A pre-workout supplement is designed to give you an energy boost, mental focus, and drive to perform. Whether you use them before every workout or only on days you don't feel like performing at your best, you need to know what is on the ingredient list.
The best pre-workout supplement will show you exactly what it contains and offer you an optimal dose of the right ingredients. What is pre-workout made of, though?
I will take you through all the common (and uncommon) ingredients found in these supplements to show you what to look for in your next training session.
What Makes A Good Quality Pre-Workout?
The ingredients list on pre-workout supplements shouldn’t be difficult to read or follow. There are specific items you should look for that you ensure are included.
Let’s cover the best pre workout ingredients.
Caffeine is the most common and inarguably the most important pre-workout supplement ingredient. It will give you all sorts of performance benefits from the ability to focus no your muscle contractions to that extra 10% push for that additional rep.
It is THE stimulant that will give you that boost of energy and motivation throughout your workout routine.
If you want to get technical, caffeine is responsible for increasing muscle endurance, muscle strength, and aerobic and anaerobic capacity.[
On average, you can find anywhere from 100 to 400 mg of caffeine in pre-workout, depending on the product.
While there's debate on how much caffeine is ideal for achieving the optimal balance of benefits and side effects, 200 mg seems to be the most common answer, 300 or 400 mg of caffeine in a pre-workout can cause anxiety, jitters, and other side effects, so thread carefully.
2. Creatine Monohydrate
Creatine monohydrate is easily the most popular dietary supplement among all gym enthusiasts. It is the stable of sports nutrition and also the most studied supplement on the market, with most studies showing that creatine is safe, stable, and offers plethora of benefits without long-term side effects .
The most significant effects are that creatine aids in ATP production and enhances muscle strength and endurance. It can also enhance athletic anaerobic performance, it increases lean muscle mass, delivers oxygen and hydration to the muscles.
As for it's importance in a pre-workout, that is up for a debate, as creatine does not offer any immediate effects. However, having a maintenance dose of creatine within your pre-workout means you won't have to drink a separate shake that day.
Learn More -
L-Citrulline is non-essential amino acid and the most potent NO precursor you can take an oral supplement. For maximum efficacy, you'd need a dose anywhere between 6 to 8 grams.
When added to a pre-workout, citrulline turns into L-arginine, which then boosts nitric oxide production, resulting in vasodilation (widening the blood vessels) and improved blood flow.
All of this leads to better oxygen and nutrient delivery to muscle cells, and most noticeably, it leads to much more pronounced pumps.
This is also believed to reduce muscular fatigue and soreness, although further research is necessary to validate these claims.
Finally, when bound with malic acid, it turns into L-citrulline malate, a potentially more potent and efficacious compound for NO production.
L-tyrosine is a non-essential amino acid that serves as a precursor to several vital neurotransmitters, including dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. It's also required for proper thyroid functioning.
In the context of pre-workout supplements, L-tyrosine is used for its potential to enhance cognitive function and improve mood, by replenishing the levels of said neurotransmitters under conditions of fatigue, stress or exertion.
In addition, there's also a reason to suspect tyrosine can improve exercise capacity in hot conditions, but we still need further data to solidify or disprove this claim.
As for the proper dose of L-tyrosine in pre-workouts, you should look for anywhere between 1000 to 2000mg, although 500mg could also do you good if you respond well to it.
L-theanine is an amino acid primarily found in tea leaves - especially green tea.
Unlike most amino acids, it's not used to build proteins. Instead, it is known for its unique effects on the brain when administered at 100-200mg range. It promotes relaxation without causing drowsiness, making it a perfect partner to caffeine in a pre-workout setting.
Namely, theanine is often included in pre-workouts to smooth out the effects of caffeine, reducing jitters and promoting a sense of calm, focused energy, which could potentially translate to enhanced cognitive function and concentration during workouts.
Beta-alanine is one of the nonessential amino acid supplements often included in pre-workouts. However, it is also the most misunderstood one.
Beta-alanine is said to reduce muscle fatigue and relieve muscle soreness, by buffering lactic acid build-up. In theory, this should help you do more reps and have a more effective workout.
