Takeaway: Pre-workout is a supplement designed to give you more endurance, energy, and mental focus to get through any workout. The five main ingredients to look for in any pre-workout supplement are Caffeine, Creatine, Beta-Alanine, Citrulline Malate, Arginine Alpha-Ketoglutarate. Because pre-workout supplements contain a high level of caffeine, it may not be suitable for everyone. It is always advised that you consult your health care provider before adding any new dietary supplements to your routine.
We all know it can be overwhelming—and quite honestly, incredibly intimidating—to step foot into a vitamin shop with hundreds of dietary supplements and pre-workout products to choose from. We often forget why we’re there and what we came to get in the first place. So, we walk around aimlessly, pretending we know what we’re doing, secretly hoping that the sales associate comes to our rescue and saves us from our misery.
But, shopping for dietary supplements doesn’t always have to feel like a chore. It is a good idea to take the time to research and decide what it is you want to get before making a trip to the store. After all, a little research goes a long way when it comes to determining which supplements best complement your dietary plan and fitness goals.
Pre-workout is currently the rage, and if you find yourself increasingly inclined to give it a try, there are a few things you should know before you jump on the pre-workout train.
What is Pre-Workout?
Pre-workout is a supplement designed to give you more endurance, energy, and mental focus to get through any workout. Historically, it was used as a bodybuilding supplement for bodybuilders who wanted an extra boost of energy. Prior to the 1980s, the only pre-workout supplement available was a good ole cup of coffee.
The first official pre-workout supplement, Ultimate Orange, was formulated by American bodybuilder Dan Duchaine in 1982. Not long after its debut, lawsuits were filed against Ultimate Orange. Its active ingredient ephedra was believed to be the cause of many heart attacks in the fitness community between the 1990s and 2000s.
Over the years, however, the FDA has banned the sale of many pre-workout supplements containing harmful and unsafe ingredients. But, this is not to suggest that pre-work supplements are suitable or safe for everyone. It is advised that you always check in with your doctor before taking any new supplements.
That being said, supplements are not the only form of pre-workout nutrition you can take. Pre-workout comes in three different forms: as a meal, a snack, or a supplement.
- Pre-Workout as a Meal: A pre-workout meal should be consumed two hours before any workout in order to give your body enough time to digest and absorb the nutrients properly. It should consist of both protein and carbohydrates to saturate your muscles and give your body a sufficient amount of energy for the duration of your workout.
- Pre-Workout as a Snack: A pre-workout snacks can be eaten 30 minutes before your workout and should be easily digestible. Only simple carbohydrates and protein can be used as pre-workout snacks—complex carbohydrates will not digest in time for your workout.
- Pre-Workout as a Supplement: Pre-workout supplements are usually mixed or blended with a liquid and consumed as either a shake or drink. Supplements are generally taken on the same timescale as a pre-workout snack—around 30 minutes before you begin your workout. Always follow manufacturer instructions for safe pre-workout supplementation.
What Does Pre-Workout Do?
Pre-workout supplements are designed to optimize your workout sessions by giving you the extra boost of energy you need to increase your training volume and intensity.
But, unlike a cup of coffee or an energy drink, pre-workout is formulated with a number of specific ingredients to give more than just a boost of energy. Pre-workout offers additional performance benefits, which is why it’s important to take the time to read the label and choose the ingredients that best support your fitness goals, dietary plan, and tolerance level. Below are a few of the key ingredients to look for in a pre-workout supplement.
Caffeine is the basic ingredient in any pre-workout supplement. Its sole purpose is to get you energized before your workout. You get twice the amount of caffeine with a pre-workout supplement than you do by drinking a single cup of coffee. Typically, one serving of pre-workout has about 150-300 milligrams of caffeine, whereas a cup of coffee only has about 80-150 milligrams.
According to a review in the American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy, caffeine is 99% absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract within 45 minutes of consumption. If your primary objective is to boost your energy level, then caffeine is a must-have in your pre-workout.
Contrary to popular belief, creatine is not just for bodybuilders. Creatine is actually one of the most important supplements for building strength, muscle mass, and enhancing your exercise performance. It can be found naturally in your muscle cells and in certain foods. Creatine helps your muscles produce energy during strength training and high-intensity workouts.
When you take a creatine supplement, you increase the amount of phosphocreatine in your body. Phosphocreatine is a form of stored energy in your cells that help produce more high-energy ATP, which is the body’s energy currency. More ATP means more energy and better performance during each exercise to increase your muscle mass.
