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What to Look For in a Pre Workout? (From A Nutritionist)

Michael Garrico
Published by Michael Garrico
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: May 15, 2022

I have lost count of how many different pre-workout shakes I’ve tested out over the years, but it must be over a hundred at this stage. As a personal fitness coach, I have been able to test all these products with clients to see which ones provide the best results.

Our team decided to have a dietitian help us research all the data we have collected about supplements and then find those common ingredients from the best products.

We measured muscle fatigue, strength, and recovery times, to come up with the ideal pre-workout ingredient list.

Summary of Key Findings

  • Pre-workouts can give you a more intense workout by using simple amino acids and molecules to trigger natural body responses.
  • They aim to work by boosting your energy production for better muscle strength during your exercise program.
  • Another way that these ingredients work is by reducing muscular fatigue so that you can push through a few more reps.

What Pre-Workout Ingredients Should You Look For?

different ingredients

Here are the five most effective ingredients that our pre-workout testing and research have shown.

1. Creatine Monohydrate

After protein, creatine is probably the most studied molecule in all of sports science. It’s been so heavily studied that the International Society of Sports Nutrition published research data to summarize all the evidence.

It’s one substance that can help athletes enhance athletic anaerobic performance as it’s directly involved in boosting your strength during resistance training [1]. In my experience, you can increase strength by 5-10%.

And that will ultimately lead to faster lean muscle mass production.

2. Beta-Alanine

This is another very common ingredient that I think should be in every pre-workout. Studies have shown that it may significantly reduce lactic acid buildup in muscles, which in theory should allow you to push your body further before you feel the burn [2].

My other experience with this is that because you delay the burn and it’s not as bad as normal, it may help relieve muscle soreness the next day.

3. Caffeine

coffee beans

The obvious benefit of caffeine is that it helps wake you up in the morning.

But that same effect may also help focus your mind and motivate you during your workouts, especially when you increase your training volume.

The other reason you’ll find it in a pre-workout supplement is that studies have shown a direct link between caffeine and maximum power output [3].

And that should get you that small bit closer to achieving your fitness goals.

4. L-Citrulline

This non-essential amino acid is directly tied to nitric oxide levels in the bloodstream. And while the body does naturally produce it, a sudden boost could help increase blood flow to muscles [4].

“L-citrulline is a naturally occurring amino acid found in food, such as watermelon. It is also made naturally in the body. The body changes L-citrulline into another amino acid called L-arginine and also to a chemical called nitric oxide.” - WebMD.com.

You’ll often find this in muscle pump supplements, as it can make a significant difference to how much your muscles swell up during lifting. The added benefit of the extra blood flow is that more oxygen and energy are delivered to help with your performance as well.

5. BCAAs

Branched-chain amino acids are a set of three essential amino acids that your body cannot produce and therefore have to be taken in with food or supplements.

Most people take it as a separate post-workout shake to help with muscle protein synthesis, but there is also evidence that it may help reduce early-onset muscle fatigue, especially during resistance training [5].

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Are There Pre-Workout Ingredients To Be Careful With?

woman holding up a container thinking

The majority of ingredients that you find in pre-workouts are classed as generally safe to take.

And as you can see above, most of these are part of a normal diet, and you’re just getting a small boost.

However, there are two things to mention.

First of all, beta-alanine has been known to make your hands and feet tingle. It’s like a slight itchy feeling in your skin, and it doesn’t last long [6].

Secondly, because L-citrulline is directly tied to blood flow, you’d need to be careful with taking it if you have some form of a heart condition [7]. In that case, have a chat with your doctor first.

Does Every Athlete Need A Pre-Workout?

No, I would generally say that you should aim to reach a certain fitness level first before reaching for pre-workouts. And if you only head to the gym once a week, then taking a pre-workout won't be making much of a difference either.

But, if you spent the last few months pounding the treadmill and lifting weights 2 to 3 times a week, then it could be time to get that extra boost to make those trips a bit more effective.

I’d also suggest taking them on your most intense workout days first. And generally speaking, a cardio day probably doesn’t require that kind of strength boost unless you’re specifically training for long-distance endurance sports.

Related Article: Is Pre-Workout A Steroid?

FAQs

Are Pre-workout Supplements Banned?

No, ​​pre-workout supplements are not banned, and they generally contain minerals and amino acids that your body needs. A small boost from a supplement does give your body a performance improvement, but it’s not something that is banned in sports.

Should You Try to Mix Your Own Pre-workout?

No, I wouldn’t recommend that you mix your own pre-workout supplement. It can be difficult to get the right amounts and formula, and buying the individual ingredients can often be a lot more expensive than a ready-to-drink supplement.

Have You Found The Right Pre-Workout Supplement Ingredients?

The ideal way to approach picking the right pre-workout is to look for at least three out of five ingredients from our list: creatine, beta-alanine, caffeine, L-citrulline, and BCAAs.

If you can find all five of them in one product, then you’re probably looking at something that could be an ideal option.


References:

  1. https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-017-0173-z
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2887393/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22569090/
  4. https://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/l-citrulline-uses-and-risks
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5649871/
  6. https://ladder.sport/pages/beta-alanine-tingle/
  7. https://www.webmd.com/diet/health-benefits-citrulline#2-4

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