What does pre-workout do? | Mark’s Daily Apple

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What does pre-workout do?  |  Mark’s Daily Apple

Pre-workouts are supplements or combinations of supplements, often in powder form, that you take before a training session in order to improve your performance and increase training adaptations. As fitness culture has exploded and grown by leaps and bounds, so have the pre-workout products available that promise to boost your workout performance.

Some of the things they say to do pre-workouts:

  • Improve energy utilization
  • Increases muscle protein synthesis
  • Increases anabolic response
  • Provide fuel to the muscles
  • Improve performance

But does pre-workout work? Let’s go over some of the most popular and common pre-workout ingredients and see if they really work as advertised.


creatine It helps us store more phosphocreatine in the muscles, which is one of the most powerful fast-acting energy systems for fast, high-intensity movements like weightlifting. Taking creatine:

  • It improves performance in all lifts studied, especially the more complex multi-joint compound lifts such as squats and deadlifts.
  • Improves strength and muscle gains, even in older people.
  • Improves sprint performance.

Creatine works. It improves strength training performance and is one of the few supplements I still take daily. Creatine is especially important for vegans and vegetarians who do not get any dietary creatine from meat and fish.


L-citrulline is an amino acid that increases nitric oxide synthesis and improves endothelial function. In short, it improves blood flow. This improves blood flow to the heart and muscles:

  • Improves performance during intense activity.
  • It improves the “pump”, that feeling that the muscles are full of fluid and blood. An important subjective feedback that makes lifting more pelasurable. Arnold Schwarzenegger compared the sensation of the pump to the sensation of sex. Exercise scientists generally discount the importance of the pump, but I find it strongly correlates with better training and improved adaptations.

L-citrulline works. Improving blood flow to all areas of the body is great for performance, in all areas, not just in the weight room.


Beta-alanine is more effective in long sessions. In exercise sessions lasting less than 60 seconds, it doesn’t seem to help. In exercise sessions lasting longer than 60 seconds, beta-alanine begins to show beneficial effects on performance and capacity.

You know beta-alanine is working when you get a “tingling” sensation in your muscles. It’s not necessarily a nice feeling, but it means you’re ready to start training and if you do a great session, you’ll learn to appreciate the tingles. Given the modest overall effects of beta-alanine in the literature, I’d bet that the tingles act as a kind of placebo and provide a psychological signal to the muscles that they’re ready to work hard. This is not to discount them.


Caffeine might be the most effective pre-workout supplement in the world. It is undoubtedly the most ubiquitous. I wrote a whole post about it use caffeine before a workoutbut here’s the gist of what it can do for you as a pre-workout:

  • Improves upper body strength in women.
  • Improves the desire to train.
  • A fun illustration of the effectiveness of pre-workout caffeine is found in a study where a combination of ketones/taurine/leucine had no effect on performance unless you added caffeine. It sounded great on paper, but it took boring old caffeine to make it work.


Salt is the most important thing electrolyte in our bodies, and exercise increases our requirements. When you sweat, you’re losing salt. When you’re losing salt, your muscles can’t contract effectively. When your muscles can’t contract, you lose strength and performance.

Instead of waiting for you to sweat out all the salt, get a head start by adding a pinch or two (or three) of salt to your water as a “pre-workout.”

Exogenous ketones

Ketone supplements are a way to have your cake and eat it too. The idea is that you can follow any diet you want, take ketone esters or salts and get the benefits of ketones without having to follow a strict diet. There is some mixed evidence that exogenous ketones can aid high-end resistance training performance, but it is unclear how useful they are for the average athlete. They still have utility for many different health conditions. For more information, read my post on exogenous ketones.

Be careful though. Some ketone supplements when taken in excess will make you run to the bathroom. It’s hard to perform at the gym when you have to take a bathroom break every half hour.


Branched chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine) are powerful stimulators of mTOR, the growth, anabolic recovery, muscle gain pathway. Most people don’t need BCAA supplements, pre-workout or ever, but they can help certain people.

BCAAs are most useful for people participating in fasted training because they preserve muscle, prevent muscle loss, and improve mTOR signaling after training.

BCAAs are also useful for people abstaining from animal products, as meat, eggs and dairy are the best sources.

Bicarbonate of sodium

Baking soda reduces lactate build-up and acidity in your muscles, allowing you to train longer and harder without as much fatigue. Reducing muscle acidity also allows for improved energy transfer and stronger muscle contraction. Take it about half an hour before your training or competition and you will enjoy several interesting effects:

  • Improved time to exhaustion. You can exercise longer and harder. One study found that baking soda increased time to exhaustion during cycling by 20 to 30 seconds.
  • Improved recovery. The decrease in muscle acidity allows the muscles to recover faster.
  • Increase the number of repetitions. Baking soda has been shown to improve the number of repetitions a lifter can complete.
  • For all the runners out there, baking soda can reduce the runner’s high by suppressing the release of endorphins. It turns out that these endorphins are a response to acidity.
  • Baking soda definitely works. To minimize gastrointestinal upset, take smaller doses throughout the day, totaling up to 1-2 teaspoons, and avoid taking it near meals.


Although not a classic pre-workout that increases performance acutely, collagen when taken before a workout with 60 mg of vitamin C it improves the deposition of collagen in the connective tissue. It is more of a pre-workout with a long-term goal of developing tissue endurance and strength.

Is there a Primal pre-workout?

If I were preparing a pre-workout, this is what I would do. Actually, that’s what I do:

  1. I fill my bottle with 32 ounces of water. I usually use Mountain Valley spring water and a stainless steel bottle.
  2. Add a pack of LMNT. This is a great electrolyte supplement that provides one gram of sodium plus magnesium malate (which has ergogenic effects) and potassium. It tastes good, works great. A must for the Miami heat.
  3. Add a spoonful of creatine. 5 grams, give or take.
  4. Add two tbsp collagen peptides.
  5. Give it a good shake and sip in the minutes before your workout and stick with it.

Baking soda would be a good addition here if you can tolerate it. You could add a source of caffeine, but I prefer just coffee. From time to time I will add 20 grams isolated from serum powder if I’m doing a particularly hard, high-energy session and haven’t eaten. This is a quick and dirty way to supplement BCAAs (which taste awful).

That’s all. I don’t like going into crazy pills and powders – those days are gone. And you? Do you do a pre-workout?

Primal Kitchen Avocado Oil

About the author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather of the Primal Food and Lifestyle movement, and the News from New York best-selling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is also the author of many other books, including The primordial planwhich was credited with driving the growth of the primal/paleo movement in 2009. After spending more than three decades educating people about why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primary kitchen, a real food company that creates tasty and delicious cooking staples made with premium ingredients like avocado oil. With over 70 condiments, sauces, oils and dressings in their line, Primal Kitchen makes it easy to prepare delicious meals that fit your lifestyle.

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