After your post-workout protein, pre-workouts are, in my opinion, the most important products you can take.
Not only can they help boost your strength, but you’ll also notice better performance and endurance while you’re working out.
One of the main reasons for this is that certain types of ingredients can increase your nitric oxide levels, which in turn will increase your blood flow and supply more oxygen and nutrients to your muscles.
Now, before you think that one of those sugary energy drinks is your solution, let me introduce you to the actual types of ingredients that will boost your exercise performance and reduce muscle soreness.
The Most Effective Preworkout Ingredients
Every time people ask me what I think of their supplements, I look for some key ingredients.
Based on my own research and feedback from dietitians, I have found that a lot of popular products use flashy names and secret blends to create hype rather than results.
But, if you keep it simple with the following, then you can notice a lot of benefits to your training.
If you’re like me, then caffeine is the only way you can function in the morning.
Some people say that green tea is the healthier alternative to get that hit, but for me, it’s simply not the same. In fact, according to some studies, caffeine consumption among adults is relatively safe (1).
The reason it works so well as a pre-workout is that it can help to reduce fatigue, boosts your concentration and motivation, and is known to melt away fat to reduce your body weight.
However, before you load up on caffeine, keep in mind that the more you take, the less your body will react to it, and it can increase your blood pressure as well.
Recommended dose: 150mg
Check this video out to learn more about the benefits of caffeine in your body.
2. Creatine Monohydrate
Creatine monohydrate is a substance that I’ve done a lot of research on.
From a physiological point of view, it’s vital for your muscles as it is needed to process more energy.
And the more energy you can get into your muscle cells, the better your strength and overall exercise performance will be.
Some studies vouch that it improves high intensity exercise performance which leads to greater training adaptations (2)
For a while, there was some debate over creatine’s effectiveness, but quite a few studies have shown that it does work, and the International Society of Sports Nutrition also published a study about the ethics of using creatine as a supplement.
I have personally experienced great endurance performance during training, and all of my clients that decide to give it a try have shown positive results as well. However, if you want to avoid this ingredient, you can always get pre-workouts with no creatine.
Recommended dose: 5g
One way to improve how well your muscles perform is to get more nutrition and energy to them.
While creatine helps with processing energy in the muscle cells, L-arginine can help by getting that energy there faster.
Some studies have shown that it can increase blood flow by relaxing blood vessels.
And the easier it is for your heart to pump nutrients around your body, the more you can reduce fatigue and increase strength levels.
Recommended dose: 3g
This is one of the non-essential amino acids, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. It has been shown to have a direct impact on muscle soreness during and after your exercise.
A lot of dietary supplements for endurance training will feature this on the label because it has such a direct impact on athletic performance.
Personally, I wouldn’t say that it’s the most critical ingredient to look out for, but in combination with caffeine and creatine, it can provide quite a boost for your daily activities.
Recommended dose: 3g
5. Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
Don’t worry; I won’t expect you to remember the name, it’s enough to just remember BCAAs, as that’s what you’ll always see printed on supplement labels.
BCAAs are a group of 3 essential amino acids called leucine isoleucine and valine, and they are essential because your body cannot use protein synthesis to create them.
That means you have to take them in through your diet, but that can be tough to achieve just before you start training.
Products with BCAAs aim to improve strength and training performance, and the best thing is that you can take them every day.
According to some studies, BCAA supplementation may reduce the muscle damage associated with endurance exercise (3).
Recommended dose: 5g
Less Common Ingredients to Look Out for
So, I always recommend focusing on the above items, especially caffeine, creatine, and BCAAs. You’ll find all of them combined in quite a few products in just the right dose as well.
But there are a few other things that I have become interested in, especially for strength training.
If you’re sensitive to stimulants like caffeine and tend to end up with the jitters after a cup of coffee, then tyrosine may be the best alternative.
What it does is increase the levels of certain brain chemicals like dopamine and norepinephrine. In fact, it is an enhancer of cognition as cited in some studies (4).
These have been shown to help with better focus, memory, and reducing the effects of stress. And because they don’t have a stimulating impact, you can take them later in the day as well.
2. L-Citrulline Malate
This is an extract from citrus fruit, but it’s generally present in very low doses.
Therefore it’s difficult to get enough into you through food alone, especially when you need to take it just a few minutes before exercising.
It has similar effects as L-arginine and creatine in that it can help to improve power and strength, as well as increased blood flow for better pumps.
In fact, athletes undergoing intensive preparation involving a high level of training or in competitive events might profit from Citrulline Malate according to some studies (4)
Studies have shown that a single dose of L-citrulline does not improve the ability of the arteries to widen in either healthy or diseased individuals. However, when people who have heart disease or are at risk of heart disease have consumed L-citrulline for seven days or longer, the ability of their arteries to widen has improved.
- Grant Tinsley, Sports Nutritionist
For a long time, it was thought that taurine had very stimulating effects, but those have been questioned in recent years.
However, one study did find a correlation with running performance and strength.
