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Essential Guide to Pre-Workout Supplements

Right behind whey protein pre-workout is one off the most popular “supplements” out there.  I put “supplements” in quotations because it isn’t really a nutritional supplement; it’s something we take to give us an edge, a little boost when we’re feeling down, or simply it’s our pre-workout ritual.  It’s not necessary but it helps and it’s kind of fun.

There are thousands of different types of pre-workouts available on the market with varying ingredients and ‘proprietary blends.’ It’s all very confusing and that’s a big selling point: confusion in a market leads to people siding with whomever makes the most sense and staying fiercely loyal to them. This is the reason so many Instagram fitness personalities market their own preworkout; it’s impossible to define what’s best, people are confused in general about it, it’s very cheap to produce, and very easy to market at high prices because of all the “science” in it.

Like I said there are innumerable formulations out there but most of them are very similar. Here are the nutrition facts for one of the most popular preworkout mixes available taken from www.bodybuilding.com (I’ve removed any brand identifying terms).  While your pre-workout may not be identical to this formula, there’s a chance it’s pretty similar.

Pre-Workout 1 Nutrition Facts

  • Calories: 5
  • Carbs: 1g
  • Vitamin C: 250 mg
  • Niacin: 30 mg
  • Vitamin B6: 500 mcg
  • Folic Acid: 250 mcg
  • Vitamin B12: 35 mcg
  • Calcium: 23 mcg
  • Beta Alanine: 1.6g
  • Creatine Nitrate: 1g
  • Arginine AKG: 1g
  • Proprietary Energy Blend: 400 mg
    • N-Acetyl-L-Tyrosine, Caffeine Anhydrous (150 mg), Velvet Bean seed extract, Tetramethyluric acid

So it’s loaded with B-vitamins and some blend of energy giving ingredients.  There’s another, more ridiculous, brand also available through bodybuilding.com that contains 5 different proprietary blends and some of those have blends within the blends!  If your current pre-workout looks like these at all don’t worry. I too used to regularly buy the most popular brands thinking that made them reputable and thought all the vitamins in it were a boost to my performance.  In this article I’m going to share with you three simple guidelines I use to evaluate a pre-workout and share my two recommendations for pre-workouts (one for broke people, one for not-broke people).

My Rules

  1. Look for one that doesn’t contain cheap useless ingredients that make it look better, aka Filler Ingredients.
  2. Make sure the amounts of the useful ingredients are enough to get benefits, aka Clinically Effective Doses.
  3. Proprietary blends should always be avoided.

Let’s examine these criteria in greater detail:

1. Filler Ingredients

Filler ingredients are things like B vitamins, vitamin C, super doses of calcium, obscure root extracts, etc… Why do we call these filler? Because they’re very cheap and don’t actually provide anything to increasing your performance.  Companies add these because it makes the nutritional facts list longer, the inclusion of “energy giving” vitamins makes them seem more credible, and they take up space.  People like it when their scoops are bigger.

For instance, Niacin and B12 are very common in preworkout formulas and most people associate these with claims of increased energy. However, the reason people might think they work in a pre-workout is a fundamental misunderstanding of how B-vitamins work.  B-vitamins help us break down food and get more energy out of it, they don’t provide energy directly.

In general vitamins should be left out of a preworkout mix. They aren’t going to provide any edge and are there to simply pad the ingredients list at minimal cost. B-Vitamins and vitamin C are dirt cheap and make the customer feel like they’re getting a little more bang for their buck.  Minerals on the other hand could have some value but overall I tend to exclude them as well. Occasionally I’ll include sodium and/or potassium depending on my training needs, but this is not necessary.

2. Clinically effective doses

Did you know Brazil nuts contain large amounts of a trace mineral called Selenium. In small amounts selenium is taken up by our cells and performs vital roles in the body. However if you start having large handfuls of those nuts every day you will develop selenium poisoning. We can’t simply say that selenium is good for the body or that it’s a poison, it’s the dosage that matters.

This is exactly the point of using clinically effective doses to determine how much of a given ingredient actually makes it into our pre-workout. For instance most pre-workout formulations contain 1.5g of beta alanine, a pretty well researched amino acid with a handful of  training benefits. Unfortunately the studies showing that beta alanine does any good for training used 2-5g, so that 1.5g isn’t likely to get the job done.

Similarly many brands use 1g of creatine when it has been repeatedly shown that near 5g per day is the dose commonly used in studies that show any benefit. Many companies claim they are using a superior form of creatine (nitrate, HCl, alkaline) that only requires 1g. Unfortunately the vast majority of studies performed on creatine are on Creatine Monohydrate.

I’m not saying you need to read research papers on each ingredient in your preworkout. I’m saying that the people that made it should! If a brand has done ample research and has a product that is in line with said research than they will have that listed on their website. Check out a brand’s website and make sure there are references for the ingredients included AND the doses of those ingredients.

