This blog has been written to provide an impartial guide to the ingredients that are absolutely essential to understand before selecting a pre-workout. This is based on nearly 20 years of experience in the industry and will no doubt be seen as critical of certain brands or approaches to formulation. However, the truth is the truth.
First things first - What should the consumer expect from their pre-workout?
The single biggest mistake many, many people make is how they evaluate a pre-workout’s performance. What do I mean by this? Well, many people will simply take a pre-workout because it gives them a buzz. There is so much more to it than that, much more. Once you’ve read this, you’ll definitely be on track to some serious improvements, especially if you use the right pre-workout ingredients in proper meaningful doses. So why take a pre-workout? To me the reason is very logical. It is to enhance my workout and ultimately stimulate new muscle growth, nothing else. I’m not interested in the taste or colour, what my friends in the gym take or being wired, they are all secondary. It’s much like being handed the winning F1 car and turning to the team and saying I don’t like the colour. Luckily the vast majority of those who read this blog do not fall into this category. So just to clarify, we are not taking a pre-workout for a buzz, it’s the end game we’re after, more weights, more intensity, more muscle. Pure and simple. One last thing this is not meant to be an in depth article about each and every conceivable pre workout ingredient, I’m just focusing on the ingredients you are likely to come across most often with a few facts. In future blogs I will give more detail to each of these ingredients but in the meantime here’s the vital stuff you need to know;
1. Caffeine - 5 Stars
I’ll jump straight in with caffeine and get this one out of the way. Yes it works, without doubt, it reduces perceived effort, improves focus etc, there are more studies relating to caffeine than just about any other sports nutrition supplement. However, you can build up a tolerance very quickly so it’s best to use it on days when you really need it only. It's cheap too and as a result most pre-workout rely on caffeine as their main ingredient, and they will usually use 250mg+ just to be sure. I personally use caffeine free pre-workout for nearly all of my training and I only resort to the caffeinated variety if I’m feeling tired or in circumstances when I’m not really motivated and need that extra punch that caffeine delivers.
2. BCAA’s – 5 Stars
I love them because they do one thing which you really, really want. They trigger protein synthesis, they are anabolic and boost the effects of exercise. I suggest you look for at least 7,000mgs. Why? And I know many pre-workouts contain much less or none. Well science says so that’s why. The two studies below both use at least 6.8gms of BCAA’s for an 80 kg athlete. Intake of branched-chain amino acids influences the levels of MAFbx mRNA and MuRF-1 total protein in resting and exercising human muscle Branched-chain amino acids increase p70S6k phosphorylation in human skeletal muscle after resistance exercise
3. Citrulline Malate – 5 Stars
We all love a good pump from a great workout, but there is far more to using Citrulline than just a great pump. The interesting thing with Citrulline is that it really only seems to start working for people at significant dosages. Effects are not really noticed until 6 grams + and this is now scientifically proven not just once but now twice using a dosage of 8 grams. I’ll quote one of their findings to make my point quite clear, "subjects in the citrulline malate group performed significantly higher number of repetitions during all 3 exercises compared with PL group". That’s very compelling because the 8 gram dose has now showed good results in two very well designed studies. The message? Take 8 grams of Citrulline an hour or so before your workout and you’ll deliver greater intensity. Citrulline malate enhances athletic anaerobic performance and relieves muscle soreness Effects of supplemental citrulline malate ingestion during repeated bouts of lower-body exercise in advanced weightlifters
4. Creatine/Creapure® 5 Stars – but NOT for use in pre-workouts.
It’s not really a pre-workout supplement, it takes at least a week of continuous use to elevate creatine levels in muscle to a point where it will be beneficial. I always advise to use it separately or load up on it first, then use it strategically to further your gains when you hit a plateau. For now this is all I will add on the subject, suffice to say I see little point in putting Creatine in a pre-workout. Oh and other forms of Creatine, forget them, none are proven to be more effective nor as safe as Creapure® Creatine Monohydrate.
