Pre-workout supplements are taken to give you the edge to burn more fat, recover faster, or maximize your performance (1).
Athletes of all shapes and sizes, as well as many fitness enthusiasts, are always looking for ways to improve their performance and achieve their goals. Pre-workout powders can offer a shortcut. The pre-workout you consume can also be tailored to improve a variety of factors such as endurance, strength, or muscle growth (2).
Many pre-workout concoctions are offered as ‘stacks’ or combinations of different nutritional compounds to produce different effects in the user. Providing optimal nutrient intake prior to exercise will not only help you maximize your performance but also minimize muscle damage.
1. Transparent Labs Pre-Workout
The ingredients part of Transparent Labs pre-workout mix includes citrulline malate, beta-alanine, betaine, creatine, and taurine. For those who are intolerant to stimulants such as caffeine and energy drinks, this is the perfect pre-workout to take.
This is a powder form pre-workout with serving sizes of 23 grams per scoop and was designed to increase muscle mass and enhance focus and endurance during workouts. There are no artificial sweeteners, no artificial coloring, no gluten, no artificial preservatives, and non-GMO. For these reasons, it’s our #1 pick.
2. 4 Gauge
4 Gauge pre-workout is another exceptionally made pre-workout powdered supplement that is packed with some of the best ingredients you want for a workout. Ingredients include caffeine anhydrous, L-theanine, creatine monohydrate, L-citrulline dl-malate, red beet, rhodiola rosea, acetyl-L-carnitine, and coconut water powder.
It’s all-natural, and the fruit-blast flavor tastes great. Instead of creating a “proprietary blend,” this pre-workout powder doesn’t hide anything.
3. Blackwolf Pre-Workout
Blackwolf’s pre-workout is used for increased energy, power, and performance during workouts. The pre-workout formula contains active ingredients and no fillers or binders, which make this a potent pre-workout formula.
Some of the main ingredients include L-leucine, L-isoleucine, L-valine, protein, and vitamins B12, B6, and C.
4. Legion Athletics Pulse
Legion’s Pulse pre-workout supplement is an all-natural nitric oxide pre-workout drink that boosts your energy and endurance. This is a creatine-free pre-workout which is different than some of its competitors. As with other top-quality pre-workouts, this pre-workout powder is naturally sweetened and flavored, with no artificial flavors or sweeteners.
You won’t find fillers in this blend, and the main ingredients are L-citrulline malate, L-theanine, and beta-alanine.
5. Genius Pre
The Genius Brand created their pre-workout powder to be an all-natural nootropic pre-workout powder supplement. It is a caffeine-free nitric oxide booster that includes beta-alanine and alpha GPC. Caffeine has been found to cause a reduction of blood flow, which is exactly why the Genius Brand created this pre-workout powder with huperzine-a, taurine, l-tyrosine, l-citrulline malate, and beta-alanine.
No artificial flavors, no stimulants, raw ingredients, and complete transparency makes this brand and pre-workout formula among the best.
6. BSN N.O.-XPLODE
BSN’s N.O.-Xplode pre-workout supplement is a powder that includes ingredients like creatine and beta-alanine for energy. There are 9 different fruity flavors to choose from and 2 sizes available. This advanced creatine blend gives you intense focus and extreme pumps during every workout.
This is a perfect choice for explosive energy, enhanced endurance, mental focus, and maximum intensity and performance.
7. Kaged Muscle Pre-Kaged
Kaged Muscle Pre-Kaged pre-workout powder is a product that is filled with high-quality ingredients. The formula includes 6.5g of pure l-citrulline to boost nitric oxide, 1.5g highly soluble Creatine to fuel your muscles, and is free of banned substances.
Other ingredients include coconut water powder, carnosyn, fermented BCAAs, total orac, betapower, organic caffeine, taurine, creatine, and l-citrulline.
8. MusclePharm Assault Pre-Workout
MusclePharm’s Assault pre-workout is a great-tasting powder that is packed with exceptional ingredients that give you extreme athletic performance that has zero carbs and zero calories. It includes vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, carnosyn beta-alanine, creatine monohydrate, betaine anhydrous, taurine, l-glycine, caffeine anhydrous, and acetyl-l-carnitine.
This product also has the Informed-Choice logo that ensures an uncontaminated substance with no banned substances that are safe for athletes.
