Most of us are looking for that extra edge in the gym — or at least some major motivation to get into the workout mood. Pre-workout supplements often claim to get you pumped for exercise and give you a performance boost, but what’s the real story?

Let’s get real about pre-workout and if it’s worth all the hype.

Pre-workout” is a catch-all term for supplements that you take before exercising to improve your performance. They come in a variety of forms and plenty of “proprietary” formulations, so it’s hard to generalize when it comes to pre-workout, but they tend to include:

  • creatine
  • caffeine
  • nitric oxide precursors

Research does suggest that these ingredients can help step up your results, but you don’t need to get them from a supplement. Leafy greens, meat, and coffee can give you a cheaper (and more transparent) boost.

Even though these supps are super popular, there isn’t a lot of research behind the safety and effectiveness of specific pre-workout formulas. Lots of companies don’t even disclose what their formula is.

A research review also pointed out that although existing studies do seem promising, there’s still a lot we don’t know about pre-workout, including the long-term effects of these supplements.

So, does that mean pre-workouts are all hype? Not necessarily. Some of the most popular pre-workout ingredients are backed by some serious science.

Creatine can support muscle power

Creatine’s a compound that’s mainly in your skeletal muscle cells. There’s evidence that it plays a role in boosting strength, lean muscle mass, and muscle recovery. No surprise that it’s a popular ingredient in plenty of pre-workouts.

A research review suggested that taking 30 grams of creatine per day for 5 years is safe and effective for folks of all ages. It might even provide some added protection from injury. A small study found that taking 20 grams of creatine per day while strength training helped improved muscle strength and reduce muscle damage compared to a placebo group.

Caffeine helps improve your performance

Research shows caffeine’s able to raise your capacity for physical and mental exertion pretty consistently. It could also play a role in burning fat faster and speeding up your reaction time. Why’s that? Caffeine increases the flow of adrenaline and cortisol around your body.

But you don’t have to get this goodness from a mystery supplement scoop. One research review suggested that an equivalent-sized cup of coffee might give you the same kinds of benefits. The same research review pointed out that the vast majority of research is carried out on men, though, so results may vary.

Nitric oxide precursors can increase blood flow

Pretty much every cell in your body produces nitric oxide. This molecule relaxes your blood vessels, which allows more blood to flow to where it’s needed (like to your booty during some killer squat reps).

Plenty of pre-workout formulas include nitric oxide precursors (compounds your body uses to make nitric oxide). There’s evidence that exercise itself increases the amount of nitric oxide your body produces. Nomming down on some precursors before you work out could help turbocharge those effects and benefits.

Just keep in mind that studies are quick to point out that there are plenty of other sources of nitric oxide, like leafy green vegetables and beetroot juice.

Plenty of pre-workout brands claim to help with weight loss, but they can’t replace the impact of a balanced diet and exercise plan. That said, if pre-workout is the boost you need to follow through on your movement goals, it just might help you along your weight loss journey.

If you stick to the recommended dose, most pre-workouts shouldn’t. However, it’s up to you to know your own body and assess what is and isn’t right for your exercise routine. Here are some important things to keep in mind before using pre-workout.

Artificial sweeteners ain’t so sweet

A lot of pre-workout formulas are loaded with artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols. This adds some extra sweetness and flavor at no extra calorie cost, but it might not be the best for your bod.

Your body doesn’t process them the same way it processes regular sugar. This can make you feel hungrier and even upset your stomach. If you’re looking to skip these subs, avoid ingredients like:

  • erythritol
  • maltitol
  • sorbitol
  • xylitol

Caffeine overload

Pulling a coffee-fueled all-night study session can tell you that caffeine isn’t a perfect wonder drug. Too much of it can trigger headaches and interfere with your sleep schedule. It can even set off other symptoms, like anxiety and increased blood pressure, in at-risk groups.

The average pre-workout could contain as much caffeine as 2 or 3 cups of coffee. If you’re also drinking coffee, soda, or energy drinks throughout the day, adding a supplement might put you over the recommended daily limit of 400 milligrams.

Not all supplements are created equal

The pre-workout supplement market can be a bit like the Wild West. They aren’t regulated the same way that food and drugs are in the United States, so it’s important to do your own research into a brand and their products before you buy.

Look for accreditation from third-party testing companies like NSF International. These organizations examine products to make sure they are what they claim to be.

Pre-workout isn’t the only thing that can help you power through a tough workout. Try subbing some of these snacks with your supplement to get a more natural boost (and save some cash).

Pre-workout typically contains ingredients that science shows can help improve your performance. But these supplements aren’t the only source of things like creatine and nitric oxide.

Sure, it might feel trendy and sexy to be sipping on the latest “proprietary blend”, but it’s not a magic potion. Focus on your fitness goals first, and be honest with yourself about the most effective way to smash them.