Best Pre-workout Supplements
Pre-workout Formulas – What's in the Best?
Pre-workout formulas are available in a vast array of different concoctions, ranging from ones based on carbs to ones containing 'grey-area' or banned ingredients like DMAA and ephedrine. Some people don't get on with them and are happy simply with a pre-workout coffee, others rely on them can't train hard without one. Pre-workouts have their use for early morning wake-up workouts and for training after a hard day's work.
We'll look at some of the main ingredients and a few popular formulas out of the hundreds that are available on the market. Avoid ones that are based on high sugar as these are high calorie and will only give you a short boost during the early workout and may have a rebound effect causing sluggishness later on during your session.
Popular Pre-Workout Ingredients
Look out for the following ingredients on pre-workout formula labels. Look for formulas that contain ingredients that you get on with or ones that appeal to you to try. You may wish to make your own homemade pre-workout stack. Most of the ingredients are available in their own from bulk suppliers.
A good pre-workout formula will contain a little carbs in the form of dextrose (glucose) or maltodextrin or even waxy maize starch, Vitargo or cyclic dextrin. Carbs are required, not just as they provide energy in the form of calories, but because they help facilitate a rapid rate of gastric emptying; i.e. how quickly the formula leaves the stomach. You want the ingredients being absorbed rapidly and also not having a heavy drink sitting in your tummy during a hard workout. However, the level of carbs should not be too high.
A formula should contain some sodium and potassium to help hydration as well as the rate of gastric emptying. A good isotonic formula will leave the stomach quickly which, in turn, will help hydration as well as the absorption of the ingredients.
Caffeine is popular but not loved by all. It's a simulant and it's found in many, but not all, pre-workout formulas. A large caffeine dose will be anything over around 80mg per serving. If you see guarana or kola nut on the labels, these are simply herbal ingredients that provide caffeine. Read more about caffeine here.
Creatine is a well-researched supplement and its benefits on performance are proven. However, its action is longer term and it gives no short term benefit. It is popular as an ingredient as it's cheap but if it's to provide any benefit, you'll need to consume creatine daily. Read our article Creatine FAQs.
Like creatine, beta-alanine's performance benefits are cumulative and you need to consume it for several days before it will provide optimal benefit. Beta-alanine acts as a buffer for lactic acid and helps recovery. Beta-alanine does also give a slight tingly flushing sensation a few minutes after ingestion called paresthesia which can help you feel 'fired-up' for a workout. Beta-alanine is popular in pre-workout formulas because of the paresthesia as it help the formula give a short-term sensation and users like to 'feel' something working.
More on beta-alanine.
The amino acid arginine is a precursor to nitric oxide (NO) which is a vasodilator; i.e. something that relaxes blood vessels allowing increased blood flow. NO is responsible for the muscle 'pump' which, although temporary, also helps a positive mind-set during a workout. Physiologically, NO helps more blood flow bringing with it more nutrients and oxygen to the muscle as well waste-products like lactic acid being removed.
Arginine alpha-ketoglutarate (AAKG) is a form of arginine which bypasses an enzyme system, thus allowing more arginine to be used for conversion to NO rather than for the numerous other roles arginine plays in the body.
Read more about Nitric Oxide Pump Supplements.
Citrulline malate (CM) increased the level of arginine in the body which then increases the level of NO. It also helps remove the waste products of aerobic and anaerobic metabolism delaying the onset of fattier. The effects of CM are built up from using it over a number days; ideally use around 6g per day.
Read more here.
Taurine is the second most abundant amino acid in muscle. Like creatine, it acts as a cell-volumiser in muscles helping hydration and to increase protein synthesis.
However, it's more interesting use as an ingredient in a pre-workout formula is that it's a nootropic helping mental focus and concentration. It's for this reason that stimulant energy drinks like Red Bull contain it.
More information of taurine.
Glucuronolactone is another popular ingredient of energy drinks and is present in Red Bull. It is produced from the metabolism of glucose in the liver and has been shown to increase endurance and improve reaction times at supplemental doses making it an effective ergogenic stimulant and nootropic.
Tyrosine is an amino acid involved in protein synthesis. Its use in pre-workouts involves the fact that it's a precursor in the manufacture of various hormones and neurotransmitters including dopamine, DOPA, norepinephrine and epinephrine. Tyrosine is a nootropic that improves mental alertness and enhances cognitive performance helping concentration during training.
Ephedrine is a drug, it's used both as a stimulant and as a nasal decongestant. However, any legitimate pre-workout formula should not contain ephedrine.
Detailed information on ephedrine.
1,3 Dimethylamylamine (DMAA) is a potent stimulant used in pre-workout formulas. It helps workout aggression, mental focus and delays fatigue. It is, however, dangerous and banned in many countries.
Dimethylethanolamine (DMAE) is a central nervous system stimulant and a neurotransmitter precursor. Its effects are short term, but it is certainly one ingredient you 'feel' from consuming pre-workout formulas. DMAE is both a stimulant and a nootropic.
You may wish to make your own pre-workout formula, using some of the ingredients above in different combinations. Many of the ingredients are available on their own from bulk supplement suppliers. Read about making your own pre-workout here.
So, which pre workout is the best?
Top Pre-Workout Supplements : Hand-Picked by us
Possibly the most famous pre-workout formula on the market, BSN's NO-Xplode contains a number of the most effective pre-workout ingredients including creatine monohydrate, beta-alanine and caffeine and its popularity is its own testimonial. With a high amount of arginine alpha-ketoglutarate (hence the 'NO' in NO-Xplode!), this product gives intense muscle pumps, helps energy and focus with no mid-workout crash.
