Whatever your goals are in the gym, a good pre-workout formula can help get you there. Whether you want to get big, lean, or strong, the right pre-workout can help you level up your energy and focus during training—and support the recovery and progress you’re after.
But how do you know your pre-workout is working? For many gym-goers, aside from that sense of flow and overall oomph that kicks in, the tell-tale sign that pre-workout has officially hit your system is a rather strange sensation: tingling.
Nope, it’s not just in your head. Some pre-workout formulas cause a very-real tingly (sometimes almost itchy) sensation. Here’s what to know about those tingles, and what they mean for your workouts.
The Culprit Behind Pre-Workout Tingles: Beta-Alanine
The number-one culprit behind the pre-workout tingles is a popular ingredient used in many formulas called beta-alanine.
A modified form of the amino acid alanine, beta-alanine combines with the amino acid histidine to form a compound called carnosine, explains Jacob Wilson, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.*D., CEO of the Applied Science & Performance Institute and member of The Vitamin Shoppe’s Wellness Council.
When you work out (particularly when you work out hard), acid builds up in your muscles, which eventually affects your ability to keep producing energy and grinding away. Carnosine, however, soaks up these acids like a sponge, ultimately helping you churn out more reps, Wilson says.
Though you feel beta-alanine during your workouts, reaping its true benefits takes consistent supplementation, according to Wilson. (Typically, improvements in workout capacity become more significant after about two weeks of taking beta-alanine.)
Why Beta-Alanine Causes Tingling
Here’s where that weird side-effect of beta-alanine comes in. When you supplement with beta-alanine, your body reacts by freeing up histidine for it to bind with, Wilson explains. This histidine release causes that prickly, tingling sensation you may have experienced after slurping down a pre-workout.
“Known as paresthesia, this tingling isn’t a health concern,” says Wilson. (Most pre-workouts don’t contain obscene amounts of beta-alanine anyway.)
Here’s the kicker: Since beta-alanine really takes a couple of weeks to reach full effect, you don’t necessarily need to take it before your workouts. However, many pre-workouts include beta-alanine because of the tingling sensation it can cause, Wilson says.
Why? Psychologically, those tingles can motivate some people work even harder. In fact, one 2016 study published in the European Journal of Sport Science found that beta-alanine-related paresthesia actually helped cyclists improve their power output. The researchers behind the study actually cite the psychological effect this tingling had on the cyclists as the reason for their potentially up-leveled performance.
How To Avoid The Pre-Workout Tingles
Though those pre-workout tingles are nothing to worry about, you don’t have to include them in your training routine.
Since paresthesia is associated with servings of one gram of beta-alanine or more, Wilson recommends opting for a pre-workout formula that contains less than a gram (or no beta-alanine at all) if you want to avoid the sensation.
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