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The Window of Opportunity

The dogma of working out and bodybuilding for the last couple of decades has been concentration on general and post workout nutrition. However, the last decade or so has seen an increasing interest in pre- and intra- workout nutrition and supplementation. Research has shown that these two times are valuable windows of opportunity where the right nutrition and supplementation strategies can help you achieve more from your workouts at the gym.

Nutrient supplementation before exercise and continuing into your workout will not only improve your workout, but also may lay the groundwork for a faster recovery and appropriate supplementation at this important time will deliver additional benefits.1 It has been said that training begins with your warm up stretching or the first repetition. However, there are a number of benefits to be gained if you begin your workout before you even get to the to the gym through supplementation.

What Are Pre-Workout Supplements?

Pre-workout supplements traditionally have been marketed as Nitric Oxide (NO) supplements. The primary function then of pre workout supplements when initially introduced to the market was the vasodilation of blood vessels and thus stimulation of muscle hardness & providing "the pump" whilst weight training. This vasodilation was also seen as a method to allow extra energy in the form of blood glucose for the muscles and a faster way to rid the muscle of buildups of metabolites which can negatively affect your ability to work out. As time went along however, NO supplements were increasingly coupled with stimulants & mood enhancing ingredients, so as to provide focus, energy & intensity whilst working out. And so the modern pre-workout supplement came to be.

Nowadays, pre-workout supplements can be defined into three separate categories:

  • Non-concentrated pre-workout supplements - The original pre-workout supplements. These came in either powdered or tablet forms.
  • Concentrated pre-workout supplements - A recent addition to the family of pre-workout supplements. Many of these supplements are said to be free from fillers, binders and artificial flavours which are used to bind together tablets or to increase the volume of the product. Prior to August 2012 many of these concentrated pre-workout supplements also contained an ingredient known as 1, 3 dimethylamylamine, to be discussed further in this article.
  • Stimulant free pre-workout supplements - A range of pre-workout supplements without addition of stimulants such as caffeine.

How do Pre-Workout Supplements Work?

As mentioned previously, the main function of the original pre-workout supplements was to increase the amount of nitric oxide available in the body which would help increase vasodilation of the blood vessels to allow for greater blood flow and hence increased ability to deliver nutrients and energy to the muscles. These pre-workout supplements contain L-arginine, one of the most common natural amino acids. Arginine is a natural precursor to NO. That is, arginine is directly involved in the production of nitric oxide. Arginine is also necessary for the production and synthesis of creatine, which is used to generate energy in the form of ATP in intense, short bursts of activity such as resistance exercise or weight training. Arginine also speeds recovery, aids endurance8 and increases growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor IGF-1 release. Improvements in exercise capacity may be linked to arginine’s stimulation of the adrenal and pituitary glands as well. 

Stimulants were later added to many of these pre-workout supplements to boost energy, attention and focus; all important factors for a productive session at the gym. Concentrated pre-workout supplements were also introduced as a way to obtain all the benefits without needing to take a large volume of powder or multiple tablets due to the reduction of fillers and binders. Many of these pre-workout supplements also contained other ingredients which when taken prior to working out could help boost your gym performance.

Supplements to Help You Before Training

Many of these supplements are included as ingredients in many of the pre-workout formulas. These supplements and their effects are summarised below:

Carbohydrates & Protein - While not really seen as a 'supplement', having some carbohydrates and protein ten minutes prior to your workout can raise both blood glucose and insulin levels, and assist with energy production. Before training, you want to increase nutrient delivery to your muscles so that you spare muscle glycogen and protein and minimise damage to your muscles.2 Research has also shown that having a carbohydrate/protein mix 30-60 minutes prior to an intense exercise session can increase availability of carbohydrates towards the end of that exercise session.11

Alpha-Ketoglutaric Acid (AKG) - Usually attached to arginine as L-arginine alpha-ketoglutarate, it is involved in the formation of amino acids and is also involved in the Krebs Cycle, our bodies primary method of energy production. A few studies have examined the effects of AKG on exercise performance with some benefits seen in upper body strength and peak power13, however, it should be noted that these studies have been conducted with L-arginine alpha-ketoglutarate rather than AKG itself. AKG is also used in post-surgery patients to prevent muscle catabolism.14

Leucine - a Branched Chain Amino Acid (BCAA) needed for the maintenance of muscle tissue, preservation of muscle glycogen, and prevention of the breakdown of muscle protein.3 There are a couple of studies showing increased muscle anabolism with ingestion of leucine post-exercise, but recently studies have looked at leucine's ability to stimulate muscle protein synthesis through a biological pathway know as the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTor) protein kinase pathway15, which is largely controlled by muscle leucine pools. So an increased leucine pool during exercise could further stimulate muscle gains.

BCAAs - Other ones such as valine and isoleucine are a primary amino acid energy source for your body. Your body burns the carbon skeletons from amino acids and then converts the nitrogen residue into alanine. The alanine formed is transported to the liver to produce glucose for fuel. BCAAs preserve muscle glycogen and prevent muscle breakdown by giving the body the starting materials it needs so that it won’t need to draw from skeletal muscle.6

Carnosine - added to supplements to prevent the build up of chemical by products during exercise that lower the pH environment of the muscle cell and lead to fatigue. By maintaining a higher pH, exercise performance will be improved.4

Beta-Alanine, a component of carnosine, prevents the increase in lactic acid in your muscles through carnosine. This will help you perform extra reps than you normally would.