However, studies have shown that it takes 28 days of regular daily supplementation with 6.4 grams beta-alanine for it to become beneficial.
And even then, beta-alanine is only effective for bouts of exercise lasting from 1 to 4, possibly 10 minutes - so, not weightlifting.
In other words, go for beta-alanine if you're about to do a cardio session, jogging, swimming, cross fit, or HIIT training.
As for dosing, you should strive for 3.2 to 6.4 grams of beta-alanine, with the latter being the most optimal, but also most likely to cause beta-alanine itch.
Related Article - How To Get Rid Of Beta-Alanine Itch
7. Beetroot Extract
One of the less common pre-workout ingredients is beetroot.
The extract raises the body's levels of nitric oxide - just like citrulline. And just like citrulline, this will increase blood flow. As we have learned previously, this not only helps to increase muscular endurance but also gives you that coveted muscle pump.
Dosing is often all over the place in products, as this one's greatly influenced by your bodyweight. However, if you do the simply math and you see that you're getting 6.4-12.8mg/kg - you're getting a potent dose.
Theacrine, an alkaloid structurally similar to caffeine, is a naturally occurring compound found primarily in the kucha tea plant. In pre-workout formulas, you'll usually find it anywhere from 50 to 300mg.
Its structure and effects are similar to caffeine, but with some distinct advantages.
Theacrine provides a boost in energy, alertness, and focus, like caffeine, only not to the same extent, and usually without associated jitters.
Another notable benefit is that users typically don't build a tolerance to theacrine as quickly as they might with caffeine, but should be taken with a grain of salt, as the data on this is still quite scarce.
Rauwolscine, also known as alpha-yohimbine, is an alkaloid extracted from the Rauwolfia plant. Similar to yohimbine, rauwolscine acts as an alpha-2 adrenergic antagonist, promoting the release of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter related to the fight or flight response.
As you can probably imagine, this can result in increased energy, but also enhanced fat burning, and improved mood and focus.
Due to its potent nature, rauwolscine is more commonly included in fat-burning supplements rather than pre-workouts. Also due to its potent nature, the efficacious dose is as low as 0.2mg/kg.
Unlike regular yohimbine, energy you get from rauwolscine is nice and clean, without that tense, dirty feeling.
10. Natural Minerals, Vitamin Complexes, and BCAAs
Vitamins (like Vitamin D & B) and minerals are a standard part of most pre-workout supplements. The idea is, when you are performing a vigorous exercise program, HIIT workouts, or other strenuous activities, you may need these.
The most common minerals are magnesium and potassium. Magnesium is known to boost cardiovascular performance, improve endurance performance and reduce muscle cramping.
Potassium can help reduce lactic acid buildup, which will help your workouts last longer by delaying fatigue.
Vitamin D, C, and B-vitamins (primarily 6 and 12) are also commonly found in pre-workouts.
However, the truth is, while these definitely won't harm you - it's incredibly unlikely you need them in your pre-workout, as you're already getting them from your diet.
The same goes for BCAAs (branched chain amino acids).
They're very good, they're super useful, and they help with regulating protein metabolism (boosting muscle protein synthesis and suppressing protein breakdown). They may also enhance athletic anaerobic performance, but you also get them from your whey protein and food.
5 Things To Beware Of In Pre-Workouts
Not everything found in a pre-workout mix is good for you. Some brands have a lot of additives or are cryptic about their actual ingredients.
Here is what you should be on the lookout for to avoid pre-workout side effects:
1. Proprietary Blends
A proprietary blend must include a list of ingredients, by law. However, they are protected from displaying their exact ingredient amounts, so you are without knowing how much of a supplement you are receiving per serving.
The major downside is that you may not get the amount you are expecting. With proprietary blends, your servings may hold more or less than what you expect, causing you to accumulate too much (but more likely too little) caffeine or insufficient amino acids to be effective.
2. Artificial Colors And Dyes
Artificial colors can have negative side effects. Certain dyes, such as FD&C Blue 40 or Red 5, are carcinogenic and may pose health concerns.
Artificial sweeteners are also a major concern for many in the health and fitness industry, yet continue to be a major ingredient in health supplements.
