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What To Know When Choosing A Pre-Workout Drink

I received an email this week from a client asking me about my recommendation for a pre-workout drink. She had gone to a local chain nutrition store and sampled a product there that low and behold made her feel like her ears were on fire! No, I’m not joking.

Hard to tell what the heck was in it, but suffice to say this isn’t a product she’s going to continue with.

The reality is there are a ton of pre-workout drinks on the market today and it can get fairly confusing trying to determine which one is right for you.

In today’s post I’m going to do my best to cut through the marketing hype and give you some simple, yet practical advice on pre-workout drinks.

More after the jump…

Introductory word of caution on pre-workout supplement drinks…

I think it’s important to address right out of the gate the fact that…

the FDA does NOT regulate dietary supplement drinks.

Product manufacturers are NOT required to show credible research on the safety and effectiveness of their ingredients PRIOR to being sold to the public.

Bottom line is it’s truly “buyer beware” when selecting any dietary supplement drink. You’ll want to do your homework or perhaps consult with your physician or a research nerd like myself before getting on any product.

It’s the wild west out there folks, and anything goes!

The BIGGEST problem in general with pre-workout drinks…

Let’s take the regulation issue off the table for a second, which don’t get me wrong shouldn’t be brushed off. In my opinion, one of the primary problems with pre-workout drinks is the “one size fits all” approach in the marketing hype.

I want you to think about this for a second…Do you really think an already lean and muscular bodybuilder is going to have the same needs as someone who’s 20 or more pounds overweight and out of shape?

Of course not, but obviously you don’t hear supplement companies talking much about this.

Truth be told, the majority of bodybuilding type pre-workout drinks are for…well bodybuilders!

Even with that, I’ll tell you straight up that many of these products may pose potentially serious side effects from high levels of stimulants, and often have questionable ingredients in unknown amounts.

You’re rolling the dice as a self imposed guinea pig with a lot of them. We’ll leave it at that for now.

Some pre-workout drinks are “carb load” types and some aren’t, but let’s talk for a second about the ones that are.

Do you really need to carb-load prior to a workout?

This is a real pet-peeve of mine. Take a look at the composition of some traditional bodybuilding type pre-workout drinks and you may see a boatload of carbohydrates from simple sugars.

The idea of loading up on sugars prior to working out has been debunked for a while now. Bottom line is this is a bad idea.

Regardless of body composition, fitness level, and other individual variables, you simply don’t want OR need to be carb-loading immediately prior to a workout.

Trust me on this one, skyrocketing insulin levels prior to a workout is the last thing you want to be doing. I could do a whole post just on the pitfalls of glucose loading prior to resistance training. Perhaps another day…let’s keep moving.

What could be beneficial pre-workout strategies?

I’m not going to get into much on the use of creatine, nitric oxide activators, and the such in this post. I do use creatine on occasion, but it’s by no means a staple supplement “necessary” for lean muscle development or fat loss.

Some of these, let’s call them “specialty” supplements, can have a place in helping to increase results in the gym, but let’s look at more foundational elements.

Specifically, let’s talk about what might be beneficial for all exercisers prior to a vigorous weight training workout.

The key word here is “vigorous,” because I’ll be honest if you’re a beginner or someone doing low-moderate intensity workouts, you won’t need to supplement pre-workout.

From a support standpoint with lean muscle (whether you want to cut up, lean up, or get more muscular) one of the most effective strategies is to take a small amount of whey protein (15-20 grams) prior to your workout.

The trick here is not using a lot as consuming too much whey protein and you’ll trigger an insulin response.

One of the benefits of whey protein is the body has the ability to break down some of these amino acids and convert them to glucose for energy (through a process called gluconeogenesis) if needed during vigorous exercise.

This is actually not a bad thing, quite the contrary as it can be very beneficial to condition your body to fuel prolonged activity through gluconeogeneis. But that’s also a subject for another day.

Just know that a small amount of whey protein and water prior to a workout can be a helpful thing.

What if I’d like more energy to help get me through the workout, or I’m looking to increase fat loss?

On the energy side of the equation, excess simple sugars consumed immediately prior to a workout isn’t a good idea like I mentioned earlier.

You can pull from glycogen reserves to fuel your workout, and if extra energy is needed the amino acids from whey protein will be readily available for the liver to convert to glucose.

