If you’ve put any time in the gym, you’ve probably seen people chugging pre-workouts in hopes of boosting their workout performance.
However, not all pre-workout supplements are created equal.
Some will deliver proven ingredients that can give you a clear advantage in the gym. Others might just flavor your water without providing any benefit beyond that.
That’s why it’s important to inform yourself of things to look for when shopping for a pre-workout.
Table of Contents
What are pre-workout supplements?
Pre-workouts are a category of supplements that aim to boost exercise performance, whether for strength or endurance.
Here are a few things that a good pre-workout can deliver:
- Increased strength
- Increased muscular endurance
- Improved recovery from training sessions
- Increased nitric oxide production, leading to better pumps
- Improved focus
- Higher chance of hypertrophic effect from a training session
To get all these benefits, you need a pre-workout with efficacious doses of a multitude of ingredients.
Luckily, our list of the top 10 pre-workouts boasts the best of the bunch to get you the results you want!
Best pre-workout supplements currently on the market
Best pre-workout supplement ingredients
The best ingredients fall under a few categories to maximize a supplement’s effectiveness:
- Ergogenic Aids
- Nitric Oxide Boosters
- Recovery Enhancers
- Hydrating Compounds
- Conditionally Essential Ingredients that work under certain training conditions
Stimulants are probably the most common ingredients found in the majority of pre-workouts. They can range from well-known compounds like Caffeine to unique synthetic compounds for maximum CNS stimulation.
The amount of stimulation you need for your training methods and your tolerance to stimulants themselves.
Stimulants aim to prime your CNS to be more responsive during training. This can work in various ways, from increasing strength and endurance to boosting muscle activation to improve hypertrophic effects from a session.
While Caffeine is certainly the most common and most researched, these are the 3 stimulants you may find in many pre-workouts:
- Caffeine – improves sprinting capacity (see study), increases power output (sees study), lowers the rate of perceived exertion (see study), and improves the ability to increase training volume (see study).
- Yohimbe – a stimulant that causes a high increase in energy while also promoting fat loss (see study).
- Synephrine, also known as Bitter Orange, is similar in structure to ephedrine but limited in its usefulness and efficacy.
There are derivatives of each of these ingredients that make their way into supplements, such as Yohimbine and Rauwolscine. These could be treated as equal to their natural counterparts.
Unfortunately, many stimulants don’t have a proven safety profile, so sticking with caffeine as the main stimulant is your best option. Luckily it’s proven the most effective in research as well, so you don’t have to sacrifice your health to see results.
2. Ergogenic Aids
Some ingredients are found in pre-workouts don’t have to be consumed before a workout to be effective.
However, they boost workout performance and require regular dosing, so their inclusion in pre-workouts is common.
Here are the top 3 Ergogenic Aids:
- Creatine – increases power output (see study), improves sprinting capacity (see study), and increases lean mass gains (see study).
- Beta-Alanine – increases muscular endurance (see study) and may improve rates of fat loss (see study).
- Betaine – also labeled as trimethylglycine, has been shown to boost power output and endurance (see study), although not as reliably as Creatine or Beta-Alanine.
These Ergogenic Aids can work in multiple ways with their main method of improving some factors of your fitness.
For example, creatine and beta-alanine are two of the most researched Ergogenic compounds, but they work on completely separate pathways and produce different performance enhancements.
The inclusion of all 3 of these compounds would make the pre-workout most effective for boosting overall performance.
3. Nitric Oxide Boosters
The benefit of boosting nitric oxide and blood flow to the working muscles has two major pathways: allowing more energy production within the muscle and speeding up the waste removal process.
Metabolites build up in the muscle when it is being trained, causing soreness and fatigue. Increasing available nitric oxide reduces this effect, allowing for more training volume.
While training volume isn’t the only factor in fitness improvements, it’s one of the best ways to improve results. The more high-quality volume you can do session to session, the quicker you should see results.
