Pre-workout products can help us to get more out of each training session, but not all products are created equally. It probably doesn’t surprise you that many supplement companies put profits before customers and slap shiny, hype-filled labels on their “proprietary blend” of “Super Advanced Energy, Endurance, Growth and Pump Accelerators,” when the vast majority of these products fail to deliver on even a fraction of such claims.
This article will help you cut through the nonsense and identify the best pre-workout supplementation strategies to ensure you never waste your money on a pre-workout again. But before we go any farther, allow me to quickly cover the topic of proprietary blends in supplements. First, take a look at this label from a popular pre-workout that we will leave unnamed.
The red ovals indicate the amounts of each proprietary blend (which they refer to as a “Matrix”). Looking at the middle red oval, we can see that this particular matrix includes 12 ingredients that comprise just over 10 grams of the product. The sneaky thing about proprietary blends is that we simply don’t know how much of each respective ingredient is included. In fact, all we know is the relative quantity—there’s more of the first ingredient (creatine gluconate) than the second (creatine taurinate), there’s more of the second than the third, and so on.
In reality, supplement companies use this tactic to allow them to put quality ingredients in the product (and hype them up in the marketing and on the label), but in quantities far too small to actually be effective. For example, one of the effective ingredients we’ll discuss below is citrulline malate, which increases performance with a dosage of 6 grams.
Now, you’d better believe that the label describes all the benefits of the citrulline malate supplement included in their product—well, all the benefits you’d get if they included the effective dose. Unfortunately, doing the math we realize that there is no way that we’re getting anywhere near that 6 gram dose here.
The main takeaway here is simply to steer clear of proprietary blends. They don’t benefit anyone but the manufacturer who is free to fill their product with cheap junk and a miniscule dusting of effective ingredients, and ultimately place a premium price tag on their polished turd of a product.
Finally, it is also very concerning that (indicated by the yellow oval) the total quantity of protein is listed as 20 grams, yet we can see the Protein Matrix is only 9.66 grams. What the heck is going on here? I suppose we can assume that the quality control department got rolled into the marketing department—more warm bodies to think up shiny new label designs to distract folks from looking at the Supplement Facts label.
Now that we’ve clearly demonstrated some serious shadiness in the industry, let’s finish up the introduction so we can prevent you from ever falling prey to such schemes again.
Before I introduce the best pre-workout ingredients I want to make it clear that this is by no means an exhaustive list. There are tons of other ingredients out there, but compared to those below, there isn’t much proof that they actually work like the supplement industry wants you to believe they do. Given the very real potential of unwanted side effects and/or simply throwing money down the toilet, experimenting with unproven compounds is not advisable.
The ingredients we’re covering here have been extensively researched and shown to be effective. And thanks to the research, we know exactly what dose (or at least know what range to work within) we need. Put simply, these ingredients are “no-brainers” because they’re safe and they’re going to give you the most bang for your buck.
I’ve also included a couple ingredients that are definitely promising but don’t quite qualify as “no-brainers.” Even so, depending on your budget and goals, they just might be appropriate additions to your pre-workout arsenal.
I’m going to keep these descriptions short and simply explain what each ingredient is, what it does, and the effective dose. For further reading, I highly recommend you check out examine.com for an incredible wealth of science-based information.
BEST BANG-FOR-YOUR-BUCK INGREDIENTS
What it is: Small alkaloid belonging to the methylxanthine class; powerful central nervous system stimulant (and the most commonly used drug in the world)
What it does: Improves strength and endurance (leading to increased training volume), increases alertness and wakefulness and improves mood. In short, helps you do more in the gym.1,2
Power output is often diminished in the morning relative to the evening, and also in people with minor sleep deprivation—caffeine can make up for those power deficits.3,4
Effective dose: Typical doses at which these improvements occur range from 1.36-2.27 milligrams per pound body weight (which equates to a dose of about 250-400mg for a 180 pound male).5 However, if you’re new to caffeine use, I suggest starting with around 0.91 mg/lb (about 160mg in the previous example) to assess your tolerance and increase the dose as necessary.
Keep in mind: Frequent use leads to tolerance and diminished effectiveness. In other words, the more often you use it, the less benefits you’ll experience. Daily use will likely result in rapid tolerance.
