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Fact checked by Andrew Lenau, ISSA CPT & Sports NutritionistFACT CHECKED
October 01, 2023
There are hundreds if not thousands of pre-workout supplements on the market that all claim to be the best and use only science-backed ingredients. It’s easy to get caught in all the marketing hype, scientific jargon, and bold claims. We wanted to create a simple post that covers some of the common ingredients you’ll find in pre-workouts then let you know which ones work and at what dosages.
First things first: What is pre workout?
A pre-workout is a supplement that usually comes in a powdered form that people use to improve their athletic performance. All pre-workouts should have the same common goal; get the most out of your training session.
Pre-workouts have only been around for about 40 years now but their popularity has continued to rise. As with all supplementation, it’s important to understand what you’re taking and why so we put together some information on the topic of pre-workouts and their ingredients.
It’s important to understand that many supplement manufacturers will use various ingredients in a pre-workout to trick consumers into thinking that because there are so many ingredients listed, the product is sure to work well.
The truth is that there are substances found in typical pre-workouts that actually produce acute benefits that can improve your workout but these ingredients are often underdosed to cut costs and increase profit margins.
A critical aspect of deciphering pre-workout formulas is looking for which ingredients are being used and what quantities. That being said, most pre-workouts will try to hit five significant points; good pumps, increased energy, improved endurance, enhanced power, and improved focus.
An acute ingredient is one that you will take then directly receive the benefit. Caffeine is an excellent example of an acute ingredient that works almost immediately after ingesting it.
A saturation ingredient is one in which your body needs to accumulate a certain amount before you can reap the benefits. Good examples of these types of ingredients are beta-alanine and creatine. While both of those ingredients can provide positive benefits in terms of performance, you must have a certain amount in your body before they work correctly. You can’t take creatine once and expect it to work.
An absorption ingredient helps the body better absorb and utilize the primary ingredients in the supplement, enhancing their efficacy. A common example is black pepper extract.
Below we cover two of the most common saturation substances that are found in many pre-workouts on the market.
Then we'll go over a list of common acute ingredients that are categorized by the overall benefit they should produce along with the known recommended dosages.
Finally, we'll cover two of the most frequently used absorption ingredients currently used in pre-workouts.
Both beta-alanine and creatine are added to many pre-workouts these days. While they are both can lead to improved performance, they need to be taken daily over a period of time to reap the benefits. We would recommend supplementing with these two ingredients separately if you really want to experience the performance-enhancing benefits of taking them.
Beta-alanine is a substance that’s included in many pre-workout products these days. You’ll know if your pre-workout uses beta-alanine because it will create a tingling/itchy sensation on your skin which isn't a harmful side effect.
The reason why beta-alanine isn’t necessary for a pre-workout is that it is a saturation ingredient that you need to load up on so that it has any performance-enhancing benefits. Some studies like this show that you’d need an average of 179 grams total intake of beta-alanine just to experience a boost in performance.
It’s most likely the case that the popular pre-workouts won’t have more than 3.2 grams per serving, and you probably don’t take it daily, so it would take a long time before you’d start seeing any possible benefits.
Another reason why beta-alanine isn’t an excellent ingredient for pre-workouts is that the benefits it does seem to provide are found in intense activities that last at least 60 seconds. In other words, the majority of your sets at the gym while weight training won’t fall in the range where beta-alanine can offer the best benefits.
Creatine is perhaps the most effective substance you can take to boost your performance apart from PEDs, SARMs, or pro-hormones. But, just like beta-alanine, creatine is a saturation substance that must reach a certain level in your body before you start to reap the benefits of it.
So, once again, we don’t think you should be taking a pre-workout daily, so it doesn’t make much sense to have creatine as an ingredient. However, you SHOULD supplement with creatine daily as it’s safe to consume continuously and has been shown to offer some fantastic benefits, including increased power output and endurance plus reduced recovery times.
To properly supplement creatine, you can either follow a loading protocol where you take an increased amount until you reach saturation levels, then taper down to a daily 3-5 grams afterward.
Here’s a look at the saturation levels of those two common pre-workout ingredients:
Now that we covered both saturation and acute ingredients we can logically discuss whether or not creatine and beta-alanine are necessary for a pre-workout.
Seeing how both of those ingredients are saturation ingredients, it doesn’t make so much sense for them to be included in a pre-workout. Let’s say for example your pre-workout only has 2 grams of creatine, at that dosage you should still be supplementing creatine separately to get your 3-5 grams a day assuming that you’ve passed the loading threshold that we covered above.