9. Cellucor C4 Ripped Pre-Workout
Cellucor’s C4 pre-workout powder is an excellent powder from a reputable brand that contains an advanced metabolism formula that has been clinically studied and patented.
Some of the ingredients in this powder include carnosyn beta-alanine, caffeine, arginine akg, with zero sugar, zero carbohydrates, zero calories, and zero creatine.
10. ProSupps Mr. Hyde Pre-Workout
Mr. Hyde pre-workout powder by ProSupps is a powerful pre-workout that includes ingredients such as creatine, beta-alanine, nitrosigine arginine silicate, l-citrulline, caffeine, teacrine, and more.
This pre-workout was created to enhance mental focus while improving blood flow for muscle pumps and sustained energy.
How We Rank
When ranking the best pre-workout supplements, we had a few criteria to consider. First, we took into consideration fillers and substances that add no value to the powder. This includes powders that may hide their fillers behind a “proprietary blend.” Another major ingredient we made sure not to include in our list is “DMAA.” This ingredient is an extremely harmful stimulant, and many companies have removed this harmful ingredient from all of their products. However, there are still companies that include DMAA in one or more of their products.
For instance, we decided not to include Synadrene by High Tech Pharmaceuticals, or King Cobra by Blackstone Labs, or Super Pump 250 by Gaspari Nutrition, because their use of harmful ingredients, fillers, and/or proprietary blends don’t add any value to the community of people who just want an honest pre-workout powder blend.
Another factor that makes pre-workout powders too intense for most people is the amount of caffeine included per serving. When you have too much caffeine at once, not only can it make you jittery and anxious, but it can also restrict blood flow and cause you to have a massive caffeine crash after your workout. It also isn’t ideal for people that like to workout late at night. If there was an extreme amount of caffeine added to the powder, we removed it from the list. As such, we didn’t include the Ronnie Coleman Signature Series Yeah Buddy powder, even though many people use it and recommend it.
Lastly, we looked at the supporting ingredients in a formulation. We leaned towards products that used scientifically proven exercise performance enhancers like beta-alanine and citrulline malate over formulations that included stuff like yohimbine or other less-proven performance enhancers.
1. Pre-workout creatine increases time to failure and work capacity. For instance, creatine. Your body uses creatine to create energy, this creatine-phosphate pathway provides extreme levels of energy, or ATP, for only a brief second or two though.
One study published in the Journal of Sports Nutrition (1995) showed that exercised performance and time to failure increased dramatically with creatine supplementation versus a placebo (3).
2. Pre-workout creatine improves muscle growth and size. Creatine needs to be stored in your muscles with adequate amounts of water. As a result, creatine tends to draw more fluids into your muscles giving your muscles greater size due to the increase in water mass (4).
Another 1999 study found that those who took creatine over 6 weeks gained 4.4lbs more muscle mass than those who took a placebo (8).
Caffeine also increases adrenaline which helps break down fat cells faster.
Another 2004 study showed that caffeine helps increase fat burning directly by up to 29% (10).
This is the “fight or flight” hormone, designed to make our bodies ready for intense physical exertion.
5. Pre-workout citrulline can boost blood flow and endurance. A 2006 study showed that citrulline is a phytonutrient that works as a vasodilator and is seen to increase time to exhaustion during exercise (15).
Further, an increase in blood flow is seen to promote better delivery of nutrients to muscle tissues to increase the speed of muscle recovery after exercise (16).
6. Pre-workout citrulline can improve performance by reducing fatigue. A study published in the journal of nutritional science showed that exercise induced fatigue was reduced when supplementing with citrulline (17).
Another 2011 study showed that BCAA’s increases resistance to fatigue by 17% and enhances lipid oxidation (19).
8. Pre-workout supplements, BCAAs, can help increase recovery. By lowering blood levels of the enzymes lactate dehydrogenase and creatine kinase (which are involved in muscle damage), BCAA’s can help speed up recovery. A 2013 study showed that BCAA’s lowered muscle soreness by 33% (20).
9. Pre-workout sodium bicarbonate can increase power. For instance, sodium bicarbonate is an alkaline powder that works by buffering acid, specifically lactic acid, produced during anaerobic activity. This helps keep pH levels at 7 and increase power and workout length.
A 2012 study showed that pH balancing, due to sodium bicarbonate allowed for longer and harder workouts (21).
11. Pre-workout betaine improves endurance and strength. A 2011 study published in the journal of strength and conditioning research showed that betaine protects cells from exercise induced swelling damage (24).