Let’s just say I’m more of a proponent of training in a semi-fasting state, with the exception being using a small amount of whey protein prior to training.

I’ll admit that training while in a semi-fasting state (while beneficial for several reasons including the body not being sapped for energy for digestion, improved post-workout protein synthesis, and others) just know this does take some getting used to.

Quite simply you have to train your body nutritionally just like you do physically. It takes time and there’s adaptation required. If you’re starting an exercise routine coming from a diet high in sugars, it’s going to be quite a shock to the system.

A few words on sugar and training for beginners

I’ve found you need to work up to training in a semi-fasting state with whey protein on an empty stomach.

In the beginning a small piece of fruit shortly before exercise will be very helpful in offsetting hypoglycemic effects for a lot of individuals.

This is what I typically recommend to my personal training clients in the beginning of their body transformation programs. The body needs to be conditioned to get off the sugars so a supportive nutrition diet with small meals every 3-4 hours is the typical starting point.

By increasing protein, fiber, and healthy fat consumption, they body will begin conditioning itself off the sugars exclusively for energy production.

If you’ve gone several hours without eating and you’re ready to workout, a small piece of fruit is a good choice in the beginning phases. Wait to start looking to train in a semi-fasting state if you experience hypoglycemic symptoms like dizziness, nausea, and light-headness.

Just know that while there’s a lot of discussion about pre-workout nutrition strategies, a lot of it is overblown.

POST-WORKOUT nutrition is far more important than pre-workout nutrition. Pre-workout nutrition strategies become much more of a consideration when you’re already lean and muscular, looking to optimize results from your workouts.

If there’s general advice for beginners it’s this…

1. Don’t workout on a full stomach

2. Don’t load up on sugars prior to training

3. Use a scoop of whey protein and water if you can manage on an empty stomach, but if you get hypoglycemic add a small piece of fruit or just do the fruit by itself.

Caffeine for increased energy and thermogenesis (fat burning)

While not everyone can incorporate caffeine into their diet for health reasons, if you can, it makes for an excellent pre-workout energy boost and thermogenic (fat burner).

Caffeine has been shown to boost metabolism (possibly up to 20%) when taken prior to a workout. The key thing here is you don’t need a lot. A small amount of caffeine 60-120 mg is enough to provide an energy boost and serve as a metabolic activator without over-stimulating the adrenals.

Take a pass on the convenience store energy drinks…

These popular convenience store energy drinks with large amounts of caffeine and tons of sugar are complete garbage and should be avoided at all costs.

The problems with excess sugar and caffeine is obvious, but here’s something you may not know…Even if they’re sugar free, the caffeine in most of these drinks is HIGHLY synthetic (along with most of the ingredients) and doesn’t react the same way in your body as natural caffeine does.

I know a lot of folks are big on using 5-Hour Energy shots, but let’s just say I’m not a big fan. For starters they don’t disclose how much caffeine is actually in the product. I mean why hide it if it’s really comparable to a cup of coffee like they claim? ran some tests a while back and found they contained on average over 200mg of caffeine!

I did an entire post on 5-Hour Energy Shots if you’d like to read more. For now, let’s just say this isn’t on my recommended list for pre-workout supplements.

What if I told you there was something way cheaper that doesn’t contain any synthetic ingredients and it’s quite possibly the best thermogenic pre-workout drink available.

What is it? Yep, a cup of plain black coffee from freshly ground coffee beans.

If you don’t take the whey protein before a workout, coffee can be a great starter. The body can actually handle the caffeine if it’s coming from whole coffee because it doesn’t hit the system massively like synthetic caffeine found in carbonated energy drinks.

Key point here if you’re going to use coffee is that it must be black and ideally from freshly ground whole, organic coffee beans.

Once again, I’ve done an entire post on coffee if you’d like to learn more.

Remember you don’t want sugar, or sugar substitute sweeteners for that matter, as you want to avoid an insulin response.

Truth is a simple cup of freshly brewed coffee can provide all the energy and fat burning benefits you need without the potential downside that can come with bodybuilding type or convenience store energy drinks.

Quite possibly one of the simplest, cheapest, and most effective pre-workout strategies for the combination of energy, lean muscle protection, and fat burning would be a cup of coffee a half hour or so before training and scoop of whey protein and water right before.

Supplement companies won’t ever tell you that…obviously.

