Pre-workouts: a brief (but tubulent) history
Like a Pavlovian dog, the idea of a pre-workout alone is enough to make our nostrils flare and our pulse race in anticipation. If you're like me, taking a pre-workout isn't about taking something to enhance your workout so much as embarking on the ritual of an effective workout; no different from changing into your workout gear and switching on your favourite tracks.
The pre-workout category is relatively new with the first such product, NO-Xplode, having been released barely ten years ago. In an industry that's been around for a century that's not much time at all, and over the years we've seen the pre-workout category grow into a dominant product category in sports nutrition, reaching a peak in 2013 where every other new product release and sales cycle was dominated by pre-workout supplements.
This was the first time sports nutrition brands paid attention to the period before the workout, having previously focused exclusively on post-workout and everyday nutritional needs.
In the beginning...
By utilising a cocktail of stimulants to enhance central nervous system firing, NO-Xplode obviated the need for users to psych themselves up. Simply drinking NO-Xplode would send the body's adrenaline levels climbing within seconds so that by the time users started in the gym, they felt ready to demolish everything in their path.
With a wide spectrum of ingredients designed to dilate the blood vessels, the first pre-workout took a balanced approach to performance enhancement, not only making workouts more aggressive but also supplying the muscles with the nutrients and oxygen needed for better endurance and muscle pumps.
Something wicked this way comes
The market was dominated by NO-Xplode for several years but in the recesses of one man's mind, a new and explosive ingredient was brewing which would one day dominate the industry like none other.
Patrick Arnold is one of the biggest names in the industry, responsible for two of the biggest breakthroughs of all time, amongst other things. Patrick established the first ever prohormone in 1-AD then followed this up with his AMP fat burner, which utilised a brand new ingredient nobody had ever seen before - Geranamine.
Without exception users of AMP considered it to be a breakthrough, providing more energy and suppressing appetite better than anything since the days ephedrine had been banned. As a stimulant, AMP shined more brightly than anything else and so it retained a strong following for many years before people cracked its secret.
The age of ultra
Those who scrutinised the label of AMP carefully noticed something unusual, namely that the ingredient Geranamine was trademarked, but there was no explanation of what it actually was as there is no such ingredient as Geranamine.
Why was Geranamine the subject of such secrecy?
Arnold, having previously seen his last invention in the prohormone category ripped off ceaselessly by less innovative companies, had elected to protect his new invention behind the trademarked term Geranamine.
Once this became apparent, the hunt was on to discover what actually elicited the strong stimulant effects inherent to Geranamine. Eventually the secret was unlocked, and the real powerhouse ingredient behind Geranamine was unmasked as methylhexaneamine, also known as 1,3 Dimethylamylamine or just DMAA.
Despite having been around for a few years by now, AMP was always positioned as a fat burner and even when Predator Nutrition was first established in 2009, we looked around and were shocked that so few people in the UK even knew about it, let alone the recently rediscovered DMAA.
We were the first to introduce this ingredient to the UK when we launched, and for the first year of operating we would give every customer a sample of Geranamine aka DMAA with each order.
As more and more people became aware of the ingredient, it was only a matter of time before NO-Xplode and the more recently introduced Gaspari Superpump 250 would be challenged.
While everybody expected the challenge to be made by AMP, it actually came from an entirely new quarter as a newcomer to the market from Texas launched what would become the most popular and controversial pre-workout ever.
USP Labs had had a cult following for several years, and a reputation for innovation exemplified by their introduction of new sports nutrition ingredients in products such as Super Cissus and muscle builders like Prime and PowerFULL.
With a reputation for delivering new ideas to the market, they released a pre-workout which took a pre-existing ingredient, DMAA, but used it in an entirely new way, as the beating heart in the legendary pre-workout Jack3d.
By incorporating DMAA as one stimulant among many in a powdered pre-workout supplement, USP Labs had done something that Arnold never considered and revolutionised the cyageory. They had released the first ever pre-workout marketed as an ultra-concentrated supplement, dispensing with the fad of bigger and bigger serving sizes. Instead, Jack3d promised a very small serving size predicated on the fact that unlike the competition, which was full of junk fillers, it contained extremely potent ingredients that were so strong, they required micro dosing.
In an astonishingly short space of time, people switched away from the likes of NO-Xplode and Jack3d grew to become a monster of a product, taking USP Labs from a minor company to one of the very biggest and certainly fastest-growing sports nutrition companies in the world.
