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Fact checked by Andrew Lenau, ISSA CPT & Sports NutritionistFACT CHECKED
April 20, 2022
If you’ve been wondering what ingredient in pre-workout makes you itchy, it’s beta-alanine. While some people actually like this (we assume because they either have to claw their face off or push some heavyweight), a lot of people don’t. It can be very uncomfortable and can actually cause us to lose focus. The question is, do you really even need beta alanine in a pre-workout? And if not, what should you look for in a pre-workout?
In this article, we’re going to go over what you need to know about beta alanine and pre-workout and more specifically, a pre-workout without beta alanine.
Read on if you’re ready to start taking a pre-workout without the ingredient that makes you tingle and itch.
So you heard about this dope-ass pre-workout that’ll make your head explode; just what you need. You’re serious about gains, so you don’t mess around with testing a “half-scoop". You go full-on rounded scoop, and then some. You get to the gym, and things are going good, your heart’s beating fast, and you’re getting hyped. 100% you’re going to crush this session…then you start to get a little itch on your ear. You scratch it and seem to make it spread like wildfire across your whole freaking face. After clawing your face through the next exercise, you are looking at yourself like a madman.
What causes this insane itching sensation is the pre-workout ingredient beta-alanine. That itching is technically known as paresthesia and refers to the feeling of “pin and needles” under the skin. But here’s the catch. While most people think this sensation is the pre-workout “kicking in,” it actually has nothing to do with the function of your pre-workout or beta-alanine. Actually, it’s not scientifically clear why it occurs.
For the purpose of this article, we won't go too much into the itchy side effect of beta-alanine, but rather it's purpose (if any) in a pre-workout. For those who want to learn more about the itchy side of things, we wrote an article with as much possible information about tingles and itch from pre-workout.
We want to go over the function of beta-alanine real quick because, surprisingly, it doesn’t really need to be taken as a pre-workout. The point being is that you can definitely take a pre-workout without beta-alanine and still see a positive effect. There’s even a very valid argument that beta-alanine is only put into pre-workout solely based on its association as a pre-workout, as well as the itch. We’re not saying it's bad to, we’re just saying don’t think you’re losing out if you don’t include beta-alanine in your pre-workout of choice.
Beta-alanine, along with histidine, is involved in the production of carnosine which is a powerful muscle buffer. However, in this reaction, beta-alanine is the rate-limiting factor meaning that once it’s used up, there is no more carnosine.
Taking beta-alanine can gradually ensure that there is plenty to increase muscle carnosine levels. While beta-alanine definitely increases muscle carnosine levels and improves training performance, this takes a while to occur. Further, once your carnosine levels are full, you can take beta-alanine whenever to maintain those levels. Back to our original point, you do not need to take beta-alanine before a workout to see its benefits.
Put simply, it's just like creatine in that it is a saturation ingredient, so it needs to be taken daily with the appropriate dosage (approximately 3-6g per day). Timing doesn't matter, AND if you don't take it every day, it's not going to be effective. Further, having a loading phase is best, just like creatine.
You might be thinking, then creatine isn't necessary as a pre-workout either? That's correct, unless you are factoring in the dose from the pre-workout with on and off days from using it, but we'll save the creatine talk for another post.
Since we can safely say beta alanine isn't necessary in a pre-workout, unless you are using it in addition to dosing beta alanine on off days and the pre-workout has an appropriate dosage of beta alanine (if not, you'll need to take the pre-workout as well as a little more beta alanine to reach the right daily dose - i.e. if your pre-workout has 1g, you'll need to take 2g or so more on the side)...OR, you just like beta alanine because of the itch...
...here are a few ingredients found in pre-workout that you SHOULD actually look for.
Note: This list below is far from complete, these are just some of the most important ingredients you’ll want from a pre-workout. For a more intensive look, check out this article on pre-workout ingredients.
