Is there science supporting pre-workout supplements?
"Supplements are a waste of money. They don't work and there's no science behind using them."
Many people view supplements in a negative light - and supplement companies have brought this upon themselves.
Supplement companies use various tricks and practices to sell unproven, ineffective, and underdosed products, relying primarily on the placebo effect to trick users into thinking the products work.
Ask your doctor or any healthcare professional about their thoughts on supplements. They will probably tell you something like “supplements don’t work” and “you shouldn’t waste your time or money on them.” Nearly every health profession curriculum teaches that supplements exist to make money for supplement companies and that they don't work.
The deck seems pretty stacked against supplements. You’ve got doctors telling you they don’t work, and companies selling products with promises too good to be true.
I’m here to tell you that not all supplements are created equally. Supplements such as creatine, vitamin D, and probiotics have evidence backing their use.
But what about pre-workout supplements? Is there evidence backing up the ingredients used? Or are these an example of modern-day snake oil?
I’m going to go over several ingredients used in Focal Force, and explain the science and data backing each one.
As a pharmacist, it’s my responsibility to give you the information needed to understand what you are putting inside your body. I’ve done my research, and now I’m sharing it with you.
L-citrulline is a naturally-occurring amino acid involved in the urea cycle, along with L-ornithine and L-arginine.
L-citrulline is converted into L-arginine, which can then be converted into nitric oxide.
Nitric oxide acts as a vasodilator, which means it causes blood vessels to expand. This increases blood flow, allowing more oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to reach your muscles during a workout.
L-citrulline supplementation has been shown to:
- reduce fatigue (1,2),
- decrease muscle soreness and increase training volume (3), and
- increase growth hormone during exercise (4).
In the studies on L-citrulline use for exercise performance, the dosages used are in the 6g - 8g range.
Many pre-workout products contain much less L-citrulline - sometimes as little as 1g!
Often, companies will hide the actual amount used in a "proprietary blend". If you see a "proprietary blend" on the label, you can almost guarantee you're being sold an underdosed product. Not cool.
L-tyrosine serves as a precursor for important neurotransmitters such as dopamine and noradrenaline. During times of acute stress - such as working out - our levels of noradrenaline tend to be depleted. Supplementation with L-tyrosine helps our body continue to produce neurotransmitters under stress.
L-tyrosine has been shown to:
- improve cognition during acute stress (5,6),
- reduce perceptions of stress (5,6),
- increase subjective well-being (5), and
- increase working memory (7).
L-carnitine and acetyl-L-carnitine (ALCAR) are naturally-occurring amino acids which are essential for body performance. ALCAR is the form of L-carnitine associated with neurological effects, because it is better able to cross the blood-brain barrier and exert effects there. ALCAR helps protect our mitochondria (the "powerhouse" of the cell) and neurons, and can repair cell damage.
Research has shown that ALCAR can:
L-carnitine has been shown to improve antioxidant production (9,10). Although this has not been studied specifically using ALCAR, I think it's safe to assume ALCAR can have the same anti-oxidant boosting effects that have been proven in L-carnitine supplementation, as ALCAR is almost structurally identical to regular L-carnitine. It simply hasn't been applied in the same study settings looking for increased antioxidant production in the manner L-carnitine has.
Beta alanine is a modified version of the amino acid alanine, both of which naturally occur in the human body (are you noticing a pattern? The ingredients discussed so far already exist in your body) and are used as building blocks for the amino acid carnosine. Carnosine acts as an acid buffer in our bodies, offering protection against exercise-induced lactic acid production. Lactic acid build-up during exercise can inhibit muscle contraction - by providing a buffer to return our muscle pH back to normal, beta alanine and carnosine help us continue to work out and can increase performance in short-term high intensity exercise (11).
In studies, beta alanine has been found to:
- increase muscular endurance during exercise (12),
- reduce fatigue and increase workload (13), and
- reduce fat mass and increase lean muscle mass (14).
One thing I want to point is that beta alanine dosing is actually not time-dependent - at least based on what we know from existing research.
I think that, if a study were to be conducted where subjects only supplemented beta alanine prior to a workout, we'd still see the performance benefits discussed above. I include it in Focal Force because it's easier to consume this way instead of having to remember to take another, separate supplement. I also believe to be beneficial when taken prior to exercise, although, as mentioned, it hasn't specifically been studied in this manner. When I was experimenting with different formulations for Focal Force, I tried excluding beta alanine from my pre-workout ingredients, and noticed a difference compared to when it was included.
In the studies I've linked above, beta alanine was used in study subjects daily. If you want to dose beta alanine in the same manner as the studies, you'll want to have a separate, stand-alone beta alanine supplement to consume on days you don't use a pre-workout supplement.
Anecdotally, I don't do this - I get beta alanine from dietary sources (beta alanine is naturally found in food sources such as beef, pork, chicken, and fish), and use Focal Force 45 minutes before lifting weights.
