Beyond Stims: The Value of Non-Stim Pre-Workout Ingredients

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We live in the age of caffeine-fueled lifestyles and stimulant junkies. With multi-hour commutes and 10 to 12 hour workdays, most people self-medicate with stimulants to wake up, maintain focus during the day, and prepare themselves for an evening workout.

While stimulants such as caffeine, yohimbine, and ephedrine have energetic, fat-burning, hunger suppressing, and mood-boosting properties, these benefits come at a cost. In addition to quickly building a tolerance with continued heavy use, those who overstimulate may experience jitters, anxiety, mood swings, and altered sleep patterns.

Related: The Current Top Pre-Workout Formulas

The benefits of pre-workout stimulants are clear, but most overlook the value of non-stimulant compounds. When dosed at the appropriate time in sufficient quantities these pre-workout ingredients increase endurance, power output, and blood flow as well as maintain hydration without ruining your sleep patterns or giving you heart palpitations.

This article organizes non-stimulant pre-workout ingredients by benefit, analyzes clinical research, and provides recommended dosages. This information will arm you with the ability to create a stimulant-free pre-workout powerhouse stack.

Value of Non-Stim Pre-Workouts

Increase Endurance

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While we all love being hyped up on stimulants during a maximum-effort weightlifting attempt, sometimes we want to maintain an even-keel during a high-volume training session. Non-stimulant compounds like beta alanine, sodium bicarbonate, nitrates, and branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) can improve aerobic output, decrease intra-workout fatigue, and minimize the severity of lactic acid buildup during those drop sets.

As a result, you will be able to perform more repetitions as a given weight, increase your training density through decreased rest periods, and build more muscle.

Beta-alanine. Beta-alanine, a critical ingredient for intramuscular carnosine synthesis, increases aerobic (with oxygen) and anaerobic (without oxygen) thresholds during single and multiple bouts of high-intensity exercise like running, weightlifting, and cycling. [1] This compound offers the largest muscular endurance improvement during physical exercise bouts lasting one to four minutes. [2]

Beta-alanine isn’t going to be a game changer, offering at most a one or two percent improvement in muscular endurance, but such improvement could be the difference between first and third place in a competition. [3] To maximize effectiveness and minimize the infamous beta-alanine tingles (paresthesia), consume 800mg three times spread throughout the day. [2]

Supplementation with a bulk powder is a cost-effective way to bump up your beta-alanine intake since most pre-workouts contain less than half of the recommended 2.4 grams.

Sodium bicarbonate. Sodium bicarbonate, also known as baking soda, improves endurance by lowering the blood’s acidity during stressful bouts of high-intensity exercise. [4] If you’ve ever experienced a burn in your muscles during a set of high-repetition squats or during a hill climb on the bike then you’ve experienced lactic acid buildup and increased blood acidity.

When dosed at 300mg per kilogram (24 grams for a 180lb person) sodium bicarbonate significantly increases the work performed during bouts of physical activity lasting one to seven minutes. [2] Sodium bicarbonate may also improve time to exhaustion during aerobic exercise in trained athletes by over 20%. [5]

Sodium bicarbonate has exceptionally high levels of sodium (1.5g per 4g serving), but short-term acute supplementation does not negativity impact blood pressure in otherwise healthy individuals. This compound is rarely included in pre-workout products, especially in quantities greater than a few hundred milligrams, so bulk powder supplementation is a must.

Muscular Build

Nitrate. Nitrate is a naturally occurring compound found in both leafy green vegetables and beetroot that improves both aerobic and anaerobic endurance. A 500mg dose of nitrates won’t significantly decrease lactic acid build up or perceived fatigue, but will decrease the oxygen required to complete bouts of submaximal exercise by about 75. [6]

As a result the you’ll be able to push the tempo, distance, and/or intensity to a greater degree without reaching exhaustion or muscular failure. Nitrates also decrease resting blood pressure and play a critical role during anaerobic physical activity by converting from nitrates to nitrites to nitric oxide.6 Increased levels of nitric oxide circulating in the blood improves tolerance to and performance during high-intensity physical activity by up 25%. [7][8]

You may not notice the effects of nitrates instantly as they appear to be most effective after period of daily oral consumption for several days.9 While you can obtain a decent amount of nitrates from vegetables, it doesn’t hurt to include a high-quality nitrate supplement in your pre-workout stack to ensure you’re maximizing the endurance-enhancing benefits of this compound.