To continue reaping maximum benefits from caffeine, use it only on workout days, or perhaps just on your hardest workout days. If you notice diminishing benefits, simply taking a break from caffeine will resensitize your body to its effects.
What it is: An amino acid analogue of L-glutamate and L-glutamine, found almost solely in tea plants.
What it does: Works synergistically with caffeine to minimize side effects (headaches and jitters) and boost benefits (alertness and reaction time).6,7
Effective dose: Seems most effective when used at a 1:2 ratio with caffeine (i.e., half as much caffeine as you’re ingesting). Using 300mg caffeine as an example, that works out to 150mg.
What it is: A molecule produced in the body that stores high-energy phosphate groups in the form of creatine phosphate, capable of rapidly producing ATP (energy).
What it does: Increases the amount of creatine in muscles, resulting in increased strength, power, and lean mass.8,9
Effective dose: Start with a higher dose (0.14 grams per pound body weight, which works out to 25 grams per day) for the first 5-7 days (known as the “loading” phase), then maintain with 5 grams daily.
Keep in mind: During the loading phase, doses should be spread out over the day to avoid the potential for diarrhea and nausea.10
The effective dose during the maintenance phase is somewhat less than 5 grams (specifically, one tenth of the loading dose), but given how inexpensive creatine is, coupled with the potential for greater benefits, 5 grams is the typical dose.
While creatine is a popular ingredient in pre-workout stacks, supplementation is actually not timing-dependent—you can take it any time and get the same benefits.
As it must be used daily, you will need some bulk creatine for non-workout days.
What it is: A modified version of the amino acid alanine.
What it does: Enhances muscular endurance by increasing muscle carnosine levels; carnosine buffers lactic acid and this helps you get an extra rep or two when you’re training in the 8-15 repetition range.11
In short, reduces fatigue and increases training volume, which can lead to improvements in body composition.12
Effective dose: about 4g (3.2g minimum) daily; must use daily for at least 30 days (and daily thereafter) to achieve benefits; maximum benefit (80% increase to muscle carnosine levels) seen after 10 weeks of daily supplementation.13
Keep in mind: While beta-alanine is a popular ingredient in pre-workout stacks, supplementation is actually not timing-dependent—you can take it any time and get the same benefits.
However, many users enjoy the tingling sensation (paresthesia) beta-alanine provides during their workout. For those that dislike the tingles, doses can be divided (e.g., 2g twice daily).
As it must be used daily, you will need some bulk beta-alanine for your non-workout days.
What it is: An amino acid (L-Citrulline) bound to malic acid. This pairing provides stability to L-Citrulline in the body.
What it does: Citrulline is converted to arginine which increases nitric oxide levels and blood flow. Citrulline is actually more effective than arginine itself in increasing arginine levels.15
Delays fatigue, increases training volume, and reduces post-workout muscle soreness.16
Effective dose: 6-8g (may as well use 8g for potentially greater benefit as it’s relatively cheap).
HYDROMAX (65% glycerol powder)
What it is: A stable, highly concentrated form of powdered glycerol—an osmotic compound that draws and retains water within muscle cells.17
What it does: Promotes cellular swelling (i.e., gives you a great pump), and we know that cellular swelling can signal hypertrophy and lead to muscle growth.18 Furthermore, having a great pump in the gym is beneficial in and of itself because it makes you feel like a badass and helps give you confidence to dominate your workouts. After all, when was the last time you felt like a badass in the gym without a great pump?
Effective dose: 3g (equates to 2g of glycerol).
What it is: A small alkaloid that is structurally very similar to caffeine, theacrine is a sedative at relatively low doses and stimulatory at higher doses; found in the highest levels in kucha tea leaves.
What it does: Very similar benefits to caffeine, but may also decrease inflammation and anxiety.19
Effective dose: The few studies that exist use a 200mg dosage. Exploring the forums for anecdotal reports, it seems like most people find that a dose of 200-300mg is most effective—many people report sedative effects with lower doses (which makes sense since theacrine is found in kucha tea which is recommended for relaxation).