Beta-alanine is a nonessential amino acid meaning that our bodies can produce it. Rather than being used by your body to synthesize proteins, beta-alanine is combined with histidine to produce the carnosine that is stored in your skeletal muscles.
Carnosine can reduce lactic acid accumulation and fights off fatigue in your muscles during exercise, enabling you to increase the number of reps you can do and improve the quality of your workout.
Beta-alanine is also known to give you a tingling sensation in your lips, face, and even your fingertips. This harmless effect is present to let you know that the beta-alanine in your pre-workout supplement is working.
Citrulline malate is a hybrid ingredient formed from the bonding of the amino acid L-citrulline to malic acid (malate). Citrulline is a naturally occurring amino acid created from L-ornithine in the urea cycle—a metabolic process that facilitates the removal of ammonia in the body.
The second half of citrulline malate is malic acid. Malic acid has been shown to enhance stamina and reduce pain brought on by intense exercise. Citrulline malate also enhances energy production via increased ATP synthesis. It boosts phosphocreatine recovery after exercise, too.
Arginine Alpha-Ketoglutarate is a precursor to nitric oxide, which promotes nitric oxide production in the body. Ultimately, this helps in achieving a “pump” during and after your workout. Although arginine may improve blood flow and circulation, there’s no conclusive evidence that the arginine-nitric oxide relationship results in improved performance. In essence, the purpose of this ingredient in a pre-workout supplement is to look forward to having a temporary pump while you workout.
Is Pre-Workout Bad for You?
Because pre-workout supplements contain a high level of caffeine, it may not be suitable for everyone. It is always advised that you consult your health care provider before adding any new dietary supplements to your routine.
The FDA does not regulate Pre-workout drinks, so safety is always a big concern. To ensure that the pre-workout supplement you are using has no hidden ingredients, look for certification on the bottle from a third-party regulatory body such as NSF (National Science Foundation) or Informed-Choice. Both of these third-party organizations follow a strict vetting process to verify the quality, purity, and safety of supplements.
A study published in the American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy warns against the use of pre-workout supplements for people who suffer from high blood pressure, heart rhythm problems, diabetes, or people with high anxiety levels. Excess caffeine can not only increase your heart rate and blood pressure, but it can also disrupt your sleep cycle. It’s also known to cause diarrhea, nausea, or other gut issues for people with a sensitive stomach. It’s essential to stay properly hydrated throughout your workout when taking a pre-work supplement with caffeine and creatine, as both of these stimulants are diuretics that can cause dehydration.
If you want to give pre-workout supplements a try, only take the recommended dosage to avoid compromising the safety of these products. It is also recommended that you take the time to read the label of any pre-workout supplement you intend to buy, as these products can often be loaded with preservatives, added sugar, and unnecessary stimulants that may not align with your dietary plan.
Pre-Workout Side Effects
While pre-workout is designed to give you a boost of energy, mental focus, and motivation, it is not meant for long-term use. The objective is only to take a pre-workout supplement until we can build up enough will-power, determination, and discipline to stay healthy, fit, and motivated all on our own. However, we all know that this is much easier said than done.
There are many reasons why you should try to avoid becoming dependent on pre-workout to get you through your workouts. Below is a list of the unpleasant side-effects many people experience while taking a pre-workout supplement, some being more long-term and threatening than others:
- Tingling/Numbness in the Face, Lips, or Extremities
- Flushed and Red Skin
- Trouble Sleeping
- High Blood Pressure
- Kidney Damage
- Chest Pain
In addition to the physical side-effects of pre-workout supplements, there can be mental side-effects that can be a cause for concern. Developing a dependency on these supplements to get through a workout severely affects our mental state and motivation in the long run. We become so accustomed to the pre-workout “boost” that we begin to believe that we can’t get through a great workout, training session, or simply make progress without it. It is not uncommon to develop an addiction to these supplements.
When we develop an addiction to pre-workout supplements, our bodies tend to take a back seat, and our minds take over. Things, like drinking enough water, eating nutrient-dense foods rich in complex carbs, and working out on our own no longer, satisfy us. We need to feel that pre-workout “high” to get moving. Addiction to pre-workout supplements is a very real thing and one you should keep this in mind before you decide to give it a try.
