Huperzine A: Pre-Workout Hype! No Benefit
By Robert Schinetsky
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.1
Since acetylcholine is involved in muscle contractions, and other studies show that prolonged endurance exercise can deplete choline and acetylcholine4, supplementing with an ingredient that sustains acetylcholine levels in the body makes sense (in theory).
With that in mind, let’s see what the 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.”2
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.3
WHAT TASKS DID THE PARTICIPANTS PERFORM?
Participants performed a battery of mental and physical tests, including:
Endurance exercise task (walking on a treadmill of increasing speed/incline 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):
-Verbal fluency/word fluency
Here’s a diagram from the study for further clarification2:
Note: cognitive function tests were performed during the last 10-minutes of exercise.2 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.
After all the data was collected and analyzed, researchers found that huperzine A supplementation offered no significant differences in cognitive function between study trials.2 Digging further into the data, researchers found a trend that huperzine A supplementation may actually have made exercise more difficult!2
Additionally, there was no decline in cognitive function observed from baseline to exercise.2 Researchers concluded:
“...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 10:00 a.m., there is still around 100mcg in your system at 10:00 p.m. 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 A in products these days – pre-workouts, nootropics, energy drinks, sleep aids, etc.
If you want to use huperzine A occasionally (e.g., 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 is most likely OK, but for an everyday use in otherwise healthy individuals, it is not recommended.
These results add to our previous writings on why alpha-GPC (and other choline supplements) may not be the best route to consider when seeking supplements to enhance sports performance. Plus, a review from 2018 assessing nutritional supplements and the brain does NOT even mention cholinergics (alpha-gpc, choline bitartrate, huperzine A, etc.) when discussing nutrients that could enhance mental and physical performance.
For the reasons outlined above, Advanced Molecular Labs (AML) does NOT include huperzine A in its pre-workout or productivity supplements.
© Published by from Advanced Research Media, Inc. 2022
© Reprinted with permission from Advanced Research Media, Inc.
- 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.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.
- Meeusen, R., & Decroix, L. (2018). Nutritional Supplements and the Brain, International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 28(2), 200-211. Retrieved Mar 10, 2022, from https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/ijsnem/28/2/article-p200.xml