What Does Pre-Workout Do? | Mark’s Daily Apple

Pre-workouts are supplements or combinations of supplements, often in powder form, that are taken before a training session to improve your performance and boost training adaptations. As fitness culture has exploded and grown by leaps and bounds, so have the pre-workout products available that promise to improve your workout performance.

Some of the things pre-workouts claim to do:

  • Improve energy utilization
  • Increase muscle protein synthesis.
  • Boost the anabolic response.
  • Provide fuel for muscles.
  • Improve performance

But does pre-workout work? Let’s review some of the most popular and common pre-workout ingredients and see if they really help as advertised.


Creatine helps us store more phosphocreatine in our muscles, which is one of the most powerful fast-acting energy systems for fast, high-intensity movements such as weightlifting. Taking creatine:

  • It improves performance in all lifts that have been studied, particularly in the more complex multi-joint compound lifts, such as squats and deadlifts.
  • Improves strength and muscle gain, even in older people.
  • Improve sprint performance.

Creatine works. It improves strength training performance and is one of the few supplements I still take daily. Creatine is especially important for vegans and vegetarians who do not get dietary creatine from meat and fish.


L-citrulline is an amino acid that increases nitric oxide synthesis and improves endothelial function. Ultimately, it improves blood flow. This improves blood flow to the heart and muscles:

  • Improves performance during intense activity.
  • It improves the “pump”, that feeling that the muscles are filled with fluid and blood. Important subjective feedback that makes lifting more enjoyable. Arnold Schwarzenegger compared the feeling of the pump to the feeling of sex. Exercise scientists generally dismiss the importance of the pump, but I find that it strongly correlates with better training and better adaptations.

L-citrulline works. Improving blood flow to all areas of the body is great for performance, in all areas, not just the weight room.


Beta-alanine is more effective in longer sessions. In exercise sets that last less than 60 seconds, it doesn’t seem to help. In exercise bouts longer than 60 seconds, beta-alanine begins to show beneficial effects on performance and capacity.

You know beta-alanine is working when you feel a “tingle” in your muscles. It’s not necessarily a pleasant feeling, but it does mean you’re ready to start training, and if you have a good session, you’ll learn to appreciate the tingles. Given the modest overall effects of beta-alanine in the literature, I would bet that the tingles act as a kind of placebo and provide a psychological signal to the muscles that they are ready to work hard. That’s not to rule them out.


Caffeine might be the most effective pre-workout supplement in the world. It is undoubtedly the most ubiquitous. I wrote an entire post about using caffeine before a workout, but here’s the gist of what it can do for you as a pre-workout:

  • Improves upper body strength in women.
  • Improves the desire to exercise.
  • A fun example of how effective pre-workout caffeine is is found in a study where a ketone/taurine/leucine combination had no effect on performance unless caffeine was added. It sounded great on paper, but it needed boring caffeine to make it work.


Salt is the most important electrolyte in our body and exercise increases our needs. When you sweat, you are losing salt. When you are losing salt, your muscles cannot contract effectively. When your muscles can’t contract, you lose strength and performance.

Instead of waiting until you sweat out all the salt, start by adding a pinch or two (or three) of salt to your water as a “pre-workout.”

Exogenous ketones

Ketone supplements are a way to have your cake and eat it too. The idea is that you can follow any diet you want, take ketone esters or salts, and get the benefits of ketones without having to follow a strict diet. There is some conflicting evidence that exogenous ketones can help high-level performance in resistance training, but it is unclear how useful they are for the average athlete. They still have utility for many different health conditions. For more information, read my post on exogenous ketones.

But be careful. Some ketone supplements, when taken in excess, will make you run to the bathroom. It’s hard to perform in the gym when you have to go to the bathroom every half hour.


Branched chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine) are powerful stimulators of mTOR, the pathway for growth, anabolic recovery and muscle gain. Most people don’t need BCAA supplements, either before exercise or ever, but they can help certain people.

BCAAs are most useful for people who train on an empty stomach, because they preserve muscle, prevent muscle loss, and improve mTOR signaling after training.

BCAAs are also useful for people who abstain from consuming animal products, as meat, eggs, and dairy are their best sources.

Baking soda

Baking soda reduces lactate buildup and acidity in your muscles, allowing you to train longer and harder without becoming as fatigued. Reducing muscle acidity also allows energy transfer to improve and muscles to contract more strongly. Take it approximately half an hour before your training or competition and you will enjoy several interesting effects:

  • Improved time to exhaustion. You can train longer and harder. One study found that baking soda increased time to exhaustion when cycling by 20 to 30 seconds.
  • Improved recovery. Reducing muscle acidity allows your muscles to recover faster.
  • Increase the number of repetitions. Baking soda has been shown to improve the number of repetitions a lifter can complete.
  • For all runners, baking soda can reduce runner’s high by suppressing the release of endorphins. It turns out that those endorphins are a response to acidity.
  • Baking soda definitely works. To minimize gastrointestinal upset, take it in smaller doses throughout the day, up to a total of 1 to 2 teaspoons, and avoid taking it near meals.


Although not a classic pre-workout that increases acute performance, collagen, when taken before a workout with 60 mg of vitamin C, improves collagen deposition in connective tissue. It is more of a pre-workout with the long-term goal of developing tissue endurance and strength.

Is there a Primal pre-workout?

If I were preparing a pre-workout, this is what I would do. Actually, this is what do:

  1. Fill my bottle with 32 ounces of water. I typically use Mountain Valley spring water and a stainless steel bottle.
  2. Adds an LMNT package. This is an excellent electrolyte supplement that provides one gram of sodium plus magnesium malate (which has ergogenic effects) and potassium. Tastes great, works great. Essential for the Miami heat.
  3. Add a tablespoon of creatine. 5 grams, more or less.
  4. Add two tablespoons of collagen peptides.
  5. Shake it well and drink it in the minutes before training and continue during it.

Baking soda would be a good addition here if you can tolerate it. You could add a caffeine source, but I prefer to just drink coffee. From time to time I will add 20 grams of whey isolate powder if I’m doing a particularly hard, high-energy session and I haven’t eaten. This is a quick and dirty way to supplement BCAAs (which taste horrible).

That’s all. I don’t like resorting to crazy pills and powders; those days are gone. What about you? Do you take a pre-workout?


About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather of the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His last book is Keto for life, where he discusses how he combines the ketogenic diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is also the author of many other books, including The primordial modelwhich is credited with fueling the growth of the primal/paleo movement in 2009. After spending more than three decades educating people about why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal well-being, Mark launched Primordial Kitchen, a real food company that creates flavorful and delicious kitchen staples made with premium ingredients like avocado oil. With over 70 condiments, sauces, oils and dressings in their lineup, Primal Kitchen makes it easy to prepare delicious meals that fit your lifestyle.

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