Pre-workout supplementation is one of the most divisive debates in the fitness space. This is for a good reason. While pre-workout supplements are extremely popular amongst gym goers, most of the products on the market are propped up by shady advertising and pseudoscientific ingredients.
However, when formulated correctly, a pre-workout can help to give you that extra bit of energy to get going for your workouts. Whether you work out early in the morning or after long shifts at work, a good pre-workout will help you lift harder and longer. All of this will allow you to make greater gains.
Best Pre-Workout Supplements
Why Take A Pre Workout?
Many of us love going to the gym. However, to fit working out into our busy schedules most of us go to the gym either very early in the morning or after work. When this is the case, it’s often hard to be pumped up and excited to give one hundred percent for every workout. When presented with such a problem, a good pre-workout can make the difference between a great workout and a mediocre effort.
You may be thinking can I just drink an energy drink and/or some coffee to get the energy needed? This is partly true. Back in the day before pre-workout supplements became popular, bodybuilders would drink coffee prior to their workouts to get going. So just like with any other supplement, you don’t need a pre-workout to get into great shape. And while you could just opt for the coffee route, there are some other key ingredients that could help boost your performance.
What To Look For In A Pre Workout
It’s clear a good pre-workout can help boost your performance in the gym. However the vast majority of products out there stuffed with junk ingredients, underdosed, and full of unbacked marketing claims. To assist you in making a better choice, here’s what you should be looking for a pre-workout supplement.
All Natural Ingredients
One of the first things to look for in any supplement is the inclusion of only natural supplements. The ill effects of many artificial ingredients may be overblown a bit, but the research still says the effects are up for debate. When you take into consideration that this something you’re going to be taking every day, artificial sweeteners, food dyes, etc. just don’t need to be on the list. There are enough all natural pre-workout supplements out there that you don’t have to compromise.
Scientific Effective Ingredients
With the aim of making a quick buck, shady supplement companies will try and stuff all kind of non-essential ingredients into their pre-workouts. They often do this to make some unproven claim of a substance to help boost their marketing efforts.
But you don’t have to fall for this. There are only a handful of effective ingredients for a pre-workout. Here’s what you should be looking for:
Beta-alanine is a nonessential amino acid that’s used to increase muscle endurance. Beta-alanine achieves this by turning into the molecule carnosine which regulates the amount of acid in your body.
Studies have shown that people using beta-alanine experience being able to lift one to more reps during a high volume set (15-20 reps). It can also improve moderate to high-intensity cardio as well.
At high dosages, beta-alanine can give you a tingling feeling all over your skin. Some people may find this weird at first, but in my experience many gym goers like this because it’s a sign that their pre-workout has kicked in and it’s time to work.
The research supporting beta-alanine’s positive effects on exercise performance is extensive. However, those effects are moderate at best in getting you to push more weight in the gym. But as natural bodybuilder every little boost counts and the extra one or two reps add up over time. So beta-alanine is definitely something you want to look for in your pre-workout.
The majority of pre-workout supplements boast about boosting nitric oxide levels. Companies focus on this so much that many of the popular pre-workouts have “N.O” (for nitric oxide) in the name. And there’s a good reason for this: increased nitric oxide levels in the body helps to increase blood flow. This increased blood flow can improve workout performance and enhance nutrient delivery to your muscles, which could lead to faster muscle growth.
Many supplements try to achieve this by supplementing L-arginine. However, L-arginine supplementation has been unreliable when studied and only seems to work in half the subjects
Citrulline is a far more effective compound for boosting nitric oxide levels. The body actually converts citrulline into L-arginine, and in studies, it has been effective across the board. This is why I prefer my pre-workout to have citrulline to boost blood flow and make you feel a good “pump.”
Theanine is a nonessential amino acid that’s typically found in green tea. It’s an interesting compound that can have a relaxing effect on your body without making you sleepy. This relaxing effect tends to make people seem more focused which is a major benefit during a workout when you’re trying to get through your exercises and keep your correct form.
Theanine’s relaxing effect is particularly effective when coupled with caffeine (or other stimulants) because it can help to “take the edge off” and not make you feel overstimulated.
Because of its effect on increasing focus and helping to regulate the feeling of caffeine, theanine is something I look for in my pre-workout supplement. In the past, the some of the products that would take would get me so jacked up in the gym that I would either have problems sleeping at night or there would be a massive crash afterward. Theanine supplementation really helps to mitigate these issues.