Complex chemicals and ingredients with names you can't pronounce pose a lot of dietary and health risks. Without proper studies and research on the ingredients, you can be taking filler or ingredients with bad side effects.
If you aren’t familiar with a particular ingredient or it isn’t found on the list above, make sure you do your own research and talk to your doctor before taking the supplements.
4. Soy Lecithin Or Carrageenan
Soy lecithin and carrageenan are used in powders and mixes as a thickening agent.
When excessive amounts of these ingredients are ingested, it can cause upset stomach or other digestive problems, including bloating and water retention.
5. Refined Sugars, Maltodextrin & Glucose Syrup
As mentioned before, artificial sweeteners can cause major issues for your cardiovascular fitness. However, it isn’t limited to only artificial sweeteners. Refined sugar is just sweet and offers no nutritional value at all.
Likewise, maltodextrin and glucose syrup are also sweet. However, they can cause extreme spikes in blood sugar, reduce the levels of good bacteria and raise the levels of bad gut bacteria. These sweeteners can lead to gastrointestinal issues and the risk of inflammatory bowel disease.
Read Also - Why Does Pre-Workout Make You Poop?
Best Pre-Workouts That I Have Tested
Some pre-workout supplement brands are more popular than others. Is this due to good marketing or good ingredients? Let’s take a closer look at some of the more popular name brands on the market right now.
Transparent Labs BULK Pre-Workout
Transparent Labs BULK Pre-Workout is one of the cleanest and best thought-out pre-workout formulas on the market.
It's got everything you might want or need, neatly packed in a 23-gram serving.
It isn't overly potent and it won't have you buzzing and trembling because it's got a very good 180mg dose of caffeine (+30mg of di-caffeine malate), coupled with a generous 360mg dose of theanine, to effectively smooth out the energy release.
On top of that, this one comes with 6 grams of 2:1 citrulline malate mix, which isn't groundbreaking, but will definitely get your pump going.
And, if you're someone that enjoys cardio, HIIT, or cross fit workouts, you'll be glad to know that this one comes with 4 grams of beta-alanine, which is, compared to similar products, a dose that's quite high.
So, with regular use and some beta-alanine on the side, you might build up your endurance and lower the DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).
Learn More - Transparent Labs BULK Pre-Workout Review
Cellucor C4 is one of the most popular and well-known pre-workouts on the market, and while a good deal of their lineup isn't that good, their Ultimate pre-workout formula is the real-deal.
It's got 300mg of caffeine, which would wake up a bear from a winter slumber. It's got 6 grams of various forms of Citrulline for those massive pumps. And, if you're particularly conscious of your calorie intake - this one's only 5 calories per serving.
There's also decent amounts of beta-alanine, creatine (although HCl and nitrate), and moderate dose of theacrine and taurine.
The price tag may be an issue for some, but all in all, this is the best product C4 has to offer, and it's worth it from a performance-enhancing standpoint.
Learn More - Cellucor C4 Pre-Workout Review
Alani Nu Pre-Workout
Alani Nu is a brand that has been on shelves for a while and is often chosen by those looking for a more simple ingredient list. Unfortunately, many consider this to be a "girly" product, but in reality, this is inarguably one of the best products on the market.
This blend offers L-citrulline malate (6g at 2:1 ratio), beta-alanine, and two vital amino acids L-tyrosine and L-theanine - arguably two of the best ingredients for keeping yourself happy and focused during a workout.
Also, Alani Nu uses coffee bean extract as the caffeine source (200mg per serving) and uses only natural colors and flavors, meaning that you will be jitter-free and you won't ingest anything you don't want or need.
Also, at this price point, Alani Nu also offers one of the best value-for-money deals you can find.
Learn More - Alani Nu Pre-Workout Review
4 Gauge Pre-Workout
4 Gauge has a very authentic and neck-turning approach to pre-workouts, but let I tell you, this product is far more than just marketing.
Sure, it looks cool, but it's also quite effective - especially if you're a beginner.
150 mg of caffeine anhydrous will get your blood pumping figuratively, and the addition of 6 grams of citrulline will do that literally. Add a bit of theanine to the mix to ease out the jitters and anxiety that sometimes come with caffeine, and you have yourself a product that delivers energy and pumps, but also keeps you calm and focused.
