Supplements

A Detailed Guide to Pre-Workout Supplements

Chances are you’ve heard everyone from bodybuilders to CrossFit aficionados swapping pre-workout recommendations on the gym floor. But can a scoop or two really benefit your sessions and results? Are they actually worth the money – or are pre-workouts just a bunch of expensive energy drinks?

This in-depth article will answer all your questions and more. 

We investigate everything pre-workout. From the common ingredients and what they do, through to the risks and side-effects of taking them. So, if you’re looking for answers, you’ve found them. Let’s start by looking at what pre-workout supplements even are.

What are pre-workout supplements?

Pre-Workout supplements are designed to take your workout to the next level. Some energize you before your session, whereas others help you stay focused in the mix. A good pre-workout prepares you physically and mentally for the task at hand – exercise.

Not every gym session needs a pre-workout supplement. See them like an extra boost in a scoop or two.

When it’s hard to find the motivation to train, a pre-workout can help. Depending on its ingredients, you could push out more reps and sets, or go harder for longer too.

Coffee might give you a buzz – but a pre-workout is often designed to offer all-round assistance. High-quality versions can sometimes support your physique and provide better recovery too. Caffeine might get you through the gym door, but it’s not the only nutrient with benefits.

Workout Session at The Gym

How do pre-workout supplements work?

Most pre-workouts come as a powder, so they’re mixed and drunk. It usually takes 20-30 minutes for them to digest and start to kick in.

Once your pre-workout takes effect, you might feel energized. Stimulated versions are designed to give you the motivation to get up and hit the gym hard. Then, when you’re deep in the session, these stimulants can help you to persevere through extra reps and sets.

But if downing a drink to get a buzz was all pre-workouts were good for, we’d swap them out for coffee. There’s actually more to these supplements than energy alone.

Some contain vasodilators that can boost workout performance by buffering fatigue. Bodybuilders also love this kind of pre-workout for improving muscle pumps.

Pre-workouts are all about increasing output then? Yes. But not quite.

Focus is vital for maximized training – fact. So, it makes sense for a pre-workouts to reinforce your mental game too. Using selected ingredients, some are designed to make you zone in; they up your concentration while you train.

Common active ingredients in pre-workouts

Anybody who’s taken supplements knows that most of them share common ingredients. After all, effective products build their formulas around evidence – not guesswork.

Here are some common active ingredients you’ll see in pre-workouts.

Caffeine Anhydrous

A Detailed Guide to Pre-Workout Supplements 1

Caffeine is the most popular stimulant on Planet Earth. It’s estimated that 85% of American adults consume it in one way or another every single day[1].

People use caffeine for its famed energizing effects. As a stimulant, it has the ability to boost feelings of wakefulness and focus, so it’s a perfect pre-workout ingredient.

Experts consider caffeine to be a powerful ergonomic aid – even more so in its anhydrous state. It’s shown an ability to enhance endurance and hike up high-intensity training alike, making it perfect for a pre-workout[2].  

But the benefits don’t just end at going harder, for longer. Caffeine has a useful psychoactive effect too – something demonstrated in its ability to boost the brain power of sleep-deprived marines[3]. By blocking tiredness-promoting adenosine from attaching to its receptors, caffeine can keep you feeling wide awake, and ready to tackle tough training sessions[4][5].

Citrulline

A Detailed Guide to Pre-Workout Supplements 2
Watermelon – a natural source of Citrulline

A lot of studies suggest that citrulline can boost exercise performance. Naturally, this makes it a prime candidate for a pre-workout ingredient.

Citrulline is a non-essential amino acid with a difference. Instead of building muscle like other aminos, however, it’s important for the urea cycle (which gets rid of harmful compounds from the body).

How citrulline benefits exercise performance is by vasodilation – aka widening your blood vessels. When this happens, blood flow is increased, meaning nutrients can travel around the body quicker[6].

Vasodilation is also the mechanism behind bodybuilding’s famed muscle pumps. Whereas pumps were once thought of as purely cosmetic, recent research suggests they could also augment muscle growth[7].

