Are Pre-Workout Supplements Worth It, Or Just Placebo? A Trainer Weighs In

Nicole Nam has a Bachelors of Science in Public Health Nutrition Specialization and a Masters of Science in Kinesiology. She has a personal training certification from the American Council of Exercise, and has trained a variety of clients, including a contestant in this year’s Miss Nevada competition. Follow her on Instagram here.

Sometimes you just need something to get you going. No one is going to be ready and hype for the gym every day—trust me, there are days that I dread the gym—and you’re just f*cking TIRED, PERIODT. If you find yourself CONSTANTLY lagging (or in general just lazy for the gym), pre-workout might be a useful supplement to take before you leave the house for the gym. I get it, the sheer variety of pre-workouts available alone makes the choice seem confusing and some people wonder if the pre-workout even works at all or if it’s just a placebo effect.

Pre-workouts usually contain caffeine, essential amino acids (amino acids which the body cannot produce and must be consumed via diet), and arginine (this is actually nitric oxide, a naturally occurring gas that helps dilate blood vessels to increase circulation). If the pre-workout contains the essential amino acid beta-alanine, it is completely normal for your body to feel tingly after taking the pre-workout. Some people actually come to crave that feeling. The beta-alanine isn’t there just for sh*ts and giggles, though. It is an amino acid that can increase the levels of carnosine (another amino acid that is created from beta-alanine and histidine) in your body, which directly effects the performance of your workout by reducing the rate of fatigue while lifting/running/etc.


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It’s cocaine, Austin

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Ok, a lot of scientific sh*t, so why don’t I summarize that up. BASICALLY, the ONLY ingredient commonly found in pre-workouts (I said “commonly” because if you buy some outlandish sh*t on the black market/internet I don’t know what’s in that, girl) that is a tried and true stimulant is caffeine. Everything else are ingredients that help the mechanisms within your body to help you workout heavier, harder, longer and aid recovery.

A scientific study in 2010 showed that pre-workouts showed that there were differences in performance and muscle gains in the group that took the pre-workout versus the placebo group. Another study in 2014 claimed that while performance and gains did not differ between the supplement and the placebo groups, the supplement group were able to perform better at the next workout. This is due to the amino acids present in the supplement that help muscle repair.


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it’s a strict regimen but someone has to do it | @betches

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Sounds great, right? But what if I told you that a coffee works just as well as a pre-workout if all you needed was a kick in the ass to get moving?

I’ve tried pre-workouts before, both the tingly and non-tingly kinds. I will say it worked, but I took myself off of them after about 1 month of regular use. I honestly didn’t feel the need for the pre-workout beyond the caffeine (tbh, that’s me every day). Did I lift better when I took the pre-workout? Maybe, but I can lift that well without it, too. Did I feel a tolerance to the pre-workout rapidly develop after regular use? Definitely. I didn’t want to get to the point where I NEEDED a supplement to workout, so I stopped taking it.

But what about how it helps muscle recovery? I am a fan of sore muscles. I need that. Because my workouts are designed to make you LOOK BETTER, not turn you into a power lifter, we don’t need to rush back into the gym like you’re pushing for personal records in lifts, you know? I’m not training you for the Olympics, I’m just trying to get you abs. Physical changes in the body happen during the muscle repair process, so I’m not going to take supplements that expedite or dull that process (should I write a whole article about the mechanisms of recovery? Let me know!).

The Bottom Line: While I personally do not take them, I absolutely have nothing against pre-workouts and if my clients ask me about them, I won’t say no. Cellucor makes really good ones called C4 and Kaged Muscle makes Pre-Kaged. Both of these I’ve tried personally and stand behind, just be mindful of the tolerance that could develop. Please keep in mind that none of the supplements on the market are monitored by the FDA. 

Nicole Nam
Nicole Nam
Nicole Nam is a health and fitness aficionado, with a Bachelor's of Science in Nutrition and a Master's of Science in Kinesiology (Exercise Science). She loves to package information into a format that people can understand, and aims to write in a very entertaining yet informative format. Nicole is also a certified personal trainer living in LA, with her dog-son Yakuza.