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How to Choose A Pre-workout Supplement (Ultimate Guide)

Connor Sellers
Published by Connor Sellers
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED

Being a professional in the fitness world for more than a decade, I know that choosing a good pre-workout for yourself may mean the difference between a good exercise performance and a great one, as well as between decent results and extraordinary.

However, with countless formulas flooding the market, many people tend to ignore some essential traits when choosing the right product for them.

So, to make this process a bit easier for my fitness clients and readers, I created this one-stop guide with the help of our certified nutritionist.

Quick Summary

  • Choosing your pre-workout should be based on the goals of your training sessions (fat burning or muscle building), or in other words - on the ingredients contained and their specific dosage.
  • Some key ingredients pre-workouts should always contain include caffeine, creatine, L-arginine, beta-alanine, L-citrulline, etc.
  • If it’s your first time using it, you should avoid taking it on an empty stomach, and you should drink it in smaller doses than recommended.

4 Things to Look for When Picking Pre-workout

Looking at different pre workout supplements

When picking pre-workout, you should look for these four things as the most important ones:

  1. Product transparency
  2. Ingredients contained
  3. Eventual presence of banned substances
  4. How does it match your fitness goals

Since today we are bombarded with hundreds of different pre-workouts, to help you narrow down your choices, we picked the most important things you should factor in.

1. Product’s Transparency

The first thing to look for when buying a pre-workout is to check out its ingredient label. Effective and notable pre-workout supplements never hide behind a “proprietary blend.”

The proprietary blend is a mixture where the ratio and quantities of ingredients, or even certain ingredients, are considered a trade secret, so you don’t know how much of each ingredient it contains.

This could be dangerous and put you at risk of overconsuming some stimulants or even unknowingly ingesting some questionable ingredients.

Therefore, always look for a transparent and complete list of ingredients that have been tested and are legal, safe, and effective.

2. Ingredients to Look For

Different pre workout supplements on table

Those include scientifically-backed ingredients which are wholesome, straightforward, and easy to understand.

In my experience, pre-workout supplements work best when they contain third-party tested ingredients, proven to help you maximize strength and increase muscle pump, focus, and energy.

3. Ingredients to Avoid

Pre-workout powder with questionable ingredients may get you into situations where you could test positive on drug tests or even risk your health.

If pre-workouts contain complicated substances with difficult-to-pronounce chemical names, or if you can’t find any relevant studies backing these ingredients, I advise you not to buy them.

This is especially important if you have underlying health issues or particular ingredient sensitivity. 

Therefore, double-check the label and look for ingredients with scientific proof for the results.

4. Training Goals

Searching about different pre workout supplement

If you aim to lose weight, gain weight, build endurance or reach your 1-rep max goal, you should choose pre-workout accordingly, as it can affect these goals more than you think.

For example, if you want to build endurance or VO2 max, you should pick a pre-workout with the right amount and dosage of stimulant ingredients to drive you through exhausting sessions.

Or if your goal is weight loss and you’re on a calorie deficit, be sure to read how many carbs or sugars pre-workout supplements contain.

Also, look for pre-workouts with ingredients supporting fat loss (more on that later).

If, on the contrary, your goal is to gain weight and muscle mass, look for formulas that will amount to extra calorie intake, which basically means rich in carbs and with a good amino-acid profile that will support your muscle growth.

Roles of Proven Ingredients

Pre workout supplement in different forms

Popular supplements usually invest in marketing the most, so those you bump into often typically have similar ingredients that have a proven record.

Let’s dive into some of the most common ones.

1. Caffeine

Woman holding coffee cup

Although caffeine-free pre-workout is an option, you almost can’t imagine pre-workout supplementation or any pre-workout drink without caffeine, as it is one of the most potent and common ingredients.

It can get you started by boosting energy levels and alertness [1].

The effective (safe) dose is up to 400 mg.

2. Creatine

Another very common pre-workout ingredient is creatine monohydrate which can help you reduce muscle soreness and support your muscle tissue development [2].

Besides that, creatine (a naturally occurring molecule in your body) improves the work capacity of your muscles.

It supports strength gains, which are vital for your weight training [3].

The effective dose is around 5 grams.

3. NO2 Boosters

Man holding barbell, doing deadlifts

Ingredients like L-citrulline and L-arginine improve muscle pumps and therefore are essential for increasing athletic performance.

These ingredients act as nitric oxide production boosters, increasing blood flow and muscle endurance, which are all critical for high-intensity exercises [4].

Effective doses of L-citrulline range from 3 to 5 grams, and doses of L-arginine up to 24 grams.

4. Amino Acids

Nutrients like beta-alanine or branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) are also important and welcomed in a good pre-workout supplement formula.

“Beta-alanine is great for dilation of blood vessels, and dilation is great for when you exercise because it gives you great aerobic capacity.

- Dr. Christopher Balgobin of Fairview Clinics

Beta-alanine, which often triggers a tingling sensation, increases your time to exhaustion (TTE) and aids you in exercising for a more extended period [5].

It can also help increase muscle endurance and reduce fatigue, adding to better and longer workout performance [6].

Effective doses are 2-5 grams daily.

BCAAs, on the other hand, are essential for muscle protein synthesis and the prevention of muscle wasting [7].

They could also help with muscle fatigue, conditioning skeletal muscle tissue to work harder.

The effective dose is up to 20 grams daily. 

Except for these most common ingredients, other notable ones found in pre-workout products are alpha lipoic acid (shown to increase glucose uptake), L-tyrosine (improves focus), L-theanine (for cognitive performances), and various vitamins (commonly B complex).

How to Use a Pre-workout Supplement?

Holding different needs for making a pre workout supplements

You should use your pre-workout supplement according to recommendations, as improper usage can cause some unwanted side effects.

If it’s your first time using pre-workout, you may take lower amounts than the recommended dosage to test your body’s reaction to the formula.

So, if the recommended dose says two scoops, you should consider taking one or even half for the first time.

Remember that pre-workouts kick in around 30 minutes after consumption unless you take it on an empty stomach, which is also not always advisable.

That way, pre-workout tends to get quickly absorbed into the bloodstream putting the body under a lot of stress.

You should steer clear of dry-scooping, as well as taking pre-workouts with an energy drink or some other caffeinated product.

FAQs

Is Pre-workout Worth It for Beginners?

Pre-workout is worth it for beginners as it can benefit people on all fitness levels, from beginners to elite athletes.

No matter the level, it can help improve power, endurance, energy levels, and overall performance.

Is Creatine Better Than Pre-workout?

Creatine alone is not better than pre-workout, as these products have many active ingredients, often including the creatine itself.

Creatine is especially important for a stimulant-free pre-workout, as it increases endurance, muscle power, and energy production and alleviates muscle damage.

Choose a Supplement That Works

Always opt for supplements designed with scientifically proven key ingredients and dosages that match your goals and support your training performance.

To find brands with proven formulas, you can also rely on our list we made after extensively testing them with our clients and colleagues:

Check out our detailed product reviews to see which one is the perfect fit for you.


References:

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23573201/
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27328852/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12701815/
  4. https://journals.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/japplphysiol.00192.2014
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3374095/
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18992136/https://sportsmedicine-open.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40798-018-0176-6
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