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Fact checked by Andrew Lenau, ISSA CPT & Sports NutritionistFACT CHECKED
April 21, 2023
Pre workout is one of the most beloved supplements around, right up there with protein powder and creatine.
It often comes with great names and vivid descriptors, like "quantum", "matrix", and "hardcore" (whew, we get pumped just thinking about it!), is packaged in bright colors, and packed with intense flavors.
You know, the type of flavors that make you want to run through a brick wall.
So, here's what we know so far. Lifters love it, the supplement looks bright and energizing, and while it often comes in strong flavors (think blue raspberry, cherry limeade, and tropical punch), it typically also tastes great.
But appearances and flavor aside, what is pre-workout and why do lifters take it? That's exactly what we're about to answer. Let's get into it!
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Pre-workout supplements can technically be defined as any sort of food or drink taken before a workout session to improve exercise performance.
For example, some high-level athletes swear that a simple coffee is the best pre-workout for them. At the same time, you can easily find very effective pre-workouts that have 5+ ingredients.
Getting more specific, pre-workout increases the work you put in during exercise by providing you with added energy, focus, and power while reducing fatigue, ultimately leading to increasing your athletic performance.
Pre-workout can come in powder, capsule, or gummy form, or even as pre workout drinks, and both recreational and competitive athletes use and benefit from pre-workout supplements.
The most common type of pre-workout is powder form, which you mix into water, before your gym session.
We'll keep this short and sweet, as pre-workouts work based on the ingredients, or combination of ingredients, that are in them.
So, depending on the ingredients your pre workout formulas have, they can do things like increase your energy, ward off fatigue, enhance your focus, and improve your power, which leads to increased muscle protein synthesis and building more strength and mass.
To get these acute effects, when you take pre workout matters. You'll want to take your pre-workout about 30 to 60 minutes before exercising, which you can learn more about in our article that discusses when to take pre workout.
Now, let's get into the different types of pre workout supplements and common ingredients, as these factors will determine exactly how your supplement works for you.
Now that we have a foundational understanding of what pre workout is, let's break it down further and talk about the different types of pre workout.
Single-ingredient pre-workouts are just that: a pre-workout with either one ingredient or one primary ingredient. The most common single-ingredient pre-workout supplement is caffeine.
Your initial thought may be that taking just one ingredient is cutting yourself short when you can take a pre-workout that has 10 ingredients. However, single-ingredient supplements, like these caffeine pills, have a lot of benefits.
The first is that they're cheap. You only pay for one ingredient, meaning you're not paying for others you may not even want. For example, you can easily get 100 caffeine pills (200mg) for $15 or less.
Further, it allows you to see what works and what doesn't. You may find that a multi-ingredient pre-workout works, but you have no idea which of its many ingredients your body is responding best to.
And, you may find through trying a few different single-ingredient supplements that you only respond to one primary ingredient in a way that is beneficial. Basically, taking a single-ingredient pre-workout enables you to determine what works best for you.
The most popular type of pre-workout is those that contain multi ingredients. While this could technically mean 2 or more, multi-ingredient pre workouts generally have at least 5 ingredients, with some having 10 or more.
While we just discussed the benefit of taking a pre-workout supplement with one ingredient, multi-ingredient pre workouts also have a lot to offer, including the fact that they have more than one ingredient. Multiple pre workout ingredients can be advantageous as improved exercise performance can occur through several different mechanisms.
For example, one pre-workout may include a stimulant so you have more energy for your workout, in addition to a nootropic, which provides long-term focus plus a muscle buffer to delay fatigue.
Another awesome benefit is that multi-ingredient workouts have done the research for you. By this, we mean a quality supplement company will formulate its pre-workout with the proper assortment of ingredients and the optimal dosage.
This can take away your guesswork, which is ideal, as it can get pretty confusing trying to figure out how much of a single-ingredient product (or several) you should take.
This all assumes that you choose a quality supplement brand. Always stick with either big-name brands with quality reputations or new third-party tested brands that have plenty of positive reviews from respected sources.