Keep in mind: Unlike caffeine, it appears that the body may not develop a tolerance to theacrine. Preliminary evidence from a single study19 suggests that even after seven days of daily use, benefits did not diminish at all. More research is needed, but theacrine looks promising indeed. The only drawback is that an effective dose of theacrine is about 50 times more expensive than an effective dose of caffeine!
Essential Amino Acids (EAAs)
(This is going to be a rather long section, so if you are short on time or patience here is the gist: EAAs only seem to be useful during periods of calorie restriction. If you’re on a “cutting” diet, they can help you maintain lean mass while you lose fat. If you’re “bulking” or just maintaining, they probably won’t do much—if anything—for you.)
What it is: “Essential” because they have to be obtained from the diet, EAAs include histidine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, leucine, isoleucine, and valine (the last three of which are the well-known branched-chain amino acids—BCAAs).
What it does: EAAs are critical to recover from, and ultimately grow from workouts. Among these, the BCAA leucine is the most powerful, as it is responsible for stimulating protein synthesis (i.e., muscle recovery and growth) at a dose of about 3 grams.20
While EAAs pack a powerful punch, you probably don’t need to supplement them unless you’re restricting calories (for example, if you’re on a “cutting” diet). If you aren’t cutting—and assuming you have adequate protein in your diet—it’s unlikely that adding EAAs to your regimen will benefit you.
In a study (using 24 men with at least one year of thrice-weekly training experience) that compared Gaspari Nutrition’s SizeOn Maximum Performance Supplement—a formula with a whole host of ingredients including vitamins, electrolytes, BCAAs (most notably a massive 5 gram dose of leucine), creatine, carbohydrates and protein—to an equivalent amount of maltodextrose, whey protein, and creatine, both groups gained muscle and strength but there were no differences between groups after 42 days of heavy resistance training.21
Interestingly, participants’ average weight, calorie intake and protein intake were 184.2 lbs, 2587 calories and 129 grams, respectively. That works out to a calorie intake of body weight x 14 and protein intake of 0.7 grams per pound body weight, both very modest values.
In a different study, BCAA supplementation (14 grams taken in divided doses pre- and post-workout) in trained men alongside a bodybuilding style resistance training protocol with a calorie-restricted diet (intake of approximately body weight x 12.5) resulted in the maintenance of lean mass and an increase in strength while losing fat mass. The control group consumed a carbohydrate supplement instead of a BCAA supplement and, while they lost fat too, they also lost lean mass and strength.22
Somewhat surprisingly, participants’ protein intake was much higher in this study than the SizeOn study (more than 1 gram per pound body weight). As such, a high protein intake by itself does not appear to protect against muscle loss even with a relatively modest caloric deficit (the calorie-restricted participants consumed only 300 calories per day less than the SizeOn guys), supporting the use of amino acid supplements with a calorie-restricted (i.e., “cutting” diet).
Assuming your goal is fat loss and maintenance of lean mass, EAAs are likely a sound investment. And taking them with your pre-workout (instead of after the workout) might confer a bit of extra muscle mass via increased protein synthesis, but studies disagree on this point.
While one study found that consuming 6 grams of EAAs immediately before (instead of after) the workout resulted in greater overall protein synthesis,23 the researchers measured protein synthesis indirectly which casts a slight shadow of doubt on their findings—in particular because a similar study where the researchers measured protein synthesis directly failed to find any benefit to pre- versus post-workout EAAs (at a dose of 0.16 grams per pound of fat-free mass, equivalent to 25 grams for a 180 pound man at 12 percent body fat).24
While these are murky waters, one thing is clear—EAAs (alongside a cutting diet) are going to help you maintain lean mass. Taking them immediately before the workout may or may not be of additional benefit. Still, there is no apparent disadvantage to taking them before the workout, so even if they don’t confer additional benefits it certainly doesn’t hurt to take them pre-workout.
Effective dose: There seems to be a wide range, as both 6 grams of EAAs and 14 grams of BCAAs have been shown to be effective.
POPULAR WORKOUT FORMULAS: HOW DO THEY STACK UP?
Now that we know what to look for in a pre-workout, let’s take a look at the most popular products out there. Here are the labels from the three best-selling pre-workout formulas on the bodybuilding.com store,25 one of the largest supplement retail sites.