Theobromine is the primary component responsible for the beneficial effects of cocoa (15). Theobromine is structurally similar to caffeine and has many of the same effects. One key difference is that theobromine has milder stimulatory actions on the central nervous system. Theobromine also has less of a "spike" than caffeine. When comparing theobromine to caffeine, people often describe theobromine as having a smoother, more level effect on energy levels compared to the highs and lows of caffeine.
Theobromine has been shown to
- improve blood flow (16,17,18,19,20,21), and to
- reduce oxidation (22), including exercise-induced oxidation (23,24).
What does that mean? During exercise, our skeletal muscle produces reactive oxygen and nitrogen species. Intense, prolonged exercise can result in oxidative damage to proteins in our muscles. High levels of reactive oxygen species result in muscle weakness and fatigue. By reducing exercise-induced oxidation, we lower levels of reactive oxygen species in the muscle. This helps prevent or alleviate muscle weakness and fatigue, allowing you to workout harder for longer periods of time.
The goal of this article is to disprove the notion that all pre-workout supplements are based on "bro science".
Is the research on pre-workout supplementation completely definitive? No. Like anything subject to scientific research, there are still questions remaining and areas needing further exploration. Some ingredients have more science backing their use than others. Some ingredients have good physiological/biological theory backing their use, but haven't been proven in rigorous scientific studies.
Just like you'll never find a "perfect" blood pressure medication, you'll never find a "perfect" pre-workout supplement. That doesn't stop us from using blood pressure medicines when they can be beneficial. So, this shouldn't stop us from using a quality pre-workout product if it makes sense for us to use it.
My goal in creating Focal Force was to make a pre-workout with ingredients and dosages backed by science that I want to use myself.
If using a pre-workout supplement is right for you (meaning your diet is dialed in, your training is consistent, and your sleep/stress are under control), and you want a product with research to back it up, I'd love for you to try Focal Force. It's backed by a 110% money-back guarantee - you have literally nothing to lose by trying it.
Ready to upgrade your workouts?
- Bendahan D, Mattei JP, Ghattas B, Confort-gouny S, Le guern ME, Cozzone PJ. Citrulline/malate promotes aerobic energy production in human exercising muscle. Br J Sports Med. 2002;36(4):282-9.
- Hickner RC, Tanner CJ, Evans CA, et al. L-citrulline reduces time to exhaustion and insulin response to a graded exercise test. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006;38(4):660-6.
- Pérez-guisado J, Jakeman PM. Citrulline malate enhances athletic anaerobic performance and relieves muscle soreness. J Strength Cond Res. 2010;24(5):1215-22.
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- Deijen JB, Wientjes CJ, Vullinghs HF, Cloin PA, Langefeld JJ. Tyrosine improves cognitive performance and reduces blood pressure in cadets after one week of a combat training course. Brain Res Bull. 1999;48(2):203-9.
- Banderet LE, Lieberman HR. Treatment with tyrosine, a neurotransmitter precursor, reduces environmental stress in humans. Brain Res Bull. 1989;22(4):759-62.
- Shurtleff D, Thomas JR, Schrot J, Kowalski K, Harford R. Tyrosine reverses a cold-induced working memory deficit in humans. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 1994;47(4):935-41.
- Malaguarnera M, Gargante MP, Cristaldi E, et al. Acetyl L-carnitine (ALC) treatment in elderly patients with fatigue. Arch Gerontol Geriatr. 2008;46(2):181-90.
- Vermeulen RC, Scholte HR. Exploratory open label, randomized study of acetyl- and propionylcarnitine in chronic fatigue syndrome. Psychosom Med. 2004;66(2):276-82.
- Cao Y, Qu HJ, Li P, Wang CB, Wang LX, Han ZW. Single dose administration of L-carnitine improves antioxidant activities in healthy subjects. Tohoku J Exp Med. 2011;224(3):209-13.
- Artioli GG, Gualano B, Smith A, Stout J, Lancha AH. Role of beta-alanine supplementation on muscle carnosine and exercise performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010;42(6):1162-73.
- Stout JR, Cramer JT, Mielke M, O'kroy J, Torok DJ, Zoeller RF. Effects of twenty-eight days of beta-alanine and creatine monohydrate supplementation on the physical working capacity at neuromuscular fatigue threshold. J Strength Cond Res. 2006;20(4):928-31.
- Stout JR, Cramer JT, Zoeller RF, et al. Effects of beta-alanine supplementation on the onset of neuromuscular fatigue and ventilatory threshold in women. Amino Acids. 2007;32(3):381-6.
- Smith AE, Walter AA, Graef JL, et al. Effects of beta-alanine supplementation and high-intensity interval training on endurance performance and body composition in men; a double-blind trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2009;6:5.
- Martínez-Pinilla E, Oñatibia-Astibia A, Franco R. The relevance of theobromine for the beneficial effects of cocoa consumption. Frontiers in Pharmacology. 2015;6:30. doi:10.3389/fphar.2015.00030.
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