In theory, the popular “pre-workout” beverages currently taking the health and fitness community by storm sound pretty awesome: You down these drinks to up your energy so you can own that gym sesh—and maybe even burn a few extra kilojoules in the process.
These drinks- are often sold as powder mixes that are stirred into water and consumed about a half hour before exercising. Though it varies by brand, some drinks contain vitamin C, B vitamins, and supplements like amino acids such as beta-alanine, as well as creatine, and caffeine. These supplements are designed to help your muscles withstand fatigue and increase strength. But are they the x-factor in weight loss?
The short answer is…maybe. First, if your drink contains caffeine, creatine, or carbs, you’ll have more energy available to muscles, allowing you to push harder. And a higher intensity workout burns more calories during and after when you’re resting, says certified strength and conditioning specialist, Dr Carwyn Sharp, chief scientific officer for the National Strength and Conditioning Association. “There really is a benefit to having more energy,” he adds.
Whether or not the energy boost can translate into weight loss is less clear. One small study in 2014 on men (gender matters in exercise studies, so the results could differ for women) asked exercisers to consume about an ounce of a pre-workout supplement or a placebo. The supplement contained creatine, beta-alanine, L-Tarurine, L-Leucine, and caffeine. Those who took the pre-workout mix didn’t lose any additional body fat after eight days of exercise compared to the control group. However, they did improve their strength. From this data, the authors speculate that results may differ if they took the supplements for a longer period of time. And that makes sense since anyone who’s tried to lose weight knows that it usually takes longer than a week to see a difference.
Another study in the International Journal of Medical Sciences looked at men and women taking pre-workout supplements for six weeks. While they self-reported more energy and focus during their workouts, it didn’t help change participants’ body compositions.
But that doesn’t mean all is lost if you need a little help to push it at the gym. The best option might be the most old-school, but it works: coffee.
Fitness expert, certified strength and conditioning specialist, Chris Ryan, says traditional java offers the best bang for your buck. (And he’s talking plain black coffee—nothing with added sugar or milk, which can negate any additional kilojoule burn.)
Coffee can stimulate your metabolism and can help you run a bit faster (think shaving a few seconds off per mile) and lift a bit heavier (think 2 to 4 percent more). Aim for a small coffee and drink it 30 to 60 minutes before a workout. Even though those numbers seem small, they can add up over the long run. “If I can push myself just a little harder, then I will burn a little bit more kilojoules and fat and get a little stronger. All of those small bricks add up over time,” Ryan says.
In fact, one small study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that consuming caffeine together with exercising burned 250 kilojoules more compared to exercising alone. Plus, the participants rated the session as more enjoyable when they were powered by caffeine.
Of course, you may think black coffee is gross, in which case, a pre-workout drink may be a better option. No matter your choice, remember that the most important thing is that you’re getting out there consistently. No supplement can replace hard work at the gym no matter your goal.
And for safety, Sharp urges everyone to do their homework before buying one of these drinks. Even if listed as “proprietary,” the formula should list all ingredients and how much of each is in each serving. If you don’t know what something is, the ingredient should be easily Googleable. “Know what’s going into your body,” says Sharp.