by The Guerrilla Chemist, MS, CSO Blackstone Labs
If you’re like most people, including myself, you use a pre-workout supplement religiously before every workout. The market has become very saturated lately; it feels like everyone who’s ever picked up a weight is coming out with his or her own pre-workout formula. But, do you as a consumer know which molecules to look for and which ones to avoid? In my expert opinion, based on the research available, the following three molecules have no purpose being in a pre-workout formula in 2016. They are either inferior, outdated, or just plain useless marketing hype with no science to back up the claims.
The star ingredient of the original “pump” and nitric oxide (NO) products of the early 2000s, arginine is a conditionally essential amino acid that converts to NO and citrulline via the enzyme NO Synthase. This is your body’s natural way for regulating blood flow and blood pressure. Sounds great in theory, but many studies suggest otherwise. A 2012 paper showed participants taking 6g of L-Arginine (non-exercising study) had their blood checked for nitrates and nitrites (NOx, biomarkers for NO conversion) over 120 minutes post-Arginine consumption. The researchers found no statistically significant differences between NO levels vs the placebo group. In a study using well-trained male athletes, researchers gave participants 6g of L-Arginine per day and then measured both NOx and performance levels. They concluded that supplementing with 6g of Arginine per day did not improve exercise-induced Nitric Oxide production, as well as overall NOx levels. Your body naturally increases NO levels via exercise, however the researchers saw no added effect on NO levels in the group receiving Arginine. One theory as to why Arginine supplementation has not met expectations is due to Arginine’s large affinity towards the enzyme arginase. Arginase breaks down Arginine into ornithine and urea, and research has shown arginine to have a 1000x greater affinity to arginase vs NO synthase. Research shows that supplementation with citrulline raises plasma Arginine levels more effectively than Arginine alone, while also increasing NO levels and GH levels as well. The recommended dose of Citrulline Malate is 6-8g, 1 hour prior to exercise.
A few years ago, a study was put out claiming that men taking the supplement D-Aspartic Acid (DAA) showed an increase in testosterone levels by up to 60%. The problem is that no one read the fine print: this study was done on infertile (hypogonadic) men. This does not seem to be the case in healthy males/trained athletes. In a 2013 study, researchers gave resistance-trained males either 3g/d of DAA or a placebo for 28 days and tested its effect on hormonal levels, muscle strength and mass, and body composition. The researchers concluded that DAA supplementation is ineffective in up-regulating the activity of the hypothalamo-pituitary-gonadal axis and has no anabolic or ergogenic effects in skeletal muscle.
Many pre-workout formulas include some form of vitamin B3 hoping that due to great marketing “B vitamins give you energy.” While it’s true that B vitamins are often cofactors to many enyzmes that help produce cellular energy, B3 has been well studied when given during exercise and the negatives might outweigh the benefits. In a study conducted on altering energy substrate sources during exercise, it was shown that B3 (in the form of nicotinic acid) inhibits lipolysis (breaking down of fatty acids). Not only that, but it also inhibits the enzyme adenylate cyclase which is responsible for producing cAMP. Elevated cAMP concentrations have been shown to increase fatty acid breakdown, which is the mechanism by which caffeine increases lipolysis. So, you see how taking B3 and caffeine might be counterproductive? It was also shown in the same study that B3 significantly increased blood lactate (lactic acid) levels, which may hinder maximal exercise performance and actually reduce time to exhaustion. In agreement with this study, another study showed that ingesting excess B3 before exercise may impair exercise endurance.
More often, the real reason why supplement companies often use Niacin in a pre-workout formula actually has nothing to do with energy or performance…it has to do with the fact that B3 causes flushing and inflammation of the skin, similar to the feeling of paresthesia from beta-alanine. But just like that tingling feeling from beta-alanine, it is purely to make users think the supplement is “working.” Many users of pre-workouts buy them because of the experiential feeling they get from taking a certain product. Vitamin B3 is dirt cheap and the addition of B3 for the specific reason that it causes flushing and makes users think it's “kicking in” is just wrong. Buyer beware.