The debate on the addictiveness of pre-workout has been going on for some time. But there’s no denying that a good pre-workout formula can turn any average workout into one that’s pretty damn impressive.

Here are just some of the benefits it can bring:

  • Improved focus.
  • Increase stamina.
  • More strength.
  • Less fatigue.
  • Better energy.

It’s usually what you get from a pre-workout supplement.

But for anyone that’s used pre-workout for the first time, you probably know that it can be a lot—a lot of energy, a lot of focus, a lot of pump, and sometimes a lot of jitters. You can thank caffeine for that.

For those who are seasoned pre-workout consumers, you know that once your body gets used to what you’re using, it can become rather ineffective and doesn’t give you the same outcome as it did the first couple of times, right?

That’s your body adapting, and it’s the natural course with substances like caffeine.

But either way, taking a high-stimulant pre-workout doesn’t necessarily cause an ‘addiction’ like drugs do, but it elicits much the same effect; let’s call it more of a dependence.

Once your body gets used to what you’re consuming, it takes more and more to elicit the same effect, and when you take it away, well, that’s a whole different story.

In lieu of that, let’s talk about the downside of pre-workouts: caffeine dependence.

The Usual Culprits in Pre-Workouts

Pre-workouts are designed to pump you up and get you ready for your workout both physically and mentally.

They do this by using a combination of ingredients that help dilate blood vessels, increase circulation, increase alertness and focus, and supply muscles with the oxygen and nutrients they need to sustain your lifts.

And while there is usually a long list of supplements added to pre-workouts, most pre-workout blends revolve around caffeine.

Caffeine is a powerful natural stimulant that, when used correctly, can not only promote changes in body composition but also give you the mental edge necessary to train and perform at your best.

However, the problem with pre-workout supplements containing caffeine is that the risk of dependence is high.

Ever gone a day without your daily coffee only to find that you’re lethargic, fatigued, and walking around with a rampant headache? That’s because caffeine is addicting.

Much the same effect happens with pre-workout supplements, so much so that nowadays, many pre-workout supplements state that overdosing (i.e., taking too much) can cause some pretty severe side effects; it’s why they provide a recommended dosage and a ‘do not exceed x scoops daily’ warning.

But caffeine isn’t the only substance in a pre. Most pre-workout supplements you’ll find are based on three things:

  1. Stimulants—Caffeine, the most common stimulant, helps to boost energy, drive up epinephrine levels, and enhance attention and mood (there may also be other natural stimulants added like taurine and B vitamins)
  2. Vasodilators—Vasodilators like citrulline help to open up blood vessels to increase blood flow and nutrient/oxygen delivery to muscles and the brain
  3. Cognitive enhancers—Reduce the effects of caffeine to target enhanced focus and mental clarity

But with that said, many (good quality) fitness supplements you’ll find on the market are nothing short of spectacular for improving your training sessions; you just need to find one that’s not ridiculously heavy on the stimulants and won't leave you in the weeds when you stop using it.

The Dark Side of Caffeine

Caffeine has a lot of positives to it. It’s a potent central nervous system stimulant that blocks adenosine to prevent fatigue and stimulates dopaminergic activity and increased locomotor activity 1.

And while that’s all well and good, the downside comes when you stop consuming caffeine.

The withdrawal symptoms associated with caffeine—headache, fatigue, irritability, mood swings—are largely because of upregulation of the adenosine system, which results in increased functional sensitivity to adenosine when caffeine is not being consumed, i.e., you feel a lot more tired.

While there are a lot of other ingredients in pre-workout supplements that offer potent effects, caffeine is the one that provides the highest levels of dependence.

And while short-term use of caffeine may help to take your workout to a new level, long-term excessive use of caffeine can cause damage to your central nervous system (CNS), not to mention increase tolerance and associated effects.

Tolerance to caffeine happens when the physiological, behavioral, and/or subjective effects of caffeine decrease after repeated exposure to the substance to the point where the same amount of caffeine no longer produces equivalent effects; usually, larger doses are required to elicit the same or similar effects 1.

And although caffeine tolerance is unlikely to occur at low-to-moderate doses, chronic administration of high doses (750–1200 mg/day) can cause tolerance 2.

You may think that 700mg is a lot. But think of it this way: you have two morning coffees at 60-200mg of caffeine each, maybe another coffee later in the day (another 60-200mg), and a scoop of pre-workout before training (let’s say 300mg).

Right there, you’ve got yourself anywhere from 580mg to 900mg of caffeine per day. Do you see how it can add up quickly? When you’re consuming a caffeinated pre-workout on top of other caffeinated beverages, the dependence becomes an actual issue.

Here’s how tolerance happens:

When you consume large amounts of caffeine or even moderate amounts, the brain’s chemistry and physical characteristics actually change over time.

