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Okay, we can make some pretty safe assumptions here. You’re reading this piece because you want to know more about pre workout supplementation.

Does it fit in with my goals? How will it help me?

You’re either in one of two groups – you might be new to bodybuilding and exercising, and you’ve seen people glugging down shakes before they start their workouts.

But you might also be a bodybuilder and someone who is keen on health and fitness. You’ve been working out for a while, but you want to take your regime to the next level.

Will pre workout supplements help you do that?

The basis of any good programme is diet and exercise first. Supplementation is like the icing on the cake. So, before you start spending your precious pounds, dollars or euros on nutritional extras, your diet should be ‘clean’.

What do we mean by that?

You should be eating a macro split (protein, carbohydrates and fat) that matches your goals – fat loss or muscle gain. The best food is whole food sources – fish, meat, whole grains, legumes, eggs, dairy and plenty of fruit and vegetables, with vegetables making up the bulk of your portions.

Then, you need the right exercise programme – one that focuses on resistance training with one or two sessions of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and/or steady state cardio a week.

Now, you can look at pre workout supplements. Their purpose is to increase your energy, strength and drive so that you can achieve your fitness goals better than you could manage without.

Most reputable sports nutrition brands offer pre workouts. We have reviewed and listed our Top 10 in the post here. They tend to come in two forms – either powders that are mixed with water or something else to make a drink or capsules.

How do these products work to help you achieve your goals and what ingredients tend to be in them?

Pre Workout Supplements Ingredients Review

pre workout supplements ingredientsMost good pre workout supplements will contain the following ingredients in various different formulations.

Some elements work well on their own, while others are better if blended with something else.

Again, when speaking generally, the best pre-workouts contain a mixture of well-researched, tried and tested ingredients.

Common Ingredients Of Pre Workout Supplements

These are some of the key ingredients used:

Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)

Why BCAAs?

Simple, really. They help boost strength provide you with energy and reduce the breakdown of muscle while you exercise. Branched-chain amino acids are leucine, isoleucine and valine.

The most common ratio is 2:1:1. Leucine is the most studied amino acid, and research shows that additional leucine added to the diet can reliably increase muscle protein synthesis (i.e. muscle building) after test meals/supplementation.

Isoleucine isn’t quite as good as leucine for increasing muscle protein synthesis but it does do it, and the ingredient can significantly increase glucose uptake and the use of glucose when one is exercising. Valine can stimulate muscle growth and increase endurance, though this is the least important amino acid of BCAAs.

Taurine

Taurine is another amino acid that is found naturally in the body. It has sulphur in it, and the highest amounts are found in meat. It is used for a variety of body processes, such as controlling muscle contractions and maintaining healthy levels of fluid in the body.

Exercise depletes levels of taurine in the body, so pre-workout supplements help to replenish supplies. When taurine is combined with BCAAs in a product, this can reduce levels of soreness after exercise.

Caffeine

Many pre-workout supplements contain caffeine for the temporary boost of energy it will give you.

Caffeine also increases focus – all the better for making you concentrate on good form during heavy lifts! Many athletes and bodybuilders like to take caffeine either in a supplement or even a cup of coffee before they work out for those reasons.

It is easy to build up a tolerance to caffeine, though, so watch your overall intake when using pre-workout supplements. How do they balance out with caffeine you are ingesting in other forms, such as teas, coffees and even chocolate? Too much caffeine will have an adverse impact on your performance, particularly if it’s keeping you awake at night and you’re aren’t getting enough sleep.

When it comes to caffeine in supplements, the standard dosage is 225-250mg per serving. Caffeine anhydrous and di-caffeine malate is a good combination. The anhydrous provides the immediate energy boost and the other a more sustained release.

Cycling Caffeine

Do you know what we mean by cycling caffeine?

This is a technique often used by professionals to ensure they keep getting impressive results from pre-workout supplements. Simply put, it involves you taking a break from caffeine-containing products.

The length of time depends on the individual, but a suggestion might be after eight weeks. Take a break for one or two weeks and then see if you notice the difference.