Another point to mention is that it isn’t advisable to take a pre-workout every single day without taking some breaks from using it. This means that you would need to supplement both creatine and beta-alanine on the side if you plan on benefitting from taking them.
We should point out there are some exceptions to the facts above. First is the fact some people really enjoy the tingling sensation from beta-alanine so in that case, maybe you might want to consider a pre-workout with it included. The second instance is that if your pre-workout includes the recommended 5 grams of creatine and you’ve already hit your saturation point then the days you take the pre-workout you would have to take extra creatine on the side because your daily dose has been met.
Overall, we believe that creatine and beta-alanine don’t need to be in a pre-workout.
Below is a list of ingredients that you might see in current pre-workouts. There are far too many possible ingredients that are constantly changing, making it difficult to cover. We chose some of the most common and effective ingredients you may come across.
Note: We based some recommended dosages on information gathered from Examine.com. If you’re searching for supplements and want to know what they are, what they do, and if they have been properly researched then Examine is a great resource to check.
The ingredients used in most pre-workouts for enhancing energy are usually found in the form of stimulants. The most common stimulant used in pre-workouts is caffeine. Still, several other ingredients are used these days to boost energy, including theobromine, yohimbine, guarana, synephrine, and more.
Caffeine is one of the most widely used performance-enhancing substances in the world. It acts as a nootropic to improve focus and energy, plus it can also increase physical strength and endurance.
Pre-workouts use a variety of caffeine ingredients, including caffeine anhydrous (dehydrated caffeine), di-caffeine malate AKA Infinergy (caffeine and malic acid for slow release), and natural caffeine (think coffee beans).
Recommended Dosage: Caffeine dosages in pre-workout can range from 200mg -500mg+. Access your tolerance before ingesting doses larger than 100mg. Researchers usually use dosages for 4-6mg/kg of bodyweight.
N-Phenethyl Dimethylamine Citrate is a stimulant often compared to the now-banned DMAA. It isn’t as powerful as DMAA, but it does provide an energy boost and a euphoric sensation.
Recommended Dosage: There is not enough research to give the recommended dosage, but many pre-workouts will contain anywhere from 50mg-350+mg.
This ingredient finds its way into pre-workout as it works in a similar manner to ephedrine but is much less potent. You’ll often see this ingredient marked as bitter orange on labels. It can help with fat burning and improve circulation.
Recommended Dosage: 10-20mg up to 3 times a day.
Note: Isopropylnorsynephrine is related to synephrine but is much more effective as a fat loss agent as it has demonstrated its lipolytic properties. It also improves energy. Dosages range from 5mg-20mg
One common area that modern pre-workouts have is the inclusion of ingredients meant to improve cognition and focus. Ingredients that help you focus when working out can help to improve the mind-muscle connection, leading to a better and more productive workout session. Some common focus ingredients include tyrosine, Alpha-GPC, citocholine, and Huperzine-A, to name a few.
Alpha-glycerophosphocholine is a cholinergic substance that promotes cognition. Alpha-GPC is used in pre-workouts for focus enhancement and also power output improvement.
Recommended Dosage: 600mg
This is a cognition-enhancing substance that’s cholinergic similar to Alpha-GPC. It helps reduce the breakdown of acetylcholine which can help improve focus and enhance the mind-muscle connection.
Recommended Dosage: 50mcg-400mcg
This amino acid is metabolized in the body to produce catecholamines, including dopamine and adrenaline. Tyrosine is usually included in pre-workouts to help improve memory and focus during stressful situations that intense exercise can produce.
Recommended Dosage: From 500mg -2,000 mg 30-60 minutes before exercise. For anti-stress benefits can be 100-150mg/kg bodyweight.
Working out harder and longer can result in bigger gains; this is why many companies include endurance ingredients in their pre-workouts. A few typical endurance ingredients can consist of taurine, theanine, sodium bicarbonate, beta-alanine, and more.
This organic acid acts as a lipid/membrane stabilizer in the body and can help with various anti-oxidant defense systems. Taurine also supports cardiovascular functioning and the brain, skeletal muscle, and retina. It is used in pre-workouts to improve endurance and overall performance.
Recommended Dosage: 500mg-2,000mg
This amino acid that primarily comes from tea is usually paired with caffeine to provide a relaxed but alert sensation, otherwise called “smart caffeine ”. Theanine is often used in pre-workouts to reduce jitters and anxiousness from caffeine.