BCAAs. The branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine, and valine are usually praised for their ability to initiate muscle protein synthesis (MPS), a critical factor for increasing muscle size. However, a 15g dose of BCAAs consumed pre-workout also improves exercise endurance and staves off fatigue during bouts of physical activity lasting at least 30 minutes. [2]

50 grams of BCAA prior to three 90-minute cycling bouts at 55% of an athlete’s maximum volume of oxygen consumption can significantly decreased creatine kinase levels and perceived soreness. [10] Elevated levels of creatine kinase in the blood correlates to damaged muscles and over the long term correlates to brain and heart muscle damage. [11]

A meta-analysis of 14 studies found that a 2-3:1:1 ratio of leucine to isoleucine to valine decrease muscle damage as well as the perception of pain, exertion, and mental fatigue by up to 17% during intense physical activity. [12][13] BCAAs are a must-have in your stimulant-free pre-workout concoction whether you’re a volume-junkie in the weight room or an endurance athlete looking to push yourself during the off-season and competitive events.

Increase Power Output

Whether you’re looking to crank out a one-rep maximum, set a personal record in the CrossFit workout of the day (WOD), or execute the Olympic Snatch as smoothly as possible, power is a critical component of all weightlifting activities. These activities are completed rapidly using the anaerobic energy system to generate power, a product of force and velocity.

Creatine. Include creatine in your pre-workout stack if you’re looking to increase explosiveness and move heavier weights at a faster speed. This compound is one of the safest, most effective, and most widely studied supplements available on the market today. Creatine is not a steroid, pro-hormone, or banned by any competitive sporting organization at both the amateur and professional levels.

Creatine monohydrate is the least expensive and most widely studied form of creatine. Just 3 to 5 grams per day significantly increases strength by 20% and power output by 26% with no negative side effects in healthy individuals. [14] Creatine improves your ventilatory threshold during high-intensity interval training. [15]

Intense WorkoutOnce these threshold is passed your blood and muscles become more acidic, which often leads to decreased performance and the burning in your muscles due to lactic acid buildup. [16] After just five days of creatine supplementation strength, anaerobic energy system efficiency, and athletic performance can increase. [17]

Creatine is not just meant for young and middle age trainees. One study of 30 elderly women found that seven days of creatine supplementation significantly increased strength, fat free mass, and cardiovascular exercise performance. [18]

Whether you’re an elite competitive athlete or weekend warrior looking to stay in-shape, don’t neglect creatine in your supplement regimen. Assuming you ingest creatine every day there is no need to super-load, cycle, or mix creatine with a beverage high in simple sugars (e.g. dextrose or grape juice). Many pre-workouts contain a few grams of creatine so check the label and supplement with a bulk powder if necessary.

Increase Blood Flow

If you’ve ever completed a brutal drop-set in the weight room or conquered an epic hill during your cardiovascular endeavors, then you’ve likely experienced muscle pumps. These pumps indicate increased blood flow and nutrient delivery to active muscle groups.

If your body fat levels are sufficiently low and muscle mass levels are sufficiently high, then you’ve probably also noticed increased vascularity accompanying these muscle pumps. Agmatine sulfate, citrulline, Nitrosigine®, and resveratrol are excellent compounds for improving blood flow and facilitating recovery through improved nutrient delivery to fatigued muscles.

