It's rare that I give a straight answer. And arguably, this post technically won't be a straight answer. But it is one of those times where it is the closest you'll get to hammering me down to a precise answer.
It was inspired by Seth Carbonneau, who recently was asking around about people's favorite caffeinated pre-workout supplements. Now, Seth is pretty much a super-genius and one of the most incredible body-machiones you will ever meet. So you know he is going to take the information he found and grok it good. That is why I felt like participating in his survey; when you know your answer is going to someone who will work with it, it becomes a lot easier to give that answer. When someone is just going to blindly obey whatever you tell them, well . . . it kind of feels irresponsible.
I am often asked "So, XN: which is the best pre-workout drink." And since Seth was talking caffeine, I can give a straight answer on that chemical first:
What is my favorite kind of caffeine?
Caffeine is my favorite kind of caffeine.
Just straight up caffeine anhydrous. Powder form.
I control the amount. I control the timing. I choose the producers. And it is DIRT CHEAP. A half pound lasts well over three years and costs around $18 - $22.
The upside is experimenting with vitamin and mineral combos, with amino acids and NO powder, and even herbs. I can concoct all sorts of interesting pre-workouts. And while it sounds a little bit "chem set," in reality I can take in far less crappy chemical stuff.
However, there is a downside: caffeine tastes HORRIBLE. It tastes like you just sucked toes that were stuck up a mule's ass. The only thing I have found that masks the taste is ginger. (Lemon does a little, but still that raunchy caffeine aftertaste persists.) Even when diluted, caffeine's taste is recognizable. Only chewing dried ginger after taking some seems to cut that caffeine taste of ass. So that is the downside. If you ever see me shotgun something then frantically chew ginger, you know I got the caffeine in me. But while caffeine allows me flexibility, control and an amazing price point, it is not my favorite pre-workout.
Now, my take on supplements is a whole other blog post (which I will get done some day, I promise). However, without going into the long philosophies (did you expect short ones from me?), a vital factor to supplement choice is being as certain as possible know exactly what I am putting into my body, and where it is coming from. A label on some bizarre tasting blue potion feels creepy to me.
I want to be aware and mindful of what I put into my body. Really, all physique athletes should be this way. Think about it: you want a sense of control over your body so that you can accomplish great things with it. Well, a sense of control is not marked by leaving things to chance. It seems foolish to me to place my trust in random corporations who have no real stakes in my personal benefit, regardless of what their marketing rhetoric may claim. If you want the credit for the work, and if you want the ability to accomplish the task, then start owning the input.
In short: the more familiar you are with the foods you eat, the more you will gain a sense of control over the system as a whole. The more confident you are in the process, the more confidently you can approach the tasks. And don't waste my time whining about how hard or time consuming it is. I am here addressing you with the presumption that you are intelligent, organized and passionate enough to make a little time to get where you want to go – and where you know you can go.
And speaking of crystal meth – back when . . .
Wait, we weren't speaking about crystal meth?
Well, pretend we are. I'm just going to change the subject anyway, so don't sweat it.
Anyway, back when it was easier to buy fresh herbs in a store, I used to brew this AMAZING tea for pre-workouts. One of it's key ingredients was the grassy herb ma huang. Ma huang contains naturally occurring ephedra, which is a chemical used to create the bad, bad drug crystal meth. (See the tangent now?) In an effort to fight the crystal meth epidemic in our country, the government cracked down on the sale of ephedra-based products – which includes ma huang. Even though it is literally just a grass and the chemical is naturally occurring (and not highly potent – roughly comparable to the stimulants in chocolate versus those in cocaine), the government shut it down. And my ability to buy this herb went into history.
Which is a shame because it most directly answers the question "what is my favorite pre-workout drink?" That tea I brewed was a conglomeration of herbs that I researched to produce an amazing little brew. And I knew what was in it, so it passed muster on my supplementation principles of being responsible towards what I ingest. That tea combined black tea (caffeine and anti-oxidants), ma huang (ephedra), white willow bark, marshmallow, licorice, mint, ginseng and a handful of other nifty herbs – some with potency, some just for flavor – which became a woody, delicious brew that gave me INCREDIBLE sustained energy with no crash. I loved that tea.
But this was back in the early 90's, back when there used to be a store named Harnett's in Harvard Square near where I live. (It's now an American Apparel store – which is really the story of Harvard Square, isn't it?) Harnett's was an herb and homeopathic store; Mr. Harnett was the brain behind the original Bread & Circus Markets, which was the predecessor to the Whole Foods Markets brand we know today. Harnett's sold bulk loose herbs in all sorts of ways – powders, extracts and – my favorite as a tea brewer – loose leaves and roots. One trip to Harnett's and I was set for a few months of crafty, healthy tea supplements.
That was still, to this day, the BEST pre-workout drink ever. Then that ephedra shut-down that I mentioned happened, and ma huang became a no-no to buy.
Many of the science wonks would scold me, though, that the tea was not was "standardized." Because tea is an inherently imprecise measuring system the anal-retentive bodybuilding hotshots would laugh at me because I was not getting standardized amounts.
To that I say: bullish*t to that. So what if it wasn't refined to an exact measurement? The body can't always PROCESS via exact measurements, so why are we so panicked if we feed it an imprecise ratio? And it is only a stimulant tea anyway. The point is: it worked, it was awesome, it was delicious, it was wholesome and made from natural ingredients that I could SEE. It was the best damn pre-workout I ever had, I made it by my own hands, and it produced incredible results.
And now it is impossible to find. Another victim to the process of government daddy-states, But because of it's extinction from my repertoire, at least I can be direct with an answer for once.
Ma huang, I miss ya. You too Harnett's. We barely even knew ya . . .