Experts also think citrulline can enhance endurance by helping the muscles utilize oxygen better[8]. One study showed that cyclists who used citrulline could pedal for 12% longer compared to a placebo group[9].

Weightlifters aren’t left out either. According to another study on 41 men, the lifters who took citrulline malate completed 57% more reps compared to when they took a placebo[10]. They also reported feeling 40% less sore two days afterward – a time when delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can be at its worst.

L-Carnitine

A Detailed Guide to Pre-Workout Supplements 3
Asparagus – a natural source of Carnitine

L-carnitine is a nutrient that plays a part in energy production. Interestingly, there’s evidence that says it could be beneficial for exercise performance. While experts hold a lot of mixed reviews – a lot of research backs l-carnitine as being beneficial.

One study suggests that it can increase oxygen supply to your muscles[11]. When you’re halfway through a hard workout and fatigue kicks in, a boosted oxygen supply could be exactly what you need. Other studies say it might even increase red blood cell production and benefit oxygen transportation[12].

Remember how citrulline has the power to boost blood flow? Experts say that l-citrulline could too, meaning it might have the tools to reduce fatigue[13]. Given that a pre-workout is supposed to offer support during the session as well, this is smart ingredient to add.

Beta-Alanine

Another fatigue-fighting amino acid popular among pre-workouts is beta-alanine.

Have you ever felt acid build up in your muscles on a final set? Maybe you’ve felt your legs burn on the last few miles of a run. If you have, you’ll know how much acid buildup can hold you back.

Beta-alanine is proven to help tackle this acid[14]. There are studies out there showing how it can benefit both short term and long-term training – meaning it’s ideal for all athletes[15][16].

On a more specific level, beta-alanine can extend your time to exhaustion. One six-week study saw that the amino acid augmented TTE during high-intensity workouts by a considerable 19%[17]. Another revealed that beta-alanine helped to keep 21 cyclists going for 13-14% longer after four weeks of supplementing[18].

Creatine

A Detailed Guide to Pre-Workout Supplements 4
creatine powder

Creatine is one of the most rigorously-tested supplements on the planet. It’s been proven to work time and time again too and has an amazing safety score[19].

Taking creatine boosts exercise performance by upping your natural stores. You can then use these extra reserves to increase ATP – a substance used to energize muscles during high-intensity activities[20]. Of course, being able to increase ATP availability has its obvious advantages during a workout.

Athletes love to use creatine for building muscle, gaining strength, and improving their fitness[21]. It works in some pretty impressive ways too.

First, creatine can boost how much volume you can handle in a single session[22]. Evidence suggests it might even increase cell signaling and anabolic hormones [23] [24]. Over time this can contribute to better gains in the muscle growth department.

However, pre-workout companies don’t always add creatine just so you can build bigger muscles. Many prefer to use it in smaller doses to increase cellular hydration[25].

L-Theanine

A Detailed Guide to Pre-Workout Supplements 5
green tea is a natural source of l-theanine

Commonly found in tea leaves, L-theanine is an amino acid that promotes focus.

When combined with caffeine, L-theanine can help you zone in during demanding tasks. According to one study from 2013, this smart-caffeine combination can boost cognitive performance and increase subjective alertness[26].

Put plainly, L-theanine could help you harness your mind better mid-workout.

Pre-workout benefits

It’s easy to see how a pre-workout could provide a lot of benefits. Depending on the ingredients inside, these could range from extra reps in the tank, to improved focus under the bar.

A pre-workout’s benefits are all down to its ingredients. After all, it’s inside what counts, especially with supplements.

1) Motivation and energy

Using a high-quality pre-workout could make you more motivated to go to the gym. If you’re feeling flat and tired, a sensible amount of stimulants could override fatigue. Many athletes who use pre-workouts cite this as a common tactic.

A pre-workout’s energizing effects should also last well into the workout. Like we saw earlier with caffeine; this can mean getting more work done, possibly hiking up your results. A high-quality pre-workout could give you the fuel to go further than you would without it.

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Pre-Workout supplements may help improve performance, energy and focus

2) Delayed fatigue

Anybody who has pushed themselves knows what it’s like to hit the wall. It sometimes doesn’t matter how much you want it; lactic acid build up, non-responsive muscles, and a shortness of breath are all barriers which can stop a workout in its tracks. Fatigue is the fastest way to cut a workout short.

Fortunately, there are many proven compounds with fatigue-fighting effects. We covered a lot of these in the common-ingredient section above, but there are others out there too. Regardless of how they work – it’s important to recognize the ones that do.

Delaying fatigue has more benefits than bragging rights and ego. Just like we mentioned in the last section; if you can go for longer, you can rack up more volume. Given that volume is a driver of both muscle gain and fitness, holding back exhaustion can be priceless.  

3) Improved focus

In sports – focus is everything. No matter if you’re a bodybuilder or an ultra-runner, keeping your mind sharp means the difference between victory and defeat.

Concentration is a key part of doing any movement well. It keeps you efficient, safe, and making the best judgements. If you’re brain isn’t in the game, your body isn’t either.

Some pre-workouts could have the tools to give you a mental edge. Combining caffeine with L-theanine, for example, provides well-balanced focus. Other ingredients could lift your mood to help you keep your mind fixed on the task at hand.

Naturally, improved focus can also increase the results of your workout. You may be able to lift more to increase your volume to start. There’s also the added bonus of helping you to stay safe!

4) Recovery

Your body doesn’t stop adapting when a workout ends. In fact, that’s when the real response begins.

Certain pre-workouts contain ingredients to support recovery. Some can reduce how sore you feel post-session, whereas others might help your body rebuild muscle.

A pre-workout with recovery agents can be a great tool for hard training.

Pre-workout side effects

Taking a pre-workout in the suggested amount shouldn’t cause side-effects. Most are well dosed and come in powder form too, meaning you can test them first.

That being said though, side effects can happen. Here are some that people have reported.

1) Tingling and red patches

Products containing beta-alanine could cause mild tingling[27]. People who’ve experienced this compare it to pins and needles.

It’s important to remember that this tingling reaction is harmless. That doesn’t mean it can’t be annoying, though. 

Red patches can sometimes occur after taking a product containing niacin, which makes blood rush toward your skin. If the idea of skin-flushes puts you off, you can easily find a niacin-free pre-workout.

2) Jittery/anxious feelings

It’s no secret that most pre-workouts contain stimulants. But taking too high amounts can make you jittery and anxious.

To reduce this risk, test a small serving of your pre-workout first. You can always up the amount afterward.

Most serving sizes are well-balanced and researched for safety. It doesn’t hurt to check for yourself though.

Taking your pre-workout right before you sleep isn’t a good idea either. If you can, leave at least five hours before taking any stimulants and going to bed. If you can’t, try to take them sooner rather than later.

3) Stomach upsets

Some pre-workout ingredients have been linked to stomach upsets. Creatine and caffeine are the most common culprits, but magnesium and sodium bicarbonate could disrupt your digestive system too.

One way of lowering the risk of stomach problems is mixing powders with plenty of water. Sometimes having a drink that’s too concentrated also causes issues.

4) Headaches

Citrulline is famed for its endurance benefits. However, its ability to boost blood flow works through your entire body. Your brain can feel the effects too, which could cause a headache.

If you start to feel headaches, lower your dosage. Consider switching to a citrulline-free pre-workout if they continue.

What should you consider before taking pre-workout supplements?

Before taking a pre-workout supplement, there are a few things to think about.

1) Proprietary blends

You should always know what you’re taking and exactly how much. An undisclosed proprietary blend is an easy way to hide something, so ask yourself, what does the manufacturer not want you to see?

Avoid proprietary blends whenever you can – bottom line.

2) Dosage

It’s easy to throw a scoop into a shaker and gulp it down. But it’s much better to actually consider how much pre-workout you need to take.

If you’re new to pre-workout supplements, you might want to take a test amount first. There’s nothing wrong with seeing how you respond to its different ingredients.

Okay, but what if you’re a pre-workout pro?

Now’s the time to ask yourself how much you really need. Taking the maximum amount every day might build up a tolerance. So, when you do need a bigger hit, you have to use more to get the same effect.