Agmatine sulfate. Agmatine sulfate is a derivative of L-arginine, an amino acid playing a critical role in vasodilation, or the relaxation of blood vessels. This compound improves blood flow by modulating nitric oxide synthases, a group of enzymes required for converting L-arginine to nitric oxide. [19] Agmatine sulfate is rapidly growing in popularity as a non-stimulant staple in pre-workout blends and only requires 1.6 to 6.4 mg per kilogram of bodyweight to be effective. [20]

This equates translates to between 130 and 520mg for a 180lb person. Do not include a protein source rich in L-arginine as part of your pre-workout blend because both compounds utilize the same pathways and compete for absorption. [21] Instead utilize BCAAs or Essential Amino Acids (BCAAs + Histidine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine and Tryptophan) pre-workout as they not only improve exercise endurance but also stimulate muscle protein synthesis.

L-Citrulline. L-Citrulline is amino acid effective at increasing circulating nitric oxide and arginine in the blood as well as improving overall blood flow. [22] Many pre-workout manufacturers include citrulline malate in their formulas as it improves exercise performance to a greater degree than supplementing L-citrulline alone.

This compound variation is bonds citrulline with malic acid in a 2:1 ratio. A daily dosage of 6 to 8 grams of citrulline malate consumed 60 minutes of physical activity offers maximum benefit to both circulation and exercise performance. [22] The food source richest in naturally occurring citrulline is watermelon but you’d have to eat pounds of watermelon to even come close to the recommended minimum L-citrulline intake of 3 grams. [23]

Citrulline significantly restores and increases nitric oxide production when arginine levels in the blood are low. [24] Increased nitric oxide production equates to improved blood flow before, during, and after your workout. Improved blood flow not only lowers blood pressure and improves quality of life but also maximizes nutrient delivery to your muscle during intense physical activity. As a result, you’ll be able to perform and recovery at a higher level.

Nitrosigine. Nitrosigine® is a novel stimulant-free pre-workout compound that bonds the amino acid L-arginine with silica to create arginine silicate. Consuming between 0.75 and 1.5 grams of this compound prior to your workout increases vasodilation, arginine, and nitric oxide levels in the blood. [25][26]

Your body will maximize the shuttling of nutrients to fatigued muscles during the critical post-workout recovery period because Nitrosigine® continues delivering benefits up to 90 minutes post-workout. This compound not only improves blood flow intra-workout but also promotes blood vessel flexibility. Arterial stiffness can lead to clotting, swelling, puffiness, tingling, cramps, and pain. [27] Nitrosigine® should be a key element of your stimulant-free pre-workout stack if you’re looking to increase your pumps, vascularity, recovery, and overall cardiovascular health.

Maintain Hydration

Muscle cramps are a downright buzzkill. Not only do they hurt like hell but they often force you to immediately stop the physical activity you’re in the middle of performing. Electrolyte minerals and HydroMax™ Glycerol take a three-prong approach to hydration maintenance – they help to store water and replenish minerals which prevent cramping as well as slow the rate of water loss through perspiration and respiration during intense physical activity.

As a result, you’ll experience decreased intra- and post-workout fatigue, dehydration, muscle cramping, and nausea.

Electrolytes. Electrolytes are essential minerals with an electric charge. Essential minerals are not naturally produced by the body and must be obtained through food or supplementation. The most common electrolytes lost from the body during physical activity, in descending order of quantity, include sodium, potassium, magnesium, and zinc.

A number of supplements offer small or moderate amounts of these trace minerals but more is not always better. Excessive magnesium intake can have a laxative effective and too much sodium can lead to excessive thirst and bloating. For endurance sports lasting more than 1 hour a ratio of 1.7-2.9 grams of sodium chloride to one liter of water is recommended to prevent dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. [28]

One study found that a carbohydrate-electrolyte beverage delayed the occurrence of exercise-associated muscle cramps but unfortunately they did not compare these results to an electrolyte-only beverage. [29] The consumption of electrolytes pre-, intra-, and post-workout is an excellent technique for preventing muscle cramps and replenishing minerals excreted through sweat and urine.