Betaine is a compound that’s found in beets and other plants. Researchers haven’t fully figured exactly how it works. But they do know that there is substantial evidence that it increases muscle endurance.
The same caffeine that gets your day started or gives you that midday boost when you’re tired is also one of the best and most proven workout supplements out there. Just like how caffeine increases your focus in the office it does the same while you’re in the gym. Also when it’s dosed at the correct levels, caffeine obviously gives you a jolt of energy and that could be the difference between a good or bad workout.
The benefits of caffeine go beyond just improving focus and cognition. Caffeine is also known to increase muscle endurance as well. This is why almost so many pre-workout supplements have caffeine as their main ingredient. Given it’s proven track record of effectiveness and safety, caffeine is the only stimulant I like to see in a pre-workout.
Creatine is one true and tried muscle building supplement. Numerous reputable studies show that creatine can enhance workout performance and help to accelerate muscle mass. If there’s only one supplement to take creatine should definitely be it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean creatine should be in a pre-workout, there are a couple reasons why you may want to supplement your creatine separately.
The first issue is that there are few studies that suggest that taking caffeine may interfere with creatine’s effectiveness. And although the research is not yet entirely conclusive, there’s enough there to give pause.
Secondly, some research shows that creatine may be more effective when taken post workout. The differences in when you take it are small, but given that creatine’s effectiveness could possibly be affected by caffeine, it’s something to consider. Also, every little bit counts.
Lastly, creatine stores aren’t something that you have to restore on a time of day basis. As long as you’re supplementing the correct amount daily, your body will store enough of it and be ready when you need that extra boost.
All that being said many pre-workouts still add creatine to the mix. It’s not a bad thing, but if you can find a pre-workout without one, then it’s better to do so.
Appropriately Scientific Backed Dosages
So now we have a list of ingredients we need to address another significant point. To drive profits, shady supplements companies will often list a bunch of reputable ingredients but they not provide the adequate dosage. The reason for this is simple: the right ingredients and the proper dosages cost more money. And if they can squeeze more profits by fooling people that they’re getting something that is legit, that’s precisely what they’ll do.
So keeping that in mind here are the appropriate dosages for the supplements we want in a pre-workout:
Effective dosage: 2.6 to 6.4 grams per day
Effective dosage: 4 to 10 grams per day
Effective dosage: 100 and 250 mg
Effective dosage: 1.25 and 2.5 grams
Effective dosage: 3 and 6 mg per kg of bodyweight
Effective dosage: 5 mg per day.
What To Avoid
Anything with a “proprietary blend.”
One the ways that supplement companies hide the dosage of their ingredients is by saying they have a unique “proprietary blend.” On the surface, this sounds great. It seems like this company has a unique formula that makes their product special. However, supplement companies use proprietary blends to hide the dosages of their products. And far too often the active ingredients you’re looking for is underdosed. For this reason, it’s good just to avoid any products with proprietary blends and opt for companies that are transparent as possible.
To make up for the underdosing of essential ingredients companies will often fill their supplements with unnecessary fillers. Cheap compounds like maltodextrin and unnecessary stimulants are used to give you a short feeling of energy. However, these cheap substances will leave you feeling jittery and also cause major crashes after your workout.
Instead of cheap fillers what you want to look for is a short ingredient list with the correct dosages.
Artificial sweeteners and Dyes
Artificial food ingredients are a somewhat of a controversial topic. While they were once believed to have immensely detrimental effects on your health, new research suggests that those claims may be a bit overblown. So does that mean we’re free to indulge in as many artificial ingredients as possible?
I personally try to avoid these substances. Especially for products that I’m ingesting almost every day. While the claim of adverse effects may have been overstated in the past, the new research is still not conclusive. And there are enough products on the market that avoid artificial sweeteners and dyes that there’s just no good reason to choose a product that has them.
Legion Athletics is one of the leaders in the supplement industry in making formulations that entirely backed by science. Every supplement, every ingredient is carefully selected, and they provide the science for every choice. Their pre-workout, Pulse, is the perfect example of their great products.
Pulse includes everything that you need in a pre-workout. It has 350mg of caffeine, 350mg of theanine, a whopping 8 grams of citrulline malate, 4.8g of beta-alanine, 2.5g of betaine and 2.2g of l-ornithine. That adds up to one of the best pre-workouts in the game.
