It’s true. We want every gym session to be an 11/10. Harder work, more gains, better results. Even our “lighter” days need to be productive. But sometimes, we’re just not feeling it.
That’s where a pre-workout comes in and saves the day.
Sweet, glorious, pre-workout. Pulling energy out of nowhere. Making good workouts great, and adding 5 lbs to our PR. It can be an ideal supplement, if used correctly.
But with tons of options on the market, which is better? Powder or pills?
As with everything, it’s not that black and white. Each has its merits, and each has its drawbacks. At the end, we’ve drawn our own conclusion. But let’s investigate so you can decide for yourself.
Table of Contents
What’s in a pre-workout?
Anything can be in a pre-workout, actually. Since there’s no national or international regulation on the term, a shot of espresso could be a pre-workout. A glass of water or an apple would count. Even a beer could be a pre-workout, as long as you drink it before the gym.
However, modern pre-workout supplements are specifically curated with performance enhancement in mind. Yet the fact remains that they can contain anything. Creatine, caffeine, and niacin tend to top the list of ingredients. Beta alanine and amino acids join the ranks in most, as well as fillers and flavors to make it palatable.
Why should you use a pre-workout?
The primary reason for taking a pre-workout is to enhance performance in the immediate session. Secondary reasons include speeding up recovery, limiting muscle loss, and hydration. Most pre-workouts, in pill and powder form, help increase blood flow, energy, drive, and mechanical output. You can use either pre-workout to maximize your own athletic prowess. So what’s the difference?
First up, the most commonly known pre-workout form – powders.
Now, I won’t tell you I’ve mixed pre-workout directly in my mouth, but I won’t say I haven’t either. Pre-workout is designed to dissolve in water, forming a little mixed drink you can enjoy. All of the nutrients are contained within a pulverized can of crystals.
They come in various flavors, both good and bad. Seriously, some pre-workouts taste like candy, others just taste like a can.
In general, you drink pre-workout on your way to the gym or 30 minutes before. That gives it a little time to hit your digestive system and permeate across the body. You want the effects of your pre-workout to hit during the actual session, and liquids take a bit of time to digest.
The Pros of Pre-Workout Powder:
Some people just like drinks
Personal preference here, so not a definite fact. Some people just prefer drinks, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you love taking the time to enjoy a beverage before hitting the weights, then that’s going to be a pro.
When you pre-mix powders with water, it dissolves into a new, pre-workout filled liquid. Liquids are digested quickly in the stomach into your bloodstream. You don’t have to wait for your stomach acids to break down an outer coating. This does mean you have to get the timing right, though, as it won’t continue to disperse throughout your training.
The Cons of Pre-Workout Powder:
Moisture and clumping
Nowadays, supplement companies go out of their way to make powders dissolve instantly. Still, lots of us know the peril of seeing our pre-workout stuck to a moisture drop before we’ve even added water. When it gets stuck to the side of a shaker bottle, you’re missing some of the dose.
Not only that, if you take a look at the image above, you’ll see 2 examples of pre-workout powders that are clumpy and hard. This is quite a common issue (as all pre-workout consumers will know) and many actually resort to keeping their pre-workouts on their freezers to try and avoid it.
As a result, pre-workouts commonly becoming clumpy or hard is the main ‘con’ here.
Requires extra materials
Maybe you’ve decided to beat the above problem by using a new shaker each time. That’s great, but it’s just extra work. You have to wash two bottles regularly, and no one likes dishes. Then you have to remember to pack one every time you go to the gym. Or if you’re like me, you forget you have one in your bag from yesterday’s session, and now you just look like a bottle collector.
Probably one of my biggest issues with pre-workout powders is artificial ingredients. When companies take out sugar, they replace it with fake sweeteners. Research shows that artificial sweeteners can induce glucose intolerance and deregulate metabolism. Those are the opposite results you want from a pre-workout.