HydroMax glycerol. HydroMax™ Glycerol is a non-stimulant pre-workout ingredient comprised of 65% glycerol and 35% silica by weight. Dosing between 1 gram and 3 grams per kilogram of bodyweight significantly decreases urine volume during and up to 49 hours after intense physical activity. [30] While decreased urine volume sounds dangerous, it could save your life during high intensity and/or long-duration physical activity, especially in hot and humid weather.

In addition to decreasing urine output, regular glycerol intake can increase your body’s natural fluid levels by 300 to 730mL. [31] Just 0.7 to 2 grams of pure glycerol or 2 to 3 grams of HydroMax™ Glycerol can significantly increase the volume of your muscles which contributes to muscle pumps, improved exercise endurance, and decreased the likelihood of cramping. [30]

HydroMax™ Glycerol offers a higher concentration of glycerol per serving, improved absorption, and a longer shelf life compared to its predecessor glycerol monostearate (GMS).
What’s your favorite non-stimulant pre-workout ingredient? Let me know in the comments section below.

References

1) Artoli, G. G. “Role of Beta-alanine Supplementation on Muscle Carnosine and Exercise Performance.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. Med Sci Sports Exerc., June 2010. Web. Aug. 2016.
2) Frank, Kurtis, et al. “Preworkout: Muscular Endurance.” Examine.com. N.p., 2016. Web. Aug. 2016.
3) Chung, Weiliang et al. “Effect of 10 Week Beta-Alanine Supplementation on Competition and Training Performance in Elite Swimmers.” Nutrients 4.10 (2012): 1441–1453. PMC. Web. Aug. 2016.
4) “Sodium Bicarbonate (Oral route, Intravenous route, Subcutaneous route).” PubMed Health. National Library of Medicine, 1 July 2016. Web. July 2016.
5) Matson, L. G., and Z. V. Tran. “Effects of Sodium Bicarbonate Ingestion on Anaerobic Performance: a Meta-analytic Review.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. Int J Sport Nutr, Mar. 1993. Web. Aug. 2016.
6) Jones, Andrew M. “Dietary Nitrate Supplementation and Exercise Performance.” Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.z.) 44.Suppl 1 (2014): 35–45.PMC. Web. Aug. 2016.
7) Bailey, S. J., et al. “Dietary Nitrate Supplementation Reduces the O2 Cost of Low-intensity Exercise and Enhances Tolerance to High-intensity Exercise in Humans.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. J Appl Physiol (1985), Oct. 2009. Web. July 2016.
8) Jones, A. M. “Influence of Dietary Nitrate Supplementation on Exercise Tolerance and Performance.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. Nestle Nutr Inst Workshop Ser., 2013. Web. July 2016.
9) Hoon, M. W. “The Effect of Nitrate Supplementation on Exercise Performance in Healthy Individuals: a Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab, Oct. 2013. Web. July 2016.
10) Gualano, A. B., et al. “Branched-chain Amino Acids Supplementation Enhances Exercise Capacity and Lipid Oxidation During Endurance Exercise After Muscle Glycogen Depletion.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. J Sports Med Phys Fitness., Mar. 2011. Web. July 2016.
11) Haines, Cynthia. “Elevated Creatine Kinase – Symptoms, Causes, Treatments.” Health Grades. Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc, 1 Aug. 2013. Web. July 2016.
12) Salinas-García, M. E., et al. “Effects of Branched Amino Acids in Endurance Sports: a Review.”National Center for Biotechnology Information. Nutr Hosp., Nov. 2014. Web. Aug. 2016.
13) Gualano, A. B., et al. “Branched-chain Amino Acids Supplementation Enhances Exercise Capacity and Lipid Oxidation During Endurance Exercise After Muscle Glycogen Depletion.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. J Sports Med Phys Fitness., Mar. 2011. Web. July 2016.
