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Question

My 16-year-old started using a supplement before working out and says that “dry scooping” makes it work better. Is this true?

Michele LaBotz, MD, FAAP

Answer

Not necessarily. And, worse, "dry scooping" pre-workout supplements can be dangerous.

Dry scooping is one of the latest trends on social media. Athletes eat "scoops" (usually several tablespoons) of powdered, pre-workout supplements. These products, which contain caffeine and other ingredients meant to boost athletic performance, are designed to be mixed with liquid to drink as a beverage or shake.

Why is dry scooping dangerous?

The idea behind dry scooping is that more concentrated amounts of the pre-workout supplement will have a stronger effect on energy and endurance. However, there is nothing to suggest that's the case. What we do know is that dry scooping can cause choking and breathing trouble, and even heart problems. And there are more effective ways to improve athletic performance than pre-workout supplements, no matter how they're consumed.

Choking and breathing trouble

Dry scooping may remind you of the "cinnamon challenge" that was popular on social media a few years ago. As with that challenge, dry scooping can cause choking and breathing trouble when powder gets caught in the throat or inhaled. While this is unpleasant, most children recover quickly. However, some have ended up in the emergency room after breathing in powder. Children with asthma or other airway disease may experience more serious problems. Also, pneumonia is always possible when particles get into the lungs.

Side effects from concentrated caffeine

The bigger issue with dry scooping is that these supplements often contain caffeine. By consuming the powder without diluting it with water as directed, the caffeine is more concentrated and can cause problems. The amount of caffeine in pre-workout supplements vary widely. But some of the more popular brands have 150-350 milligrams (mg) per serving. (Coffee has about 100 mg caffeine per 8-ounce serving.) High doses of caffeine can trigger heart palpitations, jitteriness, anxiety and insomnia, and can cause caffeine dependency and withdrawal over time.

It's a good idea to check the label for caffeine content in your teen's supplement and talk with them about possible side effects. This is especially important, considering that many teens also get caffeine from energy drinks and coffee beverages.

What else is in pre-workout supplements?

Although there is no standard definition of "preworkout supplements," they most commonly include some combination of the following:

  • Creatine: Used by the body as a fuel for short bursts of energy, creatine can provide small gains (3-5%) performance gains during certain activities with short, repeat bursts of effort, such weightlifting. However, these potential gains often in many sports by the the several pounds of water retention that is typically seen with creatine use.
  • Nitric oxide precursors: These include a variety of substances such as taurine, citrulline and arginine that can increase blood flow throughout the body. They may enhance the sensation of a "muscle pump" during a workout. However, most studies do not show significant performance enhancement in young athletes.
  • Beta-alanine: This is supposed to reduce fatigue and increase endurance. But, again, most studies do not show significant performance enhancement in young athletes.

You should be aware that dietary supplements sold on store shelves and online are not closely regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. So, claims are untested. In addition, multiple studies have found that sports-related supplements may contain impure or missing ingredients.

Some manufacturers will seek certification by third parties to attest to the purity of their products. "USP," "NSF," and "NSF for Sport" are the most common supplement certifications used by supplement manufacturers. However, these certifications do NOT imply that these supplements are effective, but rather simply attest that the label accurately shows what is inside the container.

Skip the supplements and stick to the basics

A more effective pre-workout strategy should include:

  • Adequate carbohydrates to fuel the workout and to prevent muscle breakdown:

    • A high carbohydrate meal 3-4 hours before working out. Example for a 150-pound athlete: 2 cups pasta with 1 cup sauce, 2 dinner rolls, salad, glass of milk, and an apple.

    • A high carbohydrate snack 1 hour before working out. Example for a 150-pound athlete: a banana and half a cup of trail mix.

  • Adequate fluid to start the workout well-hydrated. Urine should be very pale yellow in color, like lemonade.

  • A good 8-10 hours of sleep the night before. This is challenging for many teens, but is well worth the effort to minimize injury risk, and enhance physical and mental recovery and performance.

  • Mental preparation to enhance focus and effort.

More information

Michele LaBotz, MD, FAAP

​Michele LaBotz, MD, FAAP, practices sports medicine at InterMed in Portland, ME. Within the American Academy of Pediatrics, she is a member of the Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness and on the Board of Directors for Maine Chapter of the AAP.

Last Updated
10/4/2021
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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