The Ultimate Guide to Pre-Workout Supplements
By Ali Kuoppala | Last reviewed Tue 25 September 2018
Medical Review by Gerardo Sison, PharmD
Pre-workout supplements or “boosters” are all the rage right now.
Just look around the bodybuilding supplement industry, and you can see all the new pre-workout buzzwords tied around the ever so clever marketing tactics…
- “skin tearing pump”…
- “laser-sharp focus”…
- “explosive strength”…
Just like most of the previously hyped up supplements, pre-workout boosters tend to be over-marketed, over-priced, and often under-providing…
…However, there are proven compounds that do work, and those are what we will be focusing on this article:
How Effective Are Pre-Workout Ingredients Anyway?
The term “pre-workout booster” loosely describes an over-the-counter nutritional supplement that can give you a boost before exercise, whether this is strength training, running, cycling, or whatever really…
…Most notably, however, they are being pushed to gym-rats.
These pre-workout supplements are usually sweetened powders that contain various amounts of “clinically proven” (read: quite often unproven) vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, alkaloids, stimulants, or any other legally approved compounds that should, could, and in some cases will, improve your workout energy, mental clarity, and focus.
Another option is to buy these “pre-workout ingredients” separately in bulk powder or tablet form, if – for example – you would like to mix up your own pre-workout booster, using the ingredients you want, with the amounts that are suitable for your goals. Quite often this also allows you to leave off the proprietary blends, binders, fillers, sweeteners, and coloring agents (this is the strategy I use personally, although I don’t recommend it since it gets to be expensive as f@#k).
Whether your goal is to mix your own “booster”, purchase a ready-to-go mixture, or you just want to know if you even should use pre-workout supplements at all, here’s a list for you to see how effective the most common ingredients really are:
Notably the most popular “booster” out there is caffeine. It’s also – not that surprisingly – the main ingredient in multiple pre-workout supplements. You can get clinically effective dosages (150-800mg) from a few cups of coffee, caffeine pills & powders, or simply through a pre-workout supplement.
Research suggests that caffeine:
- boosts muscle strength
- improves aerobic and anaerobic performance
- increases metabolic rate
- boosts focus and alertness
- can ward of “morning sickness”
Bottom line: Caffeine is safe and highly effective for pre-workout needs. It will not magically help you add 10 lbs more to your lifts (though some people really claim BS like this), but it will give you a slight boost in performance and focus.
After whey protein, creatine is probably the second most popular bodybuilding supplement of them all.
Unlike many other bodybuilding supplements which come and go without standing the test of time, creatine has actually been very solidly up there with protein supplements for tens of years.
Why? More than likely because there’s a TON of research backing up its effects in:
- increasing lean mass growth relative to placebo
- decreasing fatigue during resistance training
- boosting strength output
(examine.com has a great list showcasing hundreds of studies about the benefits of creatine supplementation for strength gains, more lean mass, and reduced fatigue (along with some other stuff).
Bottom line: Creatine could be added to the pre-workout supplement, and many brands sure have it, but in my opinion, it’s not really needed before workouts, since you need to “saturate” your cells with creatine (often through a loading phase) before it really starts to have a noticeable effect. There’s no quick burst of energy or performance if you just guzzle it down before a workout. So yes, it’s highly effective, but it doesn’t really matter at what time you take it.
Betaine or trimethylglycine (TMG) is identical to the amino acid; glycine, except for the fact that it has 3 methyl rings attached to it, hence the name: tri-methyl-glycine (supposedly the name betaine comes from the fact that the compound was first discovered from beetroots).
Because of the three methyl groups, betaine acts as a “methyl donor” in the body, and can thus donate methyl groups to other parts of the body, which in turn helps with the chelation of estrogen and homocysteine (these in turn possibly improving testosterone to estrogen ration more in favor of T, while also being cardioprotective).
But why do we often see betaine in pre-workout supplements?
Answer: Betaine is considered to be an “osmoregulator”, meaning that it would balance the water in cell membranes from becoming either too diluted or too concentrated, thus improving performance.
However, the studies on that claim are somewhat inconclusive (some showing improved exercise markers, some showing no change) and when its tested alongside creatine (which has similar – though stronger – osmoregulatory properties), it’s clearly not as effective.
