Found all across the supplement spectrum, stimulants can be defined as anything that elevates nervous or physiological activity. Recent concerns about their safety bring pause to health-conscious exercisers. However, their pervasive presence begs the question whether other pre-workouts even work. We’re going to look at the effects of stimulants vs. other pre-workouts, and hopefully provide an answer you can use.
What constitutes a stimulant?
While technically a riveting conversation can be stimulating (as can intravenous drugs), we’re talking supplements here. Therefore, we’re only going to focus on substances you can orally ingest from a pre-workout. Of specific concern are those that activate the central nervous system. For a brief overview of some of the most common stimulants, see the list below, starting with the worst offenders.
First up, we’ve got the stimulant that’s caused the most controversy – DMAA. Elongated to 1,3-dimethylamylamine, this ingredient is banned by WADA, the IOC, and the NCAA. Due to its chemical structure and mechanism of action, taking DMAA can cause a false positive on a drug test (as meth). While it definitely will increase energy and make you feel like the Hulk, it’s terrible for your body. In 2013, 36 people were hospitalized due to DMAA supplementation, and one even died.
Dendrobium nobile, Eria jarensis, and other “natural” stimulants similar to DMAA
Dendrobium nobile and Eria jarensis are both members of the orchid family. As plants, they make a great addition to a garden. As pre-workout ingredients, they offer similar effects to DMAA. Despite research ensuring that no natural sources of amphetamines exist, companies continue to extract analogues of these chemicals. For example, Eria jarensis extract contains n-phenethyl dimethylamine, while dendrobium-contains supplements can feature phenylethylamine.
A final natural source of amphetamine, Juglans whole fruit, offers a chemical analogue to DMHA. 1,5-dimethylhexylamine is considered an unsafe food additive by the FDA. Although users report higher pain thresholds, easier workouts, and extended time to fatigue, it toes the line of “health” supplement and drug. Side effects include mood swings, rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, and anxiety.
Citrus aurantium, also known as bitter orange extract, is a beta adrenergic agonist similar to ephedrine. As such, it interacts with the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, activating thermogenesis and increasing energy levels. Of note, however, is citrus aurantium’s presence on the NCAA’s banned substance list. If you’re not a college athlete, you’ll probably be fine. But it’s clear that this “natural” stimulant goes beyond the scope of healthy ingredients.
Guarana is an Amazonian plant similar to coffee. It’s potent caffeine content therefore works like a strong espresso shot. Unlike coffee, however, it features theobromine and theophylline, two other central nervous system stimulants. Theobromine blocks adenosine, and theophylline opens up air passages. Because of these effects, guarana has also gained a spot on the NCAA’s banned substances list.
Finally, a stimulant most of us are familiar with – caffeine. In reality, caffeine is one of the most evidence-based supplements for enhancing sports performance. Therefore, countless athletes and gym-goers cite caffeine as a great pre-workout. Research confirms its efficacy as well, recommending somewhere between 3-9mg/kg body weight. Just see sources here, here, and here. Too much caffeine, however, can cause anxiety, jitters, and sleep trouble.
Reasons to avoid stimulants in your pre-workout
Even though stimulants elevate energy, they also come with some pretty mean side effects. Avoiding stimulants lowers the risk of bad experiences, such as anxiety, insomnia, racing pulse, or even death. While the FDA has cracked down on serious offenders, pre-workout stimulants can still cause more harm than good.
Stimulants can cause anxiety
At its basic level, overstimulation turns into anxiety. Ephedrine and amphetamine-like stimulants are known to trigger panic attacks and even seizures. Since they stimulate your central nervous system, they run through the same path as anxiety. Characterized by disruption of normal neuroendocrine and neurotransmitter activity, symptoms of anxiety and stimulant ingestion are one in the same.
Even something as innocuous as caffeine turns some people anxious. In small amounts, it wakes us up in the morning. But too much caffeine causes jitters, agitation, and a racing heart beat – all physical symptoms of an anxiety attack.
Taking stimulants can ruin your sleep
Caffeine and other adenosine blockers are built to keep us awake. Normally, when it’s time to go to bed, levels of the neurotransmitter adenosine build in our brain. Saturation on these receptors works like a blanket, covering you up and lulling you go sleep. In contrast, when adenosine roams free, it’s left to connect with free phosphates and form ATP, our natural energy source.
Caffeine is amazing if you want to stay awake. It blocks adenosine receptors to limit fatigue. But if you’re trying to sleep, stimulation becomes an issue.
Elevated cortisol and rapid blood rush
Niacin, while not normally considered a CNS stimulant, can interact with other ingredients to make them more potent. It’s inclusion in pre-workouts causes increased circulation, flushed skin, and rises in cortisol.
