCAAs Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine remain the most valuable amino acids for enhancing muscle protein synthesis before, during, and after training.
Tipping the catabolism/anabolism balance in favor of muscle protein synthesis has clear therapeutic benefits for resistance training athletes.5 Taken pre-workout, the BCAAs keep the muscles anabolic.
According to research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, BCAAs serve as the primary aminos used during intense exercise.15
This study found that when taken together pre-workout over a three-week period, creatine, citrulline, whey protein, caffeine, and BCAAs significantly increased both aerobic and anaerobic performance, training volume and lean body mass.
But only the best BCAAs will do. A high potency supply is most effective for maximizing workout performance and increasing muscle gains.
Sustaining performance and fuelling growth
Pre-workout nutrition centers on the all-important pre-workout meal. The proper intake of solid food within two hours of training is crucial to increasing muscle glycogen storage and protein synthesis.
However, as the workout approaches, energy reserves may begin to dwindle and catabolic processes (weight-lifting) may begin to inhibit muscle protein synthesis. This is where a good pre-workout formulation consisting of energizing and muscle-building ingredients takes center stage.
Pre-workout nutrition is one of the most important times to ingest training nutrients. A formula providing a high potency complement of BCAAs, Creatine, Citrulline, Glycine, Caffeine, Beta-Alanine, Arginine and other high performance compounds guarantees a killer workout each and every time.
Furthermore, muscle losses due to the catabolic nature of intensive training can also be countered. The result: more energy and most important of all, greater muscle gains.
- American Physiological Society. Post Exercise Caffeine Helps Muscles Refuel. [Online] http://www.the-aps.org/mm/hp/audiences/public-press/archive/08/24.html - retrieved on 11.4.16
- Beis, L. The effects of creatine and glycerol hyperhydration on running economy in well trained endurance runners [Online] http://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-8-24 - retrieved on 3.5.16
- Besset, A., et al. Increase in sleep related GH and Prl secretion after chronic arginine aspartate administration in man. Acta Endocrinol (Copenh). 1982;99(1):18-23.
- Bloomer RJ, et al Dietary supplement increases plasma norepinephrine, lipolysis, and metabolic rate in resistance trained men . J Int Soc Sports Nutr. (2009)
- Dodson, W., Protein and Amino Acid Supplementation for Resistance Training. [Online] https://escholarship.org/uc/item/5q0844bz#page-1 – retrieved on 11.4.16
- Examine.com. Octopamine. [Online] https://examine.com/supplements/octopamine/ - retrieved on 3.5.16
- Hapke, H., J & Strathmann, W. Pharmacological effects of hordenine. [Online] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8582256 - retrieved on 3.5.16
- Health Magazine. Five Reasons to Drink Coffee before Your Workout. [Online] http://news.health.com/2014/06/19/5-reasons-to-drink-coffee-before-your-... - retrieved on 11.4.16
- Human Kinetics. Beta-alanine as a sport supplement. [Online] http://www.humankinetics.com/excerpts/excerpts/beta-alanine-as-a-sport-s... - retrieved on 3.5.16
- Isidori A, Lo Monaco A, Cappa M. (1981). A study of growth hormone release in man after oral administration of amino acids. Current Medical Research and Opinion, 7, 475-481
- Lemon, P. W., and Mullin, J. P., Effect of initial muscle glycogen levels on protein catabolism during exercise. J Appl Physiol 48: 624–629, 1980.
- McCarthy CG, et al A finished dietary supplement stimulates lipolysis and metabolic rate in young men and women . Nutr Metab Insights. (2011)
- Olsen, S., et al. Creatine supplementation augments the increase in satellite cell and myonuclei number in human skeletal muscle induced by strength training. June 1, 2006 Journal of Physiology, 573, 525-534.
- Zelman, K., What to Eat Before, During, and After Exercise. [Online] http://www.webmd.com/diet/what-eat-before-during-after-exercise - retrieved on 24.6.16
- Smith, A., et al. 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. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 20107:10
- Ziegenfuss, T., N. et al. Effect of creatine loading on anaerobic performance and skeletal muscle volume in NCAA Division I athletes. Nutrition. 2002 May; 18(5): 397-402.
- Examine.com. Synephrine. [Online] https://examine.com/supplements/synephrine/ - retrieved on 3.5.16
- Nutraceuticals World. Study Demonstrates Nitrosigine is a Bioavailable Source of Arginine & Silicon [Online] http://www.nutraceuticalsworld.com/contents/view_industry-news/2014-05-0... – retrieved on 24.6.16
- Durzan, D. Arginine, scurvy and Cartier's "tree of life". J Ethnobiol Ethnomed. 2009; 5: 5.
- King, J. What is Arginine HCL? [Online] http://www.livestrong.com/article/464027-what-is-l-arginine-hcl/ - retrieved on 24.6.16
- Grioli, S. et al. "Pyroglutamic Acid Improves the Age Associated Memory Impairment." Fundamental and Clinical Pharmacology. 1990, Vol. 4, pp. 169-73.
- Piletz, John E., Feyza Aricioglu, Juei-Tang Cheng, Carolyn A. Fairbanks, Varda H. Gilad, Britta Haenisch, Angelos Halaris, Samin Hong, Jong Eun Lee, Jin Li, Ping Liu, Gerhard J. Molderings, Ana Lúcia S. Rodrigues, Joseph Satriano, Gong Je Seong, George Wilcox, Ning Wu, and Gad M. Gilad. "Agmatine: Clinical Applications after 100 Years in Translation." Drug Discovery Today 18.17-18 (2013): 880-93. Web.