A worrying trend for many within the Iron Game is the sheer dependency exhibited by trainees and their pre-workout supplements. Gone are the days of Vince Gironda and Don Howorth who trained in almost complete silence. Nowadays the gym is a veritable dance floor filled with techno music and brightly coloured drinks. To save lifter’s ego, the latter are given names like ‘Crazed’, ‘Jacked’ or ‘Mr.Hyde’.
Today’s post is not an attempt to insult those of us who rely on preworkouts to train, but rather to discuss some of the milder and arguably more sustainable preworkouts used by the trainees of old. What did they use and why? Furthermore, can we begin to wean ourselves off the current sugar and caffeine filled drinks and move towards the old-school methods?
Coffee: The First Preworkout Supplement
It is perhaps unsurprising that Coffee counts as the first preworkout supplement used by lifters. Introduced to Europe in the sixteenth-century, the drink’s stimulant effects were well known and well desired. When weightlifting in the gym became the reserve of everyday individuals and not just circus strongmen, coffee was the de facto preworkout stimulant.
This was not to say however that everyone believed it was necessary. 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, although one should always take Sandow’s dietary prescriptions with a pinch of salt. 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 perhaps of a more 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 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?
The association between coffee and weightlifting was to an enduring one, especially as pre-workout supplements did not truly exist until the late 1980s. Writing in 1982, Kennedy noted that Bob Hoffman always discouraged his York Weightlifting team from drinking coffee from the 1940s onwards. Whether they heeded his advice was another matter. Even today, coffee is promoted as a simple, cheap and effective pre-workout provided one is not immune to its stimulative effects (such individuals are becoming harder to find). So coffee was one of the earliest stimulants used by weightlifters, but, it was not the only one.
Go Mad on GOMAD
While admittedly milk is not a stimulant, unless of course you’re intolerant to it, it was nevertheless a favoured pre, intra and post workout supplement for many lifters in times gone by.
Beginning with Bernarr MacFadden’s all milk diets in the early 1900s, subsequent trainers and coaches promoted the health giving properties of milk. Some, such as Charles Atlas in the 1920s and 30s, recommended taking several glasses of milk throughout the day. Others such as Peary Rader and Mark Berry recommend several litres! Sergio Olivia, the impressive Cuban lifter who briefly dominated bodybuilding during the 1960s was likewise known for his voluminous love of milk. While these men may not have advocated milk as a pre-workout supplement, their sheer demand for the white stuff necessitated taking it close to exercise.
Incidentally there may have been an underlying benefit to this. In 2011, researchers found that an intake of calcium roughly twenty minutes before exercise can reduce the loss of minerals from bones, thereby improving bone strength.
With Coffee and Milk out of the way, I want to finish with two of the stranger, but in my mind, fun, preworkout supplements used.
Raise a Glass!
Okay so admittedly I’ve only come across one instance of beer being used as a pre-workout but my oh my did these men use it. Known as the Saxon trio, this travelling strongman troupe were some of the biggest names in physical culture in the opening decades of the twentieth-century. Famed for their strength, the Germanic lifters were equally impressive when it came to nutrition. The trio’s fondness for beer prior to their workouts led to some bizarre encounters with other weight trainees. Thomas Inch, the great British strongman, once wrote of his encounter with the trio
AFTER SETTING OUT THEIR BIG PLATE BELL AND PLENTY OF DISCS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE GARDEN, THEY KNOCKED THE BUNG OUT OF A BARROW OF BEER, AND THEN SET TO WORK, KNOWING THAT LIQUID REFRESHMENT WAS ARRANGED FOR.
IT SEEMS THAT DRINKING BEER AND WEIGHTLIFTING TOGETHER ARE QUITE THE COMMON PASTIME ON THE CONTINENT, OR SO THE BROTHERS CLAIMED!
IT WAS RATHER FUNNY TO SEE THE TRIO RUNNING BACKWARDS AND FORWARDS WITH THEIR JUGS TO THE BEER BARRELS BETWEEN LIFTS. IT WAS SELDOM THAT ANY BEER WAS LEFT IN THE BARREL. I MAY SAY!
THEY EXPLAINED TO ME THAT THIS WAS THE PROPER GERMAN CUSTOM, AND THE APPEARED TO REGARD ME AS SLIGHTLY UNBALANCED BECAUSE I DID NOT FOLLOW THEIR EXAMPLE.
Was their a logic to this? Well consider the great Arnold Schwarzenegger’s claim that real men drink beer
Food….or drink for thought.
Vince Gironda and Niacin
The final, and arguably first preworkout advocated for lifters, seems to have been promoted by the Iron Guru himself, Vince Gironda. A man arguably ahead of his time when it came to supplementation, Gironda promoted vitamin B3 (Niacin to you and me) for many of his trainees.
While Niacin was meant to be taken during the day alongside a host of other supplements, it appears that Vince believed trainees should take it before and after workouts as well. The reason for this is obvious if you have ever taken niacin. The B vitamin is a potent vasodilator, meaning that it helps to temporarily widen the blood vessels. From personal experience, this can result in a much greater pump during the workout itself.
There was only one problem with Vince’s suggestion. While nowadays it is possible to get non-flushing Niacin very easily, lifters back then were not so fortunate. Regular Niacin, alongside widening the blood vessels, also causes flushing in the body. In my own experience this result in my entire upper body temporarily becoming hot and very, very red. This happened during a 20 rep squat session with a bemused and semi-concerned friend!
For regular readers of the blog, it will be unsurprising to hear that Vince, once more, may have been on to something. Niacin is still used in pre-workouts today, albeit the non-flushing kind.
Are old school pre-workouts still applicable? In the case of milk and certainly beer, I would be skeptical to say the least. Having experimented with Niacin, I would say most certainly, provided you get the non-flushing kind. Although that being said, the flushing kind is nice is a weird sort of way.
Coffee, is I believe, still a valid form of preworkout. This is provided you’re not drinking several gallons of the stuff during the day. In my mind, pre-workouts and stimulants should be used only when necessary. If they’re an everyday occurrence you need to reevaluate your diet, sleep or lifestyle but hey I’m a known buzzkill on these matters.
TL;DR: Drink Coffee.
As always…Happy Lifting!
Just a thought, coffee is indeed a damned good supplement! Though I thankfully know my limits with this substance, unlike alcohol!
As for whey powder and creatine and other idiotic capsules I took 10 years ago, they were actually mainly useless ! So I ignore the ‘fitness-bodybuilding’ supplement crap completely now.
The only ‘supplements’ that really appear to work are illegal* steroids and GH amongst others….. I was tempted in 2006 to order steroids online, but luckily common sense stopped me doing so.
*(I don’t know the status of steroids in Ireland)
Hey Nick, I have to agree with you on coffee – with the proviso that people don’t abuse it.
I don’t drink coffee at all really, never developed the habit, but whenever I feel the need for it I’ll take a small cup before training – I may as well be taking speed! As I’m not used to it the effect is powerful. For others with a tolerance level it’s a little less extreme me thinks.
Similar to you, I think whole diet is the way to go. There’s too much money being pumped out of lifters by nutrition companies.
Steroids are illegal in Ireland but from chatting to friends in the gym, that hasn’t stopped a large majority accessing them including, somewhat worryingly, teenagers.