Pre-workouts are one of the most widely used supplements on the planet. Said to give you that extra ‘boost’ of energy in the gym, they have embedded themselves deep into gym culture, becoming a workout staple.
However, due to their increased popularity, the supplement industry has become saturated with thousands of different pre-workout supplements -- some of which are much better than others.
Moreover, many include ingredients that have no research to support their use, or are simply ineffective -- all of which means that you need to be selective.
What should I avoid in a pre-workout supplement?
If so many pre-workouts are sub par, then how can you find a good one?
Well, when it comes to choosing a pre-workout supplement, there are a few things that you need to look out for.
1. No Proprietary Blends
A proprietary blend is a combination of several different ingredients that sit within a supplement.
Unfortunately, the term ‘proprietary blend’ is often misunderstood by people looking for supplements. Because it sounds like a legitimate term, it creates the illusion that the supplement must be of a higher quality -- however, nothing could be further from the truth.
A proprietary blend is a loophole that supplement companies use to avoid listing how much of each individual ingredient is in their pre-workout. This makes it much easier to hide smaller doses of effective (and often more costly) ingredients, while bulking it up with ‘filler’ ingredients.
Obviously this means the supplement is cheaper to make, but it also makes it much less effective -- even if it does happen to include some good ingredients.
2. Too Many Ingredients
Now, if you look at the label of a pre-workout and it has more than 6 or 7 active ingredients, I would suggest you put it back.
One thing to remember when it comes to pre-workouts is that they generally have small serving sizes (5-10 grams would be the norm). This means that the more ingredients they have, the less of each ingredient you get.
This again makes it easier to provide you with less of the effective ingredients (which again, are often more expensive) to save cost -- making the supplement less effective in the process.
3. Outlandish Claims
Finally, a good pre-workout supplement should do two things:
- Improve exercise performance
- Increase mental performance
As a result, if you see a pre-workout advertising the ability to “shred fat” or “boost muscle growth” then you should turn and run -- because they have obviously spent more money on marketing than they have on creating their product.
What Should I Look for In a Pre-workout Supplement?
So, what does a good pre-workout look like?
Well, going off the above suggestions, you want to make sure that your pre-workout makes no outlandish claims, lists the dosages of all its ingredients individually, and has less than seven active ingredients.
And once it has ticked those boxes, you want to make sure that the ingredients it contains are actually effective.
Which begs the question: what are the most effective pre-workout ingredients?
Straight out the box we have one of the most widely researched (if not the most widely researched) ingredients on the entire planet -- being caffeine.
Look, let's face it. There is a pretty good reason as to why 99% of the population start their day with a warm cup of coffee. It is because caffeine has the ability to improve mental alertness, attention, and reaction time .
More importantly, caffeine has also been shown to have an extremely potent effect on exercise performance , where it can improve:
- Muscular strength
- Muscular endurance
- Cardiorespiratory endurance
- Anaerobic power
This means that it makes the perfect pre-workout ingredient as it improves the mental and physical aspects of performance.
While the recommended dosage of caffeine does differ based on bodyweight, an effective dose should sit somewhere between 200 and 400 milligrams.
Agmatine is one of many neurotransmitters found in your brain.
With this in mind, there is evidence to suggest that supplementing with Agmatine can reduce sensations of pain and improve mood [3, 4]. These effects could conceivably improve workout performance by increasing the number of repetitions you achieve per set.
Anecdotally, there are also a number of people within the fitness space who also believe that Agmatine can increase blood flow to the muscle tissue, increasing the ‘pump’ you get in the gym. This could also increase nutrient flow to the muscle tissue, enhancing growth and recovery.
However, it is important to note that this is simply anecdotal, and thus far there is no evidence demonstrating this effect in humans.
Dosage recommendations generally sit within 200-1000mg per serving.
Citrulline is a “non-essential” amino acid found in a variety of fruits and vegetables. The reason it is considered to be non-essential is because it can be naturally made in your body, and therefore does not have to be obtained through your diet.
However, increasing your natural levels of citrulline though supplementation has been shown to have some positive effects.
Firstly, supplementing with citrulline has been shown to increase weight training performance . This means an increase in the number of reps you can perform per set, or the amount of weight you can put on the bar. Over time this can lead to improvements in muscular strength and muscle growth.
Secondly, it has also been shown to reduce intra-workout fatigue, which might increase the quality of your workouts .
