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. They 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 part of the workout and may have a rebound effect causing sluggishness later on during your training session. After all, what we all want is to increase our energy boost with those levels lasting longer.
Popular Pre-Workout Ingredients
Look out for the following common ingredients on labels. Look for formulas that contain ingredients that you get on with or ones that appeal to you to try. You may wish to formulate your own homemade pre-workout stack. Most of the ingredients are available on 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 supplements. A large caffeine dose will be anything over around 80mg per serving. These dosages can cause some unpleasant side effects and aren’t popular with those that can’t drink too much coffee without feeling nervous. If you see guarana or kola nut on the labels, these are simply herbal ingredients that provide caffeine. It’s probably the most common pre workout ingredient.
Creatine is a well-researched supplement and its benefits on athletic 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.
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.
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.
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 fatigue. The effects of CM are built up from using it over a number days; ideally use around 6g per day.
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.
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.
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.
What are the Benefits of a Good Pre-Workout?
Caffeine and creatine can both help you feel like your strength has increased. There’s some research that suggests caffeine might help with beta-endorphin generation, since it’s a neurotransmitter, but research is still new. Suffice it to say that a pre-workout is going to definitely help you feel like you can lift more, and when your mind is sure, your body follows.
Enhanced mental focus is a huge benefit if you’re workout out in a super packed gym at the peak time. It can be hard during those instances to get into the zone and a pre-workout can help you quiet out all other distractions. It’s also great if you’re a first thing in the morning gym goer. Try taking a pre-workout in place of coffee and watch your generally drowsy lifts become PR sessions.
Perhaps the most important thing a pre-workout does is that it boosts your endurance. That long leg day lift that used to leave you feeling destroyed might not be so brutal if you’ve taken a pre-workout before starting it. That’s because pre-workouts contain beta-alanine that helps fight fatigue.
How do you know that Pre-Workout is Working?
You can use three criteria to evaluate the effectiveness of your pre-workout. If you’re start feeling way more energized than you were an hour ago, chances are it works. There’s generally a sudden spike in your energy levels that sort of just hits you.
- If you’re sure you can push, pull, or squat more than any other human ever, the pre-workout is kicking in.
- Stimulant based pre workout supplements often contain ingredients that help increase clarity and focus. If everything else in your gym has melted away and you’re totally zoned in on your lift, your pre-workout is doing its job.
- The histamine response of beta-alanine and the niacin flush are also easy to spot signs that your pre-workout is fully integrated and ready to help you outperform what you did at your last lift.
Are There Any Side Effects?
Taking too much caffeine can have negative effects on your resting heart rate and your heart’s ability to function properly. Because most pre workout supplements contain incredibly large amounts of caffeine, they can be harmful to your overall heath.
Ingesting caffeine within six hours of a proposed bedtime can also have negative effects on your sleep patterns and circadian rhythms. So, be careful with the caffeine content of a pre-workout if you have an evening workout.
Some pre workout supplements have as much caffeine as four cups of coffee. On its own, four cups of coffee might not be a significant health detriment, but combined with whatever else you might be drinking during the day that has caffeine could put undue stress on your heart and exacerbate underlying heart conditions.
The amount of caffeine in pre-workouts can also cause gastric upset and severe diarrhoea. This is because there are some binding agents in pre-workouts that act as laxatives.
Dangerous unregulated substances can be found in pre-workouts if the manufacturer has included them in the proprietary blend. Recent litigation filed against two pre-workout supplement companies assert that their products, for which they’ve not disclosed all ingredients, has causes liver damage and multiple deaths. Doping agents that are all part of the methamphetamine class of drugs can pose significant health risks. If you’re a competitive athlete, make sure you’re super careful about your pre-workout to avoid being inadvertently disqualified from meets.
So, What are the Best Pre Workouts? The Reviews
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.
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. It’s available in three flavours – Killa Cola, Lemon Raid, and Berry Blast – which, for some reason, actually taste like you’re drinking ammo!
Although not a well-known product, it’s lack of popularity must be down to poor marketing from Medievil because Warfare is a good pre workout supplement. It includes, AAKG, beta-alanine, citrulline malate and niacin and what I like about their information is they tell you how much of each ingredient is present per serving rather than hiding behind a so-called proprietary blend; and there are good amounts of the main ingredients. Warfare delivers the intense muscle pumps, energy and focus that you should expect from a good pre-workout.
Available in four pleasant flavours at a reasonable price for 50 servings.
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 supplements 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, helping with muscle growth / muscle mass; 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.