Bottom line: there are some benefits to betaine supplementation due to its methyl donor effects. However, the reasoning for its addition to pre-workout supplements is not standing on a very solid foundation when looking at the studies. I like to get my betaine from beets and spinach anyway because, with this, you get the added benefit of dietary nitrates, which can improve NO production and therefore vasodilation, and therefore; the “pump”.
Taurine is a semi-essential amino acid that comprises for about 0,1% of the weight of the human body. Human breast milk is relatively high in taurine (suggesting that it might be very important for the development and normal growth). Taurine also comprises roughly 50% of the amino acids in cardiac tissue.
The name originates from the fact that it was first isolated from bull testicles (and no, don’t be stupid, the supplements are not isolated from there)…
Aside from being heavily used in energy drinks (Red Bull, etc…), taurine has some interesting testosterone boosting benefits that have so far been proven only on animals.
Why some pre-workout supplements have it as an ingredient is not that clear to me, since the studies I’ve seen show it to be pretty inconclusive in improving exercise performance (study, study). The only real benefits of taurine supplementation (in my opinion) are the possible T boosting effect (remember that this hasn’t been studied in humans yet), and the fact that one human study shows taurine to be fairly effective in increasing blood flow.
Bottom line: Aside from a slight increase in blood flow (better muscle pumps), taurine is likely not going to do much for your focus or workout performance.
Arginine is one of the 20 most common amino acids present in nature, some rich food sources include raw cacao, meat and poultry, egg yolks, and various nuts. It’s also one of the most popular ingredients in pre-workout supplements, and this is due to the claims of it improving nitric oxide production in the body, thus increasing blood flow, and improving the muscle “pump” effect (which would of course also improve the delivery of oxygen and nutrients into the muscle tissue).
Arginine is a direct precursor for the synthesis of nitric oxide (NO), and in regards of nitric oxide production, vasodilation, and increased blood flow, there is a good amount of evidence speaking in behalf of arginine supplementation.
- arginine has been shown to “restore” the natural NO production in subjects with heart problems
- arginine has been shown to improve exercise efficiency and exercise tolerance in healthy humans
- arginine raises nitric oxide levels in the body, resulting in lower blood pressure and increased blood flow (study, study, study)
Bottom line: Arginine is fairly effective at increasing blood flow, and this is likely because the human body uses arginine in the synthesis of nitric oxide, which is a compound that dilates blood vessels. Its addition in pre-workout supplements is obviously not for nothing.
All the benefits of arginine can be achieved with citrulline supplementation. That is because the liver naturally converts it into arginine.
So, just like from arginine supplementation, citrulline will give you:
- increased NO production
- better blood flow and muscle pumps due to dilated vessels
- improved exercise efficiency and tolerance
What makes citrulline better than arginine, is the fact that citrulline supplementation is better at increasing plasma arginine levels than direct arginine supplementation itself is. And not only that but citrulline provides a much longer, steady elevations in plasma arginine, whereas arginine supplementation spikes the levels which then quickly fall back to normal.
Bottom line: citrulline is just like arginine, except better at increasing plasma arginine levels, and therefore more effective.
Beta-alanine is a slightly modified version of the amino acid; alanine. It’s a very common ingredient in pre-workout formulas, and when taken in excess (doses exceeding 5 grams), causes tingling all-around the body.
How beta-alanine works are simple. Once ingested, it quickly converts into a compound called carnosine, and carnosine then acts as an acid buffer in the body, promoting performance.
Beta-alanine has some interesting research behind it:
- beta-alanine can increase muscle endurance (study, study, study, study)
- beta-alanine can increase lean muscle mass growth relative to placebo (not much and probably caused by the increased workload, not the actual compound)
- beta-alanine can effectively decrease the feelings of fatigue during exercise (study, study)
Bottom line: Beta-alanine should be somewhat effective for pre-workout needs. Most people who have used the compound tend to report that it gives a slight boost in higher rep ranges, and since its an acid buffer, that claim makes sense.
BCAAs (branched chain amino acids) are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. The name comes from their branch chained looking chemical structure, and these are the only three amino’s that go directly into the muscle, instead of being first metabolized in the liver. BCAAs also comprise roughly 25% of the muscle tissue and are considered to be the most important amino acids for protein synthesis.
