The physiological effect of your workouts is a direct result of the quality of your training sessions. To enhance those sessions, many people seek an edge in the form of a pre-workout supplement. The pre-workout is one of the largest segments in the vast sports nutrition industry, recording sales of nearly $14 billion in 2021. The number of products in the pre-workout space is staggering and constantly expanding due to new products, line extensions of existing products, new condition-specific offerings, and new ingredients, formulas, and blends.
Selecting the right product can be daunting. In this article, we help answer how to pick the perfect pre-workout. We define pre-workout supplements, explain their role in helping you through a training session, do a deep dive on the components in a quality pre-workout product, and review the scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of this supplement category.
Whether you’re new to the space, or an experienced user who cycles different products or perhaps even blends your own pre-workout formula, if you’re looking to learn more about how to pick a pre-workout supplement, we think you’ll find this guide informative and helpful.
What is a Pre-Workout?
As the name suggests, pre-workout supplements are dietary supplements consumed before your training session to provide extra energy, endurance, and improve your athletic performance. To quote the NCBI, National Center for Biotechnical Information, “Pre-training supplements are multi-ingredient compositions (MIPS) aimed usually at enhancing strength, shortening reaction time, and eliciting focus.”
As you will see throughout this article, the MIPs concept of multi-ingredients in a pre-workout supplement is key, as formulas are adapted to achieve specific objectives of the individual. The belief is that there is a synergistic effect when two or more substances are combined to create an impact more significant than the single ingredient by itself. This belief has led to many manufacturers adopting “proprietary blends.”
The typical pre-workout supplement features some combination of ingredients to increase energy, reduce muscle fatigue, increase strength and performance, enhance blood vessel function, and provide focus. Pre-workouts come in various forms and delivery systems; powders (by far the most prevalent), RTDs (Ready-to-Drinks), capsules, and tablets. Every major manufacturer in the sports nutrition space markets pre-workout supplements, some with multiple brands, condition-specific formulas, and multiple delivery methods.
The Role of a Pre-Workout Supplement
Once you have refined your basic training and nutrition programs, developing your supplement regimen is the next crucial step to realizing your goals/objectives. Proper form, exercise program design, and dietary considerations – providing the appropriate number of calories in the correct macronutrient ratio are paramount.
The role of supplements is to ensure you are getting all the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients your body requires. A well-designed supplement regimen might include the following:
- Omega 3 Fish Oils
- Pre- and Probiotics for digestive health
- Protein Powder – to supplement the diet and help with muscle development and repair
- Post-Workout recovery drink
- Intra-Workout BCAAs
And, of course, the pre-workout should be taken 15-30 minutes before your workout to provide the energy, stamina, focus, and strength to ensure you get the most out of your training sessions.
Perhaps the pre-workouts number one benefit is motivation. Once you begin mixing your pre-workout powder, the launch sequence has started. Knowing that increased energy and laser-like focus are following, you have the discipline to hit the gym, put forth a worthy effort, and complete a quality workout.
How a Pre-Workout Affects the Body
A quality pre-workout supplement supplies more than just energy and focus; an energy drink will accomplish this. A comprehensive pre-workout also promotes muscular endurance, stamina, vasodilation, and recovery – they aid in muscle and strength gains, having an ergogenic effect.
The specific compounds and nutrients in a pre-workout are designed to enhance your workouts by bolstering energy, buffering lactic acid, which allows you to train longer, harder, and recover faster, and increasing nitric oxide production to improve blood flow to working muscles.
The pre-workout is formulated to provide your body with sufficient energy and other nutrients to get through your most rigorous training session. We discuss the various compounds in great detail in the Key Ingredients segment and the scientific evidence of the benefits of a pre-workout below.
The Science Behind MIPS – Pre-Workout Supplements
A prominent pre-workout ingredient, creatine, is the most clinically studied sports nutrition supplement of all time. Other compounds found in these supplements, such as Beta-Alanine, Citrulline, Caffeine, Branch-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs), Glutamine, and a host of others, have all been the subject of clinical studies independently. All have been proven effective at delivering the promised health benefits. However, few manufacturers subject their finished products to scientifically validated clinical trials to substantiate the promised synergistic effect.
So, why do we remain confident in the benefits of the pre-workout, multiple ingredient composition supplements?
Our research led us to several clinical studies addressed by the NCBI, National Center for Biotechnical Information. One study, titled “Effects of Pre-Workout Multi-Ingredient Supplement on Anaerobic Performance: Randomized Double-Blind Crossover Study,” provided compelling data as to efficacy. To summarize their report, the NCBI concluded that pre-workout supplements effectively improved resistance and high–intensity performance, delayed muscle fatigue, and improved strength.