And finally, citrulline has also been shown to improve recovery after exercise . While this may not sound all that impressive, improved recovery means that you can get the most out of your next training session -- which could cause lasting improvements in strength and size.
The optimal dosage of citrulline malate (a specific type of citrulline) appears to be around 6000mg.
Like Citrulline, beta-alanine is also a non-essential amino acid.
However, unlike many other amino acids, your body does not use it to create other proteins. Instead, it is used to produce a compound called carnosine -- which has been shown to limit the accumulation of lactate in your muscle tissue.
As a result, it has been shown to improve muscular and aerobic endurance, and limit fatigue during training .
Interestingly, and most likely due to improvements in acute training performance, the long term supplementation of Beta-alanine has demonstrated improvement in both muscle growth and fat loss -- suggesting it could have pretty positive effects on body composition .
Anywhere between 2 and 5 grams of Beta-alanine has shown to be effective.
L-Tyrosine is another amino acid that can be obtained from the food you eat. Uniquely, this particular amino acid is used to create the key compounds dopamine and adrenaline -- which is why it is so common in pre-workout supplements across the globe.
As such, supplementing with L-tyrosine has been shown to improve reaction time  and attention, while also promoting sensations of wellbeing .
Interestingly, one study has also found that taking L-tyrosine before exercise may actually improve performance . While this may not directly improve strength and hypertrophy gains, it could potentially improve workout quality.
Evidence would suggest that dosages between 500 and 2000mg are most effective here.
Over the last decade the supplement industry has become saturated with subpar pre-workouts. But that doesn't mean that good ones don't exist.
It just means that you need to pay close attention to the ones you buy.
Try and avoid those that contain proprietary blends, or those that have a large number of ingredients. Moreover, any that are making outlandish claims should be avoided like the plague.
And if you can find one that has a few of the scientifically supported ingredients listed above, then you can be pretty confident in its effectiveness.
- McLellan, T. M., Caldwell, J. A., & Lieberman, H. R. (2016). A review of caffeine’s effects on cognitive, physical and occupational performance. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 71, 294-312.
- Grgic, J., Grgic, I., Pickering, C., Schoenfeld, B. J., Bishop, D. J., & Pedisic, Z. (2020). Wake up and smell the coffee: caffeine supplementation and exercise performance—an umbrella review of 21 published meta-analyses. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 54(11), 681-688.
- Keynan, O., Mirovsky, Y., Dekel, S., Gilad, V. H., & Gilad, G. M. (2010). Safety and efficacy of dietary agmatine sulfate in lumbar disc-associated radiculopathy. An open-label, dose-escalating study followed by a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Pain Medicine, 11(3), 356-368.
- Shopsin, B. (2013). The clinical antidepressant effect of exogenous agmatine is not reversed by parachlorophenylalanine: a pilot study. Acta Neuropsychiatrica, 25(2), 113-118.
- Gonzalez, A. M., & Trexler, E. T. (2020). Effects of Citrulline Supplementation on Exercise Performance in Humans: A Review of the Current Literature. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 34(5), 1480-1495.
- Pérez-Guisado, J., & Jakeman, P. M. (2010). Citrulline malate enhances athletic anaerobic performance and relieves muscle soreness. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(5), 1215-1222.
- Hobson, R. M., Saunders, B., Ball, G., Harris, R. C., & Sale, C. (2012). Effects of ?-alanine supplementation on exercise performance: a meta-analysis. Amino acids, 43(1), 25-37.
- Kern, B. D., & Robinson, T. L. (2011). Effects of ?-alanine supplementation on performance and body composition in collegiate wrestlers and football players. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 25(7), 1804-1815.
- O'Brien, C., Mahoney, C., Tharion, W. J., Sils, I. V., & Castellani, J. W. (2007). Dietary tyrosine benefits cognitive and psychomotor performance during body cooling. Physiology & behavior, 90(2-3), 301-307.
- Banderet, L. E., & Lieberman, H. R. (1989). Treatment with tyrosine, a neurotransmitter precursor, reduces environmental stress in humans. Brain research bulletin, 22(4), 759-762.
- Tumilty, L., Davison, G., Beckmann, M., & Thatcher, R. (2011). Oral tyrosine supplementation improves exercise capacity in the heat. European journal of applied physiology, 111(12), 2941-2950.