Why coffee and peanut butter could be the best (and cheapest) pre-workout supplement you can get
A quick online search will bring up countless pre-workout pills, potions and powders that promise to fuel a big gym session to get you ripped faster. But are they safe and do they actually work?
That depends which ones you’re taking.
Pre-workout supplements claim to have things like amino acids, arginine, glutamine and electrolytes, which are said to give you energy and help power your muscles through a high intensity workout or weights session. In years gone by they contained ingredients like DMAA (1,3-Dimethylamylamine), a product that’s commonly found in the make-up of party drugs, but that’s now banned.
Darren Bruce, personal trainer and former military leadership coach, told ninemsn Coach that many pre-workouts will give you a big hit of caffeine but not much else, while Katherine Shone, spokesperson for Sports Dietitians Australia, says the claims on labels are often very exaggerated.
What many don’t realise is that sports supplements fall into a particular food category that does not require them to prove their claims to the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), the government body that deems whether foods, drinks and medicines are safe for consumption.
According to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), all that sports supplement companies have to prove is that they don’t have any banned substances in them – the rest of their labels are often left to creative licence.
“While the TGA and FSANZ (Food Standards Australia and New Zealand) expect manufacturers to avoid making wild claims about their products on labels and packaging, these regulations are not heavily policed,” writes the AIS supplements fact sheet.
Many supplements are endorsed by professional athletes who credit the supplement with their successes, but the AIS points out that this might not mean much.
“Performance is the result of many factors – including talent, training, equipment, diet and mental attitude,” they write.
“In real life, an athlete will be unable to pinpoint how much each of these factors is contributing.”
Of course, some pre-workouts can be good and Shone recommends finding one that is listed on the Informed Sport Program then study the label carefully and consult a sports dietitian so that you know exactly what you’re getting.
“They have been tested rigorously so they don’t contain banned ingredients but also provide the amount of ingredients they claim to contain,” she says.
The caffeine effect
Most pre-workout supplements contain high levels of caffeine, which gives people a buzz.
“People report feeling amped and pumped up to do their session, which is likely to be the effect of caffeine and sugar additives,” Shone explains.
“But to get a kick, there’s nothing wrong with having a coffee.”
Bruce often recommends his clients have a shot of coffee to fire them up before a workout.
“The main objective is to prime the nervous system – coffee does that best,” he explains.
However given one of the keys to good performance is getting plenty of sleep, Bruce says it’s not a good idea to have a high caffeine intake within six hours of going to bed.
A caffeine hit without the caffeine
If you don’t like coffee or are super sensitive to caffeine, Bruce says a good old-fashioned “shock to the system” will have the same effect on your nervous system.
“When we have 6am sessions and everyone is still asleep, I will throw a ball at them. When someone throws something at you and you’re not aware of it, you freak out – it wakes them up straight away,” he says.
“You could also do some box jumps to wake you up and switch on your system for heavy lifts or high intensity work. Even learning to juggle can be a good strategy.”
Juggling has actually been proven to increase connections between different parts of the brain and Bruce says it’s really good at priming people for a workout.
A whole food pre-workout
A lot of the pre-workouts claim to have ingredients that help send blood to the muscles to give you more power, but Shone says that you can easily get that from a good pre-workout snack.
“A banana and peanut butter or some grainy toast with cottage cheese would give you protein and carbohydrates to fuel your workout,” she says.
It’s a strategy she uses with many athletes looking for results.
“In my experience, a lot of elite level athletes don’t waste their time on those products. They will focus mostly on good nutrition and some will use caffeine,” she says.
“Good performance and optimal physique is more than just taking a supplement – it comes from a combination of hard work, good nutritious eating, doing the training and doing the rehab and recovery. It’s not just a matter of taking a pill to get an awesome body.”