A History of Pre-Workout Supplements

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Situated halfway between the gym and the nightclub, pre-workout supplements have taken on a remarkable popularity amongst gym goers in recent years. Labelled with ‘hardcore’ names such as ‘Anarchy’, ‘Mr. Hyde’ or ‘Rage’, the pre-workout supplement has become a staple amongst portions of the lifting community.

Indeed, one may be forgiven for thinking that bodybuilders, powerlifters, weight lifters and just about anyone else who has ever graced the gym floor have been using these supplements since the dawn of gym going. This however, is not the case. In fact, the first major pre workout supplements did not hit the markets since the 1980s.

So what came before the pre-workout supplement? What did bodybuilders do in the time of physical culture or the time of Arnold and co.? Furthermore when did pre-workouts hit the market? And why did they become so popular? An ambitious set of questions, which today’s article seeks to answer.

The Early Beginnings of Gym Going

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Though men and women have been weightlifting it seems since the dawn of time, we shall begin today’s post in a relatively more modern period for the sake of convenience and indeed my sanity. This time being the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. A time when our modern habit of going to the gym is largely believed to have originated.

So who better to examine then than people like Eugen Sandow, George Hackenschmidt, Minerva and the Saxon Brothers, some of the biggest names in physical culture during the early 1900s. What did they advocate before working out? Well like all good things in life, opinions differed.

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For some such as Hackenschmidt and Sandow the legal stimulant of choice back then, namely coffee, was largely off limits. According to Hack,

Tobacco, coffee, and alcohol are all deemed poisons and are to be avoided.

Similarly Sandow supposedly never touched coffee, which aside from cocaine, is perhaps the only pre-workout one could have used in those days. Likewise the father of American physical culture Bernarr Macfadden saw coffee as inherently baneful. Some of the biggest names in physical culture at that time seemed steadfast then in their belief that coffee was bad for the system. Nevermind for your workout.

But some physical culturists, those of the epicurean disposition, did take to coffee. Indeed Minerva, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century strongwoman was said to enjoy two strong cups of coffee a day. Though we’re not sure how this was timed. Minerva was in good company too as when they weren’t drinking beer mid workout, the Saxon trio were said to enjoy a coffee or two. These men however were famed for their laissez faire approach to food and their remarkable strength. Perhaps not the best role models?

Into the Golden Age

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Remarkably it was the coffee drinkers who won the day and moving into the ‘Golden Era’ of bodybuilding from the 1960s to early 1980s reveals just how normalised the practice had become. In an excellent article, Ric Drasin recalls that Arnold Schwarzenegger would drink coffee with his breakfast before training. A practice he shared with Frank Zane, himself another iconic figure of the time.

Kicking things up a notch was ‘The Myth’, Sergio Oliva of whom it was said that

During training Sergio would carry around a thermos of hot coffee, when asked why, he said it gave him energy and also made him sweat. Water was saved for after the workout.

It was also during this time that alternatives to coffee began to be used as a pre-workout supplement. The most obvious being the B Vitamin Niacin which Vince Gironda would recommend for both before and after workouts. His logic being that Niacin helped to temporarily enlarge the blood vessels and thus enable a greater pump. Having taken Niacin myself I can attest to his logic but must stress that the red flushing which accompanies the Niacin is far from comfortable!

So pre-workout stimulants were beginning to creep into the bodybuilders’ bag of tricks. The stimulant of choice however, coffee, was relatively mild by today’s standards and indeed it came without the bells and whistles of the modern pre workout supplements. Interestingly some still eschewed coffee to a certain extent such as Clarence Bass who in 1979 revealed that while he did consume coffee occasionally, it was always decaffeinated.

Nevertheless, the tide was turning and within a decade, bodybuilding began to experience the pre workout hype.

Ultimate Orange and the 1980s

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In 1982 in Venice California, bodybuilding got its first taste of pre-workout stimulants and the effects seemed remarkable to say the least. People claimed to gain muscle mass out of thin air, rep out more at heavier weights and shed body fat. Furthermore they cited increased energy, focus and drive within the gym. Such reviews came from both steroid and non-steroid users alike.

Formulated by the original drug guru Dan Duchaine, Ultimate Orange became a mainstay in the bodybuilding community until a number of lawsuits in the late 1990s, early 2000s. Focused primarily on the inclusion of ephedra in the formula, Ultimate Orange was blamed for a series of heart attacks amongst seemingly healthy men and women.