5. L-Carnitine – 5 Stars
L-Carnitine is becoming more and more popular month by month. Not just with athletes but perhaps of more relevance; the sports science community, now that they realise its real merits aren’t related to its role in fat burning but its ability to improve exercise and ability to improve biochemical markers from exercise. A single dose of 2 grams favourably effects biomarkers in the blood as per one of the studies listed below. Single dose administration of l-carnitine improves antioxidant activities in healthy subjects L-carnitine l-tartrate supplementation favorably affects biochemical markers of recovery from physical exertion in middle-aged men and women
6. Betaine Anhydrous aka Trimethylglycine (TMG) – 5 Stars
A personal favourite that now appears everywhere; I’d argue that TMG is one of the most underrated supplements on the market today. Whilst it’s not strictly a pre-workout supplement it certainly has a place because in theory it has an immediate effect within the human body. We’ve used TMG for well over 15 years now and I’ve always seen significant potential with it, more and more studies are clearly illustrating very positive benefits through its use, both for health and performance. That’s what I like about it. So what is the evidence? Well in 2013 a very well designed study evaluated the effects of taking 2.5grams a day for 6 weeks, the results were staggering to say the least. Increases in lean mass coupled with a reduction in body fat, what’s not to like about a supplement that provides such benefits. Take a look at the study below to see for yourself. Effects of betaine on body composition, performance, and homocysteine thiolactone
7. Beta Alanine - 4 Stars
Another that is not strictly a pre-workout supplement but has become an inclusion in just about every single pre-workout supplement on the market today. Whilst there is evidence to support its use for sports nutrition I have to be honest and say that I’m on the fence with this one. It's possible to increase muscle carnosine levels with beta-alanine, increase endurance and stamina with proven doses. Scientific studies prove that 3,200mg per day significantly increases carnosine levels in muscle which is capable of improving high-intensity anaerobic performance. Effect of two β-alanine dosing protocols on muscle carnosine synthesis and washout Role of beta-alanine supplementation on muscle carnosine and exercise performance
8. Arginine – 3 Stars
Used traditionally to increase levels of Nitric Oxide which can increase pumps by increasing blood levels of Arginine. However as strange as it might sound taking Arginine is not the best way of increasing blood levels of Arginine. Citrulline does a better job and is scientifically proven to do so, just 3 grams of Citrulline Malate increases blood levels to the same degree as 6 grams of Arginine. Since many athletes complain of stomach discomfort when taking Arginine it is quite understandable why Citrulline Malate has become so popular. Citrulline a more suitable substrate than Arginine to restore no production and the microcirculation during endotoxemia
9. N-Acetyl-Cysteine - 1 star
One of the last things you would want to add to a pre workout supplement. Why? I here you screaming, it's in some of the best?? Really? Well unfortunately more and more evidence is supporting its NON use for pre-workout applications. In a recent study it was found that N-Acetyl-Cysteine hampers the adaptive responses to exercise. Put this way, BCCA's increase the adaptive responses to exercise and NAC reduces them. Ill advised. Infusion with the antioxidant N-acetylcysteine attenuates early adaptive responses to exercise in human skeletal muscle
10. Nitrates, Beetroot, Creatine Nitrate and any other Nitrate compounds. – 0 StarsThat’s not a typo – Zero stars and in my opinion something to completely avoid. Apart from them being theoretically illegal due to the very high levels of Nitrates found in such compounds I simply cannot recommend their use due to safety concerns. They are essentially the same as Sodium Nitrate a widely used food preservative, no doubt you will have heard about the massive negative press about its use in processed meats. Compounds such as Creatine Nitrate are very similar in that it delivers Nitrate along with Creatine instead of Sodium. Have a look at this study, you’ll think twice about using any Nitrate supplement again; Beware of the pickle: health effects of nitrate intake
ConclusionHopefully you now know that for the majority of these supplements to have any real effect they need to be in significant doses, that’s a fact. The most important take home messages from this blog are these:
- Check the dosages, do they match scientific studies?
- If it’s a proprietary blend – I’d suggest leaving it, what’s there to hide? There’s really no such thing as a secret formula if that’s what you’ve been fed. There is a scientifically proven dose and there is a dose which is not.
- Look out for mega doses of caffeine, fine if you want that and then you are best off buying caffeine tablets and you’ll save some money.
- Don’t expect a seriously dosed product to taste like your favourite soft drink, if it does I’d question the contents. Significant doses, especially Citrulline, are bitter and difficult to mask with flavours.