What followed next was every company in the industry releasing their own ultra concentrated pre-workout in an attempt to capture the sales Jack3d enjoyed. These products grew rapidly but as fast as they grew, Jack3d continued to reign as the number one seller while the old favourite NO-Xplode fell into a permanent decline that continues to this day.
A new contender rises
Jack3d had reigned supreme for a good two to three years when New York-based company Driven Sports introduced an entirely new type of pre-workout, which would see Jack3d's first challenge and eventually topple it.
We first encountered this new pre-workout on a trip to Las Vegas, when we tried a sample and realised that here was a product which could challenge Jack3d for energy and focus while avoiding the negative side effects users had started to complain about with DMAA-based supplements, namely the mood crash they induced shortly after the effects had peaked.
This new supplement would eventually be called Craze and once again the pre-workout category was upended, with users of pre-workouts now spoiled by having the option to go with one of two very different stimulants: DMAA or Craze's blend, which was powered by Dendrobium.
These were the days when pre-workout supplements utterly dominated the sports nutrition industry, becoming the singleminded focus of many brands. Unfortunately, the peak of the market would not last long as regulatory attention and controversy led to the slow demise of DMAA and the original version of Craze.
The dark ages
With sales increasing, it was inevitable that a wider audience would eventually become exposed to these powerful products and misuse them.
Hardcore bodybuilders had been using super potent products for decades since the days when anabolic steroids and ephedrine were widely available in the 80's. However, as the fitness trend grew it became inevitable that less educated and more irresponsible people would start to use products which, while they can be used safely to enhance performance and body composition, can also be misused by those who do not have the knowledge necessary to use them responsibly.
Both DMAA and the original Craze were removed from the market in a short space of time in 2013, having become victims of a hysterical media driven campaign founded not on scientifically validated facts but scare stories. Even though these damning stories had been counteracted conclusively, this were not enough to prevent their removal.
With the end of this generation of pre-workout supplements, supplement companies strove for a replacement ingredient that could deliver a comparable bang for the buck. Of all these ingredients only one, AMP Citrate, came close to the likes of DMAA; indeed it was structurally very similar, and it soon grew to prominence as users came to recognise the same type of energy that they had grown to love with the likes of Jack3d.
The success of AMP Citrate led Driven Sports to release a powerful replacement for the original Craze. Frenzy utilised not only AMP Citrate but a blend of other stimulants, delivering a unique effect that was different to Craze and closer in feel to Jack3d. This has helped it to become the bestselling pre-workout, and it has dominated the market every month since its release in April 2014.
However, the glory days of AMP Citrate were short-lived in America, and due to regulatory issues this ingredient is no longer widely available except in Frenzy.
With a lack of powerful stimulants being available in recent years, many companies have pulled out of the pre-workout market. Today, it is the formerly small protein bar category, something that hardcore bodybuilders have eschewed as an overpriced, underpowered alternative to protein powder, that is experiencing the most remarkable growth. Instead of Jack3d, it is now Quest Bars that every company is trying to knock off their perch as the biggest thing in sports nutrition.
Nowadays, those companies that continue to sell pre-workouts tend to rely on ultra high doses of caffeine or focus on their products' pump-enhancing effects, in a return to the original days when NO-Xplode emphasised the pump equally if not more than the energy enhancing qualities.
With so much having happened in the pre-workout space, can it ever return to the prominence it once enjoyed? And, purely from a selfish point of view, will anybody deliver a pre-workout which is comparable to the likes of Frenzy and Jack3d again?
Well, there are some exciting contenders on the horizon. While we have seen a few companies going back to DMAA in the USA, that's a non-starter for the vast majority.
Instead, in the arms race for a new stimulant companies are turning their attention to new compounds such as DMHA, a new analogue of DMAA which shows some promise. Hydrapharm has recently released Hydrazine, a new pre-workout that might just represent something unique, bringing a level of energy and focus never seen before by those who've only used pre-workouts formulated in the past two years.
Aside from new stimulants, we have been privy to potential developments in nitric oxide enhancing technologies that will make even the most potent pump enhancer used today appear weak by comparison. However, with one manufacturer we work with having caused an explosion in a laboratory whilst developing the ingredient, it may be a while before there is a commercially available product here.
The only thing that is certain in sports nutrition is that with so many candidates for performance enhancement yet to be discovered, the next big advance is sure to be here sooner or later. We for one can't wait to find out what it is.