Pre workouts are an increasingly popular way for people to achieve an energy boost prior to working out.
A pre workout is a supplement, usually in powder form, that contains ingredients known to enhance energy levels, boost metabolism and help with muscle growth and recovery. People mix the powder with their favorite non-carbonated beverage and drink it before exercising.
While generally considered safe for otherwise healthy adults a number of questions swirl around pre workouts including how long does a pre workout last? In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into the pre workout and return with an answer to that question.
- Pre workouts are used to achieve an energy boost prior to exercising.
- A pre workout will generally last 4 to 6 hours, peaking 1 and 2 hours after consumption.
- There are telltale signs that indicate a pre workout has kicked in.
What is a Pre Workout?
Everyone wants to make the most of their time in the gym, whether that gym is across town or in their garage. But as anyone on a regular exercise schedule knows there are times when it can take half a workout to shake off the doldrums. That sad state of affairs makes it very difficult to push through barriers and experience growth. Enter the pre workout.
Why Take a Pre Workout?
Before we get into the specifics of how long a pre workout lasts we need to address why anyone would bother taking one of these supplements in the first place. These are the five most common reasons people take a pre workout:
- Enhanced energy levels: A pre workout will provide a noticeable boost in energy. That way you don’t have to spend half your workout getting physically up to speed.
- Greater stamina: The ingredients in most pre workouts are formulated to improve overall stamina so you can push the envelope right to the end of your workout.
- Better focus: It’s hard to push the envelope physically if your mind is all over the place. Pre workouts enhance focus enabling you to improve the mind/muscle connection.
- Bigger pumps: Not everyone wants to look like prime Arnold Schwarzenegger. But for those who do a pre workout can help them create noticeably better pumps.
- Shorter recovery times: Any time you push yourself physically your body will need time to recover. Pre workouts contain ingredients that can hasten the recovery process.
What’s in a Pre Workout?
Just what are the ingredients that enable a pre workout supplement to produce the results we just mentioned? Let’s take a look:
Arginine: Arginine is an amino acid that is vital to the production of muscle-building protein (1). Arginine supplementation has also been shown to enhance physical performance (2).
B-vitamins: Vitamin B3 (niacin) converts nutrients into energy and vitamin B12 helps in red blood cell production (3) which in turn improves oxygen delivery to the muscles.
BCAAs: Branch chain amino acids (BCAAs) play a key role in muscle growth. But although they are a common pre workout ingredient recent studies question their value as supplements (4).
Beta-alanine: Studies show (5) beta-alanine can improve physical performance and improve muscle carnosine loading, which enhances performance during high-intensity exercise (6).
Caffeine: Caffeine is the world’s most popular stimulant and is present in nearly all pre workouts.
Citrulline: Citrulline boosts levels of nitric oxide (NO) in the blood which improves blood flow. However, research suggests NO may have little effect on people already in excellent shape (7).
Creatine: Creatine is important for energy production and for those who want to build muscle mass (8). You’ll often find bodybuilders using creatine as a stand-alone supplement.
Glutamine: Glutamine plays an important role in muscle growth, helps the body repair muscles damaged by intense workouts and has been shown to reduce workout-related fatigue (9).
Taurine: Taurine helps the body metabolize fat. Taurine also has important antioxidant properties (10) that help reduce the effects of oxidative stress.
It’s important to note that not all pre workouts contain this precise combination of ingredients. For example, some will pass on the BCAAs while others will add carbohydrates to the mix, (which can be useful if your workouts are focused on endurance rather than building muscle mass). Always read the label carefully to ensure the pre workout ingredient list dovetails with your fitness goals.
How Long Before a Pre Workout Kicks In?
Exactly how long it takes before a pre workout kicks in will depend in large part on how much caffeine is in the pre workout, since caffeine is the main driver behind the pre workout energy boost.
The effects of caffeine can be felt in as little as 15 minutes with the amount of caffeine in your system peaking around an hour later and remaining high for several more hours.