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Beta Alanine

Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid – i.e. we don’t need it because our bodies make it themselves. It raises levels of muscle carnosine (a protein building block) and increases how much work you can do at high intensity. It delays muscle fatigue.

Beta-alanine is well-known for one of its side effects – after taking it, people often experience paresthesia, tingling all over the skin. This can wear off once you are used to the product.

Beta alanine binds to histidine in the muscle cells to form something called carnosine, the protein building block. This helps work against the accumulation of lactic acid in the muscles, helping to lessen the burn that you might otherwise feel when doing high volume training or endurance exercise.

In the same way that creatine does, beta alanine can boost your power, strength, and muscular growth as well as improve your stamina and endurance.

Effective dose:

To improve physical performance, 3.2-6.4g a day is recommended.

Like creatine, you do not need to take beta-alanine before your workout for it to be effective as it will work if you get your total a day. You can avoid the unpleasant tingling if you split your dosages, though. An effective dosage in a pre-workout supplement is about 1.6-2g – though higher intakes are okay, too.

[Please note – our recommendations are recommendations only, and not prescriptions. If you want to dose efficiently and safely, check with your doctor and/or a qualified sports nutritionist.]

L-Citrulline / Citrulline Malate

Citrulline is a new-comer to the pre-workout product, but for excellent reasons. What it does, basically, is boost arginine and nitric oxide. Citrulline reduces tiredness and soreness while enhancing your ability to train at the same time.

You can see why it’s popular for pre-workout supplements. Citrulline is converted into arginine in the kidneys. Low arginine concentrations are found in children with various illnesses.

If you supplement with l-citrulline, this increases ornithine and arginine plasma, and this improves the ammonia recycling process and the metabolism of nitric oxide – all good things when it comes to health and performance. L-citrulline is also used to help…er, erectile dysfunction in men with high blood pressure.

If you want serious pumps in the gym, opt for l-citrulline, but for endurance citrulline malate (malate is malic acid, a salt compound that basically makes citrulline more stable – and taste better) is your product of choice.

Effective Dosages:

The effective dosages of l-citrulline for general health (or to help with ED) are 1,000mg three times a day. The supplement should be taken with meals, though it is not necessary to do so.

For citrulline malate, take 1.75g for every 1g of citrulline you would otherwise take.

To enhance sports performance, the recommendation is 6-8g of citrulline malate taken forty-five minutes to an hour before you start to exercise.

[Please note – again, our recommendations are recommendations only, and not prescriptions. If you want to dose efficiently and safely, check with your doctor and/or a qualified sports nutritionist.]

Agmatine

Agmatine sulphate is another great nitric oxide booster.

Why is boosting nitric oxide good for workouts?

Nitric oxide is a cellular signalling molecule that is involved in many body processes. It enhances circulation all around the body. Boosting nitric oxide is useful for preventing cardiovascular disease because it dilates blood vessels improves blood flow and relaxes the arterial walls.

Agmatine derives from arginine, and it prevents the body from breaking down nitric oxide levels. It can also improve insulin regulation and alleviate pain, so perfect for pushing through intense workouts.

Dosing:

Start with a 500mg dose for pre-workouts. You can go up to 1,000mg, splitting the dosage in two. Remember our warning about dosages and your checks? They still apply.

Nitrates

Nitrate supplements have been researched, and there are a few human studies that show they have a beneficial effect on performance.

Nitrate molecules tend to work better when they are paired with another compound – such as arginine nitrate, betaine nitrate, creatine nitrate and glutamine nitrate.

They improve vasodilation – the widening of blood vessels – and that improves blood flow. They also increase nitric oxide levels. Your performance is enhanced for those reasons.

Raw beetroot contains nitrates, but you’d have to eat a lot of it to get the effects. Juicing it would be the best idea.

Nitrates take more time than most to get into your system, but if you use them alongside agmatine and/or citrulline, this can help. Effective doses can be anywhere from 300mg to 2,000mg.

Ask for expert help, though. And they shouldn’t be used with ED drugs as they can cause the blood pressure to drop too low.

Hydromax™/Glycerol

Glycerol is a polyol compound which can improve hydration and pumps in the gym. Hydromax™ is made by Glanbia Nutritionals, and it is a highly concentrated, powdered form of glycerol.

This increases its effectiveness, and the product can provide much better hydration and pumps than bog-standard glycerol.

Extra hydration is the thing that makes your muscles look fuller because excess water will be stored in your muscle cells. Drink plenty of water when taking products that have Hydromax™ or glycerol in them.

Nitrosigine®/Arginine Silicate

Made by Nutrition21, Nitrosigine® is a patented complex of bonded silicon and arginine, and it can help enhance your performance. It’s scientifically engineered to last up to six hours and only needs to be taken 15 minutes before a workout.

Research shows that Nitrosigine® relaxes blood vessels (vasodilation again), which improves blood flow, and it is 500 percent more effective than supplementing with Arginine HCI.

Creatine

You get very few pre workout supplements that don’t contain creatine. Creatine monohydrate is a well-studied product that is effective for both pre and post-workout.

It is of benefit for strength, power, to gain lean mass and cellular hydration. It also delays the onset of tiredness so you can work out for longer, and it reduces the soreness caused by exercise.

Creatine recommended dosages (bear in mind our warnings about recommendations) is about 3-5g.

Betaine

Betaine is also known as trimethylglycine. It can enhance how you perform in the gym and increase your amount of lean muscle mass, strength, endurance and power.

Research suggests that an effective dosage (see our warning about dosages) is about 2.5g a day pre-workout.

Carbohydrates

Yes – good ol’ carbs! While low-carbohydrate diets have gained popularity among bodybuilders and athletes in years, many people still benefit for carbohydrate intake prior to training.

Why?

Because lots of bodies like an easy energy supply to work out and carbohydrates give them that. The carb will often enhance performance. There’s a reason why the trusty banana is so often handed out at marathons and running events.

Carbohydrates enhance glycogen stores – glycogen is produced in the liver and made from leftover glucose. When blood sugar levels fall (as if usually the case with exercise) glycogen is broken down to release sugar into the blood and give us energy. You can see why glycogen stores are necessary.

If you’re doing long sessions in the gym – more than an hour – or you are working out twice a day, carbs will be needed to fuel that workout and prevent the blood sugar crash.

How many carbs should I eat?

Ah – the six million dollar question! Some trainers believe in the concept of earning your carbs – i.e. if you are working out, take them close to your workout (either pre, during or right after) and on days when you’re not exercising, eat a lower-carb diet in general.

Some bodybuilder diets recommend you base your carbohydrate intake on your protein intake – i.e. roughly 1.5-2g of carbs per pound of bodyweight. For pre-workout, anything from 25-40g of carbs is a good idea. Eat them, or find a pre-workout that contains them.

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Stimulant Ingredients

DMAA

Oh, my goodness me – DMAAs!!

Methylhexanamine is more commonly known as 1,3-dimethylamylamine (1,3-DMAA), and years ago, it was sold extensively as a dietary supplement that enhanced performance. Then, a couple of deaths that were thought to be DMAA-related made the authorities look at it carefully.

In the US, DMAA is not illegal, but the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t allow it to be marketed and sold as a supplement. Most manufacturers don’t produce products that contain it because it’s easier not to.

It is banned from sale in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as the UK where it is regarded as an unlicensed medical product.

Synephrine

Synephrine (citrus aurantium) stimulates the beta-3 receptors. This works to increase the metabolic rate but doesn’t affect heart rate or blood pressure.

Synephrine releases adrenaline and noradrenaline only in beta-3 receptor sites (mostly fat tissue and the liver), and so it encourages the breakdown of fat.

It’s a stimulant, similar to ephedrine or caffeine, and can boost energy levels and suppress the appetite and is used to stimulate fat metabolism.

An effective dose is about 25-50mg. Talk to your doctor or sports nutritionist first.

Higenamine

Higenamine, a.k.a. norcoclaurine is seen as an alternative to ephedrine, which is banned by the Food and Drug Administration.

It has a mild stimulatory effect on the body, but when paired with other stimulants such as caffeine it can be more potent. Dosages vary from 25-50mg.

Theobromine

Theobromine comes from the cocoa plant, and it has a stimulatory effect similar to caffeine, except that it’s milder and it last longer.

It is good when used alongside caffeine as it can soften the harsh effect of caffeine and neutralise the post-caffeine crash.

Dicaffeine Malate

This is a combination of caffeine and malic acid.

The malic acid smooths out the caffeine, so you get that burst of energy but without the post-caffeine crash and it prolongs the stimulatory boost. It’s a great ingredient in a pre-workout supplement.

Theacrine

Theacrine is structurally similar to caffeine and its potent stimulator of the body’s central nervous system. It’s a naturally-occurring compound that is found in Kucha – a Chinese tea.

It can provide you with lots of energy pre-workout, and you don’t build up a tolerance to it, the way you do with caffeine. It can also make you feel better because it works on the dopamine and adenosine receptors – the feel good bits.

Cognitive Focus-Enhancers/Nootropics

Choline

Choline is often found in pre-workouts. It’s a compound found most frequently in eggs and is an excellent ingredient for improving cognition and focus when you are working out. And as most of us probably want better perception and focus generally, at other times too.

Citicoline is seen as the best because it crosses the brain-blood barrier quickly and has the highest bioavailability. Alpha-GPC is another good choice.

Choline Bitartrate is a less expensive form, though you need to take more because it’s less bioavailable to the body. Effective Dosing is about 250-500mg.

L-Tyrosine/N-Acetyl L-Tyrosine

L-tyrosine is an amino acid used by the body to produce the neurotransmitters, dopamine and noradrenaline. This can help alleviate stress and anxiety.

For working out, l-tyrosine helps improve cognition and focus – keeping you concentrating on perfect form as you squat, deadlift or swing that kettlebell high. About 750-1,000mg is seen as an effective dose.

Acetyl L-Carnitine (ALCAR)

ALCAR works with Choline to create acetylcholine – a neurotransmitter that activates muscles.

It works well to enhance focus, and it’s a mild stimulant which works with caffeine to help the body excrete fatty acids.

L-arginine

L-arginine can increase nitric oxide levels, though research shows mixed results. L-citrulline is thought of as the better product these days as it converts into l-arginine anyway.

It still has its place in pre-workout supplements, but you might want to consider one with l-citrulline instead.

Pre Workout Supplements Benefits

pre workout supplement benefitsSo, do we recommend pre workout supplements?

Hell, yeah.

The specific benefits depend on the particular product.

Generally speaking, pre workout supplement products will:

  • Improve your athletic performance
  • Increase the nutrient delivery to muscles
  • Boost endurance and energy
  • Rise metabolic rate to stimulate fat burning
  • Enhance protein synthesis
  • Expand your strength

As you can see, pre-workout supplements provide a broad range of pluses that can help you meet your fitness goals and reach your full potential on the court, in the gym, on the football field, on your runs or hikes, in the pool or whatever physical activity you do.

They aren’t just for professional athletes or bodybuilders. If you want better performance and to make the most of whatever you are doing, a good pre-workout supplement can give you the edge and fuel you properly.

Who Can Benefit From Pre Workout Supplements?

Men

The dudes tend to prefer weight lifting when it comes to physical activity and gym membership. You’ll see most of them in the weights room, rather than the dance studios. (And we’re not knocking the dance studios – if you’ve ever taken a Kettlercise class, you’ll know that it is seriously hard work.)

For a ripped, healthy body, the two principle ingredients are diet and exercise – you aren’t going to get lean and fit without them. But pre-workout supplementations provide that added extra oomph. The best nutritional products you can take are the ones that give you extra energy and muscle pumps – and there are plenty to choose from.

Look for ingredients such as branched-chain amino acids, creatine and caffeine (if you can handle stimulants) as these will help.

