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Pre-Workouts are supplements designed to enhance your workout performance and experience. They’re typically flavored powders that you mix with water to drink before training.
A good pre-workout consists of natural ingredients that help:
- Boost muscle pumps – by improving circulation and oxygen delivery to working muscles
- Increase energy levels – by optimizing mitochondria and by raising the levels of blood epinephrine
- Enhance focus – by boosting neurotransmitters like dopamine
- Promote endurance – by buffering chemicals that cause premature fatigue
Pre-workouts are full of different ingredients. Much like any supplement, they aren’t regulated by the FDA, which allows the manufacturers to easily claim what they want. Making it hard to separate the genuinely useful pre-workouts from scam supplements.
The ingredients you’ll see below are split into two categories: the best, most researched pre-workout ingredients, and the worst pre-workout ingredients that can cause side effects.
Knowing this information will help you to shop with confidence the next time you’re in the market for a pre-workout.
The Best Pre-Workout Ingredients
Caffeine is by far the safest and most reliable stimulant for the nervous system. Caffeine is not completely harmless – at higher doses it can be toxic and cause a slew of side effects – but that happens at doses so large that even as a coffee addict it’s hard to reach those levels.
- There’s only 90mg of caffeine in a cup of coffee, and most well-researched pre-workouts contain no more than 250-300mg per total daily dose. At these doses caffeine can be extremely useful for prolonging time to fatigue, boosting your drive, and enhancing the overall workout experience.
Caffeine has no calories, but it’s a cheap and safe option for a sustained burst of energy and concentration. Over time you do gradually build a tolerance to caffeine, but you can reverse it by taking a break from caffeine for a week or two.
Creatine is a non-essential amino acid. We get some of it from foods such as meats and fish, and your body makes some by combining different amino acids.
Creatine quickly gets used up when you train your muscles. Low creatine levels can lead to lack of energy and sluggishness. Which is why creatine supplementation works so well for athletes.
- Creatine is the most studied sports supplement in existence – it’s almost as researched as caffeine. Research supports its use for endurance and maximizing exercise efficiency. According to studies, 5g per day is plenty.
Some people prefer to ‘load’ creatine the first week, taking 10g or more per day to fill up the muscle creatine stores. Afterwards, they continue to take 3-5g of creatine daily for several weeks or months before taking a break of a few weeks and then repeating the cycle.
However, some athletes prefer another way of taking creatine. It’s by taking lower doses, 1-3g daily, indefinitely. No cycling or loading phases. I’ve found this to work best when it comes to building lean muscle and increasing power and strength.
Citrulline directly increases the production of nitric oxide (NO), a compound that dilates your blood vessels. This results in fuller muscle pumps. Studies have shown that Citrulline increases NO levels better than arginine – NO’s direct precursor.
Look for ‘Citrulline Malate’ in pre-workouts. It’s a modified version of citrulline that provides superior energy and fatigue-fighting benefits.
4. Rhodiola Rosea
This is an ancient Scandinavian herb that was originally used by Vikings and Russian soldiers to endure tough living conditions. Today, Rhodiola is used worldwide for its energy-boosting effects.
- Studies have shown that Rhodiola boosts energy like caffeine, but it has a much cleaner and longer-lasting buzz. Improved performance under stress, sharper focus, and increased resistance to fatigue are just some of the studied benefits of Rhodiola.
It’s a perfect supplement to motivate you to go to the gym – and train like there’s no tomorrow once there.
Tyorinse is an amino acid with high absorption rate in your brain. Once there, Tyrosine helps to produce dopamine, a molecule crucial for motivation, drive, and success.
Tyrosine supplementation has been shown to boost mental performance under stress. This includes cold exposure, sleep deprivation, public speech, and even hard physical exertion.
The Worst Pre-Workout Ingredients
Heavy stimulants are usually the only type of ingredient in a pre-workout that you should approach with caution. Many give you a burst of energy, but none are as well-researched as caffeine. Some have outright been shown to be dangerous.
