What Are Pre-Workout Supplements And Are They Safe?

23/11/2015 1:43 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Pre-workout supplements are fast becoming a big part of Australia's booming market for sports nutrition products.

Often with far-fetched names like Muscletech SX-7 Protein, Dymatize Pursuit RX and Mutated Nation Cracked 3D, they're billed to give you a lift in the gym and turbocharge your training.

But are the claims legit or is it all just marketing hype?

The Huffington Post Australia talked to Sydney-based exercise physiologist Dr Bill Sukala to get the lowdown on the popular product, in what is now an almost $1 billion supplements industry.

Sukala said the active ingredient in many pre-workout supplements is caffeine, which shouldn't be a problem for most people.

Using a caffeine-based supplement 30 minutes before a workout can improve performance, he said, especially for exercises like cycling and running.

workout supplement

Caffeine is the active ingredient in many pre-workout supplements

"There is definitely evidence that caffeine whether it's in a sports drink or a cup of coffee or an isolated caffeine pill, it is a known ergogenic aid, so it does give you a little bit of a boost, particularly with aerobic style exercises," he said.

"It doesn't mean you're going to lose more fat in the grand scheme of things, but it's just that from an exercise physiologist perspective ... it does delay perceived fatigue and help you shift into a fat burning mode."

While caffeine is usually harmless, he cautions that there are risks for older people and those with high blood pressure or heart conditions.

"You can get people who outwardly look totally normal but if they take a sports drink that's loaded with caffeine and strong central nervous system stimulants their heart rate could spike and their blood pressure as well," Sukala said.

"So if they get jacked up on this stuff then there's really no telling what it could do."

Sukala said regulation of pre-workout supplements in Australia is also a problem, with little way to know if the claims made on the packets are true.

According to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), sports supplement companies only have to prove their products don't contain any banned ingredients, not that the substances actually do what they claim.

"While the TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) 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," the AIS website says in its FAQ section on sports supplements.

Consumers should keep in mind that supplements are "not regulated in the same way that food and drugs are", Sukala urged, pointing to the now banned stimulant DMAA.

DMAA -- a popular sports supplement ingredient -- was outlawed by the TGA in 2012 after it was linked to side-effects including high blood pressure, headaches, vomiting, stroke and death.

exercise supplement

Regulation of pre-workouts should be beefed up, Sukala says

"It's still the wild west when it comes to supplements," Sukala said.

"There's so many products popping up it's hard to keep track, it's like herding cats."

In addition to the marketing hype, it can also be tempting for gym-goers to use a pre-workout supplement as a shortcut for hard work. As the AIS website states:

"They use them to replace the hard but really valuable factors of effective training, sensible eating, and good recovery techniques. There is no replacement."

Sukala agreed.

"The operative word is supplement, they're not a substitute for healthy eating and training," he said.

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