It is less common to find in products, but a positive ingredient if you do spot it. It is recommended as a nutritional intervention for the prevention and/or treatment of cardiovascular disease as cited in some studies (6).
Many athletes just focus on drinking water, but it’s just as critical to watch out for your electrolytes like potassium in order to stay hydrated.
Now, you could take a few regular sips of beetroot juice to get an extra dose of electrolytes, but that’s not really a suitable option at the gym.
So, always check for at least some trace amounts of sodium and potassium on the labels.
5. Vitamins And Minerals
Your body needs a huge amount of different vitamins and minerals, even just for normal body functions.
But, you’ll need far more of these nutrients when you’re going through intense exercise periods.
You’ll find that some pre-workouts these days will contain some vital minerals and vitamins, but I always recommend getting a good standalone multivitamin as well.
Does Preworkout Have Side Effects?
In my experience, side effects have been limited to allergies and people taking a larger dose than recommended for their body composition. But, you could be slightly more sensitive to some ingredients, which is why it’s important to be aware of what to look out for.
Personally, I never get the jitters, no matter how much caffeine I have in a day. But it’s actually quite common, and rather than help you focus better on certain tasks, you can end up struggling to string two thoughts together.
This can happen if you exercise later in the day or just before bedtime. Taking large amounts of caffeine after 6 pm can easily result in a sleepless night. And that has an added negative effect on your recovery time, which can impact your performance during the next trip to the gym.
Although coffee and tea are the most concentrated sources of caffeine, it is also found in soda, cocoa, energy drinks, and several types of medication.
- Franziska Spritzler,Registered Dietitian
3. Stomach Upset
Very large doses of protein, especially BCAAs, can be a bit difficult for your stomach to digest. This can lead to cramping and nausea, but it’s fully reversible. It’s always good advice to look at the labels of all your supplements to identify any overlapping ingredients.
That way, you can avoid taking in too much protein.
This is also usually down to over-stimulation or too much protein that your body is struggling to process. Again, it’s vital to take a close look at your diet to make sure you don’t have too much caffeine or BCAAs.
What to Do If You Experience Side Effects
As I said above, side effects are rare and usually down to either an allergy to some ingredients or taking too much of the pre-workout shake in one go.
Either way, if you do notice some negative impacts after taking any kind of supplement, then the best thing is to give it a break for a few days.
Then, start taking it at a lower than recommended dosage, to see if it still persists.
It would also be a good idea to speak with a dietitian as well, as there may be some better options available.
Related Article: Pre-Workouts Side Effects
The Best Time to Take Pre-Workouts
The best time to take pre-workouts is about 20 to 30 minutes before you start your exercise. When you first start taking such a product, then it’s critical to pay close attention to when you feel the mental and physical stimulation.
For some people, 10 minutes before they hit the gym is more than enough time, but it will all depend on your overall diet and metabolic rate.
Just do a bit of experimenting with the timing to figure out the ideal time for you.
Can You Stack Pre-Workouts?
Yes, you can stack pre-workouts with other supplements, but you have to pay close attention to any overlapping ingredients.
It wouldn’t be uncommon to have pre and post-exercise shakes, as well as fat burners and mass gainers to have some of the same components.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t stack them, but you would need to be a bit more careful with how you spread them out for maximum results.
Is pre workout bad for your health?
No, pre workout isn’t bad for your health as long as you stick to the recommended amounts. Negative effects are most common when athletes take in too much in one go, or when there are some underlying allergies or food intolerances.
Does pre workout make you gain weight?
No, pre workout doesn’t necessarily make you gain weight, but in combination with the right workout routine, you can build more muscle, which would register on your weighing scales. However, keep in mind that because muscle tissue weighs more than fat, this would actually be a positive impact.
Do you really need pre workout?
No, you don’t need pre workout as an essential part of your diet, but if you want to get more out of your time at the gym, then this simple supplement can make all the difference. Basically, the harder you want to train, the more you will benefit.
Is coffee a good pre workout?
No, coffee on its own is not a good pre workout. Yes, it will provide you with the stimulating effect of caffeine, but that’s not enough to give you all the benefits that a performance supplement will provide.
Check out the difference of Coffee to Pre-Workout here.
How long does pre workout last?
Pre workout will last for between 1 to 3 hours, but this all depends on how hard you exercise and how fast your body can process the active ingredients. It’s important to keep this in mind as some of the stimulants could end up interfering with your sleep.
Does pre workout make you stronger?
Yes, pre workout can make you stronger, both in the sense that it will increase your stamina and help to build more muscle fibers. Many top athletes rely on these products a lot in order to get the absolute maximum out of every workout.
Planning out your supplement intake does take a bit of trial and error, and I certainly wouldn’t suggest buying every possible option available.
It’s a much more effective way to gradually add these to your exercise days to see what works best for you.
With the information on the above ingredients, you have everything you need to check out the labels of different available pre-workouts.
I would also suggest that you take a look at our dedicated pre-workout pages for some more specific recommendations: