Huperzine A in Pre Workouts? Think Again! New Study Shows No Performance Benefits
Huperzine A is a common ingredient in many pre workout supplements. In fact, there’s been a growing trend in recent years of adding nootropics to pre workouts (something that I forecasted several years back, in fact, when DMAA and DMHA were on the way out).
However, does adding Huperzine A to pre workout supplements actually enhance mental or physical performance?
After all, the purpose of a pre workout supplement is to supply the body and mind with the nutrients it needs to lift more weight for more reps, delay the onset of fatigue (both centrally and locally in the muscle), and perform better.
With that understanding, some recent research indicates that Huperzine A doesn’t really belong in a pre workout supplement.
Before we get to the study, though, let’s first discuss the methodology behind including Huperzine A in pre workouts.
Why is Huperzine A Included in Pre Workouts?
Huperzine A is an alkaloid naturally occurring in toothed clubmoss (huperzia serrata).
It does a couple of interesting things in the body, but it is primarily known for its ability to inhibit acetylcholinesterase -- the enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine (“the learning neurotransmitter”).
In addition to learning, acetylcholine is involved in the mind-muscle connection and muscle contraction.
Since acetylcholine is involved in muscle contractions, and other studies show that prolonged endurance exercise can deplete choline and acetylcholine, supplementing with an ingredient that sustains acetylcholine levels in the body makes sense (in theory).
With that in mind, let’s see what the new research has to say…
Published August 2021 in the International Journal of Exercise Science, researchers sought to investigate whether taking huperzine prior to exercise would improve mental or physical performance.
15 exercise-trained individuals between the ages of 18-60 participated in the double-blind, crossover trial. This means that each individual essentially served as their own control as they performed the exercise trial both under placebo and Huperzine A.
“Exercise-trained” in the context of this study meant that individuals need to engage in “moderate to vigorous intensity endurance exercise (i.e., brisk walking, running, cycling, etc.), at least three days per week, for at least 20-minutes per session, for at least six months prior to this study.”
Interestingly, resistance training was not part of the definition of “exercise-trained” for the purposes of this study. (Personally, I find this a bit odd as the vast majority of people using pre workout supplements are engaged in at least a modicum of resistance training).
What Dosage of Huperzine Was Studied?
Individuals received 200mcg Huperzine A or placebo capsules 30–45 minutes before exercising.
Previous research indicated that orally ingested huperzine A appears in the blood within 15-minutes and reaches peak levels by 60-minutes.
What Tasks Did the Participants Perform?
Participants performed a battery of mental and physical tests, including:
- Endurance exercise task (fatigue-inducing protocol using a treadmill where the speed or intensity was increased until subjects hit 70% of his/her heart rate reserve -- HRR)
- Upon reaching this metric, subjects performed an additional 30 minutes of steady state exercise at 70% HRR at this work rate.
- Estimated time to complete both tasks was between 35–45 minutes (Note: previous studies have shown that this duration of exercise is enough to impair cognitive function. Based on this huperzine A supplementation “should” help)
- Digit span (forward), to assess working memory
- Verbal fluency/word fluency
- The Stroop test, to assess information processing
Here’s a diagram from the study for further clarification:
Note: cognitive function tests were performed during the last 10-minutes of exercise.
After the endurance exercise portion was complete, individuals then had their hand-grip strength and vertical jump height tested to assess muscular strength.
Up next, they performed a standardized push-up test after the grip strength and jump tests were over.
Rounding things out, participants completed a dart throwing test (three rounds of three throws) to measure hand-eye coordination following the muscular endurance task. Participants completed three rounds of three throws. Finally, they performed a “Sharpened Romberg test” to assess balance performance.
What is the Sharpened Romberg Test?
The Sharpened Romberg Test had participants remove their shoes and stand with their feet in tandem position (heel to toe), their arms crossed over their chest, and the palms of their hand on the opposite shoulder.
“They were first asked to stand quietly with their eyes open and then with their eyes closed. They were instructed to attempt to maintain this position for 60-seconds. If they were unable to do so, they were given up to three additional attempts. The sum of each trial was recorded. If a score of 60-seconds was reached at any attempt the subsequent attempts were forgone and given the score of 60.”
After all the data was collected and analyzed, researchers found that Huperzine A supplementation offered no significant differences in cognitive function between study trials.
Additional analysis revealed that the perceived difficulty of the endurance exercise was rated an average of 1.1 points (0–10 scale) higher during the huperzine A trial than the placebo trial.
When this data is combined with the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and heart rate data that was collected, this indicates that huperzine A supplementation may actually have made exercise more difficult!
Additionally, there was no decline in cognitive function observed from baseline to exercise.
“...based on our data, it is not likely to provide such benefits. A practical implication of these findings is that athletes and other exercisers should be advised to seek other approaches for maintaining or enhancing cognitive function during exercise.”
This is the first study (albeit a very small study population) to investigate the potential performance-boosting effects of Huperzine A in an exercise setting. While a popular and powerful nootropic, the results of this study suggest that it does not make sense to include huperzine A in pre workout supplements.
Perhaps if the participants engaged in a longer and/or more rigorous exercise protocol (one that really taxed the cholinergic reserves of the body), huperzine A may have shown some benefit. But, more research in larger study groups is required.
Something else to consider is the relatively long half-life of huperzine A (about 12 hours).
What this means is that if you take 200mcg of huperzine at 10AM, there is still around 100mcg in your system at 10PM.
This becomes a cause for concern in healthy individuals absent cognitive decline because it could accumulate in your system and your body will adapt to it, thereby negating its potential benefits.
Chronic dosing isn’t a concern for those with cognitive decline or Alzheimer’s as they are expected to take it consistently, but for young, healthy individuals, it’s best to proceed with caution. This is all the more pertinent since so many brands are haphazardly throwing huperzine in products these days -- pre workouts, nootropics, energy drinks, sleep aids, etc.
If you want to use huperzine every once in a while (a couple of times per week on non-consecutive days) for when you have a lot of work to do or shrugging off sleep deprivation, that’s likely ok, but for an everyday use, I wouldn’t recommend it.
What Do You Think?
Do you like Huperzine A?
If so, do you like it in pre workouts?
If not, what do you prefer?
Leave me a comment below with your feedback, and if you want to be privy to the latest research reviews and in-depth ingredient discussions check out the Engineer Insider!
- Sam C, Bordoni B. Physiology, Acetylcholine. [Updated 2021 Apr 17]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557825/
- Wessinger CM, Inman CL, Weinstock J, Weiss EP. Effect of Huperzine A on Cognitive Function and Perception of Effort during Exercise: A Randomized Double-Blind Crossover Trial. Int J Exerc Sci. 2021;14(2):727-741. Published 2021 Aug 1.
- Li Y, Zhang R, Li C, Jiang X. Pharmacokinetics of huperzine A following oral administration to human volunteers. European J Metabolism & Pharmacokinetics. 2007;32(4):183–7.
- Conlay LA, Sabounjian LA, Wurtman RJ. Exercise and neuromodulators: choline and acetylcholine in marathon runners. Int J Sports Med. 1992 Oct;13 Suppl 1:S141-2. doi: 10.1055/s-2007-1024619. PMID: 1483754.