Advertisements for pre-workout supplements are some of the most exaggerated in the industry.
Take 10 – 20 grams of powder and you’ll experience “highly explosive energy,” “maximum anabolic activation,” and “extreme training endurance,” they say.
Are these products actually worth it, though, or are you better off popping a couple caffeine pills or drinking an espresso instead?
Well, I have good news and bad. Let’s get the bad out of the way first…
Table of Contents
Pre-workout supplements are notorious for several deceitful practices:
Including ineffective ingredients to make long, impressive nutrition labels.
Citing misinterpreted, cherry-picked, flawed, or biased studies to sell you on the effectiveness of certain ingredients.
Under-dosing key ingredients and hiding it behind the “proprietary blend” labeling loophole. This allows companies to not disclose the actual composition of each part of the blend, and thus hide the truth about what you’re actually buying.
Using substantial amounts of caffeine and cheap carbohydrate powders like maltodextrin to give a kick of energy. This is an easy, inexpensive way for supplement companies to make you think their product is good. You can save money by just popping a few caffeine pills and eating a banana instead.
Using chemical names of everyday compounds to mislead you into thinking the products have special ingredients. For instance, epigallo-3-catechin-3-O-b-gallate is just green tea extract, and 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine is just caffeine.
Why do these things?
Because it’s extremely profitable.
What most consumers don’t know is supplement companies make very little money on certain products, like protein powder, and need to make up for that by making exorbitant profits on others. The pre-workout supplement is one of them.
Let’s look at how the game works.
Find the Perfect Supplements for You in Just 60 Seconds
You don't need supplements to build muscle, lose fat, and get healthy. But the right ones can help. Take this quiz to learn which ones are best for you.Take the Quiz
Shady Supplements, Inc. is looking to create a pre-workout product, and they believe two things are key for sales:
1. Including ingredients that have been clinically proven as safe and effective, so bold marketing claims can be made and defended.
2. Including a bunch of other junk that sounds impressive, but which has no science to back it up. This is done to pad the ingredients list, making you feel like you’re getting a lot for your money.
There’s a problem, though.
The junk is cheap, but using clinically effective dosages of good ingredients gets really expensive, really fast.
Shady Supplements doesn’t want to spend a lot on the manufacturing, however. They want to make big profits, so they decide to do something else.
They use small amounts of the good, expensive ingredients, and combine it with the junk to create their own “proprietary blend.” For good measure, they also include a bunch of caffeine and a gob of carbohydrate powder so you have a spike of energy during your workout. (Which will be followed by a big crash, unfortunately.)
Why the proprietary blend?
Well, by doing that, they only have to tell you the total weight of the blend, not the dosages of each ingredient in the blend. You get ripped off without ever realizing it.
Another little trick of the proprietary blend is the fact that ingredients are listed in descending order according to predominance by weight. That is, the blend contains more of the first ingredient than the second, more of the second than the third, and so forth.
When the first ingredient in a blend is something cheap, let’s say maltodextrin or creatine monohydrate, it can be (and often is) 90%+ of the whole blend. No matter how many other ingredients are listed after the first, they can altogether only constitute a very small percentage of the actual blend.
Yes, there are $50 tubs of 90%+ maltodextrin powder out there that are marketed as effective pre- or post-workout supplements.
So, Shady Supplements has their fraudulent pre-workout formulation ready to go. It’s time to move to the next phase of the scam.
The marketing department gets ahold of the product, and knows their game.
They create claims based on the benefits of ingredients that would be effective if the dosages were actually correct. But, as the dosages are tiny, nothing can really be expected in terms of actual effects.
They embellish benefits, stretching them to the breaking point.
They place full-page ads in magazines featuring athletes, drugged-up bodybuilders, and fitness models, who pretend like Shady, Inc’s supplements are essential to getting big, lean, and strong.
Unfortunately, it works all too well.
People wind up rushing to the stores to pay $50 for a product that cost Shady, Inc. $3 to manufacture, and that would’ve cost $20 to create if the junk were dropped and clinically effective dosages of key ingredients were used.
The first thing you should demand as a consumer is no proprietary blends. There’s absolutely no reason to use them 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 what you’re actually buying, it’s because they don’t want you to know. Don’t support them. Force them to change their ways.
The second thing to know is that more ingredients doesn’t mean a better product. In fact, you won’t find a legitimate pre-workout, fat burner, or anything else really with 15+ quality ingredients because it’s financially impossible to use clinically effective dosages of that many.
By voting with your dollars and choosing wisely, you can force the changes that need to happen:
The death of the proprietary blend.
The use of effective ingredients at clinically effective dosages.
The elimination of ineffective “label filler” ingredients, and of the reliance on caffeine and carbohydrate powders for performance benefits.
