Pre-workout supplements are single or multi-ingredient products aimed at improving exercise performance, particularly in the context of weight lifting and other forms of strength training. This glossary gives a brief look at some of the common terms and concepts relevant to exercise performance and pre-workout supplementation.
Also known as endurance or cardio exercise, aerobic training is low to moderate intensity exercise that uses the oxygen you breathe to help generate energy (ATP). Examples of aerobic exercise include moderate to long distance running, swimming, and cycling. Aerobic exercise uses a mix of carbohydrates and fats to supply energy and increases the rate of fat oxidation, making it one of the most effective ways to promote weight loss. Pre-workout supplements that improve aerobic performance typically work by reducing fatigue.
Anabolism refers to the creation of more complex molecules from simpler building blocks. In the context of exercise, anabolism typically refers to the creation of proteins – the building blocks of muscle – from amino acids, resulting in an increase of muscle mass.
In contrast to aerobic exercise, anaerobic training is so intense that the body cannot meet its energy needs via breathing alone. Because of this, your muscle rely on anaerobic (lacking oxygen) metabolism to generate energy. Anaerobic exercise rapidly generates lactate, a compound whose release is accompanied by increasing acidity that eventually prevents you from being able to exercise any longer. The best examples of anaerobic activity is strength training and sprinting, which are typically performed in short bursts of 10 seconds to 3 minutes long with rest in between. Improving anaerobic performance is the most common reason for taking pre-workout supplements.
Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the body’s main energy molecule. ATP is used up rapidly during high-intensity exercise such as sprinting or strength training. Several pre-workout supplements are known to influence ATP production, with creatine being the best example.
The proportion of fat and muscle mass in the body. Improving body composition by reducing fat and increasing muscle mass is one of the most sought-after workout goals. Some pre-workout ingredients – such as conjugated linoleic acid – are claimed to aid both sides of this process.
Branched Chain Amino Acid
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are amino acids recognized for their similar branching structure and crucial role in building muscle. Although BCAAs are typically considered more of a post-workout supplement because they aid muscle growth and recovery, they can also be taken before or during a workout and are sometimes included in pre-workout formulas. BCAA supplementation remains a controversial topic, however, because they are also found in sufficient quantities in everyday foods.
The opposite to anabolism, catabolism is the breakdown of molecules into simpler components. In the context of exercise, catabolism usually refers to a state where the body is breaking down more muscle protein than it is synthesizing, leading to a loss of muscle mass. Catabolism can become an issue if you undergo intense exercise and do not have sufficient nutrient intake.
Electrolytes are minerals (such as calcium) present in the body that have an electric charge. They are especially relevant to exercise because they control how much water the body has, blood acidity, and muscle function. Electrolytes are lost in sweat, which explains why intense exercise can lead to problems such as dehydration. Electrolytes can be taken in drinks or isolated substances such as salt or baking soda.
Glycogen is the main form of carbohydrate (glucose) storage in the body. Stored primarily in the liver and muscles, glycogen gradually becomes depleted during exercise. Glycogen depletion is a major consideration for endurance athletes. Some pre-workout ingredients can spare glycogen from being used or increase its levels.
High-intensity Interval Training
Also known as HIIT, this is a type of exercise where you undergo alternating periods of high-intensity and less intense activity. The best example of HIIT is all-out sprinting followed by jogging for recovery, before repeating the sprinting again. HIIT training is an excellent method of improving cardiovascular fitness and overall health, although there is still debate about whether and how it may be superior to standard exercise regimens.
Lactate is a byproduct of energy production during exercise, with particularly high levels being generated during high-intensity activity such as sprinting. Lactate build up is accompanied by increased acidity in muscle tissue, which is one of the main factors contributing to muscle fatigue.
A level of exercise intensity at which lactate begins to build up faster in the blood than the body can remove it. Exercising above this threshold leads to a rapid build-up of lactate that eventually causes inability to continue exercising at the same intensity.
Muscle Buffering Capacity
The ability of muscle tissue to neutralize acid that rapidly accumulates in muscle during high-intensity exercise and eventually leads to fatigue. This capacity can be improved by some compounds, most notably beta-alanine.
Muscle hypertrophy refers to an increase in the size of skeletal muscle that is achieved through an increase in the size of muscle cells. Although few – if any – pre-workout supplements increase muscle hypertrophy directly, it is possible to boost it indirectly by improving the intensity/length of your workout to increase the body’s hormonal response to exercise.
The muscle pump refers to the tight and swollen feeling in muscles experienced by people undergoing strength training. The pump is the result of increased blood flow, which can be increased by taking nitric oxide boosters.
Nitric oxide is a molecule that promotes vasodilation – the widening of blood vessels – which results in increased blood flow. Although it is impossible to supplement NO directly, there are several compounds, such as citrulline, that are turned into NO by the body; such compounds are called nitric oxide boosters. The question of whether or not increased blood flow actually results in any performance benefits continues to be debated.
A subjective measure of how difficult a person feels their body is working during exercise. This measure is based on factors such as heart rate, breathing rate, sweating, and muscle fatigue. Caffeine is well-known for reducing perceived exertion.
Also known as strength training, this is a type of exercise that uses resistance – that is, an opposing force – to increase muscle size and strength. Weight lifting is the most common type of resistance training, but it is also possible to use your own body weight as the source of resistance; such exercise is called calisthenics.
Stimulants are compounds that increase the body’s activity, resulting in effects such as improved alertness, energy, and wakefulness. Stimulants are frequently used as pre-workout ingredients, with caffeine being the most popular example.
Time to exhaustion
A common measure of athletic performance which notes the amount of time one can continue exercising at a given intensity before becoming fatigued and unable to continue. Many aerobic performance supplements increase time to exhaustion, allowing athletes to exercise longer before tiring out.
A measure of the maximum amount of oxygen you can use during exercise. The VO2 max is used as an indicator of a person’s cardio-respiratory and aerobic fitness, and can be improved with training.