1. Caffeine For Energy:
If you’ve ever wondered what ingredient in pre-workout gives you energy, it’s caffeine. Most people know of caffeine as most people love coffee and tea but what many don’t know is that studies show caffeine is one of the most effective ergogenic aids on the market. And “ergogenic aid” is a fancy way to refer to a substance that improves human performance, which caffeine does beautifully.
Most people just assume that caffeine works as a central nervous stimulant and provides us with energy for a few hours. It keeps us focused as well as energized to work. If you thought that, you wouldn’t be wrong. However, caffeine also works by improving work performance in heat, mitigating fatigue, lengthening time to exhaustion, and even improving muscle contractions.
Caffeine is so effective that it is generally believed to be the most important ingredient in a pre-workout for improved performance. Therefore, you don’t need beta-alanine in your pre-workout; you just need caffeine.
Know that some pre-workouts will use other stimulants for energy but caffeine is definitely the most common.
If you want to learn about pre-workout without stimulants, read this.
2. L-Arginine, L-Citrulline And Citrulline Malate For A Pump:
L-arginine, l- citrulline malate, and citrulline malate are the pre-workout ingredients that give you a pump. Together, these compounds are known as nitric boosters. These are compounds that help elevate the amount of nitric oxide in your bloodstream, widening your blood vessels. This will have several positive effects, physiological and aesthetic.
Physiologically, it will allow more blood flow to the muscles. In general, this works by improving oxygen utilization. Studies have shown that this may be able to improve tolerance to intense exercise by prolonging time to exhaustion. At the same time, this is not the case in other studies, so we want to emphasize it “may” be able to help. Here’s another study that shows the effectiveness of l-citrulline.
Aesthetically, it will make your veins pop. If you like the vascular look, l-arginine can definitely help enlarge your veins and make them more pronounced. While this look is temporary, it can definitely feel good and help motivate you in the gym. In addition, it will cause a general pump and make your muscles feel tight. While generally thought of as a transitory aesthetic benefit, it can definitely make you feel good and motivate you. Even still, evidence is showing that this extra blood flow to the muscles can have a long-term benefit.
3. L-Theanine And L-Tyrosine For Focus:
L-Theanine is an amino acid that can be used to increase focus. L-Theanine is commonly seen in combination with caffeine due to the belief it can help reduce anxiety or other effects caused by caffeine. Basically, it’s believed the two will actually out each other. Regardless, it is reported to give “smooth” energy that helps focus. Compare this to caffeine which provides more of hyped-up energy.
L-Tyrosine is also an amino acid bit metabolized into catecholamines dopamine and adrenaline. These are very important compounds that can definitely help your intensity and focus in the gym. While your body regulates the production of these catecholamines, your body will generally produce more under stressful circumstances. In other words, taking L-Tyrosine along with exercise can give you that little boost you need.
4. Taurine...Kind Of Does A Lot (Reportedly):
Taurine is yet another amino acid that is commonly found in many pre-workouts (yes, there are a lot more amino acids other than your BCAAs that can improve performance). As the title suggests, taurine is reported to do a lot, including:
The extent of the effectiveness of all these benefits vary, at least to the extent that taking it as a pre-workout will make a noticeable difference. Regardless, expect to see it when you are looking at pre-workouts.
So now, let’s look at some great pre-workouts without beta-alanine. We’re going to give you some great options to choose from. We are only choosing four to keep your choices simple as we really believe these to have the most potential so why give more?
We do want to mention that we have not tried all of these and are mainly going off their ingredient list and Amazon rating.
Best Overall: SFS Always Ready Pre Workout
The top pick goes to a lesser-known brand that offers a serious-looking pre-workout. After looking at its impressive ingredient list, it’s easy to see why SET FOR SET's Always Ready Pre-Workout is the best. It gives dosing for both one and two scoops.
Wow. That looks seriously awesome. Caffeine for the energy, theanine to smooth things out, tyrosine and AlphaGPC for focus, betaine anhydrous for improved muscular strength and endurance, and L-Citrulline and taurine for a massive pump. It also has a few other important ingredients that you can check out, but those will be the primary ones to support your workout.