Women

It is easy to view pre-workout supplements as mostly for men, as the products tend to be marketed that way. You’ll see lots of pictures of heavily muscled guys lifting super-heavy weights.

Women might question the point of a pre-workout supplement. Thankfully, though, most women have got the ‘women can lift weights’ memo, and know that the best way to change your shape without necessarily adding bulk is to hit the weights room too and lift heavy.

The pre-workout supplement is as useful for women as it is for men. It will help you to lift those heavy weights, provide you with extra energy for those challenging workouts and help recovery. Muscle protein synthesis is what everyone wants.

A more muscular body burns more calories at rest as another bonus, which is why we all should want to maintain and increase the body’s muscular mass. Some pre-workouts also contain ingredients that help to stimulate fat loss – another great bonus.

Bodybuilders

Bodybuilders are the people who most often take pre-workout supplements – probably because there are so many benefits to doing so. An experienced bodybuilder will have much more muscle and strength than your average person.

Bodies adapt quickly so after a while it can be difficult to make gains when it comes to lifting. That’s what people mean by the dreaded plateau and guys can sit for extended periods of time unable to get past a particular weight stumbling block.

That’s where the pre-workout supplement comes in. A proper formulation will help a bodybuilder smash through those plateaus. It will give him (or her!) the energy that gives you extra strength. Taken as recommended and on top of a healthy diet, the pre-workout supplement is an essential part of the bodybuilding regime.

Pre Workout Supplements Side Effects

pre workout supplements side effectsFor the most part, companies that produce pre-workout supplements ensure they are safe and effective. It’s more than their money’s worth not to do so.

However, it is in your interest to check ingredient lists carefully. There might be elements included that you are sensitive to – caffeine, for example, is included in many pre-workout products as it’s good for providing quick energy.

Most side effects will be minimal and temporary. Remember – we always, always emphasise that you must follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. Stay safe!!

Let’s have a look at some of the common side-effects you might experience while taking a pre-workout formulation:

Bloating

When some people first start to use pre-workout supplements, they can experience bloating. This sometimes happens with products that contain creatine monohydrate. This is commonly used in such supplements because it is efficient for powering short-term, high-intensity exercise.

But what it does is cause the muscles to draw in extra water – useful for building and repairing muscles faster. Bloating will only be temporary and is likely to wear off once you are used to the product. It will also cease the moment you stop using the product.

Nevertheless, if you find it unpleasant, look for formulations that do not contain creatine. Some products aimed at women skip this ingredient.

Sleeplessness

Well, no prizes for guessing what component is likely to cause this one… As we’ve already said, caffeine is a common ingredient in pre-workout supplements because it promotes energy and focus.

Some lucky people can drink coffee or take a caffeine-containing pre-workout just before their evening gym session, but you might not be included in that cohort. You can find caffeine-free pre-workouts easily now, or you can watch your timing of your intake – morning workouts might be okay.

And it’s a good idea to watch your total caffeine intake. If you’re adding in pre-workouts on top of energy drinks and coffee and tea too, you are probably overdoing it.

Dehydration

If you’re left feeling thirsty, and your pee is dark in colour, instead of being pale straw yellow, dehydration from pre-workout supplements might be the guilty party.

Caffeine is a diuretic, and it can cause dehydration. As we’ve already discussed caffeine is commonly used in pre-workout products.

Creatine can also be a factor as this causes muscles to absorb more moisture. Make sure you drink plenty of water when using pre-workouts – a policy that is good in general too, for fat loss, energy and good skin.

Tingling Of The Skin

This little side effect, which first-time users often experience shortly after taking a pre-workout supplement, is prevalent and likely to be caused by beta-alanine. Beta alanine is often used in pre-workouts. It’s a naturally-occurring amino acid that is good for exercising because it raises your muscle carnosine levels and ups the amount of work you can carry out at high intensities.