Before you consider taking a pre-workout supplement, you should make a conscious effort to improve the basic aspects of your daily routine to improve your overall health. This includes getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, eating high-quality foods, avoiding refined sugar and processed foods, and staying active.
What Makes the Best Pre-Workout Supplements the Best?
If you ask five different people what the best pre-workout supplement is, you’ll likely get five different answers. This is because there is no one best pre-workout supplement. The best pre-workout supplement is the one that works best for you and your specific fitness needs. This is why taking the time to do some research is important; learning about specific ingredients and finding evidence that supports the various claims on a pre-workout supplement bottle makes all the difference.
The need for different ingredients and micronutrients may vary depending on what you’re looking to accomplish. Generally, people look for 1 of 3 different pre-workout options: bulking, cutting, or a low stimulant/stimulant-free option for those who have a low caffeine tolerance.
Here are a few of the most popular pre-workout supplements, their primary function, and a list of their key ingredients:
America’s #1 selling pre-workout: C4 Original is great for beginners as well as those who want to take their training to the next level. Featuring clinically studied ingredients – such as CarnoSyn Beta-Alanine, and NO3-T Creatine Nitrate, it provides explosive support for energy, pumps, and muscular endurance.
C4 Sport is the perfect choice for athletes, coaches, and trainers of all levels. It provides explosive energy and performance, and proudly wears the NSF Certified for Sports logo. The NSF certification is recognized by many major sporting agencies. You’ll be ready to crush it the second the clock starts.
C4 Ripped takes the explosive energy of C4 Original and incorporates a formula to support weight loss! With ingredients such as Green Coffee bean extract, L-Carnitine tartrate, Coleus Forskohlii, and Capsimax Cayenne, C4 Ripped is the perfect combination of energy and weight loss support.
For those who are seasoned pre-workout users looking for a fully-loaded, high-impact pre-workout, C4 ultimate has you covered. It combines 300mg of caffeine with 3.2g of CarnoSyn Beta-Alanine in every serving – alongside 6g of Citrulline Malate! C4 Ultimate also contains Nitrosigine, Creatine Nitrate, BetaPower Betaine, and a robust cognitive support blend.
Mesomorph Pre-Workout uses focus and energy boosters to ensure that your workout and training reaches its maximum performance potential. It utilizes muscle pump inducing exclusive, premium ingredients like Creatine Nitrate, Creatinol-O-Phosphate, 4,000mg of Beta Alanine and the pre-workout powerhouse ingredient Citrulline Malate. Whether you are in training for a sport, bodybuilding competition, competitive weight lifting or just beginners in exercise, then this dynamic product APS Mesomorph is a “must have.”
A GNC Pre-Workout: You can enjoy additional energy and focus on both training and non-training days when you incorporate Beyond Raw LIT Pre-Workout into your dietary supplement routine. With 3g of L-Citrulline per serving, this clinically dosed pre-workout formula supports nitric oxide production. Plus, CarnoSyn beta-alanine is clinically shown to increase muscle carnosine levels, a critical function and performance factor.
GHOST Legend pre-workout combines a stand out energy and focus formula with premium pump ingredients to get you feeling like a legend whenever you need it most. Every dose delivers 4 grams of L-Citrulline, 2 grams of Beta-Alanine, and 202 milligrams of caffeine.
Full disclosure—the GHOST fam is obsessed with nitric oxide products, and after more than a year in the making, GHOST Pump is here to deliver more of everything—better ingredients (including the patented NO3-T, Glycerpump and Astragin), better formula (fully disclosed AND vegan friendly), better flavors (including authentic collabs) and better value (more scoops).
What’s the Best Pre-Workout for Women?
The best pre-workout for women in terms of supplements are the ones that only contain the necessary ingredients and eliminate all hidden sugars, synthetic fillers, and toxins that may have a negative impact on your health. You want to look for ingredients that will boost your energy for optimal performance.
Here are some key factors to look for in pre-workout supplements for women:
- Clean Energy Sources: Yerba Mate and Organic Green Coffee Beans are great, clean energy sources that won’t leave you feeling jittery and anxious.
- Stress-Reducing Adaptogens: Studies show that adaptogens can help us deal with stress by boosting the body’s natural stress response, which benefits your entire body. With adaptogens, you are more resilient to physical, chemical, biological, and psychological stressors. Adaptogens also help you focus on and improve endurance.
