Pre-workout powders are booming on social media, but are they necessary?
“Everyone is looking for that added benefit to help them with their physical condition,” says Jonathan Purtell, registered dietitian at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. Pre-workout powders “are just one of the things that are marketed to make this process a little bit faster.”
We asked experts if these supplements are a heavily marketed fad or a serious fitness fuel.
They are “absolutely not” necessary for exercise, says Dr. Dennis A. Cardone, sports medicine expert at NYU Langone Health.
While extreme athletes might need more supplements, Cardone advises the average person to avoid powders that could have “potential harmful effects” and instead get their energy from real food.
“We can get whatever we want from it – our protein, our carbohydrates, our caffeine, if we want it – so there’s really no need to supplement a well-balanced diet.”
By focusing on food, people can “control and know exactly what they are getting into their bodies,” he says.
Pre-workouts could be beneficial in some cases, says Abbie E. Smith-Ryan, associate professor of exercise physiology in the Department of Exercise and Sport Sciences at UNC Chapel Hill, who is researching sports nutrition and physical performance.
“Do you need it? No, probably not,” said Smith-Ryan. “Does it increase performance? Potentially. So it might help. But I wouldn’t say it’s necessary.
She says a pre-workout powder can help give you an energy boost and “can help with recovery and fatigue over time.”
But not all pre-workouts are the same. The companies made headlines for fortifying their pre-workout supplements with dangerous chemicals and ingredients. The Federal Food and Drug Administration has issued warnings against certain, sometimes illegal, ingredients in these products.
Cardone says he’s concerned about pre-workout powders whose manufacturers are not transparent about their ingredients.
“They are not controlled by the FDA, so we really don’t know the substances or the ingredients,” he says.
“You want to look for a seal that has been tested by a third party,” says Smith-Ryan.
These companies certify that what the label says matches the content of the product. Some even check for banned substances. Common certifications include NSF Certified for Sport and Informed Choice.
“I want to know what I’m buying is actually what it says, so that third-party tested seal is really important,” Smith-Ryan said. “It costs these companies a lot of money, which also shows that they are spending time and money on their product. “
Even for pre-workout powders with such a seal of approval, people have to be hyper aware when using them. Caffeine, for example, is a popular stimulant used in pre-workout powders, but could have side effects if taken in excess.
“It can make them nervous and make their hearts beat a bit,” says Cardone. “And if someone has heart or heart problems, it could even potentially lead to 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 directions, because if you take too much caffeine at one time, you can have serious complications. “
She suggests that a better way to boost your workout is to “move around, sort of do a dynamic warm-up.”
Purtell says good nutrition helps. He suggests lean meats like chicken breast, ground turkey, and fish or plant proteins like tofu and tempeh. And if you are looking for some energy, you can have a cup of coffee or tea.
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