You know you need to hit the gym for a workout but you’re not really feeling it. What do you do?
A pre-workout supplement is the best way to ensure you are energized and motivated for your next gym session, cardio workout, or competition event. They also help prepare your body for exercise with lots of vitamins and minerals.
Here are the best pre-workout supplements for peak workout performance and optimal post-workout recovery. Afterwards, we’ll dive in to the details on how a pre-workout supplement can help you out.
1. Sheer Strength Pre-Workout
This powder form supplement is all about strength, power, and explosiveness. Its formulation is fairly simple. It aims to boost your workout performance through the combined action of creatine, beet root extract, beta alanine, and caffeine.
A few amino acids are included for boosting power and improving recovery as well. Beta alanine works to improve your short-term muscle power and endurance, while beet root extract can improve your aerobic fitness through its nitric oxide producing properties.
With improved blood flow from the nitric oxide generated by the beet root extract, your cardio work will see benefits too. Caffeine, of course, is a global performance enhancer, improving everything from task precision to strength to raw endurance.
Each scoop of Sheer Strength Pre-Workout contains 125 mg of caffeine, so it will be enough to get you jolted into action. Aside from the above ingredients, Sheer Strength is pretty minimal.
There are no unproven herbal extracts or arcane compounds included on the off-chance that one might help your workout. The only inactive ingredients are pineapple fruit powder (for flavoring), natural flavors, citric acid, and silicon dioxide.
The powder is also naturally sweetened by stevia extract, a natural non-caloric sweetener.
2. BeetElite Sport
Before scientific research on the ergogenic properties of beets came out, it would have seemed laughable that a beet-based pre-workout supplement would become popular.
But it’s no joke now—BeetElite is one of the best-selling pre-workout supplements on Amazon.com, and centers its entire approach around using beet extract to improve performance.
Consuming large amounts of beets increases the availability of nitric oxide in your muscles, and this has been shown in scientific studies to have a profound effect on performance during aerobic exercise (1).
It’s important to note that the proposed mechanism at work affects only endurance-type workouts: a 5k run, an hour-long bike ride, etc. Beets likely won’t have any impact on weight lifting or other power activities.
If an aerobic boost is what you need, BeetElite Sport is a great choice. Its primary ingredient is beetroot powder, along with a few natural flavoring and sweetening agents.
3. Legion Pulse
As the black label and serious, subdued style on the package would suggest, Legion Pulse is a pre-workout supplement for serious athletes.
Taken at its recommended dose, it provides the second-highest dose of caffeine of any supplement on this list, and it also contains large amounts of the power-boosting supplements beta alanine and other amino acids.
The caffeine content—350 mg in two scoops—is likely enough to make some people look elsewhere. That’s as much caffeine as three and a half cups of coffee! Of course, you can always halve the dosage by using just one scoop.
Legion Pulse is one of the few pre-workout supplements to carry LabDoor’s “Tested for Sport” certification, meaning it’s been screened for the presence of substances prohibited by major sporting organizations, like steroids.
Aside from the active ingredient, Legion Pulse contains only a few anti-caking agents and natural non-caloric sweeteners.
4. Alpha GX7
Power and energy are the name of the game when it comes to Alpha GX7. All of the ingredients in this powder-based pre-workout supplement are geared towards boosting your energy levels and improving your peak power output.
In terms of stimulants, it’s got 250 mg of caffeine per scoop, more than just about any other competitor.
It also includes theobromine, a caffeine-like compound found in chocolate and cocoa, and taurine, which is a classic energy drink ingredient.
To round out the active ingredients, Alpha GX7 also includes Yohimbe, a West African herbal supplement that’s known to increase metabolism and virility.
For power, Alpha GX7 also includes beta-alanine and carnitine, which increase muscular anaerobic power.
There’s no denying that this is a potent mixture. The real question is whether it’s right for you.
For many people, the high dose of caffeine and the strong synergistic action of the other energy stimulating compounds in this supplement might be too much—it could leave your heart racing and your head over-stimulated.
If you know you’re sensitive to caffeine or other energy-boosting supplements, you should probably look elsewhere.
5. Do Vitamins PumpPills
The pre-workout supplement offering from Do Vitamins stands out for three major reasons.
First among these is that it is a pill, not a powder. It comes in a vegetarian cellulose capsule that contains a small blend of amino acids to help boost power production and get recovery rolling soon after your workout.