How to Pick a Pre-Workout
Before selecting the individual supplement, we recommend you conduct your due diligence to identify the type of company you wish to do business with. Below are the best-in-class traits of reputable industry leaders:
- Products made in the U.S. in a cGMP-certified (current Good Manufacturing Principles) facility
- Products that contain patented, trademarked ingredients, with clinical studies to validate their structure/function claims – at the appropriate dosages
- Products that feature transparency in labeling – each compound and its dosage are detailed on the product’s Supplement Facts panel
- Products tested in an independent third-party lab for quality assurance
- Products certified by USP, NSF, or Safe for Sport – guaranteed free of banned substances
- Products certified Organic, Non-GMO, Vegan, All-Natural, etc.
- Products supported by a Money-Back Guarantee
Once you’ve identified a suitable brand or manufacturer, it’s time to determine your specific desires (stim versus non-stimulant), dietary considerations, goals, and objectives for the product.
Your Goals & Objectives
When selecting a pre-workout supplement, it’s essential that you think about your goals, objectives, and your training regimen. Pre-workout compounds are designed to improve certain aspects of exercise performance. While some ingredients focus on increased strength or power, others may boost your endurance. Manufacturers formulate condition-specific products – some promote mass, others contain cutting compounds, some emphasize dilation, and others prioritize focus. Know what you want out of your pre-workout and understand which combinations will deliver the desired results.
As an example, when looking for a pre-workout to help take my training sessions to the next level, I prioritized the following:
- Increased muscle – without adding weight
- Testosterone support – yes, some manufacturers incorporate test boosting compounds
- Joint support
Your objectives will vary. Below is a list of other potential goals for your pre-workout:
- Strength gains
- Add lean muscle
- Muscle pumps (Vasodilation)
- Muscle mass
- Weight loss
- Add lean muscle while losing weight
- Supplemental vitamins/minerals or antioxidants
Once you’ve defined your objectives, it’s essential to understand which ingredients and compounds effectively deliver the benefits you are seeking.
Key Ingredients – Transparency
Although many manufacturers are moving towards transparency, studies indicate that more than half of the most popular, commercially available pre-workout products still include at least one proprietary blend. To aid in your analysis, in proprietary blends, ingredients must be listed in order by weight, with the highest concentration listed first and the remaining compounds in declining order.
The following review will detail the most frequently used ingredients in pre-workouts today and their intended benefits.
- Creatine – The number one “ergogenic” aid in sports nutrition supplements for increased strength, muscle, and improved athletic performance. As mentioned, creatine is the most clinically studied supplement ever. In the never-ending search by manufacturers to improve on the original monohydrate, we now have esters, chelates, and hydrochlorides. The debate rages as to the effectiveness of the various forms – we recommend either the original monohydrate in a 3 – 5 grams dose per day, or creatine HCI, 2 – 4 grams via a pre, post, or both pre and post, per day.
- Beta-Alanine – Beta-Alanine is a non-essential amino acid for endurance and enhanced power output during high-intensity training. It elevates carnosine levels in the muscle fibers, allowing you to go longer and harder by buffering lactic acid. The recommended dosage is 1.6 – 3.2 grams per day, taken in your pre-workout or intra-workout product. That sometimes-unpleasant tingling feeling you experience after your pre-workout is most likely the result of the Beta-Alanine.
- Citrulline Malate – Citrulline malate is an amino acid that serves as a powerful nitric-oxide precursor in pre-workouts. A vasodilator, Citrulline helps dilate or widen the arteries to improve blood flow to the muscle. Converted into arginine in the body, Citrulline may increase NO levels in the blood better than arginine itself. In clinical studies, it was reported to increase repetitions to exhaustion while decreasing delayed-onset muscle soreness. Citrulline is also beneficial as it helps remove harmful free-radical compounds that accumulate during intense exercise. Our recommended dosage is 6 grams per day.
- BCAAs – The branch-chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine are three of the nine essential amino acids. BCAAs are the building blocks required to synthesize other amino acids and proteins. BCAAs are a staple in pre-and intra-workout products for building, maintaining, and repairing muscle. Although manufacturers continuously tweak the ratio, emphasizing Leucine, the correct balance is 2:1:1 – 2 parts Leucine, 1 part Isoleucine, and 1 part valine. A common dosage is six grams per serving, one to two times per day.
- EAAs – A more recent addition to pre-workout formulations are the remaining six essential amino acids in addition to the BCAAs, termed full-spectrum EAAs (essential amino acids). Proponents of the EAAs component contend they do a superior job of building muscle and recovering from intense training. The EAAs products are comprised of the three BCAAs, plus the other six essential amino acids:
- Caffeine – Caffeine is a powerful, evidence-based stimulant, the most common ingredient in MIPs supplements. Caffeine joins Creatine and NO compounds as one of the most extensively researched ingredients in a Pre-Workout supplement. Clinical trials support the use of Caffeine for cognitive function, increased energy, and enhanced endurance during training sessions. Another ergogenic aid, Caffeine, delays time to exhaustion. A typical dosage is 200 – 300 milligrams in a pre-workout.
