By: Jim Goetz
Typically, pre-workout formulas consist of caffeine and a plethora of other herbs or chemicals. Some of these chemicals such as DMAA have been banned and then permitted. Some of these herbs, such as ephedra, have unfortunately got caught up in this as well. I say unfortunately here but will elaborate in a bit.
The purpose of a pre-workout supplement is to enhance ones workout performance with the purpose of greater gains from a higher intensity. Typically if one does more work, their body will have to make greater adaptations and thus, progress in gains.
It should be noted though that for NCAA athletes and Olympic athletes and hopefuls, that most ingredients in pre-workouts/ fat burners are banned. If you get caught with them in your system, it's all over and all that hard work goes down the drain. Caffeine is one of those substances that is banned by the NCAA and supposedly monitored by the IOC. Ensure you work with your coaching staff to keep you above board.
Pre-workouts are also similar to fat burners as they increase metabolic function. Some ingredients are more effective than others.
With exercise, one may go into either an anabolic state or a catabolic state. The extent of growth is determined by genetic markers but through the proper nutrition and supplementation and timing thereof as well as the right strength and conditioning program; higher gains than believed can be achieved.
Keeping things simple- anabolism is the growth of muscle. Catabolism is the breakdown of muscle. You are either in an anabolic state or a catabolic state. The goal is to stay in anabolism far longer than catabolism.
Here’s where the shocker of this article occurs. In most all fat burners/ pre-workout supplements, the most abundant ingredient is caffeine. Yes, it is a performance enhancer. But it’s also highly catabolic!!!
Caffeine increases free cortisol levels in the blood. If you are looking to build muscle, then consuming catabolic substances such as caffeine are not what you want. Cortisol is a hormone released by the adrenal glands in a process called, gluconeogenesis, which breaks down muscle for energy.
Cortisol also raises the free amino acids in the serum by inhibiting collagen formation, decreasing amino acid uptake by muscle, and inhibiting protein synthesis.
Performance Enhancing compounds are those that increase work capacity, cardiac output, or muscular strength/endurance in exercise settings by various means.
In reality, there is no true one alternative for caffeine to be used as a performance enhancer. I have searched high and low and have realized that the old school ECA (ephedrine, caffeine, aspirin) stack is a true synergist for performance enhancing benefits.
As I searched for alternatives for caffeine in this stack, suggestions such as: water or B-vitamins are suggested. The last time I checked, it is physiologically impossible for water to vasodilate or increase neural function.
In endothelial cells, caffeine increases intracellular calcium stimulating the production of nitric oxide through the expression of the endothelial nitric oxide synthase enzyme. Nitric oxide is diffused to the vascular smooth muscle cell to produce vasodilation. In vascular smooth muscle cells its effect is predominantly a competitive inhibition of phosphodiesterase, producing an accumulation of cAMP and vasodilation. This means more blood can flow through blood vessels.
When I began this article, I truly believed there was an alternative to caffeine out there. I thought that perhaps there was a substance that had all the benefits of caffeine but was also anabolic. Alas, there is not. No matter the form: coffee, espresso, tea, chocolate, guarana, etc., caffeine is caffeine.
Caffeine has been found to work synergistically with ephedrine as well. It actually works far better with ephedrine than not when it comes to performance benefits.
The old school pre-workout supplement was an ECA stack. ECA stands for, ephedra, caffeine and aspirin.
As aspirin, even in baby doses of 70mg has been found to have side effects. These side effects are:
black, bloody, or tarry stools;
coughing up blood or vomit that looks like coffee grounds;
severe nausea, vomiting, or stomach pain;
fever lasting longer than 3 days;
swelling, or pain lasting longer than 10 days; or
hearing problems, ringing in your ears.
Less serious side effects may include:
upset stomach, heartburn;
The alternative to aspirin then would be fish oil or even better krill. Aspirin inhibits prostaglandin production outside of the cells, which, in conjunction with caffeine, greatly prolongs the thermogenic effects and increased metabolism by sustaining elevated cAMP levels. Krill may also do this, plus it is chock full of omega-3 fatty acids and can cross the blood brain barrier and deliver it's positive effects body wide.
Krill oil- a mixture of fatty acids high in EPA and DHA (fish oil fatty acids) in the form of phospholipids, mostly as phosphatidylcholine; it appears to be better absorbed than fish oil, may be more cardio-protective, and has some unique (unexplored) fat burning effects.
Another thermogenic that increases performance is capsacin.
Capsacin- proven to increase performance (0.01% of the diet for four months) is able to increase endurance performance as assessed by running due to increased mitochondrial content and type I muscle content....in mice. So if you are a mouse and not human, this is proven to work to increase performance over the long term. In no way is this caffeine and it is not proven in humans yet.
Ephedrine- one of the four active components of the herb Ephedra. It induces fat loss via increasing the amount of fat available for fuel (which increases ones endurance if their bodies are designed and able to utilize fatty acids as the source of fuel as opposed to glucose as in a Paleo diet or ketosis) as well as by increasing heat expenditure. It has been implicated in increasing the metabolic rate by up to 5% in humans. It has also been noted to cause serious side-effects in some instances (with abuse of it), and its legal status varies by region.
I was going to include synephrine in this article (bitter orange) but it appears to be less potent than ephedrine and may also cause minor health effects on digestion and circulation.
Sometimes going back to the basics and merely tweaking them a bit is what is best. Reinventing the wheel rarely, if ever, works as intended.
When it comes down to it, to increase performance, the old fashioned ECA stack appears best still. The only tweak is utilizing krill as opposed to aspirin and perhaps adding capsacin. The ECA stack has become an ECKC stack.
While caffeine may be slightly catabolic, the increased performance benefits may outweigh the catabolic effects and thus make omitting caffeine negligible, if the right precautions are taken. These precautions are best suited to be discussed on the BioHackers discussion forum and of course a future article.
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