What's a "Pre-Workout" Anyway?
It can mean a few things:
- A pure stimulant to jack you up before training, or a substance to get you mentally focused.
- A nutritional drink with the right carbs, proteins, and amino acids to fuel workout performance and subsequent recovery.
- A combination of one and two above.
In short, pre-workout supplements are meant to enhance your performance in the gym. They can contain all sorts of ingredients that increase energy, improve blood flow to the muscles, or enhance focus.
There are all sorts of formulations, but before you decide to buy a pre-workout supplement, you need to know the facts.
Common Pre-Workout Ingredients
Some pre-workout supplements are junk. The only legit way to know if a pre-workout is good or not is to simply look at the ingredient label. Marketers often lie, but the ingredients don't (well, usually).
Here are some common pre-workout ingredients:
- Beta Alanine
Let's go over the evidence and show what the clinical studies tell us about these ingredients.
Beta alanine is a naturally-occurring amino that's responsible for giving you the "tingles" associated with some pre-workout formulations. Those tingles come from increased blood flow to the skin and muscles, which has an impact on performance.
In one of the largest research papers published on beta alanine to date, researchers found that it could improve athletic performance by up to 10.49%.
The research paper looked at dozens of clinical studies and found that simply taking two grams of beta alanine before a workout was enough to give users a boost in their athletic performance.
According to researchers, beta alanine most likely works by increasing "intracellular pH buffering, as the result of increased muscle carnosine levels." In layman's terms, this means that beta alanine helps decrease cellular acidity levels from intense exercise.
The bottom line is that beta alanine is a great ingredient to have in your pre-workouts, and it's one of the best ingredients for getting a pump.
This is a naturally-occurring chemical that's produced by the body, but can also be found in foods such as spinach, beets, seafood, and wine.
One study, cited by 70 other clinical research papers, found that supplementing with betaine anhydrous can improve muscle mass, endurance, and body composition.
Specifically, the study found that the cross sectional area of the arms increased drastically when users supplemented with betaine. Bench press volume increased dramatically also, along with lean body mass.
Caffeine is, by far, the most common ingredient found in pre-workout supplements. The benefits of caffeine are very well studied.
A meta-study of caffeine published in the British Journal of Sports found that caffeine consumption before a workout can help improve athletic performance by anywhere between 2% and 16%, which is a hell of a lot in the sports performance world.
Creatine is naturally created in your body, and it's essential to the production of adenosine triphosphate production (ATP). Your body needs ATP to create energy, and thankfully, creatine helps your body create more of the compound.
One research paper, conducted at Baylor University and cited by 437 other clinical researchers, found that creatine drastically increased overall athletic performance:
"Short-term creatine supplementation has been reported to improve maximal power/strength (5-15%), work performed during sets of maximal effort muscle contractions (5-15%), single-effort sprint performance (1-5%), and work performed during repetitive sprint performance (5-15%). Moreover, creatine supplementation during training has been reported to promote significantly greater gains in strength, fat free mass, and performance primarily of high intensity exercise tasks."
Creatine is especially known for its ability to help users gain muscle mass. Take a look at the following graph from the website Healthline:
According to this graph, users can put on nearly twice as much muscle mass when training and taking creatine, as opposed to just training alone.
L-Citrulline, or citrulline malate, is known to enhance endurance and decrease muscle soreness both during and after your workouts. Citrulline also helps muscles recover faster.
One study, conducted by the Department of Medicine at the University, found that supplementing with citrulline malate reduced muscle soreness by a whopping 40%, which is a huge deal because it allows athletes to get back into the gym a lot quicker.
Among the amino acids, the one that has perhaps the biggest effect on regulating protein synthesis is leucine. It's the main mTOR amplifier among amino acids.
Although leucine is found in any whole protein source, some pre-workout blends add an extra amount of it for an added muscle protein synthesis punch.
What's the Best Pre-Workout Formula?
So, what's the best pre-workout supplement? If you're looking for a pre-workout that will give you a ton of energy (without caffeine), focus, and enhanced performance in the gym, look into Surge® Workout Fuel. It's got a ton of beta-alanine for pumps, citrulline malate and beta alanine for increased endurance (among other things), and a super-hydration catalyst complex that allows you to stay hydrated.
Together, these ingredients have the following effects:
- Increases directly both skeletal-muscle protein synthesis and ATP production.
- Combats muscle oxidation (burning) from intense exercise.
- Scavenges hydrogen ions to optimize intramuscular pH for maximum muscle function.
- Boosts anaerobic and aerobic performance during exercise.
- Jumpstarts the recovery process after intense training.
- Allows the athlete to train harder and recover faster.
Alternately, you could use Plazma™, which, while containing some of the same ingredients as Surge® Workout Fuel (citrulline malate, betaine anhydrous, highly branched cyclic dextrin), contains ingredients specifically designed to drive nutrients into the muscle cells, thereby creating a super pump.
These ingredients contain a unique blend of fast-acting di- and tripeptides that produce biological activities and effects in muscle for performance, growth, and recovery that go far beyond other proteins and amino acids. The formula also contains a special carb complex that in addition to increasing metabolic rate, drives the formula's di- and tripeptides and other key nutrients into muscle cells to the point of creating a high-performance effect.
The whole point of this super, "reactive pump" is to make muscle hyper-responsive to nutrient uptake and hyper-responsive to growth signaling. By uniquely preloading and pumping key nutrients into muscle, Plazma™ enables you to perform at and beyond your limits and recover very quickly so you can get back to the gym that much quicker.
Aside from those formulas, you can also consider adding some creatine to your pre-workouts. Biotest's Micronized Creatine is supremely bio-available, meaning that you absorb more and get a better bang for your buck.
If you're just looking for something to kick you in the pants and help you focus, look into caffeinated Brain Candy®.
Just need a hardcore energy boost? Look into the Spike® line of products, many of which contain beta alanine for an extra performance boost.
Related: What You Don't Know About Workout Supplements
Related: The Best Way to Use Caffeine
- Jason M Cholewa, Monika Wyszczelska-Rokiel, Rafal Glowacki, Hieronim Jakubowski, Tracey Matthews,5Richard Wood, Stuart AS Craig, and Vincent Paolone. "Effects of betaine on body composition, performance, and homocysteine thiolactone," J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013; 10: 39.
- Hobson RM, Saunders B, Ball G, Harris RC, Sale C. "Effects of B-alanine supplementation on exercise performance: a meta-analysis," Amino Acids, 2012 Jul;43(1):25-37.
- Grgic, Schoenfeld, et al. "Wake up and smell the coffee: caffeine supplementation and exercise performance—an umbrella review of 21 published meta-analyses," British Journal of Sports Medicine, dx.doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2018-100278.
- Kreider, "Effects of creatine supplementation on performance and training adaptations," Mol Cell Biochem. 2003 Feb;244(1-2):89-94.
- Mawer, Rudy. "10 Graphs That Show the Immense Power of Creatine," Healthline, May 6, 2016.
- Perez-Guisado, Jakeman. "Citrulline Malate Enhances Athletic Anaerobic Performance and Relieves Muscle Soreness"