This results in enhanced endurance and strength from muscles.
12. Pre-workout L-ornithine supplementation has been shown to promote lipid oxidation. This is when your body prefers to burn fat for energy instead of carbohydrates.
Another study in 2008 showed that L-ornithine supplementation could reduce fatigue levels as a result of promoting lipid oxidation (25).
13. Pre-workout beta-alanine speeds up muscle growth. Beta-alanine regulates the amount of carnosine in the muscles. The main role of carnosine is to regulate acidity levels. A 2015 study showed that carnosine counteracts acidity levels and can help the muscle to do more work and allow you to push harder for longer (26).
A 2011 showed that beta alanine, due to carnosine regulation, helps build more muscle in less time (27).
14. Pre-workout HMB protects against muscle loss during fasted training. During fasted training, muscle breakdown is accelerated for a variety of reasons. This is something we don’t want.
A 2009 study showed that HMB shines because it’s not only an effective anti-catabolic agent, but also won’t cause insulin levels to rise (28).
This results in more muscle being spared and fat being burned compared to a regular training session.
15. Pre-workout yohimbine enhances blood flow and boosts energy. Yohimbine is a chemical extracted from a species of the African plant, Yohimbe. A 2006 study showed that yohimbine could accelerate fat loss (29).
A 2015 study showed that yohimbine also improves exercise performance and it’s particularly effective at fighting off physical fatigue and increasing time to exhaustion (30).
16. Pre-workout taurine improves exercise performance. A 2004 study showed that taurine supplementation protects muscle cells against oxidative stress in humans (31).
Another study in human cyclists showed that Taurine supplementation allowed for longer and harder workouts. This is because taurine effectively removes waste products in muscle cells during exercise (32).
A 2013 study showed that, taurine can prevent muscle damage and soreness as a result of exercise (33).
Lastly, a 2010 study showed that 1.66 grams of taurine supplementation improved fat burning by 16% in athletes (34).
17. Pre-workout CDP choline improves focus and concentration. A 2012 study showed that supplementation with CDP-choline improves attentional focus (35).
18. Pre-workout L- tyrosine helps maintain mental focus in stressful situations. Intense exercise can lower focus due to the amount of stress placed on the body. This is because the body burns through essential neurotransmitters such as dopamine and adrenaline. L-tyrosine helps build these neurotransmitters.
19. Pre-workout L -arginine helps improve blood flow. L-arginine is an amino acid that helps make proteins. It also becomes the gas nitric oxide (NO) in the body. NO helps blood vessels relax, so more oxygen-rich blood can circulate through your arteries.
1. Pre-workouts can increase overstimulation and jitteriness. The average pre-workout formula concentrates caffeine, packing in 435 milligrams on average. The issue is too much caffeine, combined with other stimulants and exercise increases the risk of a dangerously high heart rate, overexertion, and even injury (39).
2. Pre-workouts sometimes don’t provide any benefit at all. A significant hazard is paying money for different stimulants that raise your heart rate but lead to dangerously high blood pressure and cardiovascular system strain (40).
The issue is commonly found in the ‘proprietary blend’ on the supplement label. Keeping the pre-workout formulation secret allows companies to sneak ingredients, such as pre-hormones, amphetamines, and other chemicals, past FDA approval (41).
For instance, the FDA recently filed criminal charges against USP Labs, the makers of the pre-workout supplements Jack3d and OxyElite Pro, whose products have been linked to acute liver toxicity and multiple deaths (42).
3. The pre-workout beta-alanine can cause temporary skin irritation. At a proper dosage, beta-alanine will cause temporary tingling and itchiness of the skin (43). This is nothing to be worried about and will subside within an hour.
4. The pre-workout L-arginine can cause gastrointestinal upset at high doses. When taken by mouth, it can cause side effects such as abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, gout, allergies, worsening of asthma, and low blood pressure .
5. Pre-workouts can cause or increase the effect of insomnia, especially for evening workouts. If you are planning to workout in the evening and decide to take a pre-workout powder drink before your workout, the effects of the pre-workout could last much longer into the night. Even when there aren’t high amounts of caffeine included in the pre-workout blend, the combined stimulants can cause you to stay awake and energized for hours.
Caffeine is a stimulant that can cause insomnia, headaches, nervousness, and dizziness. It can also cause anxiety, irritability, rapid heartbeat, excessive urination, and sleep disturbance.
