You don’t have to look far to see an advertisement for a new workout formula that promises to give you more energy, help you workout longer, burn more calories, and see more ‘gains.’ The presence of these supplements can’t help but make you wonder if they’ll provide any benefits to your workouts (obviously, some people use them), especially if you’ve recently become more committed to improving your fitness. If you do decide to give them a try, the sheer number of formulas on the market can further add to the confusion of the differences between them, and which one is right for you.

There’s no perfect answer to these questions, but some general guidelines will help you navigate this important topic.

What Does a Pre-Workout Formula Contain?

Pre-workout formulas may contain any combination of the following ingredients:

Carbohydrates in the form of sugars or powdered starches
Proteins isolates such as whey or casein
Caffeine and other stimulants
Specific amino acids like creatine, beta-alanine, or l-arginine
Although some of these substances are natural and not harmful to you, some – such as stimulants or specific amino acids – may be harmful if confused on a regular basis. Many stimulants that claim to be ‘natural’ energy boosters are not supported by solid scientific studies, either good or bad. If you do decide to use a pre-workout formula, be sure you know what’s in it, and whether it’s well-researched.

Why You May Not Need a Pre-Workout Formula

Pre-workout formulas are relatively new to the world of fitness, which offers a strong clue you might not need it to improve your performance in the health club. Other reasons include the following:

When it comes to carbs, your body’s glycogen (stored sugar) in your muscles and liver are probably sufficient, as long as they’re not depleted by a low-carb diet or hours of intense exercise. The exception might be if you’re training at an athletic level.
Your body uses mostly carbohydrates for fuel during a workout, not protein. Unless you’re working toward specific mass gains, or a strength/power athlete, you don’t need a protein supplement before your workout. Furthermore, certain proteins could interfere with the blood-sugar level of those who are insulin-resistant.
Caffeine may give you more energy, but it can also interfere with your sleeping patterns if your workouts at the fitness center tend to be later in the day or evenings.
Antioxidants may reduce muscle stress and ease recovery, but they can also hinder the natural strength-gaining process. Some ‘stress’ on your muscles is good, because it makes them stronger.
For the Athlete: Proceed with Caution

If you’re a serious athlete, there may be situations when a pre-workout formula is appropriate for you, but you should still be careful. Studies suggest that using certain isolates too heavily can lead to depletion of natural amino acids important for certain functions in the brain and other parts of the body. L-arginine, praise for its ability to increase blood flow to the muscles, can also cause pre-mature aging or damage in blood vessels. Of all the supplements you could take, creatine appears to be the least risky, and can benefit athletes who perform high-power sprints or weight lifting.

The Ultimate Pre-Workout Fuel: Sleep and Nutrition

Getting enough rest allows your body to heal and repair itself from strenuous workouts at the fitness gym. If you’re lacking energy, ask yourself if you’re getting the recommended 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. Secondly, fueling your body with nutrition-dense natural foods such as vegetables, fruit, starches, and whole grains provide you with the ‘clean’ energy your body craves.

Do you need a pre-workout formula? Probably not. But whatever you choose, be a conscious consumer and do what’s best for your body.