- L-Glutamine – Glutamine is the most prevalent free amino acid found naturally in the body. Glutamine, one of our favored pre-workout components, is excellent for gut health and supports immune health in addition to playing a crucial role in repair and recovery. Five to ten grams pre-and post-workout is sufficient to mitigate exercise-induced muscle soreness.
- Betaine – Is a unique, naturally occurring amino acid known for its health benefits for the liver and joints. More recent double-blind studies support the use of Betaine for muscle growth, strength gains, and fat loss. Dosage recommendation – 1.25 to 3 grams, one to two times daily.
- Taurine – Taurine is another naturally occurring amino acid found predominately in the eyes, brain, heart, and muscles. Although used most often in pre-workouts and energy drinks to support energy levels during an intense workout, Taurine can also enhance muscle function and increase fat burn. Additionally, this functional amino acid has antioxidant properties to combat exercise-induced free radicals. Dosage: 500 – 2000 milligrams per day.
- N-Acetyl L-Cysteine – N-acetyl cysteine, from the amino acid L-cysteine, is considered a semi-essential amino acid – semi-essential because your body can produce it from other amino acids, serine, and methionine. Primarily used in sports nutrition by endurance athletes for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. The established daily recommendation is 600 – 1,800 milligrams of NAC.
- Alpha-Glycerol – When supplemented orally, Alpha-Glycerylphosphorylcholine (Alpha GPC) provides the body with a source of choline, known for its brain-boosting effects. This compound is frequently found in nootropic products. In a pre-workout, the choline from Alpha GPC helps to produce acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter responsible for muscle contractions. Research suggests Alpha GPC also aids in the natural release of growth hormone (GH) during strenuous exercise. Effective dosage: 300 – 600 milligrams per day.
- Beet Extract (Beetroot) – Rich in nitrates, beet extract is used as a nitric oxide precursor for vasodilation, allowing more blood to working muscles to deliver more oxygen and nutrients. Beetroot has been rapidly gaining popularity for its ability to improve athletic performance, regulate blood pressure, improve digestion, and lower the risk of diabetes. The recommended dosage for athletic performance is 70 – 140 mL if taken as a liquid, or 50 milligrams as an extract, preferably before exercise – as in a pre-workout supplement.
- L-Tyrosine – Tyrosine, another amino acid – supports your metabolism to aid in burning fat, provides energy during exercise, improves focus, and reduces training-induced fatigue. Supplementing with Tyrosine helps the body’s natural ability to release the performance-oriented neurotransmitters dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. Tyrosine is frequently used in nootropic products to improve alertness, attention, and focus. Dosage: 500 – 2,000 milligrams, 30–60 before exercise.
- Huperzine A – Another popular nootropic ingredient frequently used in pre-workouts is Huperzine. This plant extract works by inhibiting the enzyme which breaks down acetylcholine. Research indicates Huperzine can increase the amplitude of muscle contractions and promote focus, enhanced memory, and improved mood. Dosage: 50 – 200 mcg daily. Note: that is mcg micrograms, not milligrams.
- BioPerine – Is a patented brand of piperine, the compound that gives black pepper its flavor. This compound, from Sami-Sabinsa Group, is used extensively in dietary supplements for all types of products to enhance absorption. Dosage, 5 milligrams.
Weight Loss/Cutting Aids
In addition to the stimulating (think caffeine, Taurine, or theacrine) versus non-stim segments, companies formulate some pre-workout products specifically for those looking to lose weight or in a pre-contest cutting phase. You can usually identify these products as they include words like ripped, lean, shred, burn, or cuts in the product name.
With pre-workouts and Diet Aids being two of the largest segments in nutritional supplements, combining the two in one product seems a match made in heaven. For those seeking a weight loss or cutting benefit, the following are essential components:
- Thermogenic Aids – for fat burning. Many brands will formulate with one or more of the following in their diet aid products:
- Caffeine – takes on a more prominent role in a weight loss product as a thermogenic in addition to its energy benefits
- Green Tea Extract/EGCG – contains caffeine
- Yohimbe Bark Extract
- Capsaicin – Cayenne Pepper
- Garcinia Cambogia – contains hydroxycitric acid (HCA)
- Bitter Orange/Synephrine
- Theacrine – often a patented ingredient, similar to caffeine, marketed as TeaCrine®
- Appetite Suppressants – to decrease the appetite and prevent overeating. Some of the more popular suppressants are:
- Chromium Picolinate
- Green Tea Extract
- Cayenne Pepper
- Black Pepper
- Carb and Fat Blockers
- ALA (Alpha-Lipoic Acid)
Pre-Workouts/Muscle Pump Focus
Another specialty segment of the category is the nitric oxide booster or vasodilation pre-workout. These supplements will typically feature NO (nitrogen oxide or nitrogen monoxide) in the product’s description. NO’s function is vasodilation, to dilate or relax the inner muscles of blood vessels, allowing more blood, nutrients, and oxygen to the muscles. Like creatine, NO has been rigorously tested, with more than 30,000 published papers validating its effectiveness in different bodily systems.