Here are the 3 worst pre-workout ingredients:
Also known as aminoisoheptane, this potent CNS stimulant has long history of controversty in the fitness industry. It’s been associated with seizures and heart problems. Despite being banned by the FDA, several supplement makers continued to sell it for years.
However, the FDA took legal action against these manufacturers in 2017, leading to raids and even arrests in some cases.
Safe to say DMAA is best left alone.
Synephrine is another controversial sim commonly found in pre-workouts. You may have also heard of it as ‘bitter orange extract’.
Synephrine is used as an alternative to ephedrine, a banned substance that was popular in the 90s and the early 2000s but later banned due to its harsh effects on the heart.
Advocates of synephrine claim it’s safer than ephedrine in terms of cardiovascular health, but the USA and Canada have banned it. Some studies do show Synephrine can be too aggressive for some people – increasing the risk of health problems.
Native to Africa, Yohimbe is compound from the bark of the evergreen tre Pausinystalia Johimbe.
- Although it’s full of harsh chemicals, the biggest concern in Yohimbe is yohimbine – a compound known for messing with your alpha-2 adrenoceptors.
Triggering these receptors dilates your blood vessels and mobilizes fatty acids – leading to faster fat loss. Sounds good, so what’s the problem?
Well, the issue is that these benefits come with a cost. A study found that Yohimbe can significantly increase blood pressure and heart rate.
Even when combined with exercise, Yohimbe led to elevated feelings of social anxiety and panic attacks. And in some cases, heart palpitations. Oh, and Yohimbe is banned in some countries – including the UK, Canada and Australia.
A Note from the Editor:
These stimulants are beneficial in the sense that they will supercharge your energy levels. A large body of anecdotal evidence shows the stimulants mentioned above are likely safe for most people when taken in lower doses.
However, the biggest issue with them is that they’re often mixed with other stimulants such as caffeine, which is where the risk of side effects goes through the roof. Also, there’s a serious lack of formal studies around these ingredients. Until we have more information about their toxic doses, we can’t label them as ‘safe’.
Anything Else to Watch Out For?
Caffeine is a great ingredient, but it can also be a real nightmare if you over-do it with the dose. Some pre-workouts can have over 400mg of the drug per serving which is more than 2 cans of the strongest energy drink on the planet.
If your body isn’t used to such high levels of caffeine, you’re likely to experience anxiety, nausea, and even heart palpitations. Make sure you read the caffeine dose on the label before buying a pre-workout.
Something else you should watch out for is proprietary blends. These are becoming increasingly common in the supplement industry as manufacturers look to maximize profit from their supplements.
Typically, a manufacturer will tell you they do this to prevent competitors from stealing their formula. But is that the real reason, or do they do it so they can hide how much of an ingredient they’ve put so they can save on production costs?
The answer depends on the manufacturer, but nonetheless, proprietary blends prevent you from knowing what you’re putting in your body, which is dangerous as you’ll be playing Russian Roulette in terms of not knowing if you’ll get side effects.
- Luckily, there are plenty of great companies of there that are confident in their pre-workouts and have no problem showing you their entire formula clearly on the label.
Conclusion to the Best and the Worst Pre-Workout Ingredients
So, there you have it – these were the best and the worst pre-workout ingredients currently on the market.
Hopefully, you’ve now gained a better perspective of what to look for, and what to look out for in your pre-workout supplement in terms of the ingredients.
Obviously, each pre-workout supplement is different and you should look for the one that is i line with your fitness goals. Obvious example: 200mg of caffeine can be too much for sensitive individuals, but it can also be too low for someone who’s used to taking pre-workouts daily.
Also, keep in mind that pre-workouts are no miracle pills (or powders). You still need to lift weights and put in the work. Just taking these supplements without a plan is a waste of your time and money.