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Pre-workout powders: experts are split on whether they are unnecessary and potentially harmful, or a useful supplement. Photo: Shutterstock

A supplement before exercise? Experts weigh in on pre-workout powders – and stress the value of a healthy diet and sleep routine

  • Fitness influencers are pushing pre-workout powders, saying they give an edge in performance, but experts are divided
  • Some say they are unnecessary and potentially harmful, others believe they can help recovery time and ease fatigue

Pre-workout powders are booming on social media. From influencer-promoted brands to viral dry-scooping techniques and more, the powdery supplements that gym-goers mix into their drinks are everywhere online – but are they necessary?

Google Trends shows a spike in searches for pre-workout powders in 2021 compared to previous years and the hashtag #preworkoutpowder has been used more than 38 million times on TikTok.

“Everyone’s looking for that next edge to help them in their fitness … and (pre-workout powders) are just one of the things that are marketed to speed up that process a little bit more,” says Jonathan Purtell, a registered dietitian with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.

“With the rise of Instagram and fitness influencers, and these companies taking advantage of those influencers, we’re seeing that these pre-workouts are being heavily endorsed all the time.”

Pre-workout powders are getting a lot of online attention. Photo: Instagram/@naomi.kong

But are these supplements just a heavily marketed fad or serious fitness fuel? We had experts weigh in on whether it’s necessary to start your routine with them.

Although pre-workout powders are “exploding” on social media, they’re “absolutely not” necessary for working out, says Dennis Cardone, a sports medicine expert and doctor in the department of orthopaedic surgery at NYU Langone Health in New York.

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While extreme athletes may need more supplementing, he advises the average person avoid powders that could have “potential harmful effects” and stick to eating real food instead.

“We can save our money,” he says. “Regular food will completely suffice. 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 adds.

Nutritional supplements are unnecessary, we just need a healthy diet and sleep, says Dennis Cardone, a sports medicine expert. Photo: Shutterstock

Purtell agrees that proper nutrition and a solid workout routine are most important. “All of these supplements are not needed at all. It’s what the name implies, they’re there to supplement a healthy lifestyle,” he says.

But pre-workouts may be beneficial in some cases, says Abbie Smith-Ryan, associate professor exercise physiology at UNC Chapel Hill’s Department of Exercise and Sport Science and active researcher in sport nutrition and exercise performance.

“Do you need it? No, probably not. Does it increase performance? Potentially,” she says, adding that many people are looking for ways to beat fatigue through stimulants found in these powders. “So it can help, but I wouldn’t say it’s necessary.”

Abbie Smith-Ryan is an associate professor in exercise physiology at UNC Chapel Hill’s Department of Exercise and Sport Science in North Carolina. Photo: UNC Chapel Hill

She says a well-designed pre-workout can not only help give you that energy boost, but “can help recovery and fatigue over time”.

“Other ingredients in pre-workouts also provide lower fatigue and higher intensity, with the idea that you could exercise harder and longer and then indirectly see better results over time,” she says.

But not all pre-workouts are the same, and some could do more harm than good. Some reported unwanted effects include an upset stomach, irregular heartbeat, rise in blood pressure and changes in blood sugar.

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Throughout the years, companies have made headlines for spiking their pre-workout supplements with dangerous chemicals and ingredients. The US Food and Drug Administration has also issued warnings against certain, sometimes illegal, ingredients that pop up in these products.

Cardone shared his concern over pre-workout powders that aren’t transparent with their ingredients. “They’re not controlled by the FDA, so we really do not know the substances or ingredients,” he says. “So while something may say ‘performance enhancing’ they have their own proprietary mix of whatever it might be.”

Luckily, Smith-Ryan says there’s more regulation than most people realise. “You want to look for a third-party-tested seal,” she advises.

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These companies will measure what’s in the product to make sure it matches what’s on the label. 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 this added stamp of approval, consumers should still be hyperaware when using them. Caffeine, for example, a popular stimulant ingredient used in pre-workout powders, could lead to potential side effects if taken in excess.
Dennis Cardone is a sports medicine expert and doctor in the department of orthopaedic surgery at NYU Langone Health in New York. Photo: NYU Langone Health

“It can make them feel jittery and make their heart race a little bit,” Cardone explains. “And if somebody does have heart problems or cardiac problems, it could even potentially lead to other possible side effects.”

Smith-Ryan says some people may also take more than they need. “Most people think more is better, and that’s not always the case,” she says, explaining someone may take three scoops when the serving is only one. And with caffeine, for example, “you worry about that overstimulation.”

Purtell adds “too much of one thing can definitely be dangerous” and advises people be aware of proper dosages. “Follow the directions because if you’re taking too much caffeine, you can have serious complications … We don’t want to have any heart attacks.”

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Smith-Ryan warns against younger people taking pre-workout powders. “Most often their diets are so poor, the first thing that they should do is look at what are they actually eating. Because a lot of times the fatigue comes from eating too much sugar and not having appropriate nutrients throughout the day,” she says.

In our busy, stressful world, it is unsurprising that some people are looking for a boost before their workouts, but there are alternatives to pre-workout powders.

“Everyone’s so fatigued right now, and it’s because of poor sleep and poor diet,” Smith-Ryan explains. “One of the best ways to get ready for exercise is to get your blood flowing, so move around, do a dynamic warm-up.”

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If you’re looking to fuel your workout, eat carbs and proteins. Purtell suggests lean meats like chicken breast and ground turkey, 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.
Stick to a well-balanced diet and good sleep routine. For the average gym-goer as well as young people interested in fitness, Purtell recommends “focusing on getting into a good routine and following a healthy habit of diet and exercise before they even consider taking pre-workout”.