And first I want to start with something that most of you already have in your home, baking soda. Most people don’t know that sodium bicarbonate or baking soda can be used to enhance gym performance.
Baking soda is beneficial because it’s a mildly alkaline salt that can help regulate the pH level in your muscles. To put it simply, pH is a scale that’s used to indicate how acidic or alkaline a solution is.
A pH of 7.0 is considered neutral, and a pH of 7 also happens to be the normal pH level within muscle cells. Your muscles function best when they’re in this neutral pH state.
But exercise itself can affect your muscular pH levels. This is particularly true during anaerobic exercise, which is any form of high-intensity exercise, like heavy weightlifting or sprinting.
Under such anaerobic conditions, your body’s demand for oxygen exceeds the available supply. To compensate, the anaerobic energy pathway is stimulated.
This pathway is primarily fuelled by carbohydrates in the form of glucose. But in the absence of oxygen, it also causes an increase in lactic acid build-up.
Excessive levels of lactic acid in your muscles cause pH levels to fall below 7. This disrupts energy production and your muscles’ ability to contract, leading to a progressive reduction in exercise performance.
Fortunately, baking soda, with its alkaline pH of 8.4, can offer a solution for this lactic acid accumulation.
By taking baking soda you can raise blood pH levels slightly. This allows lactic acids to move from the muscle cells into the bloodstream. And that process results in an increase of pH within your muscles.
This improves your muscles’ ability to contract and produce energy for longer. And the efficacy of this is reported in several scientific studies. (1)
For example, there is a study that examined the effects of taking baking soda 60 minutes before performing squats and bench presses to failure. (2)
As you can see in the graph from the study, there was an impressive increase in squat performance. (3)
After taking baking soda, the participants could do around eight more squats over the course of three sets, compared to when they were not taking it. This is a significant increase.
With that said, the study only found a performance increase in the squat but it didn’t find a boost in bench press performance.
This could be because the squat involves larger muscles than the bench press. Regardless, more research would definitely help.
The other thing to keep in mind is that not everyone reacts the same to baking soda.
While some experienced positive effects, others experience adverse effects like stomach discomfort, nausea, and water retention.
So you might want to try with a small dose first before trying the standard dose. For example, taking only one-fourth or one-third of the normal recommended amount on your first time is a good idea.
And the usual recommended dose is 90 to 135 mg per pound of body weight. You should take it about 60 to 90 minutes before exercise.
This could be useful if baking soda doesn’t sit well with you. It’s another proven single-ingredient supplement that you can take before your workout to reduce lactic acid – beta-alanine.
Beta-alanine is a nonessential amino acid and it works a little differently. However, it still provides a similar effect that can help you squeeze out a few extra reps when you would normally fail.
It does this by working with another amino acid, histidine, to produce carnosine (4).
Like baking soda, carnosine has a substantial impact on your muscles’ pH levels, helping you perform better with high-intensity activities.
Taking around 2-5 grams of beta-alanine might give you a feeling of pins and needles in your extremities like your hands and a tingling sensation on your lips.
But you should notice a reduction in lactic acid and improvement in performance.
The tingling sensation may feel scary for a beginner. But you shouldn’t worry because beta-alanine is a natural amino acid and it’s considered a very safe supplement.
#3 Have at least 25 grams of Protein
Another thing you can do before your workout if your goal is to maximize muscle growth is to have at least 25 grams of Protein.
This is not essential, as you can still build muscle even if you train fasted.
Also, when it comes to protein, the most important thing is that you get enough of it throughout the day. You don’t necessarily have to consume it at particular times.
However, to create the optimal conditions for muscle growth you can take in protein close to your workouts. Both beforehand and afterward.
This holds true even if you already get enough protein throughout the day.
For example, studies show that eating protein before exercise (alone or with carbs) increases muscle protein synthesis. This is essentially what leads to muscle growth. (5)
And we have other studies that found an anabolic, or muscle-building, response after consuming 20 or more grams of whey protein before exercise. (6)
#4 Perform a proper warm-up before each workout
A proper warm-up will improve your performance and drastically reduce your risk of injury.
Now, aside from the people skipping their warm-up entirely, many people approach their warm-up the wrong way.
For example, many will perform static stretches to reduce their risk of injury. These are stretches where you hold a stretch for around 20 seconds or more before releasing.
But, a meta-analysis consisting of a whopping 361 studies, found that static stretches, do not reduce injury risk to any significant extent. (7)
Even worse, static stretches may actually increase your risk of injury. That’s because they have a pain-blocking effect, and static stretching creates cellular damage within muscle tissue. (8)
In other words, static stretches damage muscle cells while raising pain tolerance and relaxing the stretched muscle groups. This is not a good combination before lifting heavy weights!
Moreover, static stretching can also reduce strength and power, especially if you hold the position for a long time. This is obviously not optimal for growth or injury prevention either.