Because of the fact that they go directly to the muscles after ingestion, BCAAs can be used in pre-workout and intra-workout supplements as a source of “energy for the muscle”.
I’m personally a huge fan of BCAAs, and this is because I train in a fasted state (meaning that I do not consume any food before my workouts). Because of the BCAAs that I sip during exercise, I can avoid muscle breakdown and give my body amino acids during the training, all while remaining in that fasted state since BCAAs are so low in calories.
I wouldn’t use BCAAs if I would eat before workouts, and this is because you can easily get plenty of BCAAs from everyday foods. Whey protein is 25% BCAAs, animal protein is roughly 18% BCAAs, dairy proteins have around 13%, and last, (definitely also least) vegetable proteins (beans, legumes, nuts) have only 2-4% BCAAs.
Bottom line: If you’re doing intermittent fasting and working out on a fasted state, BCAAs are exceptionally useful, same would be true for vegans since plant-based protein sources are so low in BCAAs. However, for someone who eats normally all-around the day, BCAAs won’t do much. Not because they would be bad, or suck, or anything else, but simply because you already get plenty of BCAAs from the foods you eat before the workout (for example 100 grams of chicken breast is enough to give you roughly 2x the average amount of leucine, isoleucine, and valine you’d get from a BCAA supplement).
Sodium bicarbonate, aka. baking soda, can be found in some pre-workout supplements in relatively small doses, but most brands tend to leave it out due to the facts that they either don’t know how effective it really is, and/or they are aware of the fact that it can cause gastrointestial distress in higher dosages (read: explosive diarrhea), so they choose to not include it.
However, if you start from lower dosages and find an amount that suits you, baking soda before exercise can have a very positive effect on your workout performance. This is because sodium bicarbonate is a natural pH-buffer, making your muscle cells more alkaline during workouts, which in turn increases oxygen uptake and therefore also performance and strength. Very similarly to beta-alanine, baking soda is an acid buffer.
I was completely unaware of how effective sodium bicarbonate really is, until I found multiple interesting articles about it on my favorite exercise science blog; Suppversity, including:
- How baking soda could significantly increase squat and bench press performance
- How baking soda improved speed and cellular adaption to HIIT
- How you could supercharge your creatine supplements with just a bit of baking soda
Bottom line: Baking soda is a true ergogenic aid and you should include it into your “pre-workout ritual”. Just work up to a comfortable dosage, the stuff loses all of its pre-workout magic if you take too much and end up shitting your pants while squatting.
Supplement Recommendations and Dosages
Also what if you don’t want to spend crazy amounts of money on isolated powders, what would be good options for ready-made pre-workout combinations?
And lastly, do you even need a pre-workout?
Let’s start from the scenario in which you’d want to get pure bulk powders of whatever the hell it is that you decide to use for your pre-workout needs (this is the expensive way), here’s a quick list of dosages and effective forms of each compound examined earlier in this article:
- Caffeine anhydrous (100-800mg)
- Creatine monohydrate (3-10g)
- Betaine anhydrous (1-3g)
- L-Taurine, free-form (500-3000mg)
- L-Arginine AKG (3-9g)
- L-Citrulline Malate (1-8g)
- Beta-alanine, free-form (2-5g)
- BCAAs, instantized 2:1:1 ratio (6-12g)
- Baking Soda, any (start from 1 tsp, work upwards)
For the ready-made pre-workout powders on the market, these are my top 3 recommendations:
Lastly, let’s tackle the big question. Do you even need pre-workout supplements?
Answer: The truth is, that you don’t need them for building muscle. I can say with 100% confidence that you can build an amazingly aesthetic and strong body without any pre-workout supplements or compounds ingested ever. Don’t buy into the hype of the marketers.
Pre-workout supplements can help you focus a bit, they can help you squeeze out an extra rep here and there with lighter loads, and they can slightly increase your blood flow, “pump”, and so forth, and in these cases, pre-workout “boosters” DO work…
…Just never assume that you CAN’T build muscle without a pricey pre-workout combination, because you definitely CAN. These compounds are just a nudge towards your goals, you still have to do the work yourself, since there are NO. MAGIC. PILLS. at least in legal markets that is 😉
Thank you for reading.