Niacin can multiply the effects of stimulants by increasing distribution to the brain. Moreover, on its own, it can aggravate symptoms of anxiety and sleep disturbance.
According to the FDA, stimulants similar in structure to 1,3-dimethylamylamine or other amphetamines offer an extreme health risk. Here’s the official statement from their website:
“Taking DMAA can raise blood pressure and lead to cardiovascular problems ranging from shortness of breath and tightening in the chest to heart attack. The FDA continues to advise consumers not to buy or use products marketed as dietary supplements that contain DMAA due to the health risks they present.”
As we mentioned above, supplement companies tend to look for ways around this warning. Regardless, that doesn’t eliminate the risk.
What your pre-workout should provide
Now that we’ve thoroughly covered what not to take, let’s get back to the question at hand. What is my pre-workout supposed to do, and can I still reap those benefits without stimulants?
The short answer is yes – pre-workouts without stimulants still work. It just depends on how you define “work”. A pre-workout could be anything from a full breakfast to an electrolyte mix. Different nutrients yield different results. Stimulants target specific areas in your brain to increase alertness and perceived energy. But simply feeling more awake and energized doesn’t always equate to results.
Well-designed pre-workouts limit side effects while still increasing blood flow, improving overall output, and providing energy. It’s possible to find all of those in one, you just have to know where to look.
Ingredients to look for in a pre-workout
If you’re preparing to lift weights, your pre-workout should contain creatine. Same if you’re a sprinter or power athlete. Both research and practical experience show ample evidence that supplemental creatine monohydrate increases force production. It provides the literal fuel for the creatine phosphate cycle – your body’s way to produce immediate, intense energy. Depletion of creatine cuts force production in half, so it’s smart to load up on this nutrient. Loading with 0.3g/kg for around a week, then evening out your intake, both improves exercise performance and adds lean muscle mass.
While most pre-workouts feature arginine, l-citrulline is actually a better bet. Within the body, arginine helps synthesize creatine, stimulates blood flow, and aids muscle recovery. Unfortunately, dietary arginine basically goes right through us.
Taking citrulline, a precursor to arginine, lets you generate more arginine naturally, triggering nitric oxide-induced vasodilation. Rather than use a stimulant, use L-citrulline to increase blood flow and energy levels naturally.
Research on cordyceps, a medicinal fungus, shows increased aerobic capacity during workouts. By elevating your cells’ oxygen use, it helps mitochondrial ATP generate energy. Cordyceps can also defend your mitochondria against free radicals, acting as an antioxidant to support long-term muscular health.
Glutamine works both before and after hard training sessions to limit skeletal protein degradation. During periods of high stress, glutamine becomes conditionally essential, meaning your body can’t make it fast enough. Therefore, glutamine supplementation especially preserves muscle during intense training periods. It’s also been shown to raise blood bicarbonate levels, which can neutralize the fatigue-inducing effects of lactic acid.
Since the goal of most workouts is to train hard and increase muscle anyway, why rely on a stimulant? Just skip right ahead to the benefits by taking glutamine.
Maritime Bark Extract
Another plant-based ingredient, this extract contains antioxidants that naturally influence nitric oxide levels. Unlike other natural-sounding (actually synthetic) stimulants, nutrients in maritime bark extract indirectly trigger vasodilation. By promoting better blood flow, it increases oxygen delivery to working muscles.
Best of all, it won’t cause negative side effects.
The best non-stimulant pre-workout:
Performance Lab Pre
If you’re searching for a non-stimulant pre-workout that still works, look no further. We’ve got your solution in Performance Lab Pre.
Performance Lab Pre features vegan, GMO-free, gluten-free, synthetic and additive-free, and third-party tested ingredients. Its basic-yet-effective ingredient list strongly supports muscle growth, blood flow, and high-intensity training. With two pH buffering agents, L-carnosine and L-glutamine, you’re all-but-guaranteed to train harder for longer.
Performance Lab even adds himalayan pink salt – electrolytes to fuel your most successful, sweat-inducing workouts.
Ingredients featured in Performance Lab Pre include;
- 1000mg Creatine
- 500mg L-Citrulline
- 750mg Cordyceps
- 300mg L-Carnosine
- 250mg L-Glutamine
- 100mg Maritime Bark Extract
- 350mg Himalayan Pink Salt
What’s most important, however, is the lack of stimulants. Nothing about Performance Lab Pre risks heart issues, jitters, anxiety, or any other side effect of stimulant-based pre-workouts.
Yes, pre-workouts without stimulants can still give you a great training session. Even ingredients such as electrolyte blends, simple sugars, and BCAAs are effective. Nothing works unless you do, however, so avoid taking the easy route.
Avoid stimulants that over complicate your natural biology, and take pride in your health and performance.