Sure, a powder doesn’t need them, but otherwise they taste terrible or have a ton of added sugars. Which brings me to my final point…
Variation in taste
Taste is incredibly subjective. For example, I’m weird and don’t like chocolate. If you came at me with some chocolate raspberry pre-workout, I’d run the other way.
While pre-workouts have come a long way from their initial, chalky rendition, there are still some pretty bad ones. Nothing’s worse than going into the store and seeing they only have banana flavored powder. Don’t @ me.
Pre-workout pills – the down low
For our second option, we have pills. Pre-workout pills are basically the same as powder, just compacted in a little capsule. You still need water (or some drink, at least) to take your supplement in pill form, so it’s just a different administration method.
At least, on the surface.
Pills tend to skew toward more natural ingredients. Powders saturate the market. Pre-workout companies who sell pills have to differentiate somehow, so many offer organic, non-GMO, all-natural versions.
In my opinion, and probably the opinion of most doctors, going with pills is a much healthier option.
The Pros of Pre-Workout Pills:
Ease of use
Taking a pill doesn’t require any extra equipment. You don’t even need a water bottle, assuming your gym has a water fountain. Therefore, you won’t build up bottles at the bottom of your bag like a hoarder.
Taste doesn’t matter
You shouldn’t be tasting your pills. If you normally do, you might want to talk to someone about that.
Since taste doesn’t matter, you don’t have to scour the shelves or special order your favorite flavor. You just pop a pill and swallow.
No artificial ingredients
Now, I can’t make a claim for every single pre-workout that comes in a capsule. But looking at the above, there’s less of a need to make your pre-workout taste sweet. Since the ingredients are trapped inside a pill, they don’t regularly interact with air, and thus don’t need emulsifiers or preservatives. This critical difference pushes pre-workout pills away from artificial ingredients.
The Cons of Pre-Workout Pills:
A tough pill to swallow
Most people get past the difficulty of swallowing pills by adulthood. Kids really shouldn’t be using any pre-workout at all. But there are some adults who, no shame at all, still don’t do pills. For them, that’s a con.
You risk them not breaking down
Pills (not capsules) can break apart in your bag, losing some precious materials. Although, I suppose your entire powder could open up in your bag too, so I don’t know if that matters.
Where it’s really a problem is in your digestive system. You want your pills to break in there so vital nutrients can disperse. According to ConsumerLabs, lots of pills remain partially intact after 30 mins to an hour.
They recommend capsules instead, whose coating dissolves much easier in your digestive system. With capsules, you won’t have to worry about them not breaking down.
Pre-Workout Powder vs Pills: slight advantage to pre-workout pills…
…(But the real winner is capsules)
You clicked to read this article to find out whether pre-workout powder or pills were better. Well, pills might be slightly more convenient, but capsules are the all-round winner.
Why? Because capsules contain power in a more digestible carrier instead of the rock-solid pill format. They also remove the issue of ‘bad tasting’ pre-workouts too.
Ultimately, you want your pre-workout to work for you, not against you. The ability to travel with one item, and the exclusion of artificial ingredients really sells it for me.
Best Pre-Workout in Capsules: Performance Lab Pre
Even within the pre-workout pill & capsule game, you still need to be selective. One great choice is Performance Lab Pre.
Performance Lab works hard to make all-natural, non-GMO, gluten free, vegan, additive-free supplements. They even recreate ingredients within single celled organisms to extract and purify for their products – even their capsules are made from their patented prebiotic fiber instead of the usual gelatin or cellulose/HPMC that you find in all other products.
It’s the closest you can get to real food without actually being food, and it actually works.
Performance Lab Pre packs all of your standard, natural pre-workout ingredients in to a plant-based capsule – meaning it’ll dissolve easily for seamless dispersal to your muscles.
The ingredients in Performance Lab Pre include:
- Himalayan Pink Salt
- Maritime Bark Extract
Everything comes down to personal preference. If you want to continue to take powders, that’s up to you. But if you agree with the evidence, it might be time to grab a pill…or even better, a capsule.