Pre-workouts are great ways to improve your performance in the gym, on the field, or in any other athletic arena. While nothing replaces a healthy lifestyle, diet, and training regimen, pre-workouts give you an extra boost. Incremental gains day-by-day add up over time, so they can make a big difference if used correctly.
However, no one wants to pay the price of anxiety for a slightly better gym session. It’s just not worth it. You may have heard that certain pre-workouts can cause worry, fast breathing, and other symptoms. But is that the truth? Do pre-workouts always cause anxiety?
First, let’s uncover some truths behind anxiety. Then we can get in to pre-workouts and how they work. Finally, we uncover the interesting part – the intersection of the two and which ingredients to look out for.
But before we get in to it – a disclosure. Nothing in this article constitutes actual medical advice. If you’re experiencing long-lasting, extreme, otherwise abnormal anxiety, or any health issues for that matter, talk to a professional.
Table of Contents
What is anxiety?
Anxiety comes in two basic forms – state anxiety and trait anxiety. We experience state anxiety in response to a perceived threat. It heightens our senses so we can escape or fight if need be. The increase in adrenaline and blood flow also helps us during training and competition.
Trait anxiety represents individual differences in threat response. People with anxiety disorders may perceive threats consistently, always anticipating danger. Or they might experience a severe panic response to an otherwise noxious stimulus. Whatever the case, it’s disruptive to daily living. State anxiety, on the other hand, is an isolated response that can be beneficial… up to a point.
Sports psychology features multiple theories on how arousal and anxiety relate to performance. Most agree that during competitive or intense activity, a mild level of arousal (light nerves) contributes to preparedness. The ability to change direction on a dime, lift more weight than at rest, or focus attention depends on it.
At some point, however, arousal tips to damaging anxiety. We become too overwhelmed, too stressed, and we choke. Anxiety turns detrimental, especially if it extends past your workout. If a pre-workout supplement causes anxiety, it’s an issue.
Why should I take a pre-workout anyway?
Good question. If your pre-workout is causing anxiety, you should stop.
As with anything, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. Get everything else aligned first – sleep hygiene, nutrition, mental and emotional health – and then reach for a supplement. If your supplement sacrifices any of the aforementioned, it’s a bad sign.
For example, I think we can all agree they aren’t built to stimulate anxiety. If they were, they wouldn’t be flying off of the shelves.
Instead, a pre-workout should contribute positively by:
- Raising energy levels
- Preserving muscle tissue and recovery
- …and above all, performance enhancement
Sometimes, we might just be anxious before a workout. If we’re going for a PR or about to play in the championship, it makes sense to be a little nervous. But your pre-workout shouldn’t be to blame.
How to avoid anxiety from pre-workout supplements
Again, let’s reiterate that some anxiety is normal. Tons of people experience it on a daily basis, especially under duress. It’s a natural response that can both save our lives and help us win trophies.
But if you’re taking a supplement that regularly makes you feel worried, tight in your chest, or any other symptoms of anxiety, stop taking it. There are other, healthier options that are just as effective in a pre-workout.
Substances to avoid in a pre-workout supplement
By choosing safe, natural, clean ingredients, you should be able to limit anxiety. But just to play it safe, avoid these specific supplements as a good rule of thumb.
Stimulants, especially dangerous ones
Pre-workouts came under fire a while back for using overpowering stimulants. One brand was even implicated in the death of a few soldiers. Since, the industry has cracked down on the use of illegal stimulants.
Still, some supplements sneak by. Avoid anything that reads DMAA or resembles ephedrine. A 2017 study found that companies try to hide these ingredients under names like “2-aminoisoheptane” and “Aconitum kusnezoffii”. Always read the ingredient list, and choose supplements that are third-party tested for purity.
Simply put, any kind of overstimulation leads to anxiety. While it might seem obvious to avoid dangerous substances, even a seemingly harmless stimulant can make you anxious.
For example, consuming too much caffeine can cause agitation and changes in mood. It promotes our “fight or flight (or freeze or fawn)” response. Even though this response helps us in danger, it ruins our day otherwise.
Niacin (Vitamin B3)
Niacin is just a fancy name for Vitamin B3. When taken in your food, it’s not going to cause anxiety. However, pre-workouts liquidize it for immediate absorption. Niacin in pre-workouts tends to cause a rapid increase in circulation, skin flush, and sensations of heat. Although these symptoms won’t yield anxiety, they can definitely be scary. If you’re sensitive to sudden biological changes, avoid niacin,
Niacin is also associated with a spike in cortisol a few hours after supplementation. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone for a reason. By elevating cortisol when you’re not using it (a few hours after your workout), it can cause anxiety.
Supplements to look for in a safe pre-workout
Now that you know what to absolutely avoid, let’s go over what you can take when concerned about anxiety.
Creatine is the fuel for your most powerful efforts. When the body needs to produce energy faster than it can metabolize glucose, it uses creatine. The phosphagen system acts like the first gear in your car – powerful but can only go so far. Creatine is safe in moderate doses, as it’s just adding fuel to that fire. It has no known association with anxiety, and is a great addition to any complete pre-workout.
Although citrulline is considered a non-essential amino acid, it can prove essential to boosting your training. As a precursor to another amino acid, arginine, it helps increase blood flow naturally. Think of it like warming up for a workout. It’s not going to cause anxiety (unless your warm up is swimming with sharks), but it can significantly improve subsequent training.
BCAAs are a special kind of amino acid. Featuring a branched-chain, leucine, isoleucine, and valine have muscle building properties.
Isoleucine increases glucose uptake within the muscle, which can help restore glycogen stores for performance. When glycogen stores are full, it prevents your body from stealing muscle tissue for energy.
Valine synthesizes proteins to create muscle. As it’s an essential amino acid, once it enters your bloodstream, your body knows its time to start building. It also triggers the release of insulin, which, like isoleucine, regulates glucose uptake.
Finally, leucine is arguably the most important branched-chain amino acid. Any quality supplement will include at least twice as much leucine for potency. It’s role in regulating protein turnover keeps your existing muscle intact while synthesizing new muscle tissue. Taking it before a workout keeps your body in net positive protein balance, which is essential to muscle growth.
Finally, this last amino acid increases levels of both bicarbonate and growth hormone in your blood.
During high-intensity workouts, our muscles start to fill with lactic acid faster than we can shuttle it out. That’s why we start to “feel the burn” and eventually have to stop. Bicarbonate is a basic compound that neutralizes the extra acids to extend our efforts.
Aptly named, growth hormone is one of the main factors in building muscle mass and repairing tissue. The more it’s stimulated (by glutamine, perhaps), the more gains. These two compounds work in your benefit both during and after your workout, without increasing anxiety.
Do Pre-Workouts Cause Anxiety? Not all of them, but choose wisely.
Some pre-workouts can cause anxiety, but not all of them.
You shouldn’t have to sacrifice your mental health for five extra pounds on a lift. No pre-workout is that magical anyways. A healthy, robust lifestyle with proper sleep and stress maintenance will outdo the effects of a pre-workout any day. If your pre-workout is giving you anxiety, it’s not worth it.
Instead, look for a pre-workout supplement with all of the right ingredients and none of the wrong ones. We recommend Performance Lab Pre as the best pre-workout on the market after trying and testing dozens of products.
Choose all-natural brands who focus on health first, showmanship last. And make sure to read the ingredient list and check their quality assurance. It will make your time spent both in and out of the gym that much better.