How Does A Pre Workout Supplement Work?

General Pre-Workout Supplement Advice

Nowadays, it’s common to hear people raving about pre-workout supplements. Everybody – from newbies and amateurs to pro athletes – seems to be using them. And almost every user will tell you how these supplements have transformed their workouts.

However, when you look beyond the hype, a few horror stories begin to emerge. You read about people who have suffered horrendous side-effects from misusing the supplements. Among the debilitating side-effects are nausea, vomiting, cramps, headaches, high blood pressure, and in rare cases, cardiac arrest.

Basically, pre-workout supplements can either transform your workouts (and thereby your fitness and athletic performance) or ruin your life. It all comes down to how you use them. To use these supplements safely, you need to first understand how they work. 

This is exactly what this article is going to explain. We shall help you to understand how to maximize the power of supplements to achieve your workout results. You will also understand how to avoid the misuse which often results in the horror stories. Let’s start off with the basics.

What Is A Pre Workout Supplement

In a nutshell, a pre-workout supplement is what you take before you begin your workouts. It is usually in the form of a shake, energy drink or powder (which you mix with water or juice). In most cases, you take it around 30 minutes before you begin your workout. For some, though, you can take a few minutes to starting your workout session.

Typically, a pre-workout supplement contains food nutrients or chemical compounds (e.g. amino acids). Both the nutrients and compounds can either be acquired through food or are produced naturally in the body. What a supplement does is supply them in slightly higher quantities to help the body adapt to the physical strains of working out. 

What Does A Pre-Workout Supplement Do?

There are numerous things that a pre-workout supplement can do. These include (1) increasing your energy levels, (2) increasing your workout strength (3) improving workout endurance (4) fast-tracking recovery from injury (5) facilitating lean muscle gains, and (6) burning fat (e.g. abdominal fat).

However, the fast three (i.e increasing energy levels, strength, and endurance) are the core functions of a pre-workout supplement. Every supplement on the market worth its salt will offer these three benefits. The last three are extras which are sometimes provided in addition to the three core functions. For this article, we’ll focus on the three core functions.

How Does A Pre Workout Supplement Work?

The best way to understand how a supplement works is by exploring how it achieves the desired outcomes. So that’s what we’ll do. We shall look at each of the three core functions (energy, strength, and endurance), and see how a supplement provides them.

Increasing Pre-workout Energy

Pre-workout supplements can rev up your energy levels and get you fired up for your workouts. This effect is especially visible on days when you’re feeling weak, lazy, lethargic or demotivated. On such days, supplements can fire you up.

How do they do this? Well, because of caffeine. Most pre-workout supplements contain large amounts of caffeine (around 150 to 500 mg). In comparison, your typical cup of coffee has around 60 to 100 mg. Basically, supplements contain high amounts of caffeine. We all know that caffeine is a great energy booster. 

This is because caffeine is a stimulant[1]. This is how it works. As you consume caffeine, it is immediately absorbed into the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, it quickly makes its way to the brain. There, it blocks the neurotransmitter adenosine (an inhibitor) and unleashes dopamine. Immediately, you begin to feel alert, energized, and motivated[2]. This is because dopamine elevates your mood, increases your vigilance, revs up your energy levels and makes you feel motivated.

However, because of the mood-elevating effects of caffeine, it is very easy to abuse it. Generally speaking, you should focus on consuming 150 to 250 mg per day. If you really stretch, don’t go beyond 300. Consuming 400mg of caffeine per day can be catastrophic. You can end up with migraines, sleeping problems, nausea, mood swings, and even heart problems. If you misuse caffeine-laced supplements, you can end up not sleeping for days on end.

Increasing Workout Endurance

We all have limits to our physical endurance. For instance, one person can work out for 45 minutes straight without breaking a sweat. Another person can begin panting after doing the same work out for 15 minutes. A pre-workout supplement can extend your endurance beyond your normal levels.

