If you want to know which pre-workout supplements work, which don’t, and which are even dangerous, then you want to read this article.
It’s cold and dark at six in the morning.
And it seems even colder and gloomier when you have to get up and train.
At that hour, it’s like gravity has tripled. Your eyes droop, your limbs drag, and your nervous system is running on fumes.
It’s time like these that you thank the gods you have a pre-workout supplement.
You fumble the top off, mix a (heaping) scoop in water, gulp it down, and the magic begins.
Fifteen minutes later you feel like the star of the latest Marvel flick, ready to push, pull, and squat against the forces of evil.
There’s no question that a pre-workout supplement can get you fired up to get to work in the gym. There are downsides and potential risks, however.
Many pre-workout drinks are stuffed full of ineffective ingredients and/or minuscule dosages of otherwise good ingredients, making them little more than a few cheap stimulants with some “pixie dust” sprinkled in to make for a pretty label and convincing ad copy.
Many others don’t even have stimulants going for them and are just complete duds.
Others still are downright dangerous, like USPLabs’ popular pre-workout “Jack3d,” which contained a powerful (and now banned) stimulant known as DMAA.
Even worse was the popular pre-workout supplement “Craze,” which contained a chemical similar to methamphetamine.
The reality is it’s very hard to find a pre-workout supplement that’s light on stimulants but heavy on natural, safe, performance-enhancing ingredients like beta-alanine, betaine, and citrulline.
There’s a simple reason for why so many pre-workout supplements are so poorly formulated, too:
Would you rather listen to this article? Click the play button below!
Want to listen to more stuff like this? Check out my podcast!
- Why So Many Pre-Workout Supplements Suck
- The Best (and Worst) Pre-Workout Supplement Ingredients
- How to Find the Best Pre-Workout Supplement
- The Best Pre-Workouts I Could Find Weren't Good Enough...So I Made My Own
- The Bottom Line on Pre-Workout Supplements
- What's your take on pre-workout supplements? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
Table of Contents
The reason why so many pre-workout supplement suck is the same reason why so many workout supplements in general suck:
- Sales and distribution costs.
We’ve known of the corrupting power of money for a long time now.
Well, the capital sin of greed is just par for the course in the world of workout supplements. In fact, I’d almost say it’s the price of admission. If your moral compass is even remotely normal, you’re going to have a very hard time making a living selling supplements.
If you have no qualms about lying, cheating, and exploiting people’s deepest-seated desires to build fitter, healthier bodies, however, then selling supplements might be for you!
Not so fast, though, you greedy little sociopath, you. Here’s your first hurdle:
The retail model makes it basically impossible to create good supplements, including pre-workout drinks.
This is a simple numbers problem and it goes like this:
You need to sell your supplements to a distributor, who then sells to a retailer, who then sells to customers. And all three of you need your margins, which are usually anywhere between 50 to 100% (100 to 200% markup).
So let’s say your pre-workout supplement costs you $5 per bottle to produce. You then sell it to a distributor for $10 per bottle, who flips it to the retailer for $20, who marks it up to $40.
This provides a modest 50% margin for everyone involved and keeps the CFOs happy.
What it doesn’t do, however, is allow you to make a product worth a damn.
You see, the unfortunate truth is you just can’t make a good pre-workout supplement for $5. Or any other type of supplement for that matter beyond maybe a bottle of vitamin D pills or tabs containing few vitamins and minerals.
In fact, I can tell you that it costs at least $10 to produce a high-quality pre-workout supplement and closer to $15 to create something exceptional.
Extrapolate that out using the standard retail margins given above and you quickly see the problem. Namely, there aren’t many people that will pay $80 to $120 for a pre-workout drink, no matter how impressive the formulation or marketing is.
How do I know these numbers?
Because I produce and sell workout supplements, of course, and this has given me a true “behind the scenes” understanding of what goes on. And I’m here to tell you that it’s not pretty.
- Supplement marketing machines churn out line after line of hyped up, flashy products claiming to be more effective than steroids.
- Active ingredients are almost always underdosed, which companies hide by using the telltale sign of fraud, the “proprietary blend.”
- Too many workout supplements are full of low-quality ingredients, junk fillers, and unnecessary additives.