NO-Xplode also contains a number of amino acids, vitamins and minerals and is available in three flavours: Green Apple, Fruit Punch and Blue Raspberry.
Unlike the majority of pre-workout formulas, Animal Pump isn't a powder that you mix with water and drink: it's a sachet of pills (like all Animal products) that you consume 30-45 mins before training.
Animal Pump includes AAKG, glucuronolactone, beta-alanine, creatine and taurine as well as a number of other less common ingredients, some of which I question their benefit. It also contains some stimulants like guarana and kola nut as sources of caffeine, and Animal advise you exclude this pill if you train too late in the evening. I also feel the amounts of some of the more effective ingredients are in fairly low amounts. However, Animal Pump will certainly deliver intense muscle pumps.
Animal Pump is very popular and has the advantage of being convenient to take without having to chug down a drink with the risk of bloated before training.
Grenade .50 Calibre Editor's Choice
After being one of the most popular supplements in the UK, Grenade .50 Calibre shot itself across the Atlantic and is proving just as popular in the US.
.50 Calibre's key ingredients are citrulline malate, beta-alanine, caffeine, taurine, glucuronolactone and AAKG. It also contains branch chain amino acids (BCAAs), some stimulants and niacin (vitamin B3) for the flushing effect.
.50 Calibre is this author's pre-workout choice as it has ingredients in effective doses, without being too heavy and leaving you feeling 'spaced-out' post workout, like some formulas can.
Pulse by Legion Athletics is an interesting formula: it focuses less on ingredients that give you muscle pumps and, to a degree, stimulants (it only contains caffeine), and more on citrulline mallet and beta-alanine. It also contains no creatine.
Although Pulse wouldn't be this author's first choice, it is a decent formula and, as some people don't like excessive pumps and too many stimulants, it would be a great choice for those guys so it's definitely worth a mention here.
Vintage Blast is marketed as a 'two-stage' pre-workout. The main ingredients are caffeine – and it contains a very high amount of caffeine at 250mg per scoop (more than the amount in three mugs of coffee), beta-alanine, citrulline malate, AAKG and D-aspartic acid. The aspartic acid and the bunch of other ingredients Vintage Blast contains (like sodium, potassium, B-vitamins and L-carnitine) whilst may offer some other benefits, add nothing of value to it as a workout booster.
You'll certainly feel the effects of Vintage Blast - probably at around 15 minutes after drinking it. It is expensive if you take the suggested dose, but most of us won't need to consume that much and ½ or ¾ of a scoop will suffice
Gold Standard Pre-Workout
Optimum Nutrition are one of the most respected bodybuilding supplements and their pre-workout lives up to all you'd expect from them. It has quite a list of ingredients, some of which I'm not sure really add any worth to a pre-workout supplement, but it does have good amounts of creatine monohydrate, beta-alanine, citrulline malate and caffeine. You certainly feel fire-up.
It's also great tasting and is available in several flavours at a reasonable price. A small serving of Gold Standard delivers good, clean energy and focus for a hard workout.
Do Pre-Workouts Work?
A good pre-workout formula with some of the above ingredients will help you improve your workout intensity. However, they should not be relied upon and you still need a good nutrition intake.
Are Pre-Workouts Safe?
This depends on the ingredient. Be cautious with some of the above ingredients. With any pre-workout formula, only consume as per the product's directions and no more.
Which Pre-Workout Supplements are for Women?
Women can use exactly the same pre-workout formulas as men; just at the appropriate dose for their bodyweight.
Are Pre-Workout Ingredients Natural?
Some ingredients are natural, some synthetic; some will be synthetic forms of substrates that may also be found naturally.
Do Pre-Workouts Help with Muscle Gain?
If you have a good workout, this will help muscle gain; so, yes!
What Pre-Workouts will Help Cardio?
If you're using a pre-workout formula to assist with cardiovascular exercise of interval training, I would avoid formulas that contain ingredients that give you a pump, like AAKG. All other ingredients should help improve your cardiovascular performance.
Best Pre-Workout for Vascularity?
Look for formulas that contain beta-alanine, citrulline malate and AAKG.
Will Pre-Workouts Help Burn Fat?
Some ingredients may help increase the metabolism very, very slightly and these may help burn body fat as part of an appropriate diet and exercise regimen. However, any pre-workout formula that helps you exercise more intensely, will help the results of that workout.
How Much Pre-Workout is too Much?
This depends on the individual and, of course, the amounts of active ingredients in the product. My advice is, when starting a new formula, consume an amount slightly less than the serving suggestion and see how you get on. There's nothing worse than the effects of too much stimulants and beta-alanine.
Can Pre-Workouts Cause Anxiety?
Whilst it's not actual anxiety you may experience with some pre-workouts, the effects of some ingredients certainly mimics the symptoms of anxiety. Indeed, if you're anxiety-prone this effect could actually compound anxiety, so pre-workouts may be best avoided.
Can Pre-Workouts Cause Headaches?
Some people may experience mild headaches. This may be due to you not being adequately hydrated as some formulas may raise body temperature and make you sweat - especially if you're having an intense workout. Make sure you drink plenty of water and be careful you're not consuming too much.
Will Pre-Workouts Keep me Awake?
Many pre-workouts contain stimulants and, if consumed too late in the day, they may keep you up at night. If you're prone to this, don't consume pre-workouts within three hours of bedtime.