The most notable change is the growth of more adenosine receptors 3, which is the brain’s attempt to maintain equilibrium in the face of constant bombardment from caffeine and its frequently blocked adenosine receptors; studies show that the brain also decreases the number of epinephrine—a stimulant—receptors.

So, if you wondered why the body builds up a tolerance to caffeine over time, it’s because you have more adenosine receptors, and it takes more caffeine to block them and achieve the desired effects. It also explains why there can be some pretty nasty withdrawal symptoms when you stop using caffeine.

The takeaway from this is that caffeine isn’t inherently a bad part of a pre-workout, but you need to control the dose you’re taking.

Suppose you’re continually consuming hundreds of milligrams of caffeine per day. In that case, your body will become desensitized to it, whereby you’ll get the same benefits from the other ingredients, but you won’t get that “I’m ready to go, let’s do this” alertness from the caffeine.

And upping the number of scoops you use to get that feeling? Well yeah, that’s definitely not a good idea.

What Happens When You Cut Out Caffeine?

For people that have relied on caffeine to power them through their workouts, you’ll probably notice pretty quickly that your workout takes a bit of a nosedive.

Habitual coffee drinkers and caffeinated pre-workout consumers are likely to develop a physical, emotional, and psychological dependence on caffeine.

If you decide to cut it out cold turkey, the chances are that you’re going to experience some rather unpleasant effects. Typically, symptoms will arise 12-24 hours after caffeine cessation and may include symptoms like 4:

  • Impaired behavioral and cognitive performance
  • Changes in blood pressure
  • Decreased motor activity
  • Increased heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Hand tremors
  • Increased frequency of urination
  • Skin flushing
  • Flu-like symptoms (nausea/vomiting, headaches)
  • Constipation
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Joint pain
  • Abdominal pain

And to experience any of those when you’re trying to train is far from ideal.

But remember, you don’t have to depend on caffeine to get that pump at the gym and crush your workout.

A good pre-workout with low stimulant content, or completely stim-free, can help you achieve much of the same effects without the risk of dependence and without risk of damaging your nervous system.

The Performance Lab Difference

Pre-workout supplements are designed to be taken before every training session, but when you get ones that are high in caffeine, metabolic adaptation means you’re going to eventually need more and more to get the same effects.

But with Performance Lab Pre, you can take it daily and not have to worry about the dependence of any sort, besides the addiction to the amazing pump and the subsequent results you’ll get.

As a completely stim-free formula, it’s not only effective, but it’s designed with your health and your needs in mind. Performance Lab Pre is a powerful stim-free muscle primer designed to power you through every activity.

It’s intelligently stacked to boost and sustain nitric oxide (NO) levels for twice as long and nourish your muscles to protect against the build-up of lactic acid that can end sessions early.

Pre is an innovative blend of Setria® Performance Blend (Setria® Glutathione + L-Citrulline), Creapure® pH10 creatine, CarnoSyn® beta-alanine, Maritime Pine Bark, and NutriGenesis® Iron designed to enhance strength, intensity, and endurance without caffeine overload.

And if you happen to want a bit of stimulation, combine it with Performance Lab Stim for the ultimate pre-workout combo.

Stim provides ultramodern stimulation for more precision and better performance. It’s smarter, cleaner, and more effective than any other natural stimulant on the market.

Combining natural Caffeine 50 mg + Suntheanine® 100 mg, Pre delivers greater dosing precision, fewer side effects, and superior performance-tuned stimulation.

Final Thoughts

Long story short, the addictive component of pre-workout comes from caffeine. If you’re using a stim-free pre-workout blend like Performance Lab Pre, chances are you won’t develop a reliance.

But if you depend on 300mg+ of caffeine in your pre-workout to get you through your training sessions, which is usually in addition to other stimulants throughout the day, chances are you’ll develop some sort of dependence.

But if it’s the pump you’re chasing, whether your pre-workout contains caffeine or not is irrelevant, so opt for a stim-free blend to safeguard you against any of the adverse effects associated with caffeine reliance.

References

  1. SE Meredith, LM Juliano, JR Hughes, RR Griffiths. Caffeine Use Disorder: A Comprehensive Review and Research Agenda. J Caffeine Res. 2013;3(3):114-130.
  2. LM Juliano, S Ferré,  RR Griffiths, R Saitz. The pharmacology of caffeine. In: Ries R.K., editor; Fiellin D.A., editor; Miller S.C., editor; Principles of Addiction Medicine. Fourth. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2009. pp. 159–178.
  3. PJ Marangos, JP Boulenger, J Patel. Effects of chronic caffeine on brain adenosine receptors: regional and ontogenetic studies. Life Sci. 1984;34(9):899-907.
  4. KR Sajadi-Ernazarova, J Anderson, A Dhakal, et al. Caffeine Withdrawal. [Updated 2020 Nov 10]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430790/