- Naturally Occurring Nitric Oxide: As we age our cells produce less nitric oxide, which contributes to hypertension, inflammation, and cardiovascular disease. Look for supplements that can replenish some of the nitric oxides in your body.
- Hydrating Electrolytes: Reaching for a pre-workout with electrolytes and making sure you drink water—before and after a sweaty workout—is the best way to keep making gains and optimize your performance.
- No Added Sugar: Women need to be especially wary of sugar because of its impact on insulin, and the subsequent effect insulin has on hormones—such as estrogen and testosterone. Avoid any pre-workout supplement with added sugar.
If you’re looking for a clean pre-workout for women, we recommend that you look into Renewable Energy. Renewable Energy is a vegan and USDA certified organic, clean source of energy that doesn’t leave you strung out. This pre-workout supplement has 90 mg of caffeine and nitric oxide boosting fruits and vegetables.
If supplements aren’t your thing, then you can always get a boost of energy from a delicious and nutrient-dense pre-workout meal!
What’s the Best Pre-Workout Meal?
The best pre-workout meal is one that fuels you with energy and prepares your body for a good workout. A pre-workout meal should fuel your body, tame hunger, help fight fatigue, and aid in muscle recovery. Keep in mind that if you’re planning to have a pre-workout meal, you need to give your body a solid 60-90 minutes to fully absorb the nutrients before you begin working out.
What Should Your Pre-Workout Meal Consist Of?
The objective of a pre-workout meal is to get a good balance of protein and complex carbohydrates to keep you energized for the duration of your workout.
Below is a list of protein-rich foods and complex carbohydrates to mix and match for some great pre-workout meal options! Ideally, you should only select one food item from each list for a good balance of macronutrients. A pre-workout meal should fill you but not leave you feeling exceptionally bloated.
The Best Pre-Workout Foods in Terms of Protein:
- Eggs (make an omelet using veggies as carbs)
- Peanut butter (also a great source of healthy fats)
- Greek Yogurt
- Cottage Cheese
- Lean Beef
The Best Pre-Workout Foods in Terms of Carbohydrates:
- Brown Rice
- Sweet Potato
- Whole-Grain Toast
- Fruits that won’t spike insulin—grapefruit, apricot, apples, cherries, pear, plum, cantaloupe, nectarine, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and anything in the orange family (tangerine, mandarine, etc.)
The Best Pre-Workout Meals For Building Muscle Mass:
The goal here is to pick foods that fill you up but won’t sit in your stomach for too long.
- Egg whites
- Whey Protein Isolate
- Brown Rice or Long-Grain White Rice
- Wheat Pasta
- Chicken, Turkey, or a decent serving of a lean protein of your choice.
The Best Pre-Workout Meals For Weight Loss:
The goal here is to get a good balance of protein and carbs without going overboard on calories (in order to stay in a calorie deficit throughout the day).
- A Banana with Nut Butter
- Multigrain Crackers with Hummus
- An Apple with Peanut Butter
- Small Handful of Nuts
- Any Whole Piece of Fruit
- 1/2 Cup Oatmeal with Berries
Keto Pre-Workout Supplements
If you follow a Ketogenic dietary plan, then it’s essential to maintain a high-fat, low-carb intake throughout the entirety of your day. Below is a list of supplements that you might want to look into to optimize your performance during your next workout session.
A unique blend of ingredients that provide more energy, stamina, and strength during training so you can perform better. It contains 7.7 grams of BHB and 5 grams of MCTs so you can train harder while you’re in ketosis.
The first ever ketogenic pre-workout designed to help your body burn fat as fuel while saving lean muscle mass and enhancing athletic performance. It’s the ideal pre-workout formula for those following low-carb diets, ketogenic diets or doing intermittent fasting. It also supports the efforts of endurance athletes and fitness enthusiasts that practice fasted cardio.
The chosen ingredients account for exactly what a keto dieter needs: plenty of electrolytes, minerals, L-Citrulline, and absolutely no carbs. The L-Citrulline helps boost your performance as it promotes blood flow and delivers energy to your muscles. The added BHB-salts are vital to replenish lost electrolytes, both as a result of your training and ketosis.
There is a wide range of pre-workout supplements to choose from. The hardest part about selecting a pre-workout supplement (or any dietary supplement for that matter) is researching all of the ingredients that are present in them. Take the time to educate yourself before you go out and buy any performance-enhancing supplement, and always remember that a good pre-workout meal can also do wonders for your body.