- There’s a distinct lack of credible scientific evidence to back up the outrageous claims made on labels and in ads.
The list of what’s wrong with this industry goes on and on.
Well, I think things should be done differently and I put my money where my mouth is, but that’s not really the point of this article, so let’s get back on track.
Now that you know a bit more about how the supplement game ticks, let’s take a closer look at pre-workout supplements and see what is and isn’t worth your money.
If you’re in the market for a pre-workout drink, you’re probably overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choices.
Between the shelves of your local supplement store and the virtual shelves of retailers like Amazon and Bodybuilding.com, there are literally 100+ products to choose from.
Sure, many are so poorly packaged and marketed that they’re not even contenders, but that still leaves you with dozens that all look and sound pretty good.
They all claim to be revolutionary. They all have slick marketing. They’re all pushed by fake-natty bodybuilders that swear by them.
How can you possibly know what is and isn’t crap?
Well, you can do what many people do and just choose one almost at random, hoping for the best, or you can be a bit more systematic and increase the likelihood of getting some bang for your buck.
The place to start is in reviewing the individual ingredients in the products.
First and foremost, if you see a “proprietary blend,” don’t buy the supplement.
A proprietary blend is a number of ingredients listed together under a single label. The weight of the entire blend is given but not the amounts of the individual ingredients.
Here’s an example from a popular pre-workout supplement:
“eNos Super Performance System” and “CNS Contractile Stimulant System” are proprietary blends.
The problem with proprietary blends is you don’t know exactly what you’re buying.
The ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, which means there’s more of the first ingredient than the second, more of the second than the third, and so forth, but the amounts of each can be wildly disproportionate.
For instance, if a prop blend weighs 1.5 grams and the first of the many ingredients in it is creatine, that may be 1.4 grams of the blend with minuscule amounts of the rest of making up the final 100 mg.
The reality is absolutely no reason to use proprietary blends for anything other than deception and fraud.
All the science behind effective ingredients and dosages is publicly available. Everyone knows what works and doesn’t, and in what amounts. Claims of “trade secrets” are bogus.
If a company isn’t willing to tell you exactly what you’re buying, it’s because they don’t want you to know. Don’t support them. Force them to change their ways.
So that’s the first criterion for choosing a pre-workout supplement: no proprietary blends.
Here’s the type of supplement facts panel you want to see:
Each ingredient listed with dosages and no fancy bullshit “matrixes,” “complexes,” “blends,” “amplifiers” or anything else.
Now, excluding products with proprietary blends eliminates a fair percentage of what’s available but still leaves a lot of possibilities.
How can you best evaluate them?
By reviewing each of the individual ingredients and dosages. If a product includes unproven or ineffective ingredients, you’re better off skipping it.
Many people don’t know to check dosages of ingredients, though. This is important because a small, ineffective dosage of otherwise good ingredients, like citrulline or beta-alanine, for example, also make for a poor product that’s probably not worth your money.
So, below you’ll find a list of the most common ingredients found in pre-workout supplements with a brief description of each.
As you’ll see, some of the ingredients don’t do much of anything. Many do…if you take enough, which is you’ll also find the clinically effective dosages for each.
These are the dosages shown to be beneficial in scientific studies and are what should be used in any pre-workout supplements. Anything less means the product is less likely to work as advertised.
Millions of people can’t shake the cobwebs without their morning cups of coffee but this powerful compound has a lot more going for it.
I don’t think I have to sell you on using caffeine before you train. If you don’t, you’re missing out. 🙂
For best results, research has shown that caffeine is best delivered in a pill or powder format, though you must be careful to avoid building up a tolerance to it.
For maximal performance benefits, take 3 to 6 mg caffeine per kg of body weight (start on the low end if you aren’t sure of your tolerance) about 20 to 30 minutes before training.
Don’t take more than 6 mg per kg of body weight and preserve sensitivity by incorporating 1 to 2 low caffeine days (50% of your usual dose) and 1 no caffeine day into your weekly routine.
Theanine is an amino acid found primarily in tea and research shows it confers several health benefits, including…
- Stress reduction
- Enhanced nitric oxide production (which improves blood flow)
- Improved focus, alertness, mood and memory.
The bottom line is if you like caffeine, you’re going to love theanine. It adds a whole new dimension to the world’s most popular drug.
Clinically effective dosages of theanine range from 100 to 250 mg, depending on the amount of caffeine it’s combined with (a ratio of 1:1 is best).
Theanine is one of the unique ingredients you’ll find in my pre-workout supplement PULSE, and it’s dosed 1:1 to caffeine for maximal benefits.
Agmatine is a substance formed when your body metabolizes the amino acid arginine.
Preliminary research on agmatine is promising. It may have a variety of uses, including alleviating pain, drug addiction, and depression, as well as improving cognitive function and stimulating the production of nitric oxide (NO).
The latter mechanism–the stimulation of nitric oxide production–is why agmatine is included in various pre-workout supplements. There are two problems with this, however.
1. Years of aggressive marketing have pumped up (pun intended) nitric oxide boosters as something akin to natural steroids, but this is mostly just unwarranted hype.
Yes, certain NO-boosting supplements such as citrulline have been shown to improve physical performance, but most “nitric oxide supplements” on the market just can’t deliver on their promises related to building muscle and strength.
2. There’s a distinct lack of human research on agmatine.
For example, the studies demonstrating its NO-boosting properties were conducted with rats, and just because it works in our furry little friends doesn’t mean it will do the same for us.
The bottom line is agmatine is a molecule to keep an eye on but I don’t think it can be justifiably sold as performance enhancing just yet.
Pre-workout supplements often include several B vitamins such as B3, B5, and B12, usually to promote higher energy levels.
There’s no doubting the vital importance of B vitamins, which are involved in hundreds of biological processes, including many related to the metabolism and nervous system.
There’s a distinct lack of evidence that supplementation with B vitamins improves energy levels, however.
As far as I can see, there’s no good reason to include B vitamins in a pre-workout supplement.
Another pre-workout amino acid supplement you’ll want to get familiar with is citrulline.
Thus, I’m a fan of citrulline for pre-workout supplementation. If you take enough every day, it can noticeably improve your workouts.
For best results, try a dose between 6 to 8 grams per day (the range that has demonstrated significant benefits in clinical testing). Take whenever.
You’ll find 8 grams of citrulline in each serving of my pre-workout drink PULSE.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids
Every gym has at least a few hardcore bodybuilder types that carry a jug of pink liquid with them at all times.
No, it’s not steroids, it’s BCAAs–one of the most popular…and overrated…supplements out there.
They’re extremely popular because they’re extremely easy to sell.
There’s plenty of research to cite that shows this combination of the amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine helps improve immune function, diminishes fatigue, minimizes exercise-induced muscle damage, and enhances post-workout muscle growth.
They’re extremely overrated because the bulk of the research used to sell them is misinterpreted and misleading.
You see, the truth is the studies’ findings just aren’t practical to the average physically active person following a sensible workout routine and high-protein diet.
Furthermore, you can give your body all the branched-chain amino acids it needs to recover and build muscle through food alone. In fact, there’s research that indicates this is more effective than supplementation.
That said, an argument could be made for the value of BCAA supplementation with athletes training several hours per day, but for the rest of us, it’s way more sizzle than steak.
There is one situation where BCAA supplementation makes sense, however, and that’s with fasted training.
Fasted training is more commonly thought of as “training on an empty stomach,” but this is a bit of a misconception.
Fasted training means exercising while in a “fasted” state, which has to do with insulin levels, not how empty or full your stomach feels. Specifically, your body is in a fasted state when it is no longer absorbing nutrients from your last meal and insulin levels are at a low “baseline” level.
You see, when you eat food, your pancreas releases insulin into your blood and its job is to shuttle nutrients into cells. While this is happening, your body is in a “postprandial” or “fed” state, and this can last for anywhere from an hour to 6+ hours depending on meal size and composition.
While there’s nothing wrong with training in a fed state, the hormones and signaling molecules related to fat burning work best in a fasted state. Furthermore, certain supplements that aid in fat loss like caffeine, yohimbine, and synephrine are maximally effective when taken before fasted exercise.
The bottom line is while fasted training isn’t necessary for losing fat, it can speed up the process (and especially when combined with proper supplementation).
That said, it does have one key drawback: accelerated muscle loss. That is, your body breaks down muscle more muscle proteins than when training in a fed state.
This brings us back to BCAAs: the amino acid leucine suppresses muscle breakdown, which makes it useful for preserving muscle while training in a fasted state. It also impacts insulin far less than food, including something as simple as a scoop of whey protein, which would elevate insulin levels enough to break the fasted state.
Research shows that 3 to 5 grams of leucine 10 to 15 minutes before fasted exercise gets the job done. Most BCAA supplements contain leucine, isoleucine, and valine ratios of 2:1:1 or 3:1:1, so you’d need to take about 10 grams to get enough leucine.
Now, BCAAs “get the job done” but I’ve always disliked two things about them:
- You’re paying for three amino acids but leucine is the only one that is truly useful. You can buy pure leucine instead but it tastes really bad.
- Having to take ~10 grams before each fasted training session means you burn through bottles fairly quickly. The expense adds up.
The reality is BCAAs just don’t deliver much bang for your buck. Fortunately, however, there’s a molecule that does BCAA’s job even better: β-Hydroxy β-Methylbutyrate (also known as HMB).
HMB is one of the chemicals that leucine breaks down into in the body and research shows it’s an extremely effective anti-catabolic agent. In fact, it’s about 20 times more anti-catabolic than its parent amino acid leucine.
This makes HMB ideal for use with fasted training because it’s not only extremely anti-catabolic and thus able to negate muscle breakdown but it also has no effect on insulin levels, which means it can’t break your fasted state.
You can buy HMB on its own and take 2 to 3 grams before training, but you can also find it in our pre-workout fat burner FORGE, which was created specifically to accelerate fat loss and preserve muscle while training in a fasted state.
Beta-alanine is a naturally occurring amino acid that regulates the amount of the molecule carnosine that can be stored in the muscles.
When you supplement with beta-alanine, intramuscular carnosine levels rise, you benefit in several ways:
- A reduction in the fatigue associated with exercise,
- an improvement in anaerobic workout capacity,
- and an increase in potential workload, which can lead to an increase in lean mass.
Beta-alanine is a worthwhile pre-workout supplement. Its benefits are well established, it’s 100% safe, and its effects are reliable and significant enough to justify the expense.
Dosing information comes from a 23-study meta analysis published in the scientific journal, Nutrients. For best results, aim for a dose around 5 grams per day (clinically effective doses found by researchers ranged between 2.6 to 6.4 grams daily). Take whenever.
You should also know that my pre-workout supplement contains 4.8 grams of beta-alanine, along with 5 other ingredients proven to increase energy, strength, and endurance.
L-tyrosine is an amino acid involved in the production of noradrenaline and dopamine.
Research shows that supplementation with L-tyrosine can reduce stress and improve mood and cognitive function.
You may find this helpful if your workouts are particularly grueling, but overall it’s a very ho-hum ingredient for pre-workout supplementation.
Arginine is an amino acid that is important for maintaining healthy blood flow and nitric oxide levels.
I like to see the amino acid citrulline in a pre-workout instead of arginine.
Citrulline turns into arginine in the body and results in larger and longer elevations of plasma arginine levels than supplementation with L-arginine itself.
Specifically, synephrine helps you lose fat faster in three ways:
- It increases lipolysis activity and basal metabolic rate.
- It blocks the activity of certain types of fat cell receptors that block fat mobilization.
- It increases the thermic effect of food.
Furthermore, synephrine works synergistically with caffeine and with two other chemicals found in the bitter orange, naringin and hesperidin.
Now, synephrine might sound like a good ingredient for a pre-workout supplement but I think it’s underwhelming, mainly because it’s quite weak as a stimulant (not even comparable to caffeine).
I prefer it in a fat loss product instead, which is why I’ve included 50 mg in each serving of PHOENIX, my caffeine-free fat burner.
Betaine, also known by its scientific name trimethylglycine, is a compound that’s found in beets and other plants.
The mechanism of how it accomplishes this isn’t fully understood yet but there are several hypotheses being investigated. The one currently considered most correct relates to the “cellular swelling” effect of betaine, which protects cells from exercise-induced damage and thus improves performance.