If you're ready to add a multi-ingredient pre-workout to your supplement line-up, check out our list of Best Pre Workouts to find the best fit for you!
Stim pre-workout are supplements that include ingredients that will boost your energy. These pre-workouts impact your central nervous system, leading to an increase in alertness, focus, and energy production.
The most common pre-workout ingredient found in stim formulas is caffeine. Other stimulants commonly found in pre-workouts are yohimbine and green tea, as well as different variations of caffeine.
Caffeine is one of the most studied supplements, and there is a lot of evidence that it does, in fact, improve exercise performance¹. But always remember that too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing, so be aware of caffeine dosing in your pre-workout.
Some supplement companies continue to push caffeine doses higher and higher. In addition, some lifters have a tendency to think they can exceed the recommended dosing.
Now, don't get us wrong, caffeine is great, but if your supplement already has 400mg of caffeine in it, don't take it upon yourself to add another scoop. In fact, we recommend reading our article on how much caffeine your pre-workout should have to ensure yours contains the optimal amount.
Looking for an awesome stimulant pre-workout? We recommend Transparent Labs Bulk!
We bet you have two big questions regarding stim-free pre-workout. One: Does stimulant free pre workout work? Two: Why would you choose this option?
Non-stim pre-workouts are those which have no stimulating ingredients, like caffeine. Why opt for a non-stim option? Some lifters don't need the caffeine, others have discovered they have poor reactions to highly stimulating products, and a third group uses non-stim options when they're taking a break from their normal stim pre-workout.
You may not understand how you can have a pre-workout that doesn't have stimulants. We get it. This is definitely confusing because we tend to conflate the energy production from stimulants as being the same as "real energy." For example, you can be exhausted but then take caffeine and suddenly be wired, but this isn't real energy.
Non-stim supplements improve workout performance by using other ingredients. The three main types of ingredients include:
To be clear, you can find these ingredients in stim pre-workouts also. However, with non-stim supplements, these ingredients take center stage. We'll talk about these more in the next section.
In the meantime, if you feel like non-caffeine pre workouts are a good option for you, check out our list of Best Caffeine Free Pre Workout Supplements.
Let's briefly go over some of the primary ingredients in pre-workouts. We're going to focus on groups of ingredients, rather than individual ones. And if you want even more information on ingredients, check out our article that covers pre workout ingredients in depth.
We've gone over caffeine and stimulants quite a bit already, so we'll be brief here. This group of ingredients stimulates the central nervous system, temporarily increasing energy levels.
In addition, stimulants will also increase various physiological systems, such as your heartbeat and breathing rates.
Other examples of stimulants include:
Muscle buffers are a group of non-stimulating ingredients found in pre-workout supplements. Perhaps the most famous muscle buffer is beta-alanine, which is responsible for making you tingle and itch.
Muscle buffers work by maintaining a proper pH balance in the muscle, helping to mitigate the burning sensation.
Nootropics' popularity has increased over the past two years.
If you're not sure what they are, think of them as "brain drugs" as they enhance your energy levels by improving brain function. You know those days when you get the perfect amount of sleep and wake up feeling amazing?
Nootropics can recreate that feeling.
It's important to note that various nootropics work differently, but they all tend to improve focus, awareness, and mood, increase clarity, and provide smooth energy.
Examples of nootropics include Alpha-GPC, Theanine, Huperzine-A, and Tyrosine.
Nitric oxide boosters work by widening the blood vessels to allow more blood flow. As a result, more blood is pushed into the muscles, which can enlarge them and make them bigger.
Nitric oxide boosters can also help mitigate fatigue, but lifters really take them for the pump. Some common nitric oxide boosters are Agmatine Sulfate, L-Citrulline, and Beet Root.
While not a nitric oxide booster, glycerol falls into the same category. It encourages the drawing in of water, which also enlarges the muscle.
