What Makes a Pre-Workout “Good”? The Ultimate Guide to Choosing the Right Pre-Workout For YOU

So you see that flashy label calling out your name. With words like “explosive” and “skin-splitting pumps”, you’re really encouraged to buy it. You envision your next workout as the best one of your life; lifting some heavy ass weight and just being a total beast.

But wait a second. I’m sure you’ve also thought to yourself “Does this even work?” Well, that’s a difficult question to answer. This is because many brands have different formulations of this product; containing different ingredients for different purposes. Some brands even have multiple pre-workouts; some for accelerated weight loss, some for increased strength, and so on.

Before you head to the nearest supplement shop or rush to Amazon to buy your next pre-workout, let’s explore what makes a pre-workout effective enough to qualify for your spending.

Proprietary Blends

Alright, let’s knock this one out of the way first. I would avoid nearly ALL of these pre-workouts that contain some sort of a proprietary blend.

What is a proprietary blend? Well, instead of listing out ingredients one-by-one with the dosages listed across it, like this:

Legion Pre Wrkout
Legion’s Pulse Pre-Workout. I am in no way sponsored or being paid to show their product, but I do firmly believe in their mission, so a sponsorship would be nice 😉

It’s shown like this instead:

c4
The C4 Original Pre-Workout

See the difference? So this shows a blend of 718 milligrams of total ingredients. However, the amounts of each (except for caffeine) are left up in the air. Companies due this in order to keep their exact formulations a secret from the competition. While effective for the companies, it leaves the consumers left wondering if their being jipped from effective dosages, which often times they are.

Ingredient Dosages

Companies often say they include the most effective ingredients in their product. Which is often true. The actual ingredient is in there, however, the actual amount of that ingredient, is not the most effective dose for that particular ingredient.

For example, several studies in the scientific literature note that 5 grams of creatine is sufficient to produce noticeable gains in power output and strength [1,2]. However, many companies fail to provide this much creatine in their preworkouts, which is surprising due to the fact that creatine is one of the cheapest and most effective supplements that you can buy. Look back to the C4 label, and you’ll see it only has 1,000mg (1,000 milligrams = 1 gram). That is only 20% of the true effective dosage!

The Effective Ingredients

Okay, now we’ll delve into what ingredients are actually effective in pre-workouts. These are the ones you should look for on the label when deciding what pre-workout to choose.

Stimulants

These are the ingredients that you feel that “jolt” from. These are often the primary ingredients of pre-workouts that give you that energy that is often advertised. This is how most people “feel” that it’s working.

Caffeine

Definitely the MOST COMMON ingredient in pre-workouts, and for good reason. Even after limited amounts of sleep [3], it has been shown to significantly increase power output in those who resistance train and perform quick bouts of intense activity (such as sprinters and weightlifters) regularly [4,5]. This was shown at a dose of 3-5 mg/kg of body weight. To put this into perspective, the optimal dose for myself (185 lbs or 84kg) would be about 252-420mg taken about 20-30 minutes before a training session.

Now, of course, if you’re sensitive to caffeine and you experience its side effects of anxiety and irritability if you take too much, then lower the dosage. Experiencing these symptoms is not worth the boost in performance. Remember, health and well-being comes first.

caffeine

Optimal Dose: 3-5mg/kg of body weight

Yohimbine

Now this is more of a fat loss agent. It notably speeds up your metabolism like caffeine does, but through a different metabolic pathway (not getting into the details of that, way too complex for the scope of this article). In a study with soccer players, 20mg of yohimbine was used for 3 weeks and reduced body fat by an average of 2.2% [6].

Now, you have to be more careful with this stimulant than with caffeine. Doses are much lower (20mg is actually quite high of a dose, even for men).

Optimal Dose: 0.3mg/kg of body weight

Synephrine

A much less common ingredient, synephrine is often known as the less potent version of ephedrine (the ingredient that causes Hydroxycut to be banned in the 1990’s due to issues of irresponsible users). It’s real only effective purpose lies in its ability to increase metabolic rate, as shown in a study by Stohs et al., which increased metabolic rate by 65 calories as compared to placebo [7].

Optimal Dose: 50mg

Theacrine (AKA Teacrine)

This ingredient is structurally similar to caffeine, but its effects are much less potent. Coming from a tea called Kucha, it is often combined with caffeine in order to produce a synergistic effect; giving the stimulatory component of caffeine a less harsh and more gradual/longer-lasting effect. Unfortunately, most of the data conducted is sparse and there is not much on theacrine on resistance training. Because of this, an optimal dose has not been established. Anecdotally, however, it is often dosed at 100-150 mg in conjunction with caffeine.

Dry tea with green leaves in wooden spoons, isolated on white

Optimal Dose: 100-150mg(????)

Side Note: Please don’t take all of these stimulants together. If you see a pre-workout with more than two stimulants combined, it could potentially be dangerous.

