Energy Drinks vs. Pre-Workout — Which Is Best For Gym Performance?

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Pre-workout vs. energy drinks

To be completely honest, even thinking about going to the gym can be exhausting sometimes. While the post-workout endorphins and visible results can be motivation to give your workout all you’ve got, sometimes it’s not enough. This is when you might turn to another energy source, such as a pre-workout or energy drink.

You’ve probably seen fitness influencers using one of the former in an ASMR-like TikTok video (you know, the ones where they flick the lid of the pre-workout off and shake the powder in their shaker bottles), or even cracking open an ice-cold energy drink, like Celsius, before hitting the gym.

But what’s the difference between pre-workout and energy drinks? And how do they actually enhance your performance? Below, experts break down the difference between the two and explain which is ideal for maximum workout performance.

What Does Pre-Workout Do?

“Pre-workouts are a blend of various individual supplements used to enhance energy, focus, and muscle protein synthesis,” according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).

These enhancements “allow you to push harder and work out at higher intensities for longer,” says IFIT and NordicTrack trainer Paolo Octavio.

“Some pre-workout will contain ingredients like nitric oxide boosters and focus-enhancing compounds, contributing to better blood flow to muscles and increased mental alertness,” says Francesca Alfano, certified dietitian nutritionist. Caffeine and beta alanine are two other ingredients often found in pre-workout, the latter of which is known to increase the duration of high-intensity movements or heavy lifts, NASM reports.

How Do Energy Drinks Help Your Workout?

An energy drink does as its name suggests; it gives you the energy that your body is lacking. Most energy drinks contain caffeine and/or herbal extracts that would help incite this boost, Octavio explains. For example, the popular Celsius energy drink contains a blend of caffeine, green tea, EGCG (a type of plant compound and antioxidant), guarana-seed extract, taurine, and ginger-root extract — among other things. These stimulants can work together to provide you with temporary energy, fueling your alertness and endurance during a workout.

Pre-Workout vs. Energy Drinks

The main difference between an energy drink and pre-workout is their purpose. Energy drinks were designed to provide a general boost of energy and to be taken beyond just exercising, Alfano says.

Pre-workout, on the other hand, was made with sweat sessions in mind and requires specific measurements that coincide with the “recommended serving sizes based on dosage guidelines provided by the manufacturer,” IFIT and NordicTrack trainer Hannah Eden explains.

But both come with their own side effects (more on that below!) and should not be combined. “Combining both pre-workout and and energy drink can potentially lead to excessive intake of stimulants, particularly caffeine,” Eden explains. Alfano also advises against the combination. It would be way too much caffeine for one person, she says, which can cause heart palpitations, jitteriness, or even arrhythmias.

Side Effects of Pre-Workout

Pre-workout before the gym isn’t inherently dangerous — but like any supplement, it comes with potential side effects, per the experts, including:

  • Jitters
  • Disrupted sleeping patterns
  • Increased heart rate even when you’re not working out
  • Anxiety
  • Inconsistent performance
  • Inconsistent energy levels
  • Increased heart rate
  • Dehydration
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Increased blood pressure

Whenever you are taking pre-workout, you should be mindful of your overall caffeine intake. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that for a healthy adult, 400 milligrams of caffeine (four to five cups of coffee) a day is the highest amount one can consume before experiencing any dangerous side effects. One single serving of pre-workout could contain anywhere from 91 to 387 milligrams of caffeine, according to PubMed.

Eden suggests taking a few things into consideration before using pre-workout to avoid experiencing any of these side effects. The first thing you can do is start with a small amount of pre-workout and then gradually increase dosage as needed. Take a look at the recommended dosage of your pre-workout if you want to see how much your body can tolerate. For example, Alani Nu’s Cosmic Stardust Pre Workout’s ($40) serving size is one scoop, which is 200 milligrams. You can start with just half a scoop and then work your way up until you find the amount that feels best for your body.

You should also ensure you’re staying hydrated. “Drink enough water, especially if the pre-workout contains diuretic effects,” she explains.

Energy Drink Side Effects

Energy drinks come with pros and cons, too. On one hand, they offer increased alertness, attention, and energy — on the other, you may experience increased blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“When it comes to energy drinks, be aware that the energy boost you are hoping to get is most likely coming with hidden agents that will hurt you in the long run,” Octavio says. Sugar, as well as derivatives like aspartame and Sucralose, are just a few additives to watch out for, he adds. They can jeopardize your gains and impact your metabolism, Octavio warns. They have also been linked to a higher risk of stroke, heart disease, and gut health issues, per the Mayo Clinic.

Other potential side effects of energy drinks, according to the three experts, include:

  • Jitters
  • Increased heart rate
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Too much caffeine intake

Energy drinks can also result in dehydration, per the CDC, so be sure that you’re consuming enough water and staying hydrated if you choose to incorporate them into your workout plan. Also, make sure to check the ingredient labels on your energy drink to keep track of your total caffeine consumption.

Bottom Line

So what’s the verdict when it comes to pre-workout vs. energy drinks? “While energy drinks are not specifically tailored for exercise, I think it depends on what your goals are,” Eden says. “If a pick-me-up is all you need for the gym, then that works, but if you are looking to optimize your performance, then pre-workout may be better.”

Alfano agrees, noting, “If you’re looking for gym-specific enhancement, pre-workout would be a better choice because it is specifically designed to boost your workout and improve muscle endurance.” When shopping for the best and safest pre-workout, be sure to look for third-party-tested, pharmaceutical-grade products, Alfano says.

You might also consider opting for another drink entirely. Octavio’s preferred pre-gym beverage, for example, is a simple, easy-to-find option: black coffee. “And only if I really need it,” he tells POPSUGAR. In addition to offering you that energy jolt, some research has shown that drinking coffee before a workout can improve people’s endurance and decrease their perceived exertion.

Ultimately, Octavio says that he looks at stimulants like pre-workout, black coffee, and energy drinks as something extra, for those times when you could really use a boost. Otherwise, you run the risk of forming a dependence.

If you have a super-hard workout, a long endurance session, or a heavy lifting day, it makes sense that you might want to use a stimulant, but he suggests trying a few workouts without it to see how you perform. “You will be surprised to see what your body really needs. It’s less than you think,” Octavio tells POPSUGAR.

Eden also suggests consulting with your healthcare professional before taking pre-workout or any stimulant before a sweat session to understand your tolerance. They’ll be able to best weigh in on your personal health and how using certain stimulants may impact your body.

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