The top three ingredients are L-arginine, citrulline, and betaine for those seeking bigger muscle pumps or more vascularity. Most major brands use either arginine or citrulline, many combined with betaine. Other pump supplement ingredients include:
- Agmatine Sulfate
- AAKG (Arginine-alpha-ketoglutarate)
Two other ingredients gaining popularity in pump products for their ability to draw more water into the muscle are Hydro-Max Glycerol and Creatine Nitrate. Finally, beetroot, traditionally marketed for heart health, sexual health, and anti-aging, has entered the sports nutrition space for its vasodilation properties to improve athletic performance.
Due Diligence – Additional Considerations
We saved the best and maybe most important consideration in selecting your pre-workout for last – taste. No matter how comprehensive or potent the formula is, compliance and continued use become an issue if it doesn’t taste good.
You will also want to consider the dietary impact of your selection even if weight loss, or gain, is not a major consideration. Many companies add sugar (calories) to their Pre-Workout products to improve the taste.
Are Pre-Workout Supplements Safe?
We hope this review of the types of pre-workout products, the established ingredients, and the scientific data are sufficient to alleviate any fear of significant side effects. In its review of multi-ingredient pre-workout products, the NCBI noted that study participants reported no adverse events or side effects and that MIPS appears to be relatively safe for healthy adults. Most companies include label copy stating that the minimum age for pre-workout consumption is 18 years old.
The most common side effects reported after ingesting a pre-workout include headaches, jitters, and anxiety caused by stimulants, an unpleasant tingling sensation due to Beta-Alanine, and upset stomach or water retention attributable to creatine monohydrate.
As with any addition to your supplement regimen, we recommend consulting with your healthcare professional.
Stacking Your Pre-Workout
There are myriad variations to the combination of supplements you might include in your program. In an earlier segment, we provided a sample of some of the products in a comprehensive regimen. Common additions for someone looking to cover the waterfront in making sure your training sessions are most beneficial include:
- A quality protein supplement
- An intra-workout to complement your pre-workout
- A post-workout recovery product
Formulating Your Own Pre-Workout
Armed with the above list of ingredients, their intended purpose, and the recommended dosages, you have one other option, DIY or formulate your own pre-workout supplement. The ingredients and compounds to make your own product are readily available online, in bulk. The advantage is adding or subtracting ingredients and adjusting dosages to fit your needs. The major disadvantage – formulating for taste. Companies expend millions in researching, testing, and tweaking their supplements to make them taste great. Challenging to do yourself.
In Summary: Finding the Right Pre-Workout
You have your workout routine and diet dialed in. You’re ready to take the next step – to take your training to another level. A pre-workout can help provide the added inspiration, motivation, and discipline to add lean muscle, more mass, or get ripped.
Know your objectives and do your due diligence in selecting the appropriate product for you.
Key to selecting any supplement is to read and research. Armed with this article, you know the most well-established compounds and ingredients, their intended benefits, and efficacious dosages. So, scrutinize the Supplement Facts panel to ensure you get the appropriate components to help you reach your desired outcomes.
Bonus Section: Top Pre-Workout Brands
Below are some companies you may wish to consider/research for condition-specific pre-workout products.
Best Overall Pre-Workouts for Strength, Stamina, and Endurance
- JYM Supplements – Pre-JYM
- BSN – NO-Xplode
- Optimum Nutrition – Gold Standard Pre-Workout
- GAT – Nitraflex
Best Pre-Workout for Weight Management/Cutting
- Cellucor – C4 Ripped
- Evolution Nutrition – ENGN Shred
- Transparent Labs – Lean Pre-Workout
- Pro Supps – Hyde Thermo
Best Nitric Oxide Pre-Workout Supplements
- MRI Performance – NO2 Black / Black Powder
- BSN – Nitrix NO Precursor / NO-Xplode Vaso
- Pro Supps – Hyde Max Pump
- Evolution Nutrition – Pump Mode
Best Beetroot Supplement
- HumanN – BeetElite
- Onnit – Total Nitric Oxide Performance & Pump
- Snap Supplements – Nitric Oxide Pre-Workout
Best Pre-Workout with Testosterone Support
- Onnit – Total Strength & Performance
- Pro Supps – Hyde Test Surge
Best Bulk Supplements to Formulate Your Own Pre-Workout
- BulkSupplements.com – Everything from Creatine Monohydrate to HCI and virtually every other component included in our article – over 500 ingredients