We can see this playing out in a study that found signs of impaired muscle growth after static stretching for 50 seconds before lifting weights. (9)
So it’s best to avoid static stretches before your workouts. Instead, you want to do three things for an effective warm-up.
First, your main goal should be to simply raise your body temperature. This offers several benefits like improving blood flow, metabolic activity, muscle activation, and flexibility.
You can raise your body temperature by simply performing 3 sets of 10 reps of burpees, or by cycling or speed walking on a treadmill for three to five minutes.
When you’re doing this, it’s important not to go overboard. Your warm-up should NOT be a mini workout that causes you to begin your actual workout already fatigued.
The second thing you want to do is dynamic stretching. Contrary to static stretches, dynamic ones don’t impair strength, power, or muscular endurance. (10)
One of my favorite dynamic stretches happens to be Frankensteins, and these are pretty easy to do.
You just hold your hands out in front of you and kick your legs up towards your hands one at a time while trying to keep your knees straight.
The third thing you want to do when starting your actual workout is a few progressive warm-up sets before you get to the heavy sets.
For example, with barbell bicep curls, you can start by just lifting the bar for 10 reps. Then, perform another one or two warm-up sets with progressively heavier weight loads.
This will finally lead to the weight you normally use for your heavy sets.
Another thing that you want to make sure you do before your workout is leaving enough time for food to digest before your workout.
Basically, don’t eat too close to your workout. Anything less than 1 hour or 1 hour and a half means cutting it really close.
Also, don’t eat too much before your workout. Even though yes – you do want to have some protein before your workout – don’t go overboard by eating too much.
Otherwise, there’s a good chance that you’ll ruin your workout with feelings of nausea, cramps, acid reflux, indigestion. Ultimately all these will lead to a significant performance reduction.
This happens not only because you feel sick but also because the digestive process uses a lot of energy.
This is why, contrary to popular belief, high amounts of food consumption can temporarily reduce energy levels, rather than improve them.
Greasy, high-fat foods can be extra problematic before a workout. That’s because that kind of food can be hard on the stomach. It will take longer to digest than lighter foods like whey protein, eggs, and fruit.
Next is one of the most underrated things you can do before your workout – take a nap.
It might sound simple, but studies show just how much taking a nap can boost performance.
For example, in one study men performed a five-minute shuttle run under one of four conditions. They either took a 25, 35, or 45–min nap beforehand or they didn’t take a nap at all. (11)
All four conditions were performed in random order. The researchers evaluated the differences in athletic performance between these four conditions.
The results showed that the participants were able to cover more distance during the shuttle run after taking a nap, as you can see in the table below. (12)
It came as no surprise that the 45-min nap led to the biggest increase in athletic performance.
Interestingly though, the 25 min nap was able to improve performance more than the 35 min one.
The bottom line is that taking a minimum of a 25-minute nap leads to significant improvements over vs no napping.
Now, another thing that most people don’t do before their workout that happens to be extremely important is to have a clear plan.
This can seriously be one of the biggest determining factors when it comes to muscle growth and fat loss.
It’s a very common mistake for people to go to the gym without knowing exactly what they’re going to do. They just show up and decide what to do on the spot.
Even though you can have a great workout by making it up on the spot, it’s still a shot in the dark.
This will most likely make you take a lot longer to finish your workout because you don’t have a clear structure.
But more importantly, not planning your workouts makes it hard, if not impossible, to track your performance over time effectively.
One of the most important training principles is to apply progressive overload. This means that you have to expose your body to higher amounts of stress to stimulate growth/adaptation over time.
Say you go to the gym and do the same random workout, without any true intentions. Chances are you’re going to do the same weight and the same reps as last time.
This is the opposite of progressive overload and it gives your body no reason to improve.
A plan can also help you identify and work on weak muscle groups and weaknesses in general.
A simple example of this is being stuck on bench press, and no matter what you do you can’t increase the weight load.
So you create a month-long plan where you replace the bench press with dumbbell presses.
Oftentimes by simply switching to an alternative exercise, you can get stronger at that alternative exercise. That holds true even though you were stuck with the original bench press.
After a month you can come back to the bench press. And you’ll probably be surprised that you’re able to lift a little more and move past your plateau.
Without knowing what exercises you’ve been doing weekly, and how many reps you performed, it’s almost impossible to progressively overload.
That’s why it’s important to have a plan before you head to the gym. And you also want to keep track of your progress. This brings us to the next point – set up a performance tracker before your workouts.
You want to make sure to track your performance on the key lifts that you’ll do on each day. This can be as simple as using a notepad or your phone to jot down the things you should be tracking.
In its simplest form, you want to track at least three most important things. These are how much weight you used, how many reps you did, and the number of sets that you performed.