Performance Enhancers

Citrulline Malate

This is an amino acid that has much evidence behind it in reducing fatigue, soreness, and increasing time to exhaustion in both aerobic activities (long duration exercise, such as jogging) and weight lifting (more reps performed before fatigue set in) [8,9].

Optimal Dose: 6-8 grams (6,000-8,000 milligrams)

Beta-Alanine

Oh yes, the feeling of tingles in your face, arms, and legs to let you know that this ingredient is inside of you (this phenomenon is actually called paresthesia). Besides the tingling of course, a meta-analysis (basically a combination of data from various studies that used the same methods to conduct it to draw a bolder conclusion) illustrated a 2.85% increase in muscular endurance (reps till exhaustion basically) for exercise that lasted between 60-240 seconds [10].

Because of this, this ingredient appears to be more beneficial for endurance athletes and those that train in higher repetition ranges as compared to powerlifters and low-rep training bodybuilders.

beta alanine

Optimal Dose: 2-5 grams

Creatine Monohydrate

Ahh yes, the holy grail of supplementation. Creatine. The richest source of creatine known to man is red meat. However, you’d need to eat ALOT of it in order to get the recommended dosage, so let’s stick with supplementation of it, shall we?

There are literally hundreds (thousands???) of studies on creatine and its effects on athletic performance. Therefore, I’m going to provide you all with a meta-analysis that sums up most of the studies’ results quite nicely.

A 2003 meta-analysis that analyzed 100 studies found that creatine monohydrate (the most common form of creatine used in supplements) was able to increase power output and lean body mass (muscle), regardless of gender or training status [11]. Unfortunately, not much evidence is seen that benefits aerobic athletes or those that perform very long duration endurance activities.

creatine

Optimal Dose: 5 grams

Takeaway

These are the ingredients with the most backing behind them. However, as more research is churned out, possibly more ingredients will be taken into consideration for effective ingredients. Such ingredients on the rise include theanine, ornithine, and betaine.

However, until more research comes out touting its effectiveness, stick with what I’ve laid out here, and you’ll save yourself some serious dough.

References

1. Bazzucchi, I., Felici, F., & Sacchetti, M. (2009). Effect of Short-Term Creatine Supplementation on Neuromuscular Function. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 41(10), 1934-1941. doi:10.1249/mss.0b013e3181a2c05c

2. Kerksick, C. M., Wilborn, C. D., Campbell, W. I., Harvey, T. M., Marcello, B. M., Roberts, M. D., . . . Greenwood, M. (2009). The Effects of Creatine Monohydrate Supplementation With and Without D-Pinitol on Resistance Training Adaptations. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,23(9), 2673-2682. doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181b3e0de

3. Cook, C., Beaven, C. M., Kilduff, L. P., & Drawer, S. (2012). Acute Caffeine Ingestion’s Increase of Voluntarily Chosen Resistance-Training Load after Limited Sleep. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 22(3), 157-164. doi:10.1123/ijsnem.22.3.157

4. Nieman, D. (2010). Caffeine Supplementation and Multiple Sprint Running Performance. Yearbook of Sports Medicine, 2010, 211-212. doi:10.1016/s0162-0908(09)79510-8
5. Coso, J. D., Salinero, J., González-Millán, C., Abián-Vicén, J., & Pérez-González, B. (2012). Dose response effects of a caffeine-containing energy drink on muscle performance: A repeated measures design. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 9(1), 21. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-9-21

6. Ostojic, S. M. (2006). Yohimbine: The Effects on Body Composition and Exercise Performance in Soccer Players. Research in Sports Medicine, 14(4), 289-299. doi:10.1080/15438620600987106

7. Stohs, S. J., Preuss, H. G., Keith, S. C., Keith, P. L., Miller, H., & Kaats, G. R. (2011). Effects of p-Synephrine alone and in Combination with Selected Bioflavonoids on Resting Metabolism, Blood Pressure, Heart Rate and Self-Reported Mood Changes. International Journal of Medical Sciences, 8(4), 295-301. doi:10.7150/ijms.8.295

8. Pérez-Guisado, J., & Jakeman, P. M. (2010). Citrulline Malate Enhances Athletic Anaerobic Performance and Relieves Muscle Soreness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(5), 1215-1222. doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181cb28e0

9. Bendahan, D. (2002). Citrulline/malate promotes aerobic energy production in human exercising muscle. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 36(4), 282-289. doi:10.1136/bjsm.36.4.282

10. Hobson, R. M., Saunders, B., Ball, G., Harris, R. C., & Sale, C. (2012). Effects of β-alanine supplementation on exercise performance: A meta-analysis. Amino Acids,43(1), 25-37. doi:10.1007/s00726-011-1200-z

11. Branch, J. D. (2003). Effect of Creatine Supplementation on Body Composition and Performance: A Meta-analysis. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 13(2), 198-226. doi:10.1123/ijsnem.13.2.198

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