3. The problem with Proprietary blends

Proprietary blends only require they list the ingredients and the total amount, not the amount per ingredient. You have no way of knowing how much of what is in your drink and it may not even stay consistent across batches. Simply put, proprietary blends are a relic of old companies protecting their “secret sauce” and in the health & fitness space companies should be as transparent as glass about what they are giving us to put in our bodies.

Common synonyms for Proprietary blends:

  • Matrix
  • Power Blend
  • Energy Mix
  • Composite
  • Shot

Simply avoid any brand using a proprietary blend.

What should you take?

There are a handful of preworkouts that will meet my criteria but, as usual, I only recommend products that I’ve personally tested for at least 6 months. With this considered I came up with two recommendations: one for those who want to buy a simple, clean pre-workout, and another for those on a tight budget.

Option 1: Pulse by Legion

It’s pretty obvious that I am a fan of Legion’s supplements.  They are extremely transparent about their production and sales process.  And every time I’ve dug through their research everything actually supports what they are claiming.  The biggest thing to note is that there are no “filler” vitamins or proprietary blends. Very simply there is caffeine, theanine, citrulline malate, ornithine, beta alanine, and betaine. You can find a full explanation of each ingredient and the studies cited to determine the clinically effective doses here. I’ve actually dove into quite a few of the studies cited to see if they were full of it and they’ve held up against my random selection thus far.

You may notice that there is no creatine in pulse. While creatine is the one of the most researched supplements available and shows a lot of promise for improving your performance it actually doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in a pre-workout. First of all, there has been some research suggesting that caffeine inhibits creatine uptake. Secondly, creatine works by providing your cells with extra phosphates for ATP synthesis, so it’s best to have it in your system well before you workout.  Personally I have it with a protein shake any other time of the day.

 

Option 2: “Homebrewed”

This is assuming you’ve already considered coffee and decided that is not the route you want to take.

If you’re not too keen on spending $40 a month on preworkout than the next best option would be what I call a “homebrew.” This is my personal favorite because it also gives me the ability to experiment with ingredient types/amounts. You may find you’re happiest with a minimalist preworkout. Here’s what I’ve been using:

Matt’s Minimalist Preworkout

I’ve experimented with different iterations of this but this is the essential mix I have found most effective. Caffeine for obvious reasons. L-Theanine works well when paired with caffeine.  I find that the combination prevents caffeine jitters and provides a more focused and euphoric sensation than caffeine alone. L-Theanine is best with 1:1 ratio with caffeine.  Beta alanine provides two primary effects that made me include it in my minimalist formula: it has been shown to reduce the onset of neuromuscular fatigue, and it gives me some nice tingles when it kicks in.

Experimenting with the minimal formulation

My reason for compulsive experimentation is that no matter how many studies have been done on a given substance I’m not inclined to take that as all the evidence I need.  Caffeine and creatine are both well researched and generally accepted as useful, however there does exist a small percentage of people that many not respond to either, or they may have an amplified response to a smaller amount.  Research can prepare you for the effects of a substance but you can’t know what it will do to you until you have taken it.

Having a minimal formula lends itself very well to self-experimentation with other ingredients.  Once you become familiar with how you feel on the minimal formula you can add in a single ingredient for 2-4 weeks at a time and record any changes in your performance.  After your experimental period go back to using the minimal formula for an equal length of time and, again, record any changes in your performance.

Here’s a small list of ingredients I have, or am planning to, experiment with, along with their supposed benefits.

 

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Beginner’s guide: Unassisted Handstand

Calisthenics Training

It’s summer 2016 and, just like every four years, I am glued to watching the gymnasts perform in the summer Olympics.  In watching these extremely fit individuals I am reminded of the beauty of well performed body weight exercises.  Body weight training gets treated as a gimmick and dismissed in some fitness spaces and I’ll admit for the last 5 years I’ve certainly haven’t given it much thought. But looking at these gymnasts I’m reminded of the immense strength they develop primarily with body weight exercises. Why don’t more people in the fitness world get excited about bodyweight exercises? Well it boils down to two things: Marketing and difficulty.

The fitness industry turns up its nose at calisthenics because it is hard to market. The fitness industry loves to promote their lifting accessories, supplements, and equipment. In general, they promote a culture of excess. But body weight exercises are essentially minimalistic and don’t require endless accessories.  The only way to market calisthenics exercises is typically as an instructor.

The second reason we don’t typically like to engage in more body weight training is the perceived difficulty.  Sure you can do 20 push ups but how do we make it harder? Just do more? Well that’s boring, and jumping straight into a hand stand push up is likely to end horribly.  It’s much easier to stick with weights where we can always just add 10 more pounds.  The remedy here is knowledge; by learning about simple progressions  we can start at a reasonable difficulty and get better incrementally.  No ridiculous jumps in difficulty and, more importantly, no insane amount of push ups.