6. Pre-workouts that are overused can cause high blood pressure. All stimulants will increase your blood pressure. That is just what they are made to do. If you already have high blood pressure issues, pre-workouts can be a problem. Make sure you look at the ingredients of each pre-workout formula. The more stimulants that are added to your pre-workout, the more your blood pressure will rise. This can cause damage to your brain’s blood vessels, could cause blood clots to form in the arteries and could lead to a stroke.
Creatine supplements work best at 5g/day. It’s recommended to use a longer initial period instead of taking megadoses of creatine from the start for more effective and safe results (43). Additionally, a longer creatine loading time ensures a lesser chance of gastrointestinal discomfort that may be seen with high doses of creatine.
Caffeine doses are recommended around 200 mg (equal to 2 cups of coffee), or less (44). In terms of cycling caffeine, it’s recommended to take caffeine only before intense weightlifting sessions and not on cardiovascular endurance days.
As caffeine is dehydrating, supplementing with caffeine while training your cardiovascular fitness may dangerously increase your heart rate and blood pressure. That’s why excess caffeine is not recommended on days you perform intense cardio (45).
The optimal dose of BCAA is 10 grams before the workout and then 10 grams after. This method helps capitalize on the muscle-sparing effects of BCAAs (46).
Niacin is best in small doses. 20 mg is enough to trigger an increase in carbohydrate metabolism to support high exercise intensity and avoid a niacin flush (47).
Citrulline can be taken in larger doses for up to 6-8 grams for sports performance (48).
Sodium bicarbonate is best taken as a 300 mg dose. This offers the optimal level of acid-buffering to delay the onset of fatigue and increase power as well as work output (49).
Additionally, taking too much sodium bicarbonate is seen to cause gastrointestinal upset, which is undesirable before training or competition (50).
L-theanine should be dosed at a ratio of 1:1 with caffeine for optimal effects.
Betaine dosages range between 1.25-2.5 grams. With the latter end of the range showing more performance enhancing effects. More may be needed depending on the size of the individual consuming it.
Tyrosine is commonly taken in doses of 500–2,000 mg 30–60 minutes before exercise,
L-ornithine has an effective dosage of 2-3 grams per day.
Beta-alanine works best at 5g/day. The dosage range is between 2.6 and 6.4 grams.
Clinically effective dosages of HMB range between 2-3g.
Taurine dosages range from 500mg-2,000mg per day.
Clinically effective dosages of yohimbine range from 0.1 to 0.2 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.
Clinically effective dosages of CDP-choline range from 250 to 500 milligrams.
How long does it take for a pre-workout to kick in? On average it takes around 30 minutes for a pre-workout to kick in.
Can pre-workouts cause kidney failure? Since creatine and caffeine are both diuretics, taking too much of a pre-workout with both ingredients can lead to dehydration, kidney problems, and high blood pressure. However, it is not common.
Are BCAA’s a pre-workout? No, BCAA’s can be an ingredient in pre-workout supplements.
Can pre-workouts cause liver damage? Although rare, the potential for liver damage does exist, depending on which workout supplements you take
Can you lose weight with pre-workout? Yes and no. By taking pre-workout supplements before you hit the gym, you’ll increase the intensity of your workouts by pushing yourself harder, running faster, or lifting heavier. In turn, this will cause you to burn more calories during every gym session, helping you to lose weight quicker and more efficiently.
Can you do cardio on pre-workout? Yes, pre-workout supplements can be used for any type of cardio, whether it’s steady state or HIIT.
Can you take pre-workout on an empty stomach? The main difference between taking a Pre-Workout on an empty stomach rather than after eating a meal will be the duration it takes for that product to take effect. If you have recently eaten a meal, it may take an additional 15-30 minutes to feel the effects of a Pre-Workout, by the time it is absorbed.
Are pre-workout supplements banned? Certain pre-workouts may contain a banned substance called Synephrine HCL, a potent adrenergic stimulator. According to bodybuilding.com, Synephrine HCL, “augments energy levels and ATP synthesis” and is structurally similar to Ephedra.
Can you take pre-workout at night? Yes, you can take pre-workout at night – but it might not be a great idea. Due to its stimulant properties, pre-workout concoctions may give you too much energy to fall and stay asleep. As such, it’s recommended you do not take pre-workout within 4 hours of bedtime.