There is another pre-workout option that works equally well in my opinion if you don’t want to do coffee and/or whey protein.

This is an option I personally use and have done so for some time. It’s a product called Advocare Spark.

Truth be told this was the MAIN product that initially got me interested in the Advocare product line. I was looking for a pre-workout drink without the sugar and insane amount of stimulants found in bodybuilding type drinks.

Advocare Spark fits the bill and then some. I absolutely LOVE this product as it’s quite possibly one of the best all-around pre-workout drinks on the market.

See the ingredients list below:

Notice there’s only 11 grams of carbohydrate, most of which comes from maltodextrin so they’re won’t be an insulin surge. It contains just the right amount of caffeine (120mg) and as an added bonus has a broad base of B vitamins, minerals, and amino acids like L-tyrosine.

This makes it almost perfect for pre-workout purposes. I say “almost” perfect as it could be enhanced by simply adding some branched chain amino acids and/or creatine in when mixing with water. This is my little trick that I often use to enhance the drink for muscle building.

Just know you wouldn’t have to do that as it’s really good just the way it stands. There are a ton of flavors, which all taste great, and you simply put the powder in bottle of water shake and drink.

I start drinking my Spark before training and continue sipping on it throughout the workout.

Take a look at this chart comparing it to other drinks. Mind you, the regular brewed coffee would work just as well from an energy and thermogenic standpoint.

Personally, I feel the Spark could be equally effective as whey protein for lean muscle support  by simply adding some branched chain amino acids and possibly creatine powder.

It’s a toss up between that and a cup of coffee a half hour or so before training and a scoop of whey protein and water right before. Both options would be winners all around.

Bottom line….

When you step back and look at the dozens of pre-workout supplement drinks it’s kind of ironic that you could get just as good results, often times better, with a simple cup of coffee and some whey protein and water.

The Advocare Spark is the only product I strongly endorse as an alternative to the above strategy. I kind of like my one cup of coffee in the morning then I’m done with it, so the Spark makes for a nice pre-workout (and during) drink I can use when working out at noon.

I won’t go as far as to say ALL bodybuilding type pre-workout drinks are worthless (some are decent I’m sure and have a place if you’re looking to build a lot of muscle), but I will say you certainly don’t need them.

With all the marketing hype and fancy ingredients, the supplement companies are simply looking to convince you to buy their products. The average person simply doesn’t need what’s in them.

I’ll put it this way, with all my research and years of experience this is what I’m doing…

A scoop of whey protein and water immediately prior to working out (possibly a cup of coffee a half hour or so before that if I want added energy or fat loss support).


An Advocare Spark (sometimes “enhanced with branched chain amino acids and creatine to help support lean muscle growth with hard training).

That’s it.

I’ve been down the road using the bodybuilding type products like Speed Stack, Ripped Force and the like when I was younger. Too many side-effects, potential health risks, not to mention being expensive.

Let’s just say a little wiser now than when I was in my early twenties! Aren’t we all!

Plus who wants to be so jacked up you can’t sleep at night or you’re bouncing off the walls all day?

And on top of that there’s no worry about strange side-effects like my client had with her ears feeling like they were on fire! After all who knows what the impact will be from some of the “stimulant” ingredients in a lot of these drinks?

Everyone will respond differently, but I don’t think it’s worth the risk or the money for that matter.

Stick with the basics and keep it simple. Tis my two cents of wisdom for what it’s worth.

Click the following link if you’d like to learn more or purchase Advocare Spark. Yes, I am a distributor and will get a small commission if you purchase from me in full disclosure, but that was never my intent with writing this post.

I do recommend the product though so I won’t be shy about making a endorsement. But then again I also shared with you the benefits of a simple cup of black coffee and/or whey protein and water as well.

The key point I hope you learned from this post is you don’t need anything fancy. Often times the traditional bodybuilding type pre-workout drinks could be diminishing your results NOT improving them.

Next up, I’ll be doing a feature on “post-workout” drinks and supplements. That will round out this series.

Shane Doll is a certified personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Fitness Training Studios. If you’re looking for a personal trainer in Charleston, you can receive a no-obligations personal training trial and consultation without risking a dime. Over 1000 Charleston area residents have transformed their bodies following our unique burst training workouts and simplified nutrition programs. Experience the Shaping Concepts difference today.

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Category: Nutrition.