A stimulant is a substance that provides a feeling of energy without any actual nutritional value. The most familiar example of a stimulant is caffeine (and it's the one you'll see most commonly used in supplements). Stimulants are sometimes added to pre-workout formulas to provide a quick energy boost or to enhance motivation and focus. You'll also find them in energy drinks and fat burners.
The primary benefit of taking a stimulant is for energy. They can be especially useful if you workout in the morning, or after work. Other benefits, depending on the quality of the stimulant, is added focus, motivation, and some potential to burn fat.
The primary use of stimulants is for a strong and almost immediate feeling of energy caused by accelerating the function of the central nervous system. Caffeine's powers are well documented in this regard. Feelings of fatigue are reduced and both blood pressure and heart rate are elevated.
Aside from a feeling of energy, some stimulants can mitigate feelings of pain from strenuous muscular work (to at least a small degree) and can enhance certain types of high-intensity exercise and athletic performance.
Some people find the almost immediate energy rush of stimulants helpful in overcoming reluctance to start a workout or to push through difficult sets.
Certain stimulants - primarily caffeine - can help enhance concentration and short-term memory.
Stimulants nearly always elevate metabolism, which increases the body's ability to burn calories. For that reason, you'll see them included in many fat-burning supplements (again, caffeine is the one most common).
Types & forms
Stimulants are available in a variety of forms, from energy drinks to pills and powders. How you take a stimulant depends on what you want it for. We do not recommend using coffee, or even energy drinks, especially carbinated varieties, for increasing your energy levels.
Energy drinks are typically designed to provide a very intense burst of energy, but not a long-lasting one.
What constitutes an energy drink is usually defined solely by product marketing, but they are generally caffeinated beverages that incorporate a blend of sweeteners, herbs, and sometimes vitamins and amino acids. Some familiar brand examples are Monster and Red Bull.
Energy drinks are typically designed to provide a very intense burst of energy, but not a long-lasting one. This is often achieved through megadoses of caffeine. While energy drinks are generally safe in moderate amounts, they usually don't provide anything of nutritional value, except perhaps some added synthetic vitamins. They also sometimes contain massive amounts of sugar (and thus empty calories), which can make them detrimental to your fitness goals.
A twist on the energy drink, which has become popular lately, is the energy shot. Five Hour Energy was a pioneering product, but you'll see lower-priced generic versions at most chain stores now. These shots are basically designed to pare down the stimulant benefit of an energy drink to just the caffeine, herbs, and vitamins while cutting out the sugar and nearly all of the calories.
Caffeine is possibly the world's oldest stimulant, and certainly the most enduringly popular and widely used. It primarily comes from coffee and tea, though it is found in the leaves and berries of several plants, and can be purchased on its own as a supplement in pill or powder form.
A big part of caffeine's global popularity is that it's very safe when taken in small to moderate doses, and decades of studies have found a wide range of health and athletic performance benefits. See our Caffeine page for a comprehensive breakdown.
Both coffee and tea have their own unique ranges of health benefits that go beyond what is offered by caffeine alone. If you're interested in coffee before a workout but don't want to take the time to sip your way through a hot cup, cold-pressed coffee is an alternative. Instead of steeping the coffee in hot or boiling water for a period of minutes, it's steeped in cold water for a few hours. There's no reduction in potency or flavor, but it's less acidic than hot-brewed coffee.
Dendrobium is a genus of orchid, but in the supplement world it refers to an extract from the plant. It's been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for hundreds of years to treat a wide range of ailments, but only relatively recently has been sold as a stimulant in supplements.
The theory behind supplementation for energy is that dendrobium contains phenylethylamines, which act as a stimulant. While it is still legal at this time, concerns about the phenylethylamines in dendrobium being too analogous to illegal amphetamines caused major retailers to pull products containing it from their shelves and several manufacturers of those products to suspend the product lines that contain compound.
Energy chews (or energy drops) basically operate on the same principle that energy shots do - condense the stimulant and vitamin benefit of energy drinks down to a more portable and low-calorie form. Energy chews can be a bit more economical than shots as they usually contain multiple servings per package. They also travel a little better as they're more easily packable and there are no worries about changing them over to a clear container to take them on a plane.
Energy gels differ from the other stimulants here in that they're carbohydrate-heavy and primarily intended to be taken during long periods of athletic endurance or very long training sessions (rather than just for general energy or concentration). They're usually sold in single-serve packets.
Side effects can vary greatly depending on the content of the particular stimulant, but it's worth talking about caffeine here since you'll find it in nearly every stimulant product.
Caffeine sensitivity and tolerance can vary greatly by individual, but it's generally well tolerated at 600mg (roughly six cups of coffee) or less per day. A 300mg serving is the average daily intake for adults in the United States. Potential side effects in this range are mostly mild and not threatening to health - a jittery feeling, trouble concentrating or relaxing, insomnia, anxiety, nausea, and more frequent urination.
The chief disadvantage of stimulant products is that they can sometimes make you feel too jittery or unfocused to concentrate on a workout. This is usually due to a greater than usual sensitivity to caffeine. Fortunately, there's a wide range of stimulant-free pre-workout mixes and fat burners available.
You should always speak to a doctor before beginning any new exercise regimen or using unfamiliar supplements, particularly if you are taking any form of prescription medication.
Most pre-workout mixes and fat burners do not qualify as "food products" for the FDA's purposes and are thus largely unregulated by them.
You'll sometimes find a combination of caffeine and synephrine in the same supplement. While the doses in these supplements are generally safe for use, you should not consume any additional caffeine if a supplement also contains synephrine.
Where to buy
PricePlow can help you find a wide range of stimulant products and at 30% to 50% off of retail prices. Let us do the work so you can focus on your workout.
- Borota, D, et. al; Nature Neuroscience; "Post-study caffeine administration enhances memory consolidation in humans;" October 2013
- Zeratsky, K; Mayo Clinic; "Energy Drinks: Do They Really Give Me Energy?;" March 2012
- Rettner, R; LiveScience; "Workout Supplement Contains Meth-Like Compound;" October 2013
- Farang, N, et. al; American Journal of Hypertension; "Caffeine Tolerance is Incomplete: Persistent Blood Pressure Responses in the Ambulatory Setting;" May 2005
- Lovallo, W, et. al; American Journal of Hypertension; "Blood Pressure Response to Caffeine Shows Incomplete Tolerance After Short-Term Regular Consumption;" 2004
- Medline Plus; "Caffeine In The Diet;" April 2013
- BfR; "Health assessment of sports and weight loss products containing synephrine and caffeine;" November 2012