Now, do keep in mind that your phone can be a huge distraction. So for some of you, it’ll be best to use a physical workout log.
That’s because it will reduce the likelihood that you’ll get distracted by your phone throughout your workout.
#8 Drink coffee before your morning workout
The next thing that you can do to boost workout performance, if you train in the morning, is to drink coffee.
Some people find that they have more energy in the morning. Many others instead tend to have a reduced athletic performance when training in the morning.
This can be due to a couple of reasons, including the fact that your core body temperature is lower in the morning. This reduces muscle activation, energy metabolism, nervous system efficiency, and blood flow to your muscles. (13)
Another potential issue is that post-workout anabolic signaling, which drives muscle growth, happens to be lower earlier in the day. (14)
This may be why research shows that training in the late afternoon or early evening tends to produce better performance and muscle-building results than training in the morning. (15)
Now that doesn’t stop me from training in the morning. And it shouldn’t stop you either if you enjoy it or have no other time to work out.
Fortunately, caffeine can offer a solution. That’s because caffeine consumption reverses some of the downsides of morning workouts in comparison to later workouts.
For example, one study found that morning caffeine raises neuromuscular readiness close to levels of an afternoon workout.
The suggested dose is 3 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight, which equals about 2 cups of coffee. (16)
In this study, caffeine resulted in a non-statistically significant difference between working out in the morning or at night.
So, if you train in the morning, it might be beneficial to consume caffeine, especially on the days when you need a psychological boost.
#9 Avoid excessive non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and antioxidants
Finally, it’s best to not have high amounts of antioxidants and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs before your workout. These include drugs like Advil and Tylenol.
Antioxidants and over-the-counter medications both suppress inflammation.
While chronic inflammation is bad for muscle growth and recovering from your workouts, acute inflammation is actually beneficial.
For example, interleukin 6 (IL-6) is one marker of inflammation in the body. Research shows that resting IL-6 levels negatively affect muscle growth. Conversely, an elevation in IL-6 levels post-workout actually assists with muscle growth. (17)
So even though chronic inflammation is a problem, we want short-term inflammation after a workout.
That’s because that inflammation activates satellite cells and starts the muscle repair process. This ultimately helps you build muscle and recover from your workout.
So it’s best to avoid nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs before a workout. But it’s also best to avoid taking high amounts of antioxidants, like vitamin C or E, before your workout.
Doing so could make your workouts less effective, as shown by a number of studies. (18)
So those are 9 unique things that you can do before a workout to improve your performance and results.
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- Sodium Bicarbonate can help bring pH back to normal levels within your muscles. This gives the muscle an improved ability to continue to contract and produce energy, as validated by several scientific studies.
- In a study involving resistance-trained men, researchers examined the effects of consuming sodium bicarbonate 60 minutes before performing squats and bench presses to failure with 80% of their 1RM.
- The result was an impressive increase in squat performance, as can be seen in the following graph:
See Figure 1
- “Carnosine has been shown to play a significant role in muscle pH regulation. Carnosine is synthesized in skeletal muscle from the amino acids l-histidine and beta-alanine.”
- Some studies show that eating protein (alone or with carbs) prior to exercise increases muscle protein synthesis
- For example we have research that demonstrates a positive anabolic response after participants consumed 20 grams of whey protein before exercise.
- A meta-analysis review of 361 studies, shows that static stretches do not reduce injury risk.
- Worse yet, static stretches may even increase it. That’s because they are analgesic and create cellular damage within muscle.
- For example, one study found impaired muscle growth after static stretching for 50 seconds before lifting weights.
- Contrary to static stretches, dynamic ones don’t impair strength, power, or muscular endurance but may even be beneficial.
- In one study, seventeen physically active men performed a five-minute shuttle run test under four conditions:
1) Taking a 25 min nap beforehand
2) Taking a 35 min nap beforehand
3) Taking a 45 min nap beforehand
4) Or taking no nap
- The subjects were able to cover more distance during the shuttle run test after taking a nap, as shown in the following table:
See Table 2
- Core body temperature is lower in the morning, which reduces muscle activation, energy metabolism, nervous system efficiency, and blood flow to muscle.
- Post-workout muscle anabolic signaling is lower earlier in the day
- As a result, research shows that training in the late afternoon or early evening tends to produce better performance and muscle-building results than training in the morning.
Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2016 Dec;41(12):1285-1294.
- One study found that a dose of 3 mg/kg of bw of caffeine (roughly 250 mg) consumed in the morning raises neuromuscular readiness close to afternoon levels
- For example, interleukin 6 (IL-6) is one marker of inflammation in the body. Research shows that resting IL-6 levels negatively correlate with muscle growth, but an elevation in IL-6 post-workout aids muscle growth.
- Consuming nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or high levels of antioxidants like vitamin C or vitamin E before you train could make your workouts less effective, as shown by a number of studies: