Have you ever looked at all of the pre-workouts on the market and gotten overwhelmed?
The good news is that with a few pointers, it’s easy to spot the difference between an excellent pre-workout and one that is sub-par or underdosed.
A good pre-workout does three main things well:
- It provides energy
- It reduces perceptions of fatigue
- It increases endurance
And each of these three things has a corresponding primary ingredient:
- Caffeine provides energy
- Beta-alanine reduces fatigue
- L-Citrulline increases endurance
Those three ingredients form the fundamental core of any good pre-workout. Let’s go over each one.
Caffeine is the most popular stimulant in the world and for good reason. In addition to giving people the perception of having more energy, it also lowers the perception of pain during exercise.
- aerobic endurance
- muscular strength
- muscle endurance
- jumping performance
While some pre-workouts come in the STIM-FREE variety, they will always fall short of pre-workouts with caffeine because caffeine has such wide ranging positive effects on athletic performance.
The ideal pre-workout dosage for caffeine for most people is 200-300mg.
In recent years, Beta-Alanine has taken the second spot for most important pre-workout ingredient.
Why? Because it reduces your perception of fatigue and allows you to get more reps and the more reps you get, the more work you get in, and the more work you get in, the faster you see results.
Unfortunately Beta-Alanine has the unpleasant side effect of creating a tingling sensation when you take a clinically effective dose. While some are fine with this and even enjoy it, most people do not.
The ideal pre-workout dosage for beta-alanine is 3.2g. Some people swear by mega dosing beta-alanine and taking upwards of 10g per day.
Citrulline is an amino acid found in watermelon. It’s all about increasing blood flow to the muscles for faster real-time recovery. Citrulline the pre-workout ingredient most associated with getting pumps.
Many companies include Citrulline Malate (2:1) rather than L-Citrulline and while this is fine, you should know that in Citrulline Malate you are usually only getting about two-thirds of the citrulline as is listed (the other ⅓ is usually Malic Acid).
If one pre-workout has 6g of L-Citrulline and another company has 6g of Citrulline Malate, the pre-workout with 6g of L-Citrulline is superior.
The minimal clinically effective dose for L-Ctirulline is 4g. If a company includes less than 4g of L-Citrulline (or less than 6g of Citrulline Malate) then they have cut corners.
Recent research suggestions that up to 10g of L-Citrulline provides increasing benefits for blood flow and muscle recovery.
Additional Pre-Workout Ingredients that Are Good
I consider those three ingredients above the absolute bare minimum for a good pre-workout. But the best pre-workouts usually have even more ingredients for additional improvements.
Recent research suggestions that topping off your creatine stores before a workout provides additional benefits for strength and power. While the timing of your creatine supplementation isn’t critical, there are slight benefits to having creatine before and during your workout.
Suggested dosage: 5-10g per day
Glycerol is an ingredient in pre-workouts that increases intracellular and extracellular fluid levels, leading to hyperhydration of the muscles. Hyperhydration can help increase blood volume and maintain adequate hydration during exercise, which is essential for optimal muscle function and pump.
Suggested dosage: 2-3g per day
Betaine is an ingredient in pre-workouts that’s also found in beets and has been shown to provide performance benefits including improved strength and power. It also helps support natural creatine production in the body. Further, it reduces fat mass and increases muscle building capacity.
Suggested dosage: 2-3g per day
Nitrates (Red Spinach & Beet Root)
While L-Citrulline is the primary pathway that pre-workouts use to get increased blood flow, there is a secondary pathway that can take you to the next level. This pathway is called the nitrate pathway and is stimulated by ingredients like red spinach and beet root powder. Pre-Workouts that have these ingredients plus L-Citrulline are superior to pre-workouts with only L-Citrulline.
Suggested dosage: 1-3g per day
Choline is a nootropic ingredient that helps increase focus, attention and mind-muscle connection. It is a precursor to acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that plays a vital role in cognitive processes like attention, focus, and memory. Choline is most often listed in pre-workouts as Alpha GPC, a form of choline that is 50% choline. In other words, 600mg of Alpha GPC yields 300mg choline.
Suggested dosage: 300-600mg per day
The last ingredient I’ll discuss is L-Tyrosine, which similar to choline is primarily a nootropic ingredient. L-Tyrosine is beneficial because it enhances mental focus and alertness, reduces stress and perceptions of fatigue, increases endurance and improves mood. In other words, it helps put you in the mental state to workout harder and longer.
Suggested dosage: 1-3g
The following pre-workout ingredients have all been shown to be beneficial in a pre-workout:
- ElevATP (endurance and ATP function)
- Taurine (cellular hydration and increased exercise capacity)
- L-Theanine (reduced stress, increased focus)
- BCAAs (can help kickstart muscle synthesis)
- Antioxidants and Polyphenols (help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress)
My Favorite Pre-Workouts
To end this article I’m going to list out my favorite pre-workouts on the market for you to consider:
- Best Overall Pre-Workout – SHIIFTED Maximum
This pre-workout product was formulated and endorsed by three PhD researchers in nutrition and supplementation and it shows. Dr. Adam M. Gonzalez, Dr. Hannah Cabré and Dr. David Church have included all the best pre-workout ingredients at scientifically backed doses. I especially like the inclusion of both L-Citrulline and Nitrates like beet root and red spinach.
- Best Pre-Workout for Muscle Pumps – Gorilla Mode
The pre-workout product packs a big punch when it comes to pumps. A hefty dose of L-Citrulline and Glycerol make your biceps feel like they’re about to literally explode. And for those who love the pump, there is no better product on the market.
- Best for Sport – Kaged Sport
This pre-workout product lowers the dose on caffeine to around 180mg which is the sweet spot for sport performance. A slightly lower dose of caffeine is better to prevent being too wired. I also like the inclusion of hydration ingredients like coconut water powder and taurine.
About the Author
Megan enjoys running, lifting weights and helping clients reach their fullest potential. She especially likes programming new routines specifically to fit the lifestyle and goals of her clients.
In addition to fitness, Megan does various visual arts (especially painting) and raises four kids.