At first, pre-workout supplements helped me lift more. Then I was sleep deprived and my gains dwindled.

  • I started using pre-workout supplements every time I strength trained.
  • I felt more focused, had more energy and got up more.
  • But I soon felt dependent and struggled to fall asleep after doing the pre-workout.

A few months ago, after strength training for almost a year, my progress stalled. While everyone else in my class increased the weight they could lift, I stayed in the same range.

I wasn’t sure why maybe the exhaustion from the sessions after work was catching up with me, or why I wasn’t eating enough protein but it was starting to wear me down.

Then I noticed my workout buddies talking about pre-workout supplements. Each had a different brand or flavor they loved, and they talked animatedly about how it was easier to get up when they were tired.

He knew about pre-workout products, which contain creatine, an amino acid that ostensibly improves athletic performance. The market has been growing steadily for years and is projected to be a $25 billion industry by 2029. But I never thought about it until I heard my gym buddies talking about it. At the time, I felt it could give me a much-needed edge.

I tuned in selectively the possible side effects, such as irregular heartbeats, and bought Cellucor C4 pre-workout powder from Fruit Punch.

The results were cartoonishly drastic. The first time I took it, I felt “Popeye”-level strength, going for 5-pound-plus dumbbells without hesitation. Even my instructors complimented me more on my form.

But after a few months, I found myself sleep-deprived and completely dependent on pre-training for each class. One day, I was surprised how much I had consolidated. I started learning more about the health risks of taking it all the time and realized there were other ways to improve my performance.

More energy and focus without the crash

I started with half a scoop pre-workout, a strategy my friend recommended, to avoid beginner side effects like itching caused by beta-alanine. I mixed it with water and downed it 30 minutes before class each week about 3-4 times a week.

I felt an immediate surge of energy. Like most pre-workouts, the product I bought contained 150mg of caffeine, about the equivalent of a standard energy drink.

Beyond that, I had much less trouble following instructions. Because I have ADHD, I tend to freak out when the instructors walk through each exercise station, often needing them to repeat what they said or correct my form no matter how hard I try to pay attention.

I found the sequences stuck in my head. I didn’t need to process every movement intensely, or struggle so much with coordination.

I quickly increased the dose but had more side effects

Since I felt so good after half a scoop of the powder, I assumed I had gotten even stronger by taking the full dose. Within a month, I started using a full scoop every time I worked out. Because I was taking more pre-workouts, I eventually felt the itch of beta-alanine, similar to the buzzing of bees under my skin.

Even though I had gotten heavier on my deadlifts before upping the dosage, the dramatic results waned. I would add 10-20 pounds and eventually be stuck at the same weight for weeks, even when taking full pre-workout portions each time.

The few times I forgot to take it made me feel sluggish in class. I didn’t know if I would become physically dependent on the supplements, or just convinced that I couldn’t function without any improvement.

But the worst part was losing sleep. After doing my pre-workout in the early evening, I would stay up until 1 am or later. Doing this three times a week got me into the habit of sleeping in all morning and feeling horribly groggy on the days I couldn’t afford to keep curling up in bed.

Now I only take it when I really need it

A few weeks ago, two things happened in quick succession: my instructor told the class that pre-training should only be done in exceptional cases (like when you’ve only had a few hours of sleep), and my co-worker Rachel Hosie write a story about why personal trainers stopped taking pre-workout because of the risks and side effects.

According to the report from both my instructor and my partner, doing a pre-workout every time you work out can get you into the habit of not listening to your body. It can mask natural fatigue, potentially causing you to injure yourself. Too much caffeine can also cause heart problems, such as changes in heart rate or tremors.

Also, my instructor said, there’s no point in pumping your body with performance enhancers when you don’t have basic care to begin with. The simplest and healthiest alternative is to get enough rest and eat enough of the right foods, such as protein and carbohydrates.

Frightened, I seriously cut back on my use. The last time I did a pre-workout was a few weeks ago. My gym was celebrating “max lift day” where everyone in my class would lift as much as they could. The night before, I went to a party, shot a few jello shots, and got home at 1am. I know I wouldn’t have reached my deadlift goal without doing the pre-workout (although even with that, my performance suffered).

Now, I’m focusing on other ways to build muscle and feel alert in class. I’m trying to eat a lot more protein (which has also helped my ADHD symptoms), set timers on my social media apps to go to bed earlier, and give myself more rest days between workouts.

It’s not as easy (or tasty) as drinking a neon miracle drink. But as with many things in life, slower personal growth is ultimately more rewarding than a quick fix.

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