Why do I get itchy or tingly when I take pre-workout? Supplement companies often add beta-alanine into their pre-workouts, due to its ability to improve muscular endurance in the gym. However, in certain doses (which vary from person to person), it can cause tingling or an itch on your skin, as a result of a side effect known as paresthesia. It only lasts an hour or so and is nothing to be worried about.
Do pre-workout powders contain DMAA? Because pre-workout powders are marketed as dietary supplements, they legally cannot include DMAA in them. However, some companies decide to include DMAA and other harmful ingredients into their blends illegally.
Why is DMAA illegal in dietary supplements and pre-workout powders?
The FDA considers DMAA to be an unsafe food additive. DMAA is Dimethylamylamine, and it was once marketed as a fat burner and muscle builder. When you include DMAA with other stimulants such as caffeine, the results can include heart attack, among other health risks. DMAA can raise blood pressure and lead to cardiovascular problems. You can develop shortness of breath, tightening of the chest, heart attack, and heart failure (link).
How do I know if DMAA is in one of my supplements or powders? DMAA can be hidden inside “proprietary blends,” which is why we don’t include any powders on our top list of pre-workouts that aren’t transparent about their ingredients. Besides hiding in proprietary blends, DMAA can also be listed as any of the following masked terms for the same drug: 1,3-DMAA, 1,3-Dimethylamylamine, 1,3-Dimethylpentylamine, 2-Amino-3-methylhexane, 2-Hexanamine, 4-methyl- (9CI), 4-Methyl-2-hexanamine, 4-Methyl-2-hexylamine, Dimethylanylamine, Geranamine, Methylhexanamine, Methylhexanenamine, Pelargonium graveolens extract, and Geranium extract. Make sure you read the ingredients on any supplement you take. If you don’t know precisely what every ingredient is, do your research before consuming it.
What are the most popular ingredients to a pre-workout? There are a variety of ingredients that can be included in pre-workout powders, and even the popular or best ingredients could become harmful at extreme or unsafe levels. With that said, the most popular pre-workout ingredients include Creatine Nitrate, Arginine Alpha-ketoglutarate, Beta-Alanine, Caffeine, Vinpocetine, L-Citrulline, and L-Taurine.
What ingredients will give me the most intense pumps in a pre-workout? To get the most intense pumps in a workout that can make your muscles expand like crazy, the three ingredients to look for in your pre-workout include Creatine, Beta-Alanine, and L-Citrulline.
What pre-workout ingredients provide the most intense energy in a workout? To get intense energy and extraordinary endurance during a workout, look for pre-workouts that contain additional caffeine, Rhodiola, and Guarana.
What pre-workout ingredients will give me the best focus? If you want laser focus, get a pre-workout powder that contains nootropics with extreme potencies like N-Acetyl Tyrosine, Dimethylamine, and Vinpocetine.
Can I take other supplements while taking pre-workouts? You can take other supplements at the same time as taking pre-workouts as long as they are not a stimulant. If you are taking a weight loss product or a product that will exceed your nitrate threshold, this can cause undesirable effects that could negatively affect your health.
When do I drink my pre-workout? Many people make the mistake of drinking their pre-workout mix much too late. If you are drinking your pre-workout while you work out, then you are way too late. Even if you down your whole drink right before you walk into the gym, you are still too late. Many of the ingredients in the pre-workout can take up to an hour before they reach peak levels in your blood. Take your pre-workout drink between 30 to 60 minutes before you begin your workout for the best results.
What can I mix my pre-workout powder with besides water? Water will always be the most efficient way of mixing and consuming your pre-workout. However, there are other ways to consume your pre-workout that are more creative than shaking it up in some water. Try mixing your pre-workout in a slushy. You can also add your powder into a Jell-O mix. You can make a smoothie. Just don’t mix your pre-workout powder with too many other stimulants to avoid high blood pressure or insomnia.
For both the average individual and elite athlete, a pre-workout supplement can make quite a difference. Studies routinely indicate more energy, better workouts, and intense focus are all common side effects of even the most basic pre-workout solution.
For short, intense activities, caffeine, citrulline, beta-alanine and sodium bicarbonate help. For longer-lasting endurance style training, caffeine, nitrate, and BCAAs are your best bet for improved performance.
While there are dangerous supplements out there, many companies are doing it right. Focusing on pre-workouts from reputable suppliers that are transparent with their formulas and have the recommended dosages of key performance nutrients, will take your physique and performance to greater heights.
For Healthtrends #1 Pre-workout recommendation, click here.