Carbohydrates are another ingredient found in some pre-workout supplements. These pre-workouts are primarily made for those who are involved in very intense training and are at risk of depleting their glycogen stores.
This is primarily an issue for those doing an endurance training session or prolonged high-intensity exercise.
The average lifter following a strength program for an hour doesn't need to really worry about this. To be clear, we're not saying an hour in the gym is easy. We're just saying that you have plenty of glycogen to fuel yourself.
Having said that, if you have room for the calories and are trying to 100% optimize muscle growth or strength, it doesn't hurt to sip on some carbs for extra energy.
As mentioned above, many pre-workouts also include various other compounds. For example, essential amino acids (EAAs) or branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are often placed in pre-workouts.
First, if you want to learn more about these compounds, we highly recommend reading our article on EAAs vs BCAAs, because whether you need these in your pre-workout depends on many factors.
A branched chain amino acid, for example, can help mitigate muscle soreness, contribute to building more muscle mass, and reducing your muscle fatigue. If you decide BCAAs are right for you, check out these 12 Best BCAA Supplements.
Another ingredient frequently included is creatine monohydrate. Creatine is easily the most effective supplement on the market, and if you're not taking it, you should be! However, you don't need to take it with a pre-workout.
And even if your pre-workout does have it, we highly recommend still taking a good creatine supplement. Why? Because for best results, you need to take creatine every day, and you don't need pre-workout daily.
If you are interested in a pre-workout that includes creatine, check out our article on the best pre-workouts with creatine!
In 2018, the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition rolled out a massive review of pre-workouts, and after comparing 80 different studies, concluded that pre-workouts do enhance workout performance².
This includes the ability to:
Bottom line: Pre-workouts can work and provide many benefits. Your job is to find the one that works best for you.
Ahh, the question of the ages: Is pre workout bad for you?
Just about every single supplement has gone through a phase where the media labels it as dangerous. Hell, even creatine and protein have gone through that, and to some extent, still are.
Let's start by saying there's some level of danger to literally anything we digest. In fact, hypernatremia, which is overhydration, is a major health hazard in mass endurance events, is responsible for many emergency situations, and has even caused death.
So, if water can kill you, really anything poses a potential threat.
Now we just gave you an extreme example, but the point is that anything is dangerous when taken in a manner it's not meant to. Having said that, when examining the pros and cons of pre workout, as long as you're taking it in the prescribed manner, pre-workouts are generally safe.
And if you're concerned about the cons, you can mitigate your risk even further by sticking with trusted brands and starting with a conservative dose. In fact, beginners may want to use a conservative pre-workout and then half that dose. Having a small kick on your first day to assess your tolerance is not going to hurt you.
Heck, you might even find that a half-dose is enough for you, and boom, you just doubled your money!
If you're taking pre workout supplements, there's one thing you absolutely have to do in order to see results.
Ready for it?
Voila. We've just presented you with the most significant variable that determines if a pre-workout will improve your results. It's how much work you put in at the gym!
Some nutrition supplements work by optimizing the work you put in. For example, taking a quality protein supplement for post-workout recovery can result in better adaptations compared to if you did the same workout regimen but didn't eat enough protein.
When it comes to a pre-workout, it primes your body to put in more work. This might be by improving energy production or mitigating muscle fatigue. Either one of these is an incredible benefit, BUT you must take advantage of them by putting in more work!!
To summarize, pre-workout products are amazing supplements that can enhance your workout performance for more muscle, bigger muscles, and higher fat loss. With the explosion of their popularity, there are a ton of new brands out there and even new "genres", like non-stim.
All of the options may make it feel confusing, but in reality, it's awesome. You now have a huge variety of mostly quality options, so you can see what works best for you and what ingredients you like.
It may take a while to find the pre-workout of your dreams, but when you do, as long as you're putting in the work, you will benefit from it. It doesn't get any better than that!
Ready to find the best pre-workout for you? Check out our article on the 15 Best Pre-Workout Supplements to find your perfect match!
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