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  5. At first, pre-workout supplements helped me to lift heavier. Then I became sleep-deprived, dependent, and my gains tapered off.

At first, pre-workout supplements helped me to lift heavier. Then I became sleep-deprived, dependent, and my gains tapered off.

Julia Pugachevsky   

At first, pre-workout supplements helped me to lift heavier. Then I became sleep-deprived, dependent, and my gains tapered off.
  • I started using pre-workout supplements every time I strength trained.
  • I felt more focused, more energized, and I was lifting heavier.

A few months ago, after strength training for almost a year, my progress stalled. While everyone else in my class was moving up in how much weight they could lift, I hovered in the same range.

I wasn't sure why — perhaps the exhaustion of after-work sessions was catching up to me, or I wasn't eating enough protein — but it was starting to get me down.

Around then, I noticed my workout friends talking about pre-workout supplements. Everyone had a different brand or flavor they loved, and they talked animatedly about how much easier it made lifting when they were tired.

I was aware of pre-workout products, which contain creatine, an amino acid that ostensibly enhances athletic performance. The market has been steadily growing for years and is projected to be a $25 billion industry by 2029. But I'd never really considered it for myself until I heard my gym peers raving about it. At that moment, I felt like it could give me a much-needed edge.

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

The results were cartoonishly drastic. The first time I took it, I felt "Popeye"-level strength, opting for 5lb-heavier dumbbells without hesitation. Even my instructors gave me more compliments on my form.

But within a few months, I felt both sleep-deprived and entirely dependent on pre-workout for every single class. One day, it hit me how entrenched I'd become. I started to learn more about the health risks of taking it all the time, and realized that there were other ways to improve my performance.

More energy and focus without the crash

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

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

Beyond that, I had a lot less trouble following directions. Because I have ADHD, I tend to zone out when the instructors go 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 noticed the sequences stayed in my head. I didn't need to intensely process each movement, or struggle so much with coordination.

I quickly upped my dosage — but had more side effects

Since I felt so great after half a scoop of powder, I assumed I'd become even stronger taking the full dose. Within a month, I started using a full scoop every time I worked out. Because I was taking more pre-workout, I finally felt the beta-alanine itchiness, akin to bees buzzing under my skin.

While I'd been going heavier on my deadlifts before upping the dose, the dramatic results tapered off. I would add 10-20 lbs, and then eventually get stuck on the same weight for weeks, even when I was taking full servings of pre-workout every time.

The few times I forgot to take it made me feel sluggish in class. I didn't know if I was physically dependent on the supplements, or just convinced that I couldn't perform without any enhancement.

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

I now only take it when I really need it

A few weeks ago, two things happened in rapid succession: my instructor told the class that pre-workout should only be taken in rare instances (like when you've only slept a few hours), and my coworker Rachel Hosie wrote a story about why personal trainers stopped taking pre-workout due to the risks and side-effects.

According to both my instructor and my colleague's reporting, taking pre-workout every time you exercise can get you in the habit of not listening to your body. It can mask natural tiredness, leading you to potentially injure yourself. Too much caffeine can also cause heart issues, such as changes in your heart rate or shakiness.

Plus, my instructor said, it's pointless to pump your body with performance enhancers when you don't take basic care of it to begin with. The simpler and healthier alternative is to get enough rest and eat enough of the right foods, such as protein and carbs.

Scared straight, I seriously scaled back my usage. The last time I took pre-workout was a few weeks ago. My gym held "max lift day," where everyone in my class would lift as heavy as they could go. The night before, I went to a party, did a few Jell-o shots, and got home at 1 am. I know I wouldn't have hit my deadlift goal without taking pre-workout (although, even with it, my performance was impacted).

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 sleep sooner, and give myself more rest days between workouts.

It's not as easy (or tasty) as downing 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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