Recommended Dosage: 50mg-200mg.
A major area that pre-workouts try to address is to boost the pump you get when working out. These pump ingredients help improve blood flow and relax blood vessels so that more blood can flow into the muscles, resulting in skin-splitting pumps. The most common ingredients used for improving the pump include citrulline, GlycerPump, agmatine sulfate, and arginine. These are often found in both stim and stim-free pre-workouts.
A derivative of the amino acid arginine through the process of decarboxylation, this ingredient may help with improving blood flow by relaxing blood vessels which lead to bigger pumps. The mechanisms for how this substance works aren’t fully understood and need further research.
Recommended Dosage: 1-1.5 grams
An amino acid in the urea cycle that increases levels of arginine and ornithine while boosting the ammonia recycling process and nitric oxide metabolism that can lead to bigger, fuller pumps. Watermelon is one of the few food sources that contain citrulline.
Note: Pay attention for brands to hide behind citrulline malate without giving effective doses.
This is a naturally occurring alcohol that is used in pre-workouts in powdered form. When glycerol is in the blood, it helps to attract and retain water which can help create some massive pumps. It can also help athletes exercise for longer periods. Multiple trademarked glycerol ingredients such as GlycerPump and GlycerSize are standardized to 65% glycerol to reduce clumping and improve mixability.
Recommended Dosage: Studied effective dosage is 1.2g per kg of bodyweight
Note: Glycerol isn’t an absolutely necessary ingredient, but it helps with hydration and producing some serious pumps. No pre-workouts will contain the max effective dosage because it would ruin the product in terms of clumping and mixing. You could also supplement this product separately like creatine.
Nitrates in the form of beet extract can be found in some pre-workouts these days. These compounds change into nitric oxide in the body, which may help with blood flow which in turn can produce a pumping effect during resistance training.
Recommended Dosage: 0.1-0.2mmol/kg (6.4-12.8mg/kg) This equates to roughly 436mg for a person weighing 150 lbs.
An integral piece of the puzzle to gain muscle and strength is to use your muscles to generate adequate power to achieve progressive overload. Ingredients used in pre-workouts to improve power include creatine, ElevATP, and betaine.
Betaine or Trimethylglycine is a non-essential amino acid found in foods such as quinoa, sweet potato, beets, and spinach. Some studies have found conflicting benefits, but this ingredient is thought to help with boosting nitric oxide and improving power.
Recommended Dosage: 2.5-6 grams (dosage can be split into two times)
This is a trademarked product that consists of ancient peat and apple polyphenols. The purpose of this product is to increase endogenous ATP, which helps to increase power and strength.
Recommended Dosage: 150mg
These ingredients help improve the bioavailability of the other substances in the pre-workout, thus rendering them more effective.
Here are two of the most common absorption ingredients these days.
This patented ingredient is derived from the plants; Astragalus membranaceus and Panax notoginseng. Together these ingredients help the body to absorb nutrients, vitamins, amino acids, and fatty acids.
Recommended Dosage: 25-50mg
This trademarked ingredient is made from piperine extract (Black pepper or long pepper). It improves the bioavailability of many substances, including herbal extracts, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidants.
Recommended Dosage: 5mg-20mg
Unfortunately many of the top selling pre-workouts on the market are using criminally underdosed amounts of the ingredients that can actually provide benefits. The main reason brands skimp out on ingredients is because the substances that are proven to really deliver benefits such as citrulline are rather expensive. By reducing the amounts of the active ingredients brands will have higher profit margins thus make more money.
One thing to look for is the dosage size per serving, if you see a pre-workout with a full list of ingredients and the serving size is under 8-10 grams then it probably doesn't contain enough of each active compound to actually produce many benefits. Another tell tale sign that a pre-workout is underdosed is when brands use proprietary blends so they don't have to disclose exactly how much of each ingredient is being used.
It can be hard to separate the good from the bad regarding pre-workouts thanks to marketing tactics, uninformed consumers, and unclear labels.
We hope that this post helps you get the best bang for your buck when shopping for a pre-workout that’s effectively dosed and isn’t formulated with ineffective doses and filler substances that serve no purpose.
Looking for a good supplement to add to your pre-workout routine?
Check out our article on the Best Pre-workout Supplements on the Market!
In search of a specific type of pre workout? We've got you covered with our articles on:
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