What to Look for in a Pre-Workout - A Complete Guide
Pre-workouts are everyone’s favorite supplement, next to a good protein powder and creatine - which is one of the most important supplements you can use to smash your goals in the gym.
However, pre-workouts are also the supplement category with the most variety as far as active ingredients and dosages. This means that educating yourself on how those ingredients work and how much you should be looking for is important - especially if you want to select the right product and get the most for your money.
This article is going to discuss the four categories of ingredients that any good pre-workout contains: shock, strength, endurance, and pump. We’ll talk about the importance of each category as well as some examples of different ingredients you may see on a label.
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Picking Out a Pre-Workout
The importance of shock in a pre-workout is to clearly separate the training session from the rest of the day, provide mental clarity, and preemptively increase heart rate to prime the body for exercise. Functional ingredients that provide shock are generally various kinds of stimulants.
The most popular, effective, and well-studied stimulant is caffeine. Caffeine is so effective and well-studied that the FDA has classified it as Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS), which means it’s allowed to be added to food products as well as supplements. Manufacturers can make claims on its ability to increase mental focus and energy.
Caffeine dosages per serving can vary from 175 milligrams to 450 milligrams. Personally, I prefer somewhere in the 200 to 300 milligrams per serving range.
I find this is enough shock to wake me up and get my heart rate going without intaking so much that I’m unable to drink any other caffeinated beverage the rest of the day. However, optimal caffeine dosages vary greatly per person by initial tolerance, so I would recommend starting at a low dosage and slowly increasing that dose while evaluating your body’s response.
There are various alternative stimulants that you may find in a product as well, but the most popular alternative stimulant currently is an amphetamine derivative often referred to as DMHA. You’ll often see this listed on labels as 2-aminoisoheptane or 2-amino-6-methylheptane.
DMHA gained a lot of traction in the supplement industry because it can offer more sustained energy than caffeine with significantly less crash. DMHA is also considered safer and less addictive than its infamous predecessor DMAA.
DMHA is also a potent bronchodilator and decongestant, which means it widens air passageways to allow for better breathing, but this can also restrict blood vessels which is undesirable for bodybuilding training. Since DMHA hasn’t been around very long, there isn’t significant research on its side effects, but users often report symptoms like high blood pressure and shortness of breath.
The uncertainty surrounding this ingredient has led to it being banned in several countries, including Australia. Since DMHA can be dangerous, I wouldn’t recommend a dose over 100 milligrams per serving, if you choose to use it at all.
Another new ingredient to emerge in pre-workouts is a non-dietary amino acid called L-theanine. L-theanine is unique in the shock category because it’s not a stimulant, in fact, it’s a mild relaxant. L-theanine is almost exclusively found in several kinds of tea leaves, and promotes relaxation without sedation.
However, when paired with caffeine anywhere between a 1:1 and 1:2 ratio, it can alleviate the negative aspects of caffeine, providing longer-lasting effects, fewer jitters, and almost no crash. For this reason, a caffeine/L-theanine combo is becoming a popular replacement for DMHA in most pre-workouts. I’d look for at least 200 milligrams per serving of L-theanine for maximum effect.
Shock is the most noticeable effect of a pre-workout. For many people it’s the most important factor in choosing a product. Some people avoid stimulants entirely because they’re worried about becoming addicted.
I think both extremes are sub-optimal. Stimulants are important to increasing performance both in and out of the gym. And although they can be addictive, this can be avoided if used properly.
Functional ingredients that promote strength are staples of anabolic supplements, creatine, and betaine. For anyone who’s unfamiliar with these supplements, they both been shown through multiple studies to increase strength in the gym and muscle recovery and growth.
Creatine functions by storing phosphate molecules, which are used to regenerate cellular ATP when your muscles are out of energy, allowing you to train harder and longer. Betaine functions as a methyl donor. It has a lot of other health benefits outside of muscle growth.
Its primary use for fitness applications is its importance in the synthesis of methionine, which is an amino acid used in creatine production and muscle protein synthesis.
The recommended dosages for creatine and betaine are 3-5 grams and 1-3 grams per day, respectively, and creatine at least is pretty much necessary for optimal muscle growth. Look for products with dosages in that range at the minimum.
However, you may notice some products with top-of-the-line formulas that seem to have simply left out creatine and/or betaine. The reason for this is that there isn’t one perfect time to take creatine or betaine daily, not everyone takes the same dosage of creatine, and not everyone takes the same kind of creatine.
Since these supplements are popular to stack with other products, some pre-workouts leave them out. I personally take creatine before I train just so I don’t forget, so I’ll often choose a product that comes with at least betaine included, and creatine if possible.