Don’t ever forget that you, as the consumer, have the power to influence the marketplace.
With your money, you can choose to help maintain the status quo–the dishonest shenanigans–or help bring about meaningful change in the industry.
This brings us back to the original question: pre-workout or caffeine pills?
There are, however, several other safe, natural molecules that can further improve your performance…if they’re dosed properly.
Here are my favorites:
This is a naturally occurring amino acid that limits the amount of carnosine, a dipeptide, stored in the muscles. As beta-alanine levels increase, so do intramuscular carnosine levels.
A meta-analysis of 23 exercises tests of beta-alanine supplementation showed that the clinically effective dosages ranged between 2.6 and 6.4 grams per day, with a median effective dose of just over 5 grams per day.
This too is an amino acid and it’s sometimes used instead of its counterpart, L-arginine to stimulate nitric oxide production because it’s better absorbed, and results in higher plasma arginine levels. (L-arginine is unreliable in the mechanism of stimulating nitric oxide production.)
Thus, it’s no surprise that supplementation with citrulline has been shown to improve muscle endurance, relieve muscle soreness, and improve aerobic performance. The effective dosages have been shown to be 6 – 8 grams per day.
This is an amino acid, which, along with arginine and citrulline, plays a key role in a metabolic cycle known as the “Urea cycle.”
This is the process by which the liver converts ammonia into urea, which is expelled through the urine and sweat, and it impacts physical performance capacity.
Research has shown that supplementation with ornithine can reduce fatigue in prolonged exercise, promote lipid oxidation (the burning of fat for energy as opposed to carbohydrate or glycogen), and increase human growth hormone and insulin-like growth-factor 1 production when paired with arginine.
The clinically effective dosages in the studies cited above were 2, and 2.2 grams per day.
Theanine is an amino acid found primarily in tea can, when paired with caffeine, provide several cognitive and ergogenic benefits.
Research has shown that supplementation with theanine and caffeine can reduce the effects of mental and physical stress, increase the production of nitric oxide, which improves blood flow, and improve alertness, focus, attention, memory, mental task performance, and mood.
The clinically effective dosages of L-theanine in the studies cited above range between 100 – 250 mg.
This is also known as trimethylglycine, and it’s a compound found in plants like beets.
Research has shown that supplementation with betaine can improve muscle endurance, increase strength, and increase human growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor 1 production in response to acute exercise.
The clinically effective dosages in the studies cited above range between 1.25-2.5 grams.
While those are the “cream of the crop” in terms of effective ingredients for pre-workout supplements, the problem has been trying to find products that use them.
You’ll find one or two here and there, but they’re always horribly underdosed and come with a bunch of other junk, including artificial sweeteners and food dyes, which I avoid as much as possible.
The reality is an underdosed pre-workout is not worth the money as you won’t get much more out of it than caffeine pills. But…a properly formulated product would be far superior to caffeine alone.
And that’s why I decided to just make my own product and do it right.
I’ve been living the “fitness lifestyle” for over a decade, have sold over 200,000 books, and have helped thousands of people lose weight, build muscle, and get healthy.
For years now, I’ve been researching, testing, and recommending to others the best workout supplements I could find, but it was a constant struggle to maintain a list that met my standards.
What I’ve wanted for not just myself but others is simple:
- All ingredients backed by published scientific literature.
- All dosages at clinically effective levels.
- No artificial sweeteners, dyes, or unnecessary fillers.
- Good taste.
- Good value per serving.
Apparently that’s way too much to ask, because these products simply haven’t existed. Most don’t even begin to come close to those standards.
So I did what I could. I found the best possible products for myself and my readers, but in the back of my mind, I knew things could be done better.
As my career as an author began to grow, and my “tribe” here at Muscle For Life began to form, I finally saw an opportunity to do something about the status quo that I hated so much.
I decided to take matters into my own hands and, I believe, add real value to the marketplace.
I created my own line of workout supplements, which I believe will set the standard by which all others are judged.
Furthermore, my goal with LEGION (the name of the company) is to help educate consumers on the science of athletic performance so they can make better decisions in both their workout supplementation and training.
Now, my pre-workout supplement is called Pulse and it contains all the ingredients we just discussed:
- Caffeine. Caffeine is good for more than the energy boost. It also increases muscle endurance and strength.
- Beta-Alanine. This reduces exercise-induced fatigue, improves anaerobic exercise capacity, and can accelerate muscle growth.
- Citrulline Malate. This improves muscle endurance, relieves muscle soreness, and improves aerobic performance.
- Betaine. This improves muscle endurance, increases strength, and increases human growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor 1 production in response to acute exercise.