Essential Amino Acids (EAAs) - are not produced by the body and must be obtained through the diet. These are Isoleucine, Arginine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan, Valine, Histidine, Tyrosine and Leucine. Scientists have demonstrated that EAAs assist protein synthesis. EAA consumed before and/or after a workout increase the strength and muscle mass gains from resistance training.7

Tyrosine - one of the 20 amino acids that are used by cells to synthesise proteins. As tyrosine is needed to produce hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and dopamine, it has been hypothesised that increased availability of tyrosine could have ergogenic results. More studies are needed to support this hypothesis, but as there is strong evidence for the support of Essential Amino Acids on increases in muscular adaptations, there is no harm and in fact there may be additional benefits with tyrosine ingestion prior to workouts.

Sodium Bicarbonate - contains bicarbonate iorns which is a known for its ability to buffer the increased accumulation of acidic H+ ions and carbon dioxide produced during intense exercise. Bicarbonate loading has been shown to improve maximum breathing capacity and high intensity exercise performance.16

L-Glutamine - prevents muscle tissue breakdown and help with protein metabolism. Bodybuilders should use approximately 10 grams of glutamine in supplement form. It is best absorbed on an empty stomach. Some bodybuilders also take a 5 to 10 gram serving right before a weight training workout (and another immediately after).9

Phosphatidylserine (PS) is a supplement that may provide benefits when taken before a workout. PS is a phospholipid, a type of fat found in every cell in the body. It is particularly concentrated in the brain, where it has the important task of keeping cell membranes fluid, flexible, and primed for nutrient absorption. PS reduces cortisol, the hormone released by the adrenal glands during stress. Excess cortisol breaks down muscle tissue and blocks protein synthesis. Any supplement that helps lower cortisol helps muscle building process.10

Some NO supplements feature stimulants (such as caffeine) to give you added energy during your workouts. These, however, would not be recommended for ‘hard gainers.’ If you consider yourself one, try NO supplements without these. However, it is important to note that ingestion of caffeine prior to exercise has been shown to improve sprint performance benefitting the anaerobic athlete12, however excess, chronic consumption of caffeine seems to diminish these ergogenic effects.

As discussed previously, some of the concentrated pre-workout supplement contained an ingredient known as 1,3, Dimethylamylamine (similar to or also known as Geranium, DMAA, Dimethylaminoethanol, Forthan, Forthane, Floradrene & Geranamine). It should be noted that this ingredient was banned in Australia since August 2012 and has been placed in the World Anti-Doping Agency's 2010 Prohibited list. Professional Australian sports people have also tested positive to the substance conducted by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority. Although many argue that the ingredient is safe, it is no longer found in Australia.

Which Pre-Workout Supplement is For Me?

There are a variety of supplements that assist in the pre-workout phase to assist you with getting the most out of your workout. Most importantly, consume a carbohydrate/protein drink prior to your workout, to raise blood glucose and insulin levels and to increase carbohydrate availability towards the end of your workouts. Users of NO supplements have experienced unsurpassed pumps from their use and as a result of their increased workout intensity have been able to increase muscular adaptations to training such as increased size, power and endurance. The addition of the ingredients listed above to many of the pre-workout supplements could also prove beneficial during the workout and to you as a bodybuilder in the long term. It is important to remember that the effectiveness of supplements vary between individuals just as different workouts do. In this author's opinion, it is important to base your decision on facts and unbiased testimonies. Ask around other similar built trainers about their experience with pre-workout supplements and along with this article and possibly other research you may like to conduct, you will be better able to make an informed choice.

1 Nutrient Timing by John Ivy, Ph.D., and Robert Portman, Ph.D., p. 43
Ibid, p. 13
Macrobolic Nutrition – Priming your Body to Build Muscle and Burn Fat Gerard Dente with Kevin J. Hopkins, p. 37
Power Eating by Susan Kleiner, PhD, RD, p. 171
Ibid, p.169
Macrobolic Nutrition – Priming your Body to Build Muscle and Burn Fat Gerard Dente with Kevin J. Hopkins, p. 37
Essentials of Strength Traning and Conditioning, Thomas R. Baechle and Roger W. Earle, p. 192
Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplements, Jose Antonio, PhD, Douglas Kalman, Phd, RD, Jeffrey R. Stout, PhD, Mike Greenwood, PhD, Darryn S. Willoughby, PhD, G. Gregory Haff PhD., p. 466
Natural Bodybuilding – a proven program for developing a winning physique by John Hansen, p. 106
Ibid, p. 105
11 Cade JR, Reese RH, Privette RM, Hommen NM, Rogers JL, Fregly MJ: Dietary intervention and training in swimmers. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol 1991, 63(3-4):210-5
12 Glaister M, Howatson G, Abraham CS, Lockey RA, Goodwin JE, Foley P, McInnes G: Caffeine supplementation and multiple sprint running performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2008, 40(10):1835-40.
13 Campbell B, Roberts M, Kerksick C, Wilborn C, Marcello B, Taylor L, Nassar E, Leutholtz B, Bowden R, Rasmussen C, Greenwood M, Kreider R. 'Pharmacokinetics, safety, and effects on exercise performance of L-arginine alpha-ketoglutarate in trained adult men.' Nutrition. 2006 Sep;22(9):872-81.
14 Hammarqvist F, Wernerman J, von der Decken A, Vinnars E.'Alpha-ketoglutarate preserves protein synthesis and free glutamine in skeletal muscle after surgery.' Surgery. 1991 Jan;109(1):28-36.

15 M. Du, Q. W. Shen, M. J. Zhu and S. P. Ford. 'Leucine stimulates mammalian target of rapamycin signaling in C2C12 myoblasts in part through inhibition of adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase1.' J. Anim Sci. 2007. 85:919-927.
16 McNaughton L, Backx K, Palmer G, Strange N: Effects of chronic bicarbonate ingestion on the performance of high-intensity work. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol 1999, 80(4):333-6.

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