Normally, your endurance is determined by how fast your muscles get exhausted. Muscle fatigue normally results from a build-up of lactic acid during exercise. That happens due to a shortage of oxygen in the muscles. As lactic acid increases, you begin to feel a burning sensation in the muscles (aka the burn). Too much lactic acid leads to fatigue, weakness, dizziness and even nausea. In most cases, as soon as you begin feeling weak or dizzy, you are naturally forced to stop.

A pre-workout supplement can prevent the buildup of lactic acid in your muscles. This is courtesy of an amino acid called beta-alanine which is found most supplements. Your muscles use beta-alanine to produce a compound called carnosine which breaks down lactic acid. This enables you to work out for longer than normal before beginning to feel the burn.

Another element commonly found in supplements is citrulline. This is an amino acid which expands your blood vessels and increases blood flow to your muscles during exercise. This ensures that your muscles have a healthy supply of oxygen and other vital nutrients. As a result, the rate of muscle fatigue is reduced – enabling you to work out for longer.

Boosting Strength and Power

We all know that strength and power are essential for achieving maximum results from our workouts. Each of us is also keenly aware of our limits. For instance, if you workout at weights, you know the maximum number of kgs (or lbs) you can pump. Well, a supplement can help you to explode in strength and power beyond your normal limits.

Let’s begin with strength. There are many factors which determine your strength (physical fitness, physique, past injuries, muscle mass, etc). However, all of them come down to one thing – your muscular expansion and contractions. If you can boost these, then you can increase your strength. This is exactly what creatine – a common ingredient in workout supplements does.

Creatine is a compound stored in your muscles which gives them tensile strength. An extra shot of creatine beyond normal levels can inject short bursts of energy in your muscles. This increases your muscular expansions and contractions. As such, you receive a boost in your muscle strength, enabling you to accomplish feats normally beyond you. For instance, you can work out with heavier weights than normal.

Creatine also boosts your power. In this context, “power” refers to an explosive burst of energy. This is what you need in order to sprint – for instance. Creatine is known to give spontaneous surges of energy in the muscles during workouts[3]. This enables you to perform workouts like sprints, weight-lifting, push-ups, sit-ups and other brief but high-intensity workouts with ease.

A Final Word

Ultimately, a pre-workout supplement works in two ways (1) preparing your body for a workout, and (2) enabling you to work out harder and for longer than usual. It does this courtesy of the ingredients from which the supplement is made. These ingredients include caffeine, beta alanine, citrulline, creatine, and many others.

Some of these ingredients also offer the extra benefits (beyond energy, endurance, and strength). For instance, citrulline also fast-tracks recovery from sprains, muscle tears, and other injuries. Caffeine has been proven to have fat-burning attributes[4].

However, the real benefit of a pre-workout supplement lies in enabling you to enjoy the full benefits of working out. This is because it helps you to workout harder, for longer, and on a consistent basis. This makes it easier for you to achieve your workout goals.

Finally, there are just two things you need to watch out for. The first is the risk of overdosing. Each of the ingredients in a pre-workout supplement has a required daily maximum intake. Those details are always included in the bottle or packaging. Make sure you read and adhere to the guidelines. Else, you’ll suffer a host of health problems. Secondly, there are lots of fake products on the market. Some of these have been found to contain unapproved and poisonous compounds[5]. Be safe. Do your homework before you buy any pre-workout supplement. Best Wishes.


[1] Harvard Health (2016) 9 Tips to Boost Your Energy – Naturally. Available At:

[2] Brice, C.F. & Smith, A.P. (2002) Effects of caffeine on mood and performance: a study of realistic consumption. In Psychopharmacology (2002) 164: 188. Available At: 

[3] National Institutes of Health (2017, October 4) Dietary Supplements for Exercise and Athletic Performance. Available At

[4] Akcheson et al (2004) Metabolic effects of caffeine in humans: lipid oxidation or futile cycling? Available At

[5] Peiter A Cohen (2018) Four experimental stimulants found in sports and weight loss supplements. In Clinical Toxicology Volume 56, 2018 – Issue 6. Available At:


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