- Ornithine. This reduces fatigue in prolonged exercise and promotes lipid oxidation (the burning of fat for energy as opposed to carbohydrate or glycogen).
- Theanine. This reduces the effects of mental and physical stress, increases the production of nitric oxide, which improves blood flow, and improves alertness, focus, attention, memory, mental task performance, and mood.
And what you won’t find in Pulse is equally special:
- No artificial sweeteners or flavors..
- No artificial food dyes.
- No unnecessary fillers, carbohydrate powders, or junk ingredients.
The bottom line is if you want to know what a pre-workout is supposed to feel like…if you want to experience the type of energy rush and performance boost that only clinically effective dosages of scientifically validated ingredients can deliver…then you want to try Pulse.
What do you think about pre-workout supplements? Love them? Hate them? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
- Apicella, J. M., Lee, E. C., Bailey, B. L., Saenz, C., Anderson, J. M., Craig, S. A. S., Kraemer, W. J., Volek, J. S., & Maresh, C. M. (2013). Betaine supplementation enhances anabolic endocrine and Akt signaling in response to acute bouts of exercise. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 113(3), 793–802. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-012-2492-8
- Lee, E. C., Maresh, C. M., Kraemer, W. J., Yamamoto, L. M., Hatfield, D. L., Bailey, B. L., Armstrong, L. E., Volek, J. S., McDermott, B. P., & Craig, S. A. S. (2010). Ergogenic effects of betaine supplementation on strength and power performance. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 7. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-7-27
- Trepanowski, J. F., Farney, T. M., McCarthy, C. G., Schilling, B. K., Craig, S. A., & Bloomer, R. J. (2011). The effects of chronic betaine supplementation on exercise performance, skeletal muscle oxygen saturation, and associated biochemical parameters in resistance trained men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(12), 3461–3471. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e318217d48d
- Zajac, A., Poprzȩcki, S., Zebrowska, A., Chalimoniuk, M., & Langfort, J. (2010). Arginine and ornithine supplementation increases growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor-1 serum levels after heavy-resistance exercise in strength-trained athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(4), 1082–1090. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181d321ff
- Sugino, T., Shirai, T., Kajimoto, Y., & Kajimoto, O. (2008). l-Ornithine supplementation attenuates physical fatigue in healthy volunteers by modulating lipid and amino acid metabolism. Nutrition Research, 28(11), 738–743. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nutres.2008.08.008
- Willoughby, D. S., Boucher, T., Reid, J., Skelton, G., & Clark, M. (2011). Effects of 7 days of arginine-alpha-ketoglutarate supplementation on blood flow, plasma L-arginine, nitric oxide metabolites, and asymmetric dimethyl arginine after resistance exercise. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 21(4), 291–299. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.21.4.291
- Culbertson, J. Y., Kreider, R. B., Greenwood, M., & Cooke, M. (2010). Effects of Beta-alanine on muscle carnosine and exercise performance: A review of the current literature. In Nutrients (Vol. 2, Issue 1, pp. 75–98). MDPI AG. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu2010075
- Kern, B. D., & Robinson, T. L. (2011). Effects of β-alanine supplementation on performance and body composition in collegiate wrestlers and football players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(7), 1804–1815. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e741cf
- Smith, A. E., Walter, A. A., Graef, J. L., Kendall, K. L., Moon, J. R., Lockwood, C. M., Fukuda, D. H., Beck, T. W., Cramer, J. T., & Stout, J. R. (2009). Effects of β-alanine supplementation and high-intensity interval training on endurance performance and body composition in men; a double-blind trial. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 6. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-6-5
- Derave, W., Özdemir, M. S., Harris, R. C., Pottier, A., Reyngoudt, H., Koppo, K., Wise, J. A., & Achten, E. (2007). β-Alanine supplementation augments muscle carnosine content and attenuates fatigue during repeated isokinetic contraction bouts in trained sprinters. Journal of Applied Physiology, 103(5), 1736–1743. https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.00397.2007
- Dunnett, M., & Harris, R. C. (1999). Influence of oral beta-alanine and L-histidine supplementation on the carnosine content of the gluteus medius. Equine Veterinary Journal. Supplement, 30(30), 499–504. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2042-3306.1999.tb05273.x
- Astorino, T. A., Rohmann, R. L., & Firth, K. (2008). Effect of caffeine ingestion on one-repetition maximum muscular strength. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 102(2), 127–132. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-007-0557-x
- Beck, T. W., Housh, T. J., Schmidt, R. J., Johnson, G. O., Housh, D. J., Coburn, J. W., & Malek, M. H. (2006). The acute effects of a caffeine-containing supplement on strength, muscular endurance, and anaerobic capabilities. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 20(3), 506–510. https://doi.org/10.1519/18285.1