Like citrulline and beta-alanine, betaine is one of my “approved” ingredients for pre-workout supplementation. It works.
Most studies suggest that a clinically effective dose of betaine ranges between 1.25 to 2.5 grams.
Betaine is another one of the ingredients you’ll find in my pre-workout drink PULSE. Every serving contains 2.5 grams to deliver maximum benefits.
Creatine is one of the only supplements on the market that’s actually proven to directly accelerate muscle growth.
Decades of scientific research has conclusively proven that supplementation with creatine…
- Improves overall strength and build muscle
- Increases anaerobic endurance
- Minimizes the muscle damage and soreness resulting from exercise
It was once thought that creatine may cause kidney damage in otherwise healthy individuals but this has been thoroughly debunked. People with pre-existing kidney damage, however, should avoid creatine supplementation.
Now, if there ever was a “must-have” supplement, creatine is it. It’s cheap, it’s safe, and it works. Period.
That said, I don’t think a pre-workout supplement is the right place for it. Here’s why:
1. There’s evidence that co-ingesting caffeine with creatine may negate some of its muscle and strength benefits.
We’ll have to see what shakes out of further research, but for now I prefer to “play it safe” by separating my caffeine and creatine intake.
2. There’s evidence that post-workout supplementation with creatine is more effective than pre-workout.
Yohimbine is a substance derived from the Pausinystalia yohimbe plant. It’s an effective fat loss aid but the science of how it works is a bit complicated.
Fat cells have two types of receptors for adrenaline and noradrenaline (also known as catecholamines): “alpha″ and “beta″ receptors.
This is the physiological explanation for the “stubborn fat” phenomenon and the reason why it’s so hard to lose those last few pounds in your lower abs (most guys) or hips and thighs (most girls). The fat cells in these areas of your body are high in alpha and low in beta receptors.
Research shows that yohimbine blocks the activity of alpha receptors. This enables your body to reduce fat stores faster, and it’s particularly useful as you get leaner and are battling with stubborn fat holdouts.
Yohimbine’s benefits don’t stop with fat loss, either.
Research shows that it also improves exercise performance and it’s particularly effective at fighting off physical fatigue and increasing time to exhaustion.
All that said, I don’t think yohimbine is a great pre-workout ingredient for a few reasons:
1. It’s not always well tolerated, causing jitters and anxiety in some people.
Pre-workout supplements are meant to be used several times per week, year round, and thus I think should exclude ingredients known to be problematic with even a smaller percentage of people.
2. Overdosing can be dangerous.
And let’s face it–the pre-workout supplement is one of the most overdosed types of supplements out there.
3. Its fat loss properties are completed negated by a pre-workout meal.
Some people can’t or don’t like training fasted and thus won’t benefit from yohimbine’s fat loss properties.
For these reasons, I think yohimbine is better isolated in a product that you don’t have to use year-round and can do without should adverse reactions occur.
This is why I decided to put it in my pre-workout fat burner FORGE, which was created specifically for fasted training.
Now that you’re more familiar with the various ingredients commonly used in pre-workout supplements, let’s take a look at evaluating products on the whole.
If a pre-workout contains a proprietary blend, move on.
If a pre-workout supplement you’re considering contains proprietary blends, don’t buy it.
Don’t support this chicanery.
If a pre-workout isn’t built around clinically effective dosages of scientifically validated ingredients, move on.
Supplement companies love to make you think they’re on the cutting edge of scientific research, but’s that’s more a marketing dog and pony show than anything else.
What they’re usually doing is purposely misinterpreting research or selling animal research as directly applicable to humans (it’s not). In many cases these shysters are even “backing” claims with research wholly unrelated to the mechanisms or even ingredients being discussed.
The reality is…
- There aren’t many natural substances that are scientifically proven to safely and reliably improve performance and that are affordable enough to include in pre-workout supplements.
- It takes a lot of time, research, and money to discover and validate new worthwhile ingredients.
There are always molecules that show promise but will require years of work and millions of dollars to fully validate their effectiveness and safety. And many just languish there in supplement purgatory, waiting for funding.