After some research I found “Building The Gymnastic Body” by Christopher Sommers.  Coach Sommers is a former U.S. Jr. National’s team coach and laid out some beautifully simple progressions in this book.  I cannot tell you how many times I would look at the progressions and think “Why the hell couldn’t I think of that?!” If you’re serious about learning the ins and outs of gymnastics strength training you need to pick this up.

In addition to Coach Sommer’s book I researched the “calisthenics gurus” online, and even looked into the methods of CrossFit Gymanstics.  I found some great materials that I’ll link to as we go along, but I also came across many people that were amazing athletes but horrible teachers.  More often than not I found advice that could easily result in injury for someone untrained in calisthenics movements.  If you’re going to take any of the advice you find online, including in this article, practice it under the supervision of a coach and/or training partner.

After going through plenty of resources I narrowed down the difficult bodyweight exercise I wanted to master first: The Handstand.  Performing an unassisted handstand works your entire body: wrists, arms, and shoulders are obviously supporting your entire body weight and every other muscle, from your traps to your calves, are holding a huge amount of tension to keep your body in line.  This really is the biggest bang for your buck exercise.

The Unassisted Handstand

Some people can do handstands their whole lives. If this is you, you will not understand the difficulty and frustration the rest of us experience trying to pull it off. For one, it can be terrifying being upside down for some people and overcoming the disorientation that accompanies inverting your body is going to be an achievement in itself. Secondly, if your built with monkey arms and long legs then it becomes much more difficult to control your center of gravity (with all these lever arms flailing about). I’m going to address each of these obstacles in turn:

1. Getting used to being inverted

For this best exercise I’ve found is a wall assisted handstand but not the conventional one.  Most people will stand facing the wall and kick their legs up so that they are facing away from the wall.  This leads to an excessive arch of the back so that the heels make contact with the wall for support. By starting in a plank and walking up the wall we end up facing the wall and are in a strong position (i.e. feet directly over our head).  I’ve found the most benefit from this exercise by timing the maximum amount of time I could hold this position and then perform 4 reps for 50% of that time, twice a week, for 4 weeks. For example, if the longest I could hold it was 44 seconds I would then perform 4 reps of 22 seconds every Monday and Thursday for 4 weeks.  After the 4th week I’d measure a new maximum.

 

2. Mastering balance

Being able to hold your body weight overhead while you’re inverted with just your hands is a feat.  The biggest “aha” tip for me was when I was told that you want to arch your hands somewhat so that you can control the distribution of the weight between your palms and fingers.  After that it’s just a matter of getting your body over your head.

For this we are going to utilize the frogstand and transition to a headstand (A headstand allows you to use your head as a third leg of a tripod).  Start with the basic frogstand, use the same protocol as before: measure your max and perform 4 sets at 50% that time twice a week for 4 weeks.  If you can easily hold the frog stand for 20 seconds for all 4 sets then proceed to the next stage.

Notice in the first stage (second picture) that my head is not yet touching the ground.  This is the frog stand and when we are in this position we want to focus on being able to balance with just the hands.  As we move into the headstand (3rd and 4th pictures) the head comes in contact with the ground, try to make this contact as minimal as possible.  Focus on keeping the majority of the force on your hands.  Also, once we are in the headstand phase we want to keep the back straight, do not let it round or overextend.

It is important to take the training very slow.  Again the progression to use is:

  • Week 1: Measure maximum time you can hold the exercise
  • Week 2: Perform 4 sets at 50% your max time.  Do this twice with at least 2 days between.
  • Week 3: Perform 4 sets at 50% your max time.  Do this twice with at least 2 days between.
  • Week 4: Perform 4 sets at 50% your max time.  Do this twice with at least 2 days between.
  • Week 5: Perform 4 sets at 50% your max time.  Do this twice with at least 2 days between.
  • Week 6: Rest or Deload.  Perform 3 sets at 25% for deload.

Slowly as you progress you will be able to hold each exercise longer and with more confidence.  As you progress you should be able to take all the force of your head in the head stand and rely less and less on the wall for support.  One thing I’m learning with calisthenics as I attempt to master the handstand is that you can’t muscle your way through the exercises and more isn’t always better.  So get started and to quote Coach Sommers: “Make Haste, Slowly.”

Taking the next step

This video, by BarStarzz, shows a great training circuit for building the strength and mobility necessary to performing a straight arm press handstand. I took some of the ideas from this video and simplified them with some of the methods laid out in Building the Gymnastics Body.  If you want to take your handstand to the next level give the routine in this video a try, it’s harder than it looks, and it looks really hard.