Finally, are you sensitive to stimulants? If you are, think about how much you’re taking and how close it is to when you plan on sleeping.

3) When to take it

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Pre-workout supplements improve your endurance and decrease recovery time

Take your pre-workout 20-30 minutes before you exercise. Your body will have plenty of time to absorb and unlock the benefits from the ingredients.

Try not to leave more than half an hour between taking your pre-workout and exercise, though. You might peak too soon and find yourself energized while still driving to the gym. Worse, the effects might have worn off before you get there.

We always say to use a pre-workout well before you plan on sleeping. Taking stimulants within five or six hours of when you want to sleep can have adverse effects. Insomnia can be a side effect for people who take pre-workouts late in the evening.

4) Cycling your pre-workout

You shouldn’t need to cycle your pre-workout. But it’s a good idea if your chosen product has lost its edge.

Like anything, you can soon build a tolerance to pre-workout ingredients. Consider taking a few weeks off if you need extra scoops to get the same effects.

5) Sleeping patterns

Stimulants can block neurotransmitters that usually instigate sleep. So, it’s a good idea to maintain a solid sleeping pattern when using a pre-workout. You’ll set an internal body clock which naturally helps you fall asleep and you’ll know when to stop taking your pre-workout.

Pre-workout FAQs

Is it okay to take pre-workouts on an empty stomach?

Yes, you can take pre-workouts on an empty stomach. Fasted training is a popular fat-loss method and some supplements try to support it.

As always, test a small amount to see how your body responds.

Is it bad to drink pre-workout and not workout?

Not at all. In fact, many regular energy drinks contain similar ingredients to pre-workouts.

It’s only ever an issue if you start to feel too jittery. Chronic excess-caffeine intakes can also be unhealthy – even if you do work out.

How should I start taking a pre-workout supplement?

Try your first pre-workout by following the manufacturer’s guidelines. If it contains stimulants, cut out any other caffeine intake for that day.

To err a little more on the side of caution, you can always try a smaller serving. This is a great option for people who’re sensitive to certain ingredients.

What ingredient in pre-workout makes you itchy?

Beta-alanine is the ingredient that makes you itchy. It’s actually harmless when used in regular amounts – but it can be annoying. Don’t panic if you start to tingle, that’s all we’re saying.

Are pre-workouts worth the money?

A high-quality pre-workout can be worth the money. Something that contains well-balanced, well-researched ingredients could amplify your training.

It’s impossible, however, to say that all pre-workouts are worth the money. The supplement industry has plenty of shady characters, and some products are pretty much useless. It’s important to check every ingredient against any available science and read the reviews online. Products worth the money are usually rated by critics and have plenty of happy customers.

The final word

Everybody needs a boost sometimes. A pre-workout can be there to give you the motivation to train and the energy to exercise harder.

High-quality, well-researched pre-workout supplements are designed to increase performance. They can provide motivation to get you in the gym, and help you push harder while you’re there. Some might even support your recovery in the hours after.

Each has its own unique formula, although many share the same key ingredients. After all, once something is shown to work, it’s not long before it’s in all the supplements.

When choosing a pre-workout, always align it with your goals. Check the ingredients against current research and read the reviews online. If it ticks all the boxes – it could be the supplement you’re looking for. If not, keep searching for a better product.

Bottom line – pre-workouts won’t do the hard work for you. But that doesn’t mean they can’t help make it easier.


[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24189158

[2] https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-7-5

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4462044/

[4] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1467-3010.2007.00665.x

[5] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00210835

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22145130

[7]https://www.researchgate.net/publication/285754036_The_Muscle_Pump_Potential_Mechanisms_and_Applications_for_Enhancing_Hypertrophic_Adaptations

[8] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26023227

[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26023227

[10] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20386132

[11] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18545197

[12] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11114574

[13] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18545197

[14] https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-015-0090-y

[15] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22270875

[16] https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-015-0090-y

[17] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22973486/

[18] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23535873/

[19] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2048496/

[20] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11851597

[21] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2048496/

[22] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10731009

[23] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10683092

[24] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15870625

[25] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8098459

[26] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/147683010X12611460764840

[27] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3491570/

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