Being able to sustain a high-volume, high-intensity workout is very important for hypertrophy training, and giving yourself the extra edge in endurance can make a big difference in the progress you see. Almost all pre-workouts on the market will contain at least the most tried-and-true endurance ingredient, but very few contain the effective amount.
Most people have at least heard of beta-alanine. It’s on the same level as caffeine and creatine as far as the depth of research and the proof of effectiveness. I won’t bore you too much with the details, but the main function of beta-alanine is that it is a metabolic precursor to the compound called carnosine.
Carnosine is important because it buffers the acidity of muscle cells as ions build up, both from ATP breakdown and cellular fermentation. Sufficient beta-alanine supplementation keeps carnosine levels high and allows you to bang out a couple of extra reps each set, which is a huge benefit for muscle growth.
Most experts recommend daily dosages between two and five grams per day. Most quality pre-workouts stick with 3.2 grams per serving, which is a number made famous by a recent study on soccer players.
3.2 grams is a fine daily dose to stick with, but feel free to stack more beta-alanine on top or take some more at a different time. My advice, stay away from anything with less than 3.2 grams per serving.
Some pre-workouts include branched-chain amino acids (BCAA’s), which can help prevent muscle catabolism, especially during training. BCAA’s are hands-down an important supplement to use, but most people tend to drink them with an intra-workout drink. If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, feel free to pick up a pre-workout with at least 5 grams per serving or throw back some tablets at the same dosage before you train.
Pump-inducers, functional ingredients which cause vasodilation by one of several mechanisms, are the ingredient category with the most variation.
The “pump”, which is the colloquial term for the increased blood flow to the muscles while training, plays a big role in muscle hypertrophy, as more blood in the muscle fibers leads to more nutrient availability and better cell volumization, both of which are important for growth.
The most well-known and well-studied pump-inducer is the amino acid L-citrulline. L-citrulline is the metabolic precursor to another amino acid, L-arginine, which itself is a metabolic precursor to nitric oxide gas, which is the compound that causes the vasodilation response in the body.
The reason that L-citrulline is used in supplements instead of L-arginine is due to the poor absorption of L-arginine in the digestive tract. However, high levels of L-citrulline will still lead to increased nitric oxide product, which results in a skin-splitting pump.
L-citrulline is a favorite of pro and amateur bodybuilders alike because it works, but unfortunately, it’s one of the most chronically under-dosed ingredients in pre-workouts. The minimum effective dose for L-citrulline is 6 grams per day, with a recommended dose of 8 grams or higher. Look for at least 6 grams of pure L-citrulline or 8 grams of L-citrulline Malate 2:1 per serving for a high-quality product.
Although L-arginine has typically been ineffective as a supplement, recent advances have led to new forms of the amino acid that may be better at inducing vasodilation than L-citrulline. One such ingredient is the patented compound Nitrosigine®, which is a bonded complex of arginine and silicon.
There are over nineteen studies confirming its effectiveness, and it will only become more widespread in pre-workouts due to that efficacy. Look for Nitrosigine® at levels between 500 milligrams and 1.5 grams per serving.
Glycerol (including glycerol monostearate and Hydromax®) is a potent pump-inducer that doesn’t rely on nitric oxide synthesis for vasodilation. Instead, due to its hydrophilic nature. glycerol increases the volume of fluid in blood vessels and cells. This is a relative newcomer to sports nutrition, but its popularity is gaining fast because it’s effective.
Next to L-citrulline, this is the most important pump ingredient I look for in a pre-workout. For glycerol monostearate, effective doses will be in the 4-6 gram per serving range. Hydromax® has significantly higher glycerol content than glycerol monostearate (that’s why people prefer it), so effective doses run in the 2 to 3 grams per serving range.
There’s Always More to Know
This article covered a lot of information, but it was only the basics of pre-workout nutrition. Odds are, in addition to what was covered here the next pre-workout you buy will have another five or ten ingredients on the label. You may see natural versions of caffeine, or herbal stimulants like yerba mate or Eria Jariensis.
There may be fat burners like L-carnitine, capsicum extract, or synephrine. The product may also include a variety of nootropic compounds to provide additional mental clarity and focus, such as huperzine-A, Rhodiola rosea extract, L-tyrosine, or choline bitartrate. And I can almost guarantee that there will be a pump-inducer included that wasn’t covered here, like agmatine, L-norvaline, arginine alpha-ketoglutarate (AAKG), or beetroot extract.
So, my advice would be to look into any ingredients on a label that you haven’t seen before, to better familiarize yourself with the wide variety of supplements that are included in pre-workouts, as well as to stay on the cutting edge of supplement science. But if you find a product that meets the four ingredient categories, and that contains the right dosages of the best ingredients, you’ll be well on your way to more intense training, better performance, and better gains.