Ideally, you want to hit the gym when caffeine levels are peaking. Start working out too soon or too long after taking it and you will either finish your workout before the caffeine kicks in or when its effects are already on the decline.
How Long Does Pre Workout Last?
Most pre workout supplements will last anywhere from four to six hours. The exact length of time will depend on your tolerance for caffeine, your metabolism, the ingredients, your current muscle mass and the half-life of the ingredients in the particular pre workout.
In addition, the effect of some ingredients will wear off before others. For example, with a half-life of six hours caffeine will have a noticeable effect on your body for some time. So even if you perform a lengthy workout the effects of the caffeine will remain with you throughout (as long as you commence exercising about an hour after taking the pre workout).
Compare that to arginine. The role of arginine is to enhance blood flow. But because it has a relatively short half-life of only about two hours any benefit it produces will begin to wane in the latter stages of your workout.
An even more extreme example of the law of diminishing returns in action is beta-alanine. With a half-life of just 25 minutes, beta-alanine saturation levels will start to decline almost as soon as you begin your workout. Within 3 hours of consumption, the effects of beta-alanine are negligible.
How Can You Tell the Pre Workout Has Kicked In?
Different people react differently to pre workout ingredients so there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. As a general rule, however, the following symptoms are a pretty good indication that your pre workout has kicked in:
You suddenly feel more alert
Caffeine is well-known for producing an enhanced state of alertness and mental focus (11). If you were feeling a bit lethargic when you took your pre workout and a half hour later you’re suddenly feeling alert and focused your pre workout has kicked in.
You experience pins and needles
If you start to experience a tingling sensation or so-called “pins and needles” in your extremities it’s a good indication that the pre workout has kicked in. That tingling is usually a by-product of the beta-alanine in the pre workout.
You feel a surge of energy
In most cases, the greater focus and alertness produced by caffeine will also be accompanied by a surge of energy. For instance, if you were sitting you’ll feel an urge to get up and move around. Remember you took the pre workout for more energy so don’t let it go to waste.
You experience flushing of the skin
Most people don’t think of vitamins as producing negative side effects, yet vitamin B3, also known as niacin, can sometimes generate red patches on the skin when doses exceed 500mg (12). It should be noted the appearance of red patches is not common and the phenomenon, known as “flushing”, is not considered a significant health issue. If you are concerned about this potential side effect check the amount of B3 contained in your pre workout.
Are There Things That Can Affect How Long a Pre Workout Lasts?
As we mentioned earlier, individual metabolism and the half-life of various compounds play a role in how long it takes for some ingredients to be absorbed and how long they linger in your system. Beyond that, there are a few other factors that may influence how long your pre workout lasts, including:
Your Diet – If you take a pre workout on an empty, or almost empty, stomach it will likely be more effective than if you take it after eating a large meal. Simply piling it in on top of a big lunch or dinner will slow down the process of absorption.
Caffeine tolerance – If you are already a big coffee drinker, and have already consumed one or two (or more) cups before you take the pre workout, chances are the additional caffeine in that pre workout is not going to make much of an impact, other than a potentially negative one (13).
When You take It – If you take the pre workout two hours before you hit the gym the period of peak concentrations of the ingredients in your system will have already passed or be in the process of passing. Conversely, if you take it too close to the start of your workout you may be finished before the pre workout effects even kick in.
Other Supplements – As mentioned, if you normally drink a lot of coffee the caffeine in the pre workout will have minimal impact. Likewise, if you already take supplemental creatine, BCAAs, arginine and NO boosters chances are you won’t feel much effect from your pre workout, and any effects you do experience will be short-lived.
Pre workout supplements are considered generally safe and effective when used as directed by healthy individuals. The energy boost they provide (typically via caffeine) can help the average person achieve important breakthroughs during their workout. While secondary ingredients can help speed recovery and enhance muscle building.
The best pre workout supplements will last anywhere from four to six hours, although it is important to remember that they will likely reach their peak effectiveness one to two hours after taking them. Therefore, you will want to be sure the bulk of your workout occurs during that time.