Image Credit: Michael Rovetto for The Campus Trainer
Pre-workout supplement brands have taken over the fitness industry by releasing new flavors and brand collaborations to appeal to a younger audience. Poised to keep up with other supplement brands, companies are constantly unveiling new formulas, some of which can be harmful to the human body.
When used in moderation, pre-workout can enhance athletic performance by increasing endurance, energy, and focus during a workout, according to a 2016 study. However, not every pre-workout has the same ingredients and dosages, therefore it’s important to understand what one is ingesting before physical activity.
The most common ingredient found in pre-workout is caffeine. Although many brands offer a non-stimulant option, the caffeine content is generally what drives consumers to purchase pre-workout.
According to the FDA, 400 milligrams of caffeine per day is the amount not generally associated with dangerous, negative effects. This may not seem like a lot, but that’s equivalent to four or five cups of coffee.
Amelia Arria works for the department of behavioral and community health as a professor in the School of Public Health at UMD. She also directs the center on young adult health and development. Arria has researched on the association between caffeine use and behaviors.
“First of all, the moderation rule prevails,” said Arria. “That if you choose to drink caffeine as a young person it's really important not to overdo it, and the reason for that is excessive amounts of caffeine and even small amounts of caffeine for some vulnerable individuals, can cause adverse reactions to your physical health. Sometimes you don't even know whether or not you have a vulnerability.”
Top supplement brands such as Ryse, Gorilla Mind, and Huge Supplements use 400, 375, and 350 milligrams of caffeine respectively in their best-selling pre-workout formulas. Pair those numbers with just one cup of coffee, and the recommended daily intake of caffeine has been shattered.
That’s not to mention all the brands that contain caffeine levels well over 400 milligrams. Dark Labs sells a limited edition formula called “Crack” (Gold Edition) containing 500 milligrams of caffeine on top of 100 milligrams of dimethylamylamine, which is banned by the FDA.
Dimethylamylamine, also called DMAA, is not a dietary ingredient, and DMAA-containing products marketed as dietary supplements are illegal, according to the FDA.
DMAA stimulates the nervous system in a similar way that caffeine does, according to a research article. However, DMAA’s effects hit harder and last longer.
“...You can feel like an instant shift into a deep focus,” said Matt Winn, a computer science major at UMD. “Like you basically become so focused that you become irritable to the point where things can get you pretty angry easily. But the main part is like an instant shift of energy to this tunnel vision state that basically blocks things and people out.”
Taking DMAA can raise blood pressure and lead to cardiovascular problems ranging from shortness of breath and tightening in the chest to heart attack, according to the FDA.
Caffeine can also pose a danger to one’s health. The FDA estimates toxic effects, like seizures, can occur after consuming around 1200 milligrams of caffeine. Consuming high concentrations of caffeine in pre-workouts can present a major health threat.
Death due to caffeine overdose is rare; however, overuse or misuse of pre-workout can be fatal. It’s important to follow the recommended caffeine dosage of a pre-workout and monitor one's daily consumption of caffeine.
Side effects of pre-workout are insomnia, nausea, increased heart rate, drowsiness, headaches, anxiety, and jitteriness or restlessness. These side effects are directly linked to overconsumption of caffeine, according to a Healthline article.
Two other ingredients that are common in pre-workouts are beta-alanine and citrulline. These two ingredients work best when they’re combined, enhancing nitric oxide production during physical activity and in return reducing fatigue and accelerating increases in muscle size and strength, according to a 2018 study.
Beta-alanine is a natural amino acid that when ingested elicits a tingling sensation on the skin. Many people love the tingling sensation that beta-alanine produces, while others may feel like they have bugs under their skin.
Thankfully, there are plenty of pre-workout options that fit one's desired preferences. However, when purchasing a product containing beta-alanine, it’s important to read and understand the dosages of the ingredient.
“One has to understand what they are putting into their body, simply because there is no such thing as consuming a supplement without side effects,” said Kumali Raza, a criminology major at UMD and a personal trainer at Eppley Recreation Center. “The question is are you okay to deal with the consequences and everyone’s answer is different.”
Studies have shown skeletal muscle carnosine response to beta-alanine is optimized at 3.2 grams. Moreover, supplements containing less than 3.2 grams are not optimizing consumers' gains. The dosages of beta-alanine vary for each product.
Like beta-alanine, citrulline is a non-essential amino acid, meaning it’s produced naturally in the human body. There are many different forms of citrulline, but the most common in pre-workouts is L-citrulline and citrulline malate.
Citrulline doses vary because of the different types. Still, it’s recommended to take three to five grams of L-citrulline or six to eight grams of citrulline malate to maximize nitric oxide production in the body, according to Legion Athletics, a popular supplement company.
When consuming pre-workout it’s essential to understand how to read supplement facts labels. By reading supplement facts, one can determine if a product is safe. Sometimes the better option could be a stimulant-free formula that will hit all areas of performance such as focus, endurance, and pump without the risk of one’s head exploding.
Understanding supplement facts also allow consumers to get the most out of their money and stay away from products that are underdosed.