Oh, it also features a gram of creatine monohydrate, so if you forget to take your daily maintenance dose, this can be your partial do-over, or at least a reminder to get that creatine in.
Learn More - 4 Gauge Pre-Workout Review
Who Should Be Using Pre-Workouts?
If you are going to the gym, but you find yourself struggling with workouts, you should be using a pre-workout.
It doesn't matter if your energy is low or your motivation is - a pre-workout can help. And of course, anyone that's healthy and just want an extra bit of push for their gym session can and should be using a pre-workout.
As you know, pre-workout supplements are designed to give you a boost of energy and focus that should last through most of your workout.
With higher energy levels, lower muscle fatigue, and more focus, you can hit the gym running and push through the most intensive workouts.
It is also designed to give you that boost on days you workout but may not be feeling it. If you find yourself dragging or more tired than normal, a pre-workout drink can give you the motivation to get on with the routine.
On the other hand, there are also people that should stay away from pre-workout.
Pregnant ladies, those overly sensitive to stimulants, or folks harboring an underlying illness (any cardiovascular problem, for example), should likely stay away from high-stim pre-workouts.
But then again, if they wish to work out and they just can't get by without pre-workouts, stim-free and caffeine-free formulas like Transparent Labs Stim-Free Pre-Workout they can try.
So, in summation, anyone healthy looking to hit the gym with stride should use a pre-workout.
How To Get The Most From Your Pre-Workout
To get the most out of the pre-workout supplements, you need to take them correctly. While choosing the right brand and type is important, how you take it is just as important.
More water is needed to fight off dehydration, and you need to take them about 30 minutes prior to your gym session.
Complement With A Good Diet
Your diet is still the most important aspect of your entire daily routine. If you eat the right foods in the right amounts for your body weight, the additional ingredients in these workout mixes become redundant.
Vitamins and minerals, proteins, and even energy sources are found in a standard, healthy diet. The energy boost, creatine, and other supplementary ingredients can come from your pre-workouts, though.
While I can't say that good diet will make it so you don't need a pre workout, it will certainly help.
Remember Rest Days
Resting is important for muscle growth. Rest days do not require a pre-workout though you should still drink plenty of water. Without a rest day, you will experience earlier muscle fatigue, soreness, and slower gains.
Pre-Workout Ingredient FAQs
Supplements of any kind are not approved or monitored by the FDA. This extends to vitamins and minerals, as well. Until a major issue requires the government to get involved, they only monitor that the rules are followed for labeling and ingredients lists, not what the supplements contain or how much.
The tingles you experience from some pre-workout mixes come from niacin, which is why it is commonly referred to as niacin rush. The tingle is due to widening blood vessels and increased blood flow that brings a light rash or flush to the skin and gives your extremities that tingly feeling. Different ingredients like L-citrulline, caffeine, and beetroot also contribute to the tingling.
The amount of each of the common ingredients will vary based on your individual needs and requirements. Caffeine is one of the most important ingredients to keep tabs on, and you should limit your daily intake to about 400mg total. Other ingredients should be a minimum of 100mg to be effective; otherwise, follow the recommended daily dose levels.
Proper dosing is important to get the best effects while minimizing side effects. Following the instructions on the label is the best starting point. However, you may need to adjust the dosage down until you get to a level that offers the benefits without making you feel jittery or even ill. Once you have established what is considered safe for your tolerance, you can increase the dosage back up to the recommended amounts as you grow accustomed to the effects.
Most pre-workout supplements will take 25 to 45 minutes to take effect. More water can help the hydration levels but may delay the effects. It is best to take the drink at least 30 minutes before you begin your workout program.
When taking a pre-workout, you expect certain effects and outcomes. The ingredients and knowing what to look for in a pre-workout drink help you find the best brand and blends that help you stay focused, motivated, and energized for your workout goals.
Knowing what to look for is important, but it is also essential to know what not to include. The wrong ingredients may offer no benefits or can cause adverse effects.
Make sure you understand what makes an excellent quality pre workout supplement.