The only way that you, as a consumer, can rise above the pseudo-scientific shenanigans of the supplement industry is to get more informed yourself on how to evaluate the claims made by various companies.
Check out my supplement guide to learn more about this.
If a pre-workout contains a large number of ingredients, that’s a red flag.
A large number of ingredients is a bad sign because it means there are small–and likely ineffective–dosages of each.
This “kitchen sink” approach makes for an impressive looking label but doesn’t bode well for the effectiveness of the product.
You only have so much physical and financial room in the product and clinically effective dosages of good ingredients like citrulline and beta-alanine are quite large and expensive.
So, what I like to see in a pre-workout supplement is a shorter list of ingredients with larger dosages, which means there’s a better chance it’s an effective product.
If a pre-workout is heavy on the stimulants, it’s up to you.
There’s no question that stimulants like caffeine, yohimbine, and synephrine increase energy and performance, but I think some pre-workouts rely too much on these types of ingredients.
The reason for this is simple: stimulants are cheap and deliver an unmistakable jolt of energy.
Most supplement companies want their pre-workout supplements to deliver the biggest “bang” for the least money, and loading up on stimulants is the best way to do this.
I’m not a fan of this approach. I don’t like feeling like my skin is crawling and heart is racing for dear life.
Instead, I like a pre-workout supplement that’s conservative with stimulants and heavy on non-stimulatory ergogenics like citrulline, beta-alanine, and betaine.
If a pre-workout contains a lot of artificial ingredients, I’m not thrilled.
I’m not a hypochondriac but I do try to limit my exposure to and ingestion of man-made chemicals like sweeteners, flavoring, food dyes, pesticides, and so forth.
While artificial sweeteners may not be as dangerous as some people claim, studies suggest that regular consumption of these chemicals may indeed be harmful to our health, and that more research is needed.
Many supplements also contain artificial dyes, known as “azo dyes,” such as FD&C Yellow #5 (also known as tartrazine), FD&C Blue #1 (also known as Brilliant Blue), FD&C Red No. 40 (also known as Allura Red AC), and others.
I don’t fret over consuming these types of chemicals now and then, but I’d rather not ingest large quantities every day. And when someone is using several supplements several times per day (protein powder, pre-workout drink, post-workout drink, BCAAs, etc.), they’re eating quite a bit of stuff that may have unwanted health effects down the line.
The irony is all the artificial chemicals just aren’t necessary.
They’re cheaper than natural alternatives but if a company doesn’t mind spending a little more per bottle, natural zero-calorie sweeteners like stevia and erythritol work just fine and so do natural flavoring and food coloring.
There are very few supplement companies that feel the same way about this, and the ones that do are selling some pretty poor formulations. And so I did what any entrepreneurial type would: I created my own line of 100% natural supplements so I can finally have exactly what I’ve always wanted.
As you can see, I’m a VERY picky person. I want only the best and am willing to pay for it and I’m extremely skeptical and hate being bullshitted.
Well, if you’re like me, then you’ll love the pre-workout supplement I created, PULSE.
What makes PULSE special, you ask?
- Clinically effective dosages of 6 natural, performance-enhancing ingredients backed by peer-reviewed, well-designed, and well-executed research: caffeine, theanine, citrulline malate, beta-alanine, betaine, and ornithine.
- No proprietary blends.
- No other stimulants than caffeine.
- No artificial sweeteners, flavors, or food dyes.
- No unnecessary fillers, carbohydrate powders, or junk ingredients.
While everyone claims to have the best pre-workout supplement on the market, I can actually back up such claim with real science, and real numbers.
Check out PULSE’s formulation and compare it against any other formulation on the market and you’ll quickly see why it has thousands and thousands of devoted fans.
Like all supplements, you don’t need a pre-workout supplement to build the body you want.
Once you have those fundamentals in place, though, supplementation can make sense. And a well-designed pre-workout supplement can help you get more out of your workouts, which is why I created one (which I use myself, of course).
If you want to make sure you’re getting real benefits for your pre-workout money, though, you need to choose wisely. The unfortunate truth is most of these products are no better than caffeine pills, which are a hell of a lot cheaper.
Whether you try my supplement PULSE or not, I hope this article helps you make more informed pre-workout purchases.