Notwithstanding the possible side effects, the pre-workout boom had begun during a time, which Randy Roach has pointed out, coincided with the low-fat/high-carb bodybuilding craze. A coincidence? Maybe? Or perhaps with the vilification of fats, bodybuilders turned towards stimulants in a bid to retain their energy and focus. Just a thought.

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In any case, the late 1980s and 1990s saw a series of products emerge beginning really with creatine in 1993. Though creatine had been used experimentally with athletes for at least two decades, it wasn’t until 1993 that a small supplement company, Experimental & Applied Sciences or EAS, began to produce a rudimentary creatine supplement for bodybuilders.

Creatine blends quickly became the standard pre workout by the end of the 1990s and start of the new millennium. Though by 2000, creatine monohydrate was no longer the only powder in town. Indeed a series of other blends emerged, each mixing the creatine which various forms of sugar or other carbohydrates in a bid to feed the muscle cells.

Changing Times

In a fascinating piece of work, MindandMuscle details the emergence of new stimulants within pre workout formulas from the early 2000s onwards. Whereas the creatine pre workouts of the last decade had been relatively mind. The new millennium saw newer stimulants such as Arginine AKG, Arginine Malate and Citrulline Malate appear on the ingredient list.

These compounds promised to temporarily enlarge the blood vessels and hence encourage a much greater pump during the workout. Similar in a sense to the Niacin Gironda was recommending back in the 70s but far more potent.

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That being the case, although the effects of these new compounds varied greatly, the era did give rise to the more extreme pre workout supplements emerging such as BSN’s NO-EXPLODE, itself a combination of creatine and arginine AKG. What is significant about NO-EXPLODE is the marketing campaign which accompanied the product.

You see, BSN managed to secure the signature of Ronnie Coleman, the then Mr. Olympia and contender for the title of GOAT. Coleman’s endorsement helped encourage thousands of budding gym goers to pound a few scoops of NO-EXPLODE prior to a gym session. Needless to say, NO-EXPLODE was the market leader.

Kicking things up a notch

In 2005 Patrick Arnold, a chemist-cum-designer drugs scientist, introduced a compound called DMAA into the supplement market. To the initiated, the term DMAA will is old hat, as the compound has been banned and unbanned several times over the last decade.

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Though Arnold’s own supplements met with mixed success, USP Labs soon utilised the compound to the nth degree and included it in a workout formula entitled Jack3d. Jack3d soon gained the notoriety that Ultimate Orange enjoyed in the 1980s as it seemed that every Dick and Jane was taking it prior to working out. And just like Ultimate Orange, Jack’d was eventually banned and reemerged reformulated.

Over the next few years Jack3d became the market leader and every pre-workout supplement seemed to include DMAA. Heck even when DMAA was banned, pre workouts continued to use various stimulants which mimicked the effects of DMAA.

Reflecting on the Pre-Workout Craze

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Though pre-workouts have become the latest fad supplement over the last two decades, there are a number of things to consider regarding its utility for gym goers. While the supplements are inherently effective in that they temporarily increase your focus and energy, the long term effects need to be taken into account.

In the first instance, a common trend and indeed meme amongst the workout community revolves around people’s absurd dependencies on pre-workout supplements. While the tub may say 1-3 servings per use, people soon fall into much higher dosages. This is perhaps why Sandow, MacFadden and Hackenschmidt all eschewed coffee and similar stimulants. It is easy to gain a dependency and few people consider the effects this has on the body.

Secondly and something which Randy Roach noted in his excellent World of Muscle podcast, lifters need to ask why they are using the pre workouts in the first place. Surely one would be better served psyching themselves up to workout rather than rely upon outside factors such as pre-workouts. Why not save the preworkout for the times when they are truly needed.?Thus you’ll be getting a greater bang for your buck.

Finally one needs to consider the stage they’re at in the training cycle. All to often one sees beginners entering the gym loaded on pre-workouts. Such trainees would surely be better served focusing on the fundamentals before dabbling in the finer arts. Okay I’ve firmly entered soapbox territory. A sign I’ve written too much.

In the interest of brevity, here’s some relevant Broscience

As always, happy lifting!

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