"I just can't train without taking... " - famous preceding words from athletes scattered throughout all sports and specialties who see and feel the benefits of taking pre-workout supplements before training and competing.
Some pre-workout supplements are the most novel and innovative products you'll find in the performance-enhancing landscape. Conversely, some aren't so novel. From simple caffeine-dense stimulants and amphetamine-like highs to the parasthesia or "tingles" felt when your supplement contains beta-alanine, one thing pre-workout supplements do have in common, is that they are all designed to ensure that you feel them "working".
But what exactly is working inside that mysterious powder? More importantly, what is it that you want from your pre-workout supplement?
If you're a strength athlete and tonight's training is focused on moving the heaviest weights in the gym, then you're probably on the search for a stimulant-based pre-workout. Products like Jack3d and Mesomorph have been popular choices of late, but consumers must be cautious when purchasing products containing 1-3 DMAA due to its nationwide ban from shelves (the details of this ban have been blurred by retailers but ultimately the benefits of this product were strongly outweighed by its associated risks).
If you're looking for size, be it temporary or long-lasting, you will want to invest in testing your response to a high-quality vasodilatory supplement. The jury is still (very) out on many of the new 'forms' of arginine and citrulline (the amino acid substrates which feed the nitric-oxide synthase-induced vasodilation in these products), and there is no legitimate reason to look for something 'bigger' than arginine-alpha ketoglutarate (AAKG). There likely isn't a better product currently in existence using the arginine compound as its backbone and you can trust that if you respond to AAKG, you'll want to stick with it. There is the unfortunate reality of the fact that not all athletes respond to arginine in the same fashion. This is an issue that has clouded many facets of research into the amino acid's use as an ergogenic aid and even as a cardiotherapeutic. Nonetheless, if you are a responder you will know once you've tried it and a more pronounced peripheral vascularity and a deeper 'flushed' feeling indicates its effective widening of blood vessels and (theoretically) an increased supply of the nutrients your muscles need during exercise.
If you're a fighter, crossfitter or training for mixed endurance then you'll likely be looking at solutions to enhance your work volume. This is more complicated than just aggressively generating a force once. Metabolic substrates that are used by your cells during anaerobic exercise can be supplemented and stored in greater amounts before you train. Look for ingredients like creatine esters, amino acids, simple sugars and beta-alanine. Beta-alanine is a relatively new compound used in pre-workouts for its ability to buffer (improve your acute tolerance to) acidic bi-products of anaerobic respiration ie. lactic acid. Some of the best supplements on the market combine creatine and whey protein supplements quite to effectively shorten the recovery time needed between training sessions.
Now, if you really have to concentrate during training... if you fight in a cage or ring or you have complicated movements to co-ordinate in crossfit , gymnastics, BMX, ball-sports, rowing, tennis etc. then the compound you've been looking for has only just recently hit the market. In Australia, this compound is marketed under the name Theaffeine and is available only in select ranges of products. This glutamate is essentially a synergist of caffeine (mimics caffeine's effects) with reduced side effects and added benefits. Theaffeine has been shown to improve focus, concentration and rapid problem-solving whilst reducing the tremor, nervousness and anxiety that accompanies all the harsh and potent caffeine-based stimulant pre-workouts we've known and tolerated for years. Some studies have even shown it's active ingredient to prevent neurocognitive damage during prolonged physical and mental stress (an extremely important benefit when you train at the professional level). Theaffeine's active ingredients have been used most notably in the USA as potent study-aids for students, musicians and high-stress executives.
Whatever choice you make, close your eyes and forget what Bobby Wants-to-be-a-bodybuilder told you last time you were in the gym together. You have the power to make an educated decision and understand the purpose of pre-workout ingredients (without pandering to the marketing hype amateurs and weekend-warriors fall for all day).
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