The main active ingredients are beta-alanine, which has anaerobic energy boosting properties, the amino acids L-citrulline and L-arginine, and L-malic acid. Aside from a few natural binders (rice extract and rice concentrate), there are no other ingredients, making this a great choice for simplistic-minded fitness enthusiasts.
Notably absent among the ingredients of Do Vitamins PumpPills are the kinds of stimulants found in other pre-workout supplements: there is no caffeine to get you jittery or sleepless, nor any risky stimulants like synephrine from bitter orange.
If you’re health-minded, or just don’t need any more caffeine in your daily life, this makes Do Vitamins PumpPills a great choice.
Finally, Do Vitamins PumpPills also boast’s LabDoor’s “tested for sport” certification. This means that it has been rigorously tested for the presence of any contaminants that are prohibited by international sporting bodies.
Some unscrupulous or careless supplement manufacturers are known to have products contaminated with traces of steroids or other doping agents that could trigger a doping test (2).
If you are an athlete in the NCAA, a competitor in natural body building, or just want to make sure you’re not getting any contaminants inside your body, this is a big plus.
6. Optimum Nutrition Platinum Pre-Workout
The pre-workout supplement made by Optimum Nutrition has a more balanced approach than most: it is focused on both improving performance and also increasing alertness and getting you ready for post-workout recovery.
Many of the usual ingredients are still present—each scoop contains a hefty 200 mg of caffeine, alongside beta-alanine for power production, beet juice powder for aerobic performance, and grape extracts for their antioxidant properties.
One of the unique ingredients in Optimum Nutrition Platinum Pre-Workout is red pepper extract.
Capsaicinoids, the active ingredient present in red peppers, can help increase metabolism and blood flow—it’s the same kind of energizing reaction you get after eating spicy food.
To get workout recovery kick-started, this supplement also includes citrulline peptides from whey protein isolate. Unlike some other supplements that just boost your workout, Optimum Nutrition Platinum Pre-Workout will also get muscle recovery going before your workout is even finished.
In terms of other ingredients, it does contain both milk and soy ingredients, so if you have food allergies, you will need to look elsewhere for your pre-workout supplement needs.
7. NO-Xplode 2.0
One of the few pre-workout supplements you’re likely to find out on retail shelves, NO-Xplode 2.0 comes with flashy advertising and a very long list of active ingredients.
The usual suspects are present: 225 mg of caffeine, a tremendous amount of B-vitamins, and moderate amounts of phosphorous, magnesium, and calcium.
Other unsurprising ingredients include beta-alanine, taurine and several amino acids connected with workout performance.
The real attraction of NO-Xplode 2.0, however, is its proprietary workout blend. It contains dozens of ingredients, many of which are not seen in other supplements and which have little or no scientific evidence behind whether or not they work as a supplement.
The real question you need to ask yourself is whether you trust the nutritionists behind NO-Xplode 2.0, since they are likely the only ones who know what the purpose of all of the ingredients is.
You may find that the formulation works very well for you, or you may find it an expensive way to get some caffeine in your system before your workout.
One downside is the decision to use sucralose and artificial colorings to flavor and color the powder—this might away some customers who are looking for naturally-sourced ingredients.
8. Vintage Blast
Though its name and packaging evoke an old-school, no-nonsense attitude, make no mistake—Vintage Blast is designed with specific, precise scientific goals in mind.
The supplement contains three categories of active ingredients. First, there are standard vitamins and minerals, much like you’d find in a multivitamin supplement.
The B-complex vitamins are provided in fairly high doses (1000% of your recommended daily intake of niacin, 500% of your recommended daily intake of vitamin B6, and 833% of your recommended daily intake of B12, for example), and there’s a substantial amount of zinc as well.
Zinc, of course, is known to be connected to testosterone levels. The amount of zinc is quite high: three times your daily intake needs, so if you already take a multivitamin that has a large amount of zinc in it, you might be getting too much if you add in Vintage Blast to your workout routine.
After the basics, Vintage Blast includes a group of amino acids and energy boosters focused on delivering power and explosiveness early on in a workout.
These include beta alanine and L-Carnitine for anaerobic power, and caffeine (150 mg per scoop) for all-around performance and alertness.
The final segment of supplements included are supposed to be longer-acting performance boosters, including aspartic acid, N-acetyl-L-tyrosine, and 100 more milligrams of caffeine in a slow-release formulation.
The formulation also includes synephrine, the active ingredient in bitter orange. The very high concentration of caffeine (250 mg per scoop) along with synephrine, which has a questionable safety history, should be a cause for concern. There are better and safer ways to get ready for your workout.
9. Cellucor C4 Extreme
As the best-selling pre-workout supplement on Amazon.com, Cellucor C4 is certainly popular. It’s a powder that includes a blend of B vitamins and vitamin C, alongside the workout-boosting supplements beta alanine, creatine nitrate, arginine AKG, and a proprietary “energy blend” that includes caffeine, several amino acids, and bitter orange, among other ingredients.
The goal of C4 Extreme is definitely to boost your workout performance as opposed to set you up for recovery afterwards. Caffeine is a widely-known and very effective performance enhancer, and beta alanine similarly works to improve your short-term power production by fortifying your resistance to anaerobic fatigue.
The caffeine dosage is fairly high—135 mg per scoop. This is around 50% more than what’s in a standard cup of coffee. For this reason, you should be a little careful with Cellucor C4 Extreme if you already consume other caffeine products during the day.
There is also some concern about the presence of bitter orange—some case reports have highlighted serious side effects that are associated with synephrine, the active ingredient in the herbal extract (3).
It appears to be a very potent metabolism modulator, so employing it during a workout, especially in conjunction with caffeine, could be risky.
10. ProSupps Mr Hyde
Chalk this one up as one for the maximalist category—ProSupps Mr Hyde provides a huge dose of all of its active ingredients. Perhaps even too much for many people: its “caffeine matrix,” a blend of different caffeine salts, delivers an astounding 419 milligrams of caffeine per serving.
This is enough to give jitters and a racing heartbeat to all but the most caffeine-adapted coffee drinkers, and the ergogenic effects are just as good at more reasonable doses.
The formulation also includes a number of herbal extracts with supposed energy-boosting properties, like Yohimbe.
More problematic is the presence of picamilon, a synthetic compound that the FDA has been trying to crack down on (4). It’s not an herbal extract, a vitamin, or a mineral, so it doesn’t fit the FDA’s definition of what is okay to put in a dietary supplement. It’s likely only a matter of time before ProSupps is required to change their formulation to remove this ingredient.
Even if you are partial to the other ingredients in ProSupps Mr Hyde, there’s too much caffeine per serving for almost everyone, and the presence of a compound prohibited by the FDA is cause for concern.
Part 2: How do pre-workout supplements work?
Pre-workout supplements are a broad category that includes fairly simple blends of amino acids which increase protein availability to your muscles before and after a workout, to more advanced blends of stimulants, herbal extracts, and energy-boosting products that are designed to solicit the best possible effort from your body during a workout.
Obviously, these supplements are going to be geared towards people who work out seriously; many pre-workout supplements specifically target power sport athletes, like weight lifters.
Benefits of pre-workout supplements
Since pre-workout supplements include such a broad range of products, it’s more informative to look at what some of the most common ingredients can do for you
Caffeine: Present in nearly every pre-workout supplement, caffeine is a powerful and well-known ergogenic aid. According to a review by the International Society of Sports Nutrition published in 2010, caffeine is a highly effective performance enhancer when it comes to a number of different physical tasks (5).
Caffeine boosts everything from sustained endurance exercise (running a race, doing a cycling time trial, working on the rowing ergometer) to tasks demanding intense coordination and starting and stopping (pickup basketball, ultimate Frisbee).
There is also some evidence that it helps with maximal strength exercise, like lifting weights, but more research is needed on that front, according to Erica R. Goldstein and the other authors of the position stand.
L-Carnitine: An amino acid that’s often found in pre-workout supplements, L-Carnitine is included principally to boost the hormonal response to resistance exercise (i.e. lifting weights).
A study published in 2006 by William J. Kraemer and other researchers at the University of Connecticut studied how taking a supplement containing L-Carnitine after a strength workout affected recovery (6).
The researchers followed ten weight lifters who consumed an L-Carnitine supplement over the course of three weeks, all while monitoring their blood markers of muscle growth.
The researchers found that the L-Carnitine supplement increased the activity of something called the androgen receptor response. This meant that the lifters’ bodies were more attuned to the muscle-building effects of androgen hormones like testosterone.
This could mean bigger gains from your lifting program. The researchers also noted that this androgen receptor response was better if you consumed a meal containing carbohydrates, fat, and protein soon after finishing the workout.
