energy drink

Energy Drinks vs Pre Workout: What Do You Really Need?

What’s the best drink to take before a workout? Do you really need to get a workout supplement, or can you get the same benefits from a cheaper energy drink from the convenience store?

Energy drinks and pre workout supplements were designed for two completely different purposes. Energy drinks fight fatigue, so you stay alert and energetic for a few more hours.  Pre workout supplements improve muscle performance, stamina, and recovery so you can improve fitness levels.

That doesn’t mean that one is better than the other; it’s simply a question of what you really want to achieve. Even if they have some similar ingredients that will give you an energy boost, pre workout supplements will have additional nutrients with very unique effects.

Let’s compare the two drinks so you know what you’re getting, and whether it’s worth paying more.

Energy drink vs Pre Workout Supplement: How We’ll Compare Them

 We’ll be comparing the two products according to different factors, so you can see how they work, which one is better suited for your needs and budget.

  • History and Purpose
  • Ingredients
  • Benefits and side effects
  • Price

History and Purpose

Energy drinks

The very first energy drink was invented in the 1960s by a Japanese pharmaceutical. The product, Lipovitan D, was marketed to employees to help them stay alert even when they had to do overtime.  A few years later, US and European companies launched their own versions, including a high-caffeine cola called Jolt and the iconic Red Bull.

Since then, hundreds of energy drinks have sprouted all across the world, but they all have a common claim: more physical energy and mental clarity. The target market are students, employees, or even party goers who want a cocktail mixer that will let them dance until dawn.

protein powder

Pre workout supplements

Before the 1980s, the only pre workout drink that athletes and bodybuilders could legally take was a big cup of coffee. Then came Ultimate Orange, which had a powerful mix of stimulants that focused mainly on boosting energy.

These early supplements are probably why people think that it’s not that different from an energy drink. But the formulas have changed drastically in the last 40 years. Today, their main purpose isn’t just to get you through the workout but help you have a better workout.

Modern pre workout supplements improve muscle mass, increase blood flow, reduce muscle fatigue, and improve muscle recovery after exercise. They will also include a lot of protein to help you bulk up, and fat-burning ingredients to improve muscle definition.

How they compare

Energy drinks give energy—that’s it. Pre workout supplements (pre workout powders and whey protein) will have energy-boosting ingredients, but the complete formula is designed to help you meet long-term fitness goals.


Energy drinks

Energy drinks will usually have high amounts of caffeine and sugar, and other stimulants like ephedrine, ginseng and guarana seed. It may also contain ingredients that boost mental alertness or reduce stress, like taurine and gingko biloba.

Some energy drinks will contain ingredients that you would normally find in a pre workout supplement, such as carnitine (which helps in fat metabolism) and creatine (which helps muscle contractions).

However, these are usually in much lower amounts and not significant enough to increase endurance or stamina at the levels needed by anyone who is doing an hour or more of intense exercise.

Pre workout supplements

Pre workout formulas (protein powders and shakes) will all claim to have a unique proprietary mix, but there are some common ingredients that have specific functions.

  • To increase energy: caffeine and carbohydrates
  • To build muscle mass: protein and BCAAs (branch chain amino acids)
  • To increase strength for big heavy lifts: Creatine
  • To increase stamina for longer exercise sessions: nitrates like beetroot and pomegranate extracts
  • To improve oxygen flow to the muscles: L-citruline and other vasodilators
  • To reduce soreness, cramps, and fatigue:  Beta-alanine, L-glutamine, taurine, betaine  
  • To improve overall muscle metabolism: B-vitamins
  • To improve focus and attention: L-theanine and nootropics

How they compare

Energy drinks can temporarily increase energy and alertness, but have very little nutritional value.

Pre workout protein powders (and pre workout energy drinks) are a complete formula for improving both energy and oxygen flow and energy during the workout, and repairing muscle afterwards.

Some supplements that are designed to be meal replacements may also contain other vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that benefit your overall health.

Benefits and Side Effects

Energy drinks

Energy drinks are affordable, easy to get, and deliver on what they were designed to do. You will feel the effect very quickly, so if you’re about to fall asleep and need to wake up right now, this is actually a really good choice.

However, energy drinks have a very high amount of caffeine and sugar, and can have side effects like rapid heartbeat, jitteriness, insomnia, and anxiety. Doctors actually advise against taking it if you have high blood pressure and heart problems—that flood of pure caffeine isn’t exactly good for your system, especially if you’re not much of a coffee drinker to begin with.

And if you’re thinking about guzzling several cans to get you through a long night, don’t.  Every year, thousands of people end up in the ER because of overconsumption of energy drinks; effects are even amplified if they’re mixed with alcohol and other drugs.

The problem is that since energy drinks are packaged like sodas, it’s easy to underestimate the caffeine content and just chug them down like any other beverage. This has prompted some groups to lobby for manufacturers to put warning labels on the cans.

Pre workout supplements

If you’re serious about fitness and would like to maximize your gains per workout, a good pre workout supplement can help. You’ll have more energy and endurance for each workout, feel less fatigue, and build better muscle.

If you’re on a diet, pre workout supplements such as protein powder and protein shakes have a lot of protein (to prevent muscle loss) and nutrients, and low calories per serving. Usually, each glass is about 120 to 150 calories, and there are some brands that are actually less than a hundred—or even less than 10.

However, supplements that have a lot of caffeine will pose the same risks as energy drinks. That’s why if you have heart problems, high blood pressure or diabetes, you should talk to your doctor first.

Other side effects are not life-threatening, but can be uncomfortable: gassiness, bloating, digestive problems. Niacin can also cause skin flushing, while beta-alanine can cause a temporary tingling sensation on the face, neck, and hands.

How they compare

Energy drinks can easily be overconsumed, and lead to dangerous side effects. Pre workout powders like Cellucor, can also have high caffeine levels, will usually have recommended dosages per day. However, you should still be careful about taking any pre workout supplement if you have a history of heart disease, diabetes, or high blood pressure.


Energy drinks

Prices can range from as little as $1 to as much as $5 per can. The price depends on the brand, distribution costs, and the store.

Pre workout supplements

The price range is much wider, ranging from as low as $40 to as high as $70 per tub. It depends on a lot of things: the quality of the ingredients, the size of the packaging, and the brand. Some supplements that are vegan, organic, etc. may also be more expensive.

How they compare

Initially, a can of energy drinks may look like they’re much cheaper than a can of pre workout supplements. But if you consider the cost per serving, you’ll realize that they’re actually the same. Since you only need one or two scoops of supplement powder each time, you end up paying about of $1 to $2 per serving—the average price of an energy drink.

The Breakdown

 Energy DrinksPre Workout Supplements
History and PurposeDesigned for employees and students to boost energy and alertness while working Designed for fitness enthusiasts and bodybuilders to improve strength, endurance and muscle gain 
IngredientsHigh caffeine, sugar, and less nutritional value More complete nutritional formula that increases energy, muscle performance, and muscle recovery
Benefits and side effectsCan increase energy and focus, but can cause rapid heart rate, anxiety, and cardiac problems when overconsumed    More nutritional value, and less likelihood of overdosing because of the recommended portions 
Price$1 to $5 per can$40 to $70 per can, but about $1 to $2 per serving 
Pros and Cons of Energy Drinks and Pre Workouts

Final Thoughts

Energy drinks can give a big boost of energy, but a good workout requires more than that. Pre workout supplements like protein powders addresses all factors that can affect your performance: strength for lifts, endurance for longer workouts, better

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