The Dark Side Of Pre-Workout Supplements: What You Need To Know

Oct 12, 2016 //

We’ve all seen the ads touting new “magic” supplements that promise to make you look like Mr. Olympia.

While it’s true that pre-workout supplements increase muscle growth and can give you more energy, there are some side effects you should be aware of. Not all pre-workout supplements are dangerous per say, but it’s important to know what it is your are taking and exactly what you’re in for. Be vigilant about what you take and always read your labels.

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Protein, Including Whey Protein

The most widely used pre-workout (and post-workout) supplement used is protein, in the form of powders, bars and other mediums. Proteins are one of the main components in muscle building, and at first glance, one would think that isolated proteins, such as whey, are a healthy way to increase muscle mass.

Taken correctly and in small doses, this does hold true; but if too much protein isolate is ingested, it can be harmful for your kidneys in the long run.

Whey protein is safe when taken as a single dose of up to 50 grams, or when 30 grams is taken daily for six months. It’s recommended to take regular breaks from consuming whey protein, and to not take it daily for more than six months at a time. Indeed, you should only be consuming whey protein on weightlifting days, immediately after your workout, to see results and minimize negative health risks.

According to Mayo Clinic, whey protein may cause also abnormal heart rhythms, changes in cholesterol levels, headache, increased diabetes risk, increased fracture or osteoporosis risk, kidney dysfunction, liver damage, stomach or intestine symptoms (acid reflux, bloating, constipation, cramps, gas, increased bowel movements, movement problems, nausea, reduced appetite, swelling of limbs, and upset stomach), and thirst. Eep. 

In addition, whey protein may lower blood sugar levels, and is not advisable for people with diabetes. A healthier alternative to protein powders and whey protein are protein-rich eggs. Adding them to your pre-workout supplement milkshake will give you great results, without all the harmful side effects.



Some of the long-term affects of pre-workout supplements are actually due to the overuse of other, hidden substances. For example, many pre-workout supplements are based on caffeine, with each serving containing at least 100 to 300 mg, where as a cup of 8 oz coffee only contains about 100 mg.

When caffeine enters the body, our internal systems start working in over drive to evacuate the substance. This means there is increased heart rate, blood pressure, the kidneys having to work harder and mental mistake. Excessive caffeine can cause hypertension and put undue stress on adrenal glands, which leads to adrenal fatigue. While some caffeine can give us an energy boost before a workout, be sure to check your labels and don’t overdue it on the stimulants.

Dimethylamylamine Or (DMAA)

The danger of pre-workout supplements can be clearly seen with the case of DMAA. DMAA is a simple aliphatic amine, which is marketed under many names as a dietary supplement. The substance is considered highly dangerous, as it raises the stress on your heart and blood pressure.

It’s side effects include:

  • Seizures
  • Cardiac Arrest
  • Fainting
  • Liver failure
  • Heart palpitations
  • Kidney Failure

USPlabs (the maker of Jack3d) removed DMAA from its products after a link to U.S. army soldiers’ deaths were reported. Since then, supplements containing DMAA have been effectively pulled off shelves in the United States and Canada.

Many companies upped caffeine levels and added other ingredients like synephrine or increased beta-alanine (an amino acid) to mimic the the feeling of DMAA. The problem is that DMAA was very effective in creating a feeling of adrenaline, and many gym rats continue to seek it out online by less-than-legal means.

While the substitutes may not be as effective as DMAA, they’re potentially less of a risk.



Creatine is a natural substance produced in the body to create energy or ATP. It’s added into many stacked pre-workout supplements and is also available individually. Creatine, like all other pre-workout supplements, delivers a boost of energy, reducing fatigue and allowing you to work out longer  for example, you can do sets of, say, eight reps instead of six. Over time, this can make a big difference in muscle gains.

Unfortunately, as with many of these supplements, creatine can cause muscle and stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, kidney stress and dehydration.

As with any supplements, creatine is best used in moderation and in cycles  not just for you health, but also to see the very best results. There’s a reason why bodybuilders stop using creatine a month or so before a competition. Creatine causes water to flow into the muscles, which makes them look bigger, but also mushy and less defined. So if you must take creatine, take it during the winter months to build muscle, and go off it in the summer to show off your defined, six-pack abs.

And of course, there’s such a thing as too much creatine. “It is illogical to take more than 20 grams a day for a week max or seven grams a day for months,” says Mark Tarnopolsky, M.D., Ph.D., director of the neuromuscular and neurometabolic clinic at McMaster University Medical Center in Ontario.

“[There is] no evidence that this would do anything more in terms of loading the muscle, so why on earth would someone waste money and time and effort for unknown risks and zippo added benefit. Anything in the world—sugar, coffee, fat, protein, salt — taken in excess can lead to health issues.”

The Dangers Of Stacking

Many people who use supplements to up the ante on their gains don’t just stick to one. They “stack” them up, mixing different products and substances together to create their perfect “super-supplement” combination.

Sometimes this combination is right; other times, it can be quite dangerous. Different substances may have an adverse reaction to one another, or they may “double up” with one another and cause dangerous reactions.

Stacking two stimulates pre-workout is extremely dangerous and is never recommended; stacking a stimulant pre-workout with a non-stimulant pre-workout is less dangerous, but carries its own risks. Consult with a personal trainer who specializes in muscle gains and supplements before taking any pre-workout supplements, and especially before stacking two different products together.


The top health experts around the world advise people that you should never take a supplement without first consulting a health care professional. Many supplements have yet to be tested, and could be hazardous to your health.

While many nutrition experts and personal trainers are torn on the subject, there are some basics that are guaranteed to improve your overall health and fitness  no supplements necessary.

  • Get enough sleep.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Do strength and cardiovascular exercise regularly.
  • Eat high-quality foods and in moderation.
  • Avoid processed foods, refined sugar, and soda.
  • Eat lots of vegetables.
  • Get enough sunlight.
  • Stretch daily.

Having said all that, taking pre-workout supplements (or any supplement for that matter) is a personal choice, and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. If you decide pre-workout supplements are right for you, here a few general rules to follow.

If You Must…

  • Use only the recommended dosage. Never double or triple up because you think it’s not working for you any more. This is a dangerous game.
  • Use in cycles. It’s easy to take a supplement daily or every time you exercise, but just like with exercise, your body gets used to taking certain supplements. Eventually, these substances won’t yield the same results. Try taking one week off for every week you use it, and be sure to give your body time to re-adjust.
  • Keep in mind that if taken regularly, you will become desensitized to caffeine or other supplements. This means you will inevitably require higher and higher doses to feel the effects. This can put a great deal of stress on your adrenal glands and possibly lead to adrenal fatigue.
  • Do not mix any pre-workout supplements with other stimulants like coffee, Redbull or stimulant drugs like amphetamines. Almost all pre-workout supplements already come with a mega-dose of caffeine, or contain other ingredients that are not meant to be mixed with caffeine (such as synephrine). Stacking on your own accord is very dangerous, and could mess with your heart and put a strain on your organs.

Remember: No gains are worth any potentially negative and long-term health effects, so think about why you were trying to get fit in the first place. Do you want to look like a monster in a tank top? Or do you want to be healthy and strong overall?

Any chemicals consumed regularly will undoubtedly have negative effects on the body long term, so be aware, read your labels and make sure you’re being smart about your supplements.

Above all, prioritize your health.