Beta-Alanine: An energy supplement that boosts your muscles’ ability to produce power anaerobically, beta-alanine is proving to be an increasingly popular ingredient in pre-workout supplements.
Regular intake of beta-alanine has been shown to increase your muscular content of a compound called carnosine, which helps increase your tolerance for the buildup of acidity in your muscles.
Carnosine acts as a buffering agent, delaying the onset of the “burn” during high-intensity exercise that causes fatigue. According to a scientific paper by Guilherme Giannini Artiolo and other researchers at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, beta-alanine acts directly to increase muscular carnosine concentrations and directly improves performance in activities that are limited by intramuscular acidity (7).
Two categories of exercise that fall under this classification are intense intermittent exercise (like a high intensity interval training protocol) and continuous high intensity exercise lasting over sixty seconds, like longer sets of weight lifting or strongman exercises (e.g. stone carry).
Because short sets of lifting are not limited by intramuscular pH, they won’t be affected by a beta-alanine supplement, so make sure you know what your workout will entail before counting on beta-alanine to make a difference.
Creatine: Some pre-workout supplements, though not all, contain creatine, either in the nitrate or monohydrate forms. Creatine is a widely-known performance boosting supplement; it increases muscular strength, enables higher quality workouts, and directly increases the concentration of phosphocreatine inside your muscles.
Phosphocreatine is a major power source for fast, maximal muscle movements, like doing a set of squats or bench press. Among pre-workout supplements, creatine is likely the most effective when it comes to direct improvements in your lifting ability.
According to a 1999 study by Jeff S. Volek and colleagues at the Pennsylvania State University, supplementing with creatine can increase muscular creatine content by over 20%, and total body mass and lean body mass increases can be expected while taking a creatine supplement as well (8).
Muscular cross-sectional area and raw strength, as measured by bench press and squat, can be expected to increase by 25 to 30%.
Creatine is a powerful workout-boosting compound, and if your pre-workout supplement doesn’t have it, you should probably add a dedicated creatine supplement to your routine, assuming your goals are to increase muscular size and strength.
Side effects of pre-workout supplements
As you might guess, the side effects of a pre-workout supplement are going to depend a lot on what’s in it.
Caffeine is one nearly ubiquitous pre-workout supplement ingredient that has a well-characterized side effect profile: caffeine can cause nausea, jitters, and sleeplessness, and when taken in too high of a dose, it can cause heart arrhythmias, seizures, and other serious medical problems. This will become more of a concern if your pre-workout supplement contains a lot of caffeine per serving.
A few pre-workout supplements contain bitter orange or its active ingredient, synephrine. This ingredient has caused some doctors to issue warnings that it has a side effect and biological profile similar to that of the banned stimulant ephedra; indeed, many weight loss supplements that used to contain ephedra now switched to using synephrine after the FDA banned ephedra.
If you’re concerned about the potential cardiovascular side effects of synephrine, avoid supplements that contain it—especially when they also contain caffeine (9).
Beta-alanine has some side effects too, but they are much milder.
When taken in doses above about 800 mg, it can cause paresthesia—a tingling or prickling sensation, especially in your fingertips, ears, or feet.
This appears to be the result of peak levels of beta-alanine in the blood, so all you need to do to avoid this in the future is split up your pre-workout supplement into smaller doses taken at thirty or sixty minute intervals.
Because the ingredients of different pre-workout supplements vary so much, you tend to rely on the supplement manufacturers to do most of the work when it comes to determining optimal dosages. Nevertheless, some of the key ingredients can be analyzed for optimal dosing.
Caffeine achieves its best effects when consumed in amounts of 3 to 6 mg per kilogram of body weight—so a 170 pound man (77 kg) would consume 230 mg of caffeine to get a dose of 3 mg/kg.
Doses above 6 or 9 mg/kg don’t appear to be any more effective, and they have a higher incidence of negative side effects. Creatine is recommended in amounts of up to 25 g per day, so you may need a separate creatine supplement to hit this amount. Beta-alanine is usually recommended in doses of 1000-1500 mg per day.
Choosing the best pre-workout supplement is a matter of investigating the effects of the active ingredients, then comparing them to your own workout goals.
Doing a lot of heavy lifting will mandate a different pre-workout supplement than doing a lot of cardio or high intensity interval work, so do your homework before buying.