Think for a minute…. What would it be like to power through your gym session with energy to spare? Today I want to talk about the popular supplement class dubbed “ergogenic aids.” Why take them? Are they safe? What are the dos and don’ts?
Buckle up. Read closely. And learn how to safely take your workouts to the next level.
What Is an “Ergogenic Aid,” and Why Might I Take One?
Commonly referred to as a “pre-workout supplement,” an ergogenic aid is a mixture of ingredients that professionals, enthusiasts, and beginners alike consume prior to a workout in an effort to boost performance. An ergogenic aid is officially defined by the USDA as “substances that are claimed to help enhance energy utilization and performance in the body.”
The whole class of products on the market that will assault your computer screen when you Google “pre-workout supplement” include a multitude of pills, shots and powders claiming enhanced mental focus, vasodilation (wider blood vessels for better circulation), and strength that may improve fat burning, recovery time, and that post-workout pump!
Some ingredients are well-studied and well-understood like caffeine, taurine, rhodiola, pine bark, creatine, beta-alanine etc. On the other hand, other popular (albeit suspect) ingredients are not so thoroughly researched or recommended.
For example, the FDA banned 1,3 dimethyleamine in 2013, due to reports of death or serious injury as it may cause cardiac episodes through vaso constriction.
Other questionable ingredients include glycine propionyl-L-carnitine, purported to boost sprint performance (benefits do not seem to extend beyond conditioned performance cyclists), and so-called “proprietary blends” (a.k.a. pixie dust?).
Such ingredients beg the question, “Do you feel like being a guinea pig to test the effects of potential poisons?”
While we clearly should avoid certain ingredients, that doesn’t mean we should forgo the benefits that a safe and effective ergogenic aid brand might offer.
Let’s unpack this further. Which ergogenic aids are best? Is taking a pre-workout supplement a good option for you?
The Multi-Dimensional Power of Ergogenic Aids
A good pre-workout supplement can boost your workout that day. A GREAT one should improve your entire program!
That is, if you’re paying money for a supplement that will help you enhance your workout performance, you should get more than just an energy boost. Your ergogenic aid should be part of a smart system of supplementation – one aimed at improving performance and supporting recovery efforts.
Keep in mind that a GREAT pre-workout supplement should do 5 things:
1) Support Energy Production
A great pre-workout supplement should make your body more efficient at getting energy from foods and fat stores into your muscle cells for peak performance while you exercise. Vitamins B12 and B6 have been extensively studied and shown to play a key role in releasing energy from food at the cellular level, which supports muscles throughout your workout (endurance). Creatine, perhaps the most rigorously studied supplement of all time, supports the energy availability and restoration of ATP in muscle cells both during and following maximum intensity or override efforts (strength, power and agility).
2) Increase Blood Flow
A great pre-workout supplement should improve the way blood gets to the muscles, heart and lungs to allow oxygen and energy to easily enter those systems while waste quickly moves out. Citrulline malate (found in Watermelon rind) and pine bark extract (AKA pycnogenol) both increase vasodilation (blood vessel expansion) by way of nitric oxide production in the body. This enhanced circulation improves aerobic activity and, thereby, better muscle recovery and fat burning!
3) Promote Lactate Tolerance
A great pre-workout supplement should support your ability to work out hard (to “feel the burn”) but also to help you tolerate it! Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid that can reduce the perceived intensity of exercise. In other words, hard work doesn’t feel so dang hard! A side note… Too much beta-alanine for a person’s body weight can cause a harmless sensation known as paresthesia or “itchy skin,” which can be easily eliminated by reducing dosage.
4) Maintain and Heal Cells under Heightened Intensity
A great pre-workout supplement should protect cellular health and function under new loads of more intensive exercise. Antioxidants like citrus bioflavanoids and taurine have both been shown to shorten recovery periods and buffer DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). Additionally, betaine is an especially promising compound found in quinoa, beets and spinach that enhances performance, improving recovery times as well! Though more research is forthcoming, it may even protect your muscles from damage related to acute, exercise-induced dehydration.
5) Improve and Maintain Mental Focus
A great pre-workout supplement should help you stay laser-focused on your workout’s quality and completion. A moderate amount of caffeine (~100mg) and L-Theanine (an antioxidant in green tea) can stimulate your nucleus accumbens to improve concentration while enhancing your mood so you can more easily enter a flow-state and mentally power through the challenge of your workout. Choline, a nutrient found in liver, eggs and cauliflower is the building block for acetyl-choline, a powerful neurotransmitter in the brain. Supplementation has been shown to improve cognitive function and willpower.
Bonus: No Artificial Junk
A great pre-workout supplement should do all of the above, but it should do so without the addition of unnecessary artificial colors, flavors and sweeteners that are often used to mask the inherently bitter or sour taste of many of the ingredients mentioned.
Until now, the market for these types of performance enhancing supplements has been missing a cleaner, less artificial option.
To that end, Life Time recently formulated and launched a supplement based on our own rigorous specifications.
In partnership with leading sports scientists, Life Time has done the hard work for you and put it all together – a health-conscious pre-workout supplement and branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) formula called StrengthStack℠.
Our PreWorkout Complex is designed to be safe and effective for any exercise enthusiast with continued use. BCAA Recovery is specifically designed to enhance recovery from exercise by reducing muscle soreness and supporting muscle protein synthesis.
Should I Take StrengthStack℠?
I recommend asking two questions as you consider your answer to this question.
- How are you recovering? If you’re not sleeping enough, eating poorly post-workout, consuming large amounts of caffeine just to get through the day, or are generally more stressed than usual, then taking any pre-workout supplement may not overcome the challenges in your program.
- Should you reset first? If you’ve experienced significant inflammation or hormonal changes, if you regularly use a lot of caffeine or alcohol, if you’ve very recently made major shifts in your diet, or if you’ve been operating from an unhealthy routine, consider getting a solid foothold on some positive lifestyle and dietary changes first.
Remember, a good pre-workout supplement helps you safely add intensity to your workout for the purpose of more positive adaptations to higher physical stress. It’s like flooring the accelerator to maximize the output of your system and to test its limits. If your engine needs an oil change before you up your intensity, consider a detox first to reset your system so you can maximize benefits from the start of your StrengthStack℠.
Get Ready, Get Set, Go!
As always, the choice to supplement or not is yours, but I hope I’ve enhanced your understanding of what’s out there and what you might gain by exploring the wide world of performance-focused supplementation!
(Article has been adapted from its original form which can be found here.)
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.