The Cheapest: Caffeine Pills
Simple, basic, cheap, and effective. You rarely ever hear of caffeine pills but it might be just what you need. We’re not going to list specific options, as caffeine is caffeine. However, some of the brands we have used include:
As mentioned above, caffeine is generally believed to be the most effective ingredient in pre-workouts for performance improvement. Therefore, we think that the obvious choice is to just take caffeine! There are three main reasons we love caffeine pills. For one, caffeine is very cheap. For example, you can get 100 200mg-pills from Prolab for $7.99!
Secondly, most pre-workouts underdose caffeine compared to what literature suggests for performance enhancement at 3-6mg/kg body (study). Keep in mind these higher doses are for endurance but for a 70kg individual, you’re looking at 210mg on the low end. Some brands will hit this, but many only provide 150mg, and still, there are a lot of guys much bigger! Caffeine pills let you dose how much you do much more accurately.
Last, it’s just convenient and easy to take. You can easily stick a bottle in your gym bag and just eat one with water when you want. No mixing or sticky mess to deal with.
One word of advice, do not use powder. Caffeine is perfectly safe, but there have been instances where someone measured caffeine powder incorrectly and had serious consequences. Just use pills, and there’s no problem; it’s already cheap enough.
Many advanced trainees have moved on to this option because it works. Keep in mind that you can use caffeine pills for “normal workouts” and use a more intense pre-workout when you need that extra boost in focus, pump, and power.
Most Natural With No Caffeine: ONNIT Total Nitric Oxide
ONNIT has a great pre-workout that is purely a NO booster. This means that it has no caffeine and no beta-alanine. It has multiple ingredients designed to increase your nitric oxide and give you a killer pump. This includes beetroot, perhaps the most popular food source for a NO booster. A quick rundown of its ingredients:
As you can see from the ingredient list, ONNIT’s number one goal is to increase NO. It has a 4.3-star rating on Amazon from 300+ reviewers, which says a lot as it’s hard to impress lifters with a pre-workout.
The main complaint is its taste as it is too “earthy". Well, that’s because we have become accustomed to synthetic sweeteners and have gotten away from real food. The taste is from their proprietary blend which includes a healthy dose of beets. While we haven’t personally tested this supplement from ONNIT, we have taken beetroots, and it does have an “earthy” taste. To us, this just shows that ONNIT is living up to its reputation as more of a natural, holistic supplement company and they are using real products. This is not a problem with us, but it’s something to consider if you need a good tasting pre workout.
Other than that, the reviews are highly positive, with repeated claims of awesome, sustained energy. We definitely recommend giving this a go.
Best NO Booster: PEScience High Volume Nitric Oxide Booster
Yet another awesome pre-workout from PEScience. This one gets rid of the caffeine and is their pure NO booster, making it a great choice for looking for a stim-free pump pre-workout. It has a 4.5-star review from over 1,800 consumers. Its ingredient list includes:
As you can see, similar to their Prolific pre-workout, PEScience is very generous with their dosing. This is awesome to see as so many pre-workouts like to underdose. We like the idea of this pure NO booster as you can easily stack it with any other supplements you want, like caffeine pills, for example.
Over the years, we have noticed that the more specific a supplement is, the better they are. When you find some that “do everything”, you realize that they tend to do everything half-ass. This is why we were so impressed with their Prolific, as it seems to really be all-encompassing. This is important for all supplements, especially pre-workouts, as you require specific doses to receive a noticeable benefit. PEScience NO booster definitely delivers.
We just gave you 4 awesome pre-workouts without beta-alanine, so you can be sure to train without the itch. That being said, we want to clarify that beta-alanine is very effective at improving performance. However, it doesn’t need to be taken before you workout.
There’s a simple solution if you are still interested in beta-alanine but tired of itching. Start taking beta-alanine in multiple, smaller doses throughout the day. This will allow you to get the benefits of beta-alanine without experiencing the itch sensation. Do that and let a beta-alanine free pre-workouts take care of you 30 minutes before the gym.
Related: 14 Best Pre-Workouts on the Market
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