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Pre-Workout Addiction - What It Is & How It Happens?

Isaac Robertson
Published by Isaac Robertson
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: May 25, 2023
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Let's face it - nothing feels good like a powerful pre-workout kick. It can make you super motivated to pump like there's no tomorrow, but, allegedly, it can come with a price.

We went through tons of scientific journals to get to the bottom of this issue that’s been bothering many pre-workout proponents.

So, in this article, we're going to take a look at one of the most common ingredients in pre-workout supplements that can get you hooked and take a peek at the dark side of the fitness industry.

Quick Summary

  • Pre-workout addiction, especially if you don't follow the given instructions, or stick to the recommended dosage.
  • You should only take pre-workouts that have been approved by the food and drug administration.
  • The Pre-workout supplement ingredients can be divided into three parts, namely stimulants, vasodilators, and cognitive enhancers.
  • Anyone taking pre-workouts will notice increased energy levels when exercising.

How Do Pre-Workout Supplements Work?

different types of pre workout supplements

Even if you're new to pre-workout supplements, you've probably familiar with their effect, but have you ever wondered where their effectiveness comes from?

Most pre-workout ingredients can be grouped into three categories: 

  • Stimulants – This is usually caffeine since it has the ability to boost energy, drive up epinephrine levels, and enhance attention and mood (+ other natural stimulants like B vitamins and taurine may also be present)
  • Vasodilators – Vasodilation expands blood vessels to increase blood flow and nutrient/oxygen delivery to muscles and the brain, for example, nitric oxide.
  • Cognitive enhancers – Reduce the effects of caffeine to target enhanced focus and mental clarity.

Pre-workout also can block muscle pain during training and give you extra energy and focus at the gym.

Although this sounds great, it can lead to exceeding your training limit, which can cause exhaustion and make you prone to muscle damage or injury.

In the long run, this can be a problem for your recovery and can cause you to take some time off before you hit the gym again.

What Are the Addictive Ingredients in a Pre-Workout Supplement?

man holding a container with a jug and water glass on the table

If you have used pre-workout for the first time and noticed a dramatically boosted performance, a lot more energy... and a decent amount of jitters, it's because of caffeine.

Caffeine-based pre-workout supplements are designed to boost workout productivity and help weight loss by:

  • Increasing blood flow
  • Stimulating nervous system and alertness
  • Increasing energy levels, helping you burn more fat per session

The amount of stimulants varies depending on the brand. While some brands add more than recommended daily dose, there are some supplement companies that really deserve a round of applause for making spectacular pre-workouts that are not jam-packed with caffeine.

The blends you should check out include stuff like l citrulline, creatine, beta-alanine, all of which are designed to enhance strength, intensity, and endurance without caffeine overload.

What Does Caffeine Do to Your Body?

fresh beans of coffee

Have you ever tried skipping your daily kick of black coffee only to find that you're tired, lethargic, and walking around with a headache? That's because caffeine is addicting.

Caffeine is a powerful ingredient commonly present in beverages like tea and coffee, acts as the central nervous system (CNS) stimulant.

It blocks adenosine receptors to stimulate dopaminergic activity, increases locomotor activity, and prevents fatigue. [1]

In addition to the benefits, caffeine-packed pre-workouts come with some side effects, including:

  • Overstimulation
  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate 
  • Jitters 
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Nausea

People react differently to caffeine, so it's a good idea to start with a low dose and check your body's response.

Related articleWhy Do Some Athletes Get A Pre-Workout Headache?

Can You Get Addicted to Pre-Workout Supplements?

woman holding a pill with her teeth

If you regularly rely on heavy dosages of a stimulant-packed product, you can get hooked on pre-workouts.

Although the chemical process in your body is almost the same as with addiction to drugs or alcohol, we use a more subtle name for it - tolerance or dependence.

Caffeine tolerance is unlikely to occur at low-to-moderate doses (300 – 700mg), but regular administration of high doses (750–1200 mg/day) can cause tolerance.

If you have a habit of enjoying energy drinks throughout the day and drinking more than two cups of coffee, you are more likely to develop caffeine dependence.

So, basically, frequency plays a huge role in the process of becoming hooked.

How Do You Develop Caffeine Addiction?

man holding a tray of coffee cups

When you constantly bombard your brain with caffeine, your adenosine receptors get blocked.

This triggers a short-lasting sense of alertness. After the feeling wears off and you add another dose of caffeine, you’re influencing the growth of adenosine receptors. In the meantime, your brain struggles to maintain balance. [2]

In addition to the changes to adenosine receptors, studies show that the brain also decreases the number of epinephrine—a stimulant—receptors.

Long story short - the more stimulants you take, the more your body needs them.

According to some research, most people usually consume less than 400mg of caffeine per day. [3]

One cup of brewed coffee contains about 95mg of caffeine, whereas the amount of caffeine in most of the popular pre-workouts is anywhere from 150mg to 300mg per scoop. 

So, when you're consuming a caffeinated pre-workout on top of other caffeinated beverages, you're running the risk of developing tolerance.

Do You Really Need To Take Pre-Workout?

blonde woman holding a jug of water and pills with a measuring tape around her neck

Some experts and fitness trainers claim that the best way to fuel your workout is through nutrition.

This makes sense, but energy-boosting foods like bananas coffee probably won't boost your performance like a scoop of a good-quality pre-workout supplement.

If you still want to use pre-workout supplements, try choosing the formula with safe ingredients.

"Also get some stimulant-free ones that you can use most days or just some plain old tyrosine which is a very good budget pre-workout"

- Matt Lovell, Sports Nutritionist

The great news is, today's market offers many good-quality fitness supplements that can spectacularly improve your training sessions; you just need to avoid those with sky-high amounts of stimulants.

Some pre-workouts contain trace amounts of banned substances, which can cause you to fail the drug test.

Depending on the sport, the punishment for this is sometimes equal to taking anabolic steroids.

Related Articles:

Final Thoughts on Pre-Workout Addiction

Stimulants have many positive sides, like enhancing performance, power, and stamina, but if you don't follow the recommendations, its effects can turn against you in the long run.

Ryan Hetrick, CEO of rehabilitation center Epiphany Wellness, say that long-term overuse of pre-workouts can lead to addiction, causing adverse health effects such as headaches, anxiety, and insomnia.

So, here's how to safely use pre-workout supplements:

  • Choose products containing ingredients approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Although the FDA doesn't deal with the completed products' approval, what you can do is check whether they have approved the individual ingredients.
  • Stick to product instructions and don't mess with the dosage. Too many scoops can send your body to overdrive, setting you up for an episode of fatigue later.
  • Take time to study the information about the substances used in the pre-workout of your choice if you want to avoid serious health issues and developing caffeine dependency.
  • Cycle off your pre-workouts. Cycling will improve your energy profile, reduce dependency, and get you back on track. If you decide to go cold turkey, you should get ready for caffeine withdrawal symptoms, which usually involve headache, drowsiness, and anxiety and can last from 2 to 9 days.

What are your thoughts? Do you think a workout without stimulants pays off? Share your experience in the comments below.


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