14) Frank, Kurtis, et al. “Creatine – Scientific Review on Usage, Dosage, Side Effects.”Examine.com. N.p., 2016. Web. July 2016.
15) Graef, Jennifer L et al. “The Effects of Four Weeks of Creatine Supplementation and High-Intensity Interval Training on Cardiorespiratory Fitness: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 6 (2009): 18. PMC. Web. July 2016.
16) Dalleck, Lance, and Len Kravitz. “Optimize Endurance Training.” The University of New Mexico. N.p., n.d. Web. Aug. 2016.
17) Juhász, I. “Creatine Supplementation Improves the Anaerobic Performance of Elite Junior Fin Swimmers.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. Acta Physiol Hung, Sept. 2009. Web. July 2016.
18) Gotshalk, L. A. “Creatine Supplementation Improves Muscular Performance in Older Women. – PubMed – NCBI.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. Eur J Appl Physiol, Jan. 2008. Web. July 2016.
19) Joshi MS, et al. Receptor-mediated activation of nitric oxide synthesis by arginine in endothelial cells. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. (2007)
20) Frank, Kurtis, et al. “Agmatine – Scientific Review on Usage, Dosage, Side Effects.”Examine.com. N.p., 2016. Web. July 2016.
21) Shaw, Steve. “Ultimate Guide to Agmatine: Benefits, Side Effects & Dosages.” Tiger Fitness. N.p., 2016. Web. July 2016.
22) Frank, Kurtis, et al. “Citrulline – Scientific Review on Usage, Dosage, Side Effects.”Examine.com. N.p., 2016. Web. July 2016.
23) Rimando, A. M., and P. M. Perkins-Veazie. “Determination of Citrulline in Watermelon Rind.”National Center for Biotechnology Information. J Chromatogr A., June 2005. Web. July 2016.
24) Bryk, J., et al. “Effect of Citrulline and Glutamine on Nitric Oxide Production in RAW 264.7 Cells in an Arginine-depleted Environment.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. JPEN J Parenter Enteral Nutr., Aug. 2008. Web. July 2016.
25) James Komorowski, Sara Rood-Ojalvo, and Ahmed El-Sohemy. Arginine Silicate Supplementation Decreases Markers of Cardiovascular, Renal and Metabolic Dysfunction and Increases Markers of Vasodilation and Cardiovascular Health in Healthy Adult Males. FASEB J April 2015 29:748.2short.
26) Kalman D, Feldman S, Samson A, Krieger D. A clinical evaluation to determine the safety, pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of an inositol-stabilized arginine silicate dietary supplement in healthy adult males. The FASEB Journal 2014;28(1):SLB418.
27) “Drugs to Improve Blood Flow for People Who Have Poor Blood Circulation in the Veins of Their Legs.” PubMed Health – National Library of Medicine. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2008.
28) Rehrer, N. J. “Fluid and Electrolyte Balance in Ultra-endurance Sport. – PubMed – NCBI.”National Center for Biotechnology Information. Sports Med, 2001. Web. July 2016.
29) Jung, Alan P et al. “Influence of Hydration and Electrolyte Supplementation on Incidence and Time to Onset of Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps.” Journal of Athletic Training 40.2 (2005): 71–75. Print.
30) Bartos, Jeremy. “HydroMax Glycerol Powder 65%.” Glanbia Nutritionals. N.p., Aug. 2014.
31) Patlar, Suleyman, Hasan Yalçin, and Ekrem Boyali. “The Effect of Glycerol Supplements on Aerobic and Anaerobic Performance of Athletes and Sedentary Subjects.” Journal of Human Kinetics 34 (2012): 69–79. PMC.

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Name: Steve Shaw

Bio: I don’t believe in magic training systems or rep ranges. My philosophy is simple: remain consistent, use the best possible exercises, focus upon progression and enter the gym looking to maximize each set. When you maximize each set, you maximize progress. Easy, obvious, insanely effective.