The tingling is officially called paresthesia, and can also take the form of burning, itching or feeling flushed, and it can last for sixty to ninety minutes. It should wear off once you are used to the supplement but keep your doses low initially and try not to take the product on an empty stomach to minimise the tingling.

Upset Stomach

If the product gives you a stomach upset and/or diarrhoea, we recommend you stop taking it. Again, we would always say look at the ingredients carefully, buy from a reputed source and check if there is anything in the list that you know you can’t tolerate.

As many products contain a few ingredients, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what is causing your gastro distress, but stop taking it just to be on the safe side.

FAQ

Do I Need To Take A Pre Workout?

That’s a great question, and it depends – both on the workout and your goals.

If you are doing a session of stretching or yoga or Pilates, or you’re just going to do a short workout (HIIT or half an hour of weights), then generally you don’t need a pre-workout.

However, if you’re planning a longer session – an hour or more – and you intend to work hard, then the pre-workout supplement will keep you going and ensure that you don’t crash and burn in the middle.

Should I Take A Break From Supplements Every Few Months?

It’s a good idea to stop taking pre-workout supplements from time to time.

Why?

Well, human bodies are brilliant at adaptation. Something that works brilliantly for you at first might stop being so effective after a while. If you give your body a break from the ingredients after a month or two, you might see additional gains once you start retaking it.

A two to three-week break is good. You might also want to vary what you are taking. Give another brand a shot.

What To Look For In A Good Pre Workout Supplement?

  • Does it fit your goals – are you wanting to lift heavier? Get shredded? Lose fat?
  • Are the ingredients tried and tested? What about their purity?
  • Is the product made by a reputable company with a reputation for products that work?
  • Does it fit your budget? How many servings do you get per container or tub?
  • Do you like the flavours and does it mix well?
  • What do the reviews say?

Are Pre Workout Supplements Necessary?

Not for all workouts, but for an intense, prolonged heavy lifting session, most definitely.

Are Pre Workout Supplements Healthy And Safe?

Most formulations are made with tried and tested ingredients. If you are sensitive to caffeine, you might want to avoid that in your supplement.

Are Pre Workout Supplements Bad For Kidneys And Liver?

Reputable ones aren’t. Do drink lots of water while taking one, though as this will help your kidneys.

How And When Do I Take Pre Workout Supplements?

Most of them are powders you mix with water (and/or juice), and they are designed to be taken thirty to forty-five minutes before working out.

As always, we want to emphasise: follow the manufacturer’s instructions for recommended dosages. It might be wise to talk to your doctor and/or a qualified sports nutritionist too before you start taking a product to ensure it is the best fit for you and your goals.

Most pre workout supplements come in powder form, so arm yourself with a blender bottle for ease and convenience.

References:

  1. Backhouse SH, et al; Caffeine ingestion, affect and perceived exertion during prolonged cycling; Appetite. (2011)
  2. Van Baak MA, Saris WH; The effect of caffeine on endurance performance after nonselective beta-adrenergic blockade . Med Sci Sports Exerc. (2000)
  3. Desbrow, B; The effects of different doses of caffeine on endurance cycling time trial performance.; School of Public Health, Research Centre for Clinical and Community Practice Innovation, Griffith Health Institute, Griffith University; 2012
  4. Perez-Guisado; Citrulline malate enhances athletic anaerobic performance and relieves muscle soreness.; Department of Medicine, University of Córdoba; 2010; Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20386132
  5. Kukovetz, W; “Mechanism of vasodilation by nitrates: role of cyclic GMP.”; Cardiology; 1987; 74 Suppl 1:12-9; Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2886220
  6. Lansley, K; “Dietary nitrate supplementation reduces the O2 cost of walking and running: a placebo-controlled study”; J Appl Physiol (1985). 2011 Mar;110(3):591-600; Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21071588
  7. Glanbia Nutritionals, Inc; HydroMax: a better glycerol for sports nutrition; NewHope360; 2014
  8. Hoffman, J; Effect of creatine and beta-alanine supplementation on performance and endocrine responses in strength/power athletes.; Dept. of Health and Exercise Science, The College of New Jersey; 2006