#1 (Average rating: 9.2/10 out of 3687 user reviews; Cost: just under $2 per serving)
Out of the ingredients we’re focused on, this product delivers an effective dose of caffeine, citrulline malate, and may have an effective dose of BCAAs if you’re on a cutting diet.
Beta-alanine and creatine (gram for gram, creatine hydrochloride is basically equivalent to creatine monohydrate10) are present, but in too low a dose. However, since you have to have some bulk creatine and beta-alanine to use on days where you don’t take a pre-workout, you can easily supplement that dosage.
Bottom line: The highest-rated pre-workout on bodybuilding.com is nothing special, and at almost $2 per serving we would at least like to see full, effective doses of beta-alanine and creatine.
#2 (Average rating: 8.5/10 out of 4213 user reviews; Cost: about $1 per serving; however it is not effective unless you take two scoops, so actually about $2 per serving)
Out of the ingredients we’re focused on, we can say for sure that this product delivers (with two servings) an effective dose of beta-alanine and caffeine. Unfortunately this product doesn’t have anything else going for it.
It does have branded theacrine (TeaCor), but if we do a little bit of math with that 371mg figure for the “Explosive Energy Blend”—knowing that 150mg of that is caffeine—we find that the MAXIMUM possible amount of theacrine is only 35mg (but could be as little as 1mg).
Bottom line: $2 for beta-alanine and caffeine, both of which are quite inexpensive (caffeine being dirt cheap)—this has to be one of the worst pre-workouts out there when it comes to user benefits, but has to be hands-down one of the best profit producers.
#3 (Average rating: 9.1/10 out of 1720 user reviews; Cost: about $1 per serving; however it is not effective unless you take two scoops, so actually about $2 per serving)
Out of the ingredients we’re focused on, we can say for sure that this product delivers (with two servings) an effective dose of beta-alanine and creatine. It probably delivers an effective dose of caffeine (especially with the two scoops, and because caffeine is cheap), but it’s impossible to say for sure given the proprietary blend.
Bottom line: As with #2, $2 per serving is awfully expensive for what you get here. This looks to be another extremely profitable product.
THE SEARCH FOR A GREAT PRE-WORKOUT CONTINUES
Let’s face it: supplement companies have one goal that drives them—profits. There just isn’t a huge motivation to deliver outstanding products, especially when the average supplement user doesn’t have a clue what an outstanding product is (as evidenced by the fact that the #2 best-selling pre-workout on one of the largest supplement store sites is literally just caffeine, beta-alanine, and fillers).
One option is going all mad scientist, purchasing all the ingredients separately, and combining them in your own kitchen/laboratory. Let’s see what that would look like, and compare the value of our homemade formula to that of those above.
*Theacrine can be used in addition to, or as a substitution for, caffeine.
Clearly purchasing the ingredients separately and combining them yourself is an incredible deal (72 cents buys you a formula that absolutely obliterates any of the popular formulas above), but I know most guys just don’t have the time or patience to do so. Obviously it’s far more convenient to unscrew the cap of a tub, jam a scoop in there, toss it into the shaker and be done with it. However, as we’ve seen from reviewing some of the most popular products, you’re going to be missing out on some of the most effective ingredients.
So, there is a definite need for a pre-workout that really stands out from the crowd and contains all of these ingredients—should I create it?
1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21157384 2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16541243 3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22349085 4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22496767 5. http://examine.com/supplements/Caffeine/ 6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18006208 7. http://examine.com/supplements/Theanine/ 8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21744011 9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21512399 10. http://examine.com/supplements/Creatine/ 11. http://examine.com/supplements/Beta-Alanine/ 12. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19083385 13. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16868650 14. http://examine.com/supplements/Citrulline/ 15. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25445598 16. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20386132 17. http://astromicnutrition.com/HydroMax_WhitePaper.pdf 18. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20847704 19.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4271659/pdf/1550-2783-11-S1-P49.pdf 20. http://examine.com/supplements/Leucine/ 21. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4234960/ 22. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4700774/#CR17 23. http://ajpendo.physiology.org/content/281/2/E197?rss=1&ssourc 24. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18535123 25. http://www.bodybuilding.com/store/best-pre-workout-supplements.html
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