I have used other pre-workouts in the past and Pulse is definitely one the best I’ve ever tried. It’s not heavy on stimulants, so you don’t feel jittery. The feeling of taking Pulse is nice sustained energy to get through your workout and no crash afterward.
- Scientifically backed ingredients at great dosages
- Caffeine as the only stimulant
- Naturally sweetened with stevia
- No artificial food dyes
- Tastes amazing
- Premium pricing
Transparency is rare when it comes to supplements companies. So when one comes along, it is such a refresher. A few years ago fitness guru Jim Stoppani decided to put out his own line of supplements that would include scientifically backed ingredients. Much like Legion Athletics mentioned above, Stoppani has put together an impressive line of products.
The pre-workout “Pre Jym” is one of the best put together and effective pre-workout supplements on the market. All the ingredients needed for a good pre-workout are present and at scientific backed dosages.
This meticulous formulation gives you just what you need without any jitters or post-workout crashes. The feeling kicks in 30 to 45 minutes after taking it. And you can expect a good pump and well-focussed energy.
The product does have a few ingredients I think could be left out like creatine, and artificial sweeteners which I don’t want to consume every day. Pre Jym is also a little pricey than some of its competitors.
Overall Pre Jym is an excellent product with the right ingredients that will give you nice focused energy in the gym.
- No Proprietary Blend
- Good Value
- Great Taste
- Fully Clinical Doses
- Artificial Sweeteners
- Creatine Hydrochloride. Would prefer it post workout
Transparent Labs lives up to its name with its products. The company prides itself on providing products that are scientifically backed and include no artificial substances. The company’s pre-workout: Preseries delivers on this promise.
The company makes two different pre-workouts: Preseries Bulk and Preseries Lean. The difference between the two is slight, one coming with testosterone support and the Lean product containing a “thyroid support” mix. To be honest, the ingredients provided for these two goals would make a minimal difference, and you’d be okay with either one.
What the product does include is an excellent blend of everything you need in a pre-workout. It does contain some additional stimulants like synephrine which isn’t particularly necessary for a pre-workout.
- Transparent no proprietary blends
- No artificial food dyes
- Proper dosed ingredients
- Different formulations are confusing
4 Gauge is a new pre-workout that promises to give you the ammunition (pun intended) to power your workout. Don’t let the cool packaging fool you, 4 Gauge is a superb pre-workout formulation.
4 Gauge contains clinically dosed levels of caffeine, theanine, citrulline malate, rhodiola rosea, l-carnitine, and a few other interesting substances.
The only knock against the product is that the caffeine is a little underdosed in my opinion. But if you’re super sensitive to caffeine this could be a plus. 4 Gauge is a relatively new product, but the reviews have been outstanding. Users report feeling a pleasant smooth boost for their workouts, with no crashes afterward.
With no artificial ingredients and a solid transparent ingredient list, 4 Gauge is definitely a tremendous pre-workout choice.
- Cool packaging
- No artificial sweeteners
- Great mix of scientifically backed ingredients
- No proprietary blends
- A little underdosed in caffeine
- Only available in one flavor
Old School labs Vintage Blast has an interesting proposition in being the first 2 stage pre-workout supplement. The ingredient profile is broken down into “first stage” and “second stage” ingredients to help give boosts at the start and later into your workout. This seems kind of gimmicky on the surface, but most people that use the product can vouch for this experience.
Vintage Blast first stage ingredients boast decent dosages of citrulline, beta alanine, and caffeine. The magic behind the stage two of the formula is an encapsulated form of caffeine that causes a slow release 40 minutes into the workout.
This may seem like a marketing gimmick, however many users experience an extra boost of energy later in their sessions that powers them through. Whether that’s placebo or not, Vintage Blast has an excellent formulation of most the ingredients that we look for in a pre-workout. Couple that with the additional caffeine and it’s a winner. Old School Labs is so confident in the product they offer a money back guarantee.
- Effective dosages
- No artificial sweeteners
- Great customer service
- Beta Alanine slightly underdosed
- Only 20 servings per container.
There are hundreds of pre-workout supplements to choose from on the market. The information provided in this guide should make you more confident about making an educated decision on what the best pre-workout supplement will for you.
While all the products on this list are great, Legion Pulse is a step above them all. It is perfectly formulated to give you the right ingredients that will supercharge your workouts for more gains without you having to worry about jitters or post-workout crashes. And it achieves this without adding any artificial ingredients.