Here are the top 3 nitric oxide Boosters found in pre-workouts:
Arginine was common a few years ago, but science has essentially proven it ineffective at boosting nitric oxide when ingested orally. That’s why it’s important to keep up with the science to ensure you use the right compounds.
The best pre-workouts look vastly different than they did 5 or 10 years ago.
When looking for the best boost in nitric oxide production, you only need one of these ingredients in an optimal dose. It’s not required to stack these.
Nootropics are a category of compounds that aim to boost mental performance.
Improving your physical performance isn’t just about your physical fitness. If you find trouble focusing in the gym and giving your all during training, you’ll have worse results.
A pre-workout is incomplete without some form of nootropic ingredient, especially if you want to cover all your bases for improving performance.
Here are the top 3 nootropics you’ll find in pre-workouts:
- Acetyl L Carnitine – improves attention (see study) and cognition (see study) while proving other useful benefits for fitness.
- Huperzine A – a promising compound for the treatment of dementia but lacks in research for the fitness industry. Still, it’s a potent nootropic.
- Alpha GPC – decreases cognitive decline from aging and/or disease (see study) while also promoting increased power output (see study).
The inclusion of one ingredient from this list is usually enough. Studies haven’t examined the effects of multiple nootropics for workout performance, so that you won’t find any evidence recommending as much.
Still, you’ll find nootropic-based supplements that include 4-5+ nootropic ingredients claiming to be the best. It may work for some, but other compounds are more worthy of inclusion than more nootropics.
5. Recovery Enhancers
Some pre-workout ingredients are meant to jump-start the recovery process.
Here are the 3 most common recovery compounds in pre-workouts:
- HICA decreases soreness (see study) while promoting as having anabolic or at least anti-catabolic properties.
- Tart Cherry Extract reduces soreness, improves recovery rates of strength, and reduces catabolic training properties (see study).
- White Willow Bark, known as nature’s Aspirin, can effectively alleviate muscle pains (see study).
While you might notice improved recovery from Citrulline and other nitric oxide boosters, some ingredients enhance recovery from other pathways.
For example, HICA, a derivative of the amino acid Leucine, shows positive effects for recovery by enhancing protein synthesis.
Or, something like Tart Cherry extract works by reducing overall inflammation. However, a reduced inflammatory response from a workout may limit muscle gain, as inflammation is necessary to build muscle.
That’s a major reason why you won’t always find Recovery Enhancers in pre-workouts. They may be better served in a post-workout product.
You can view these more like bonuses than complete necessities in a high-quality pre-workout.
6. Hydrating Compounds
Staying hydrated alone can have wonderful effects on performance. A slight dehydration state can impair performance a significant amount.
That’s why choosing a pre-workout that also boosts hydration is key.
Here are a few common hydrating ingredients found in pre-workout supplements:
- Electrolyte Blends
- Coconut Water Powder
It’s important to drink enough water daily. However, maximizing hydration during training can be near impossible with just water, especially if you are sweating a lot.
If your favorite pre-workout doesn’t have hydrating ingredients, you could substitute in a Gatorade, electrolyte mix, or even a dash of salt in the water to replace sodium, which is lost in abundance during periods of heavy sweating.
7. Conditionally Essential Ingredients
Some compounds work awesome in specific situations but are useless in others.
Here are 3 popular ingredients that may or may not be useful for your individual needs:
- Branched Chain Amino Acids
- Sodium Bicarbonate
Take BCAAs, for instance: if you train fasted, BCAAs before a workout will boost performance and ward of catabolism. However if you aren’t training fasted, they don’t provide much benefit at all.
Many pre-workouts contain vitamins and minerals. If you are currently deficient in one ur more, then pre-workout dosing may be effective at boosting performance. But, if you don’t have any deficiencies, their inclusion won’t affect much.
Another promising compound for some is sodium bicarbonate. Sodium bicarbonate is effective at buffering lactic acid production.
While it’s highly effective for endurance athletes, most strength trainees won’t receive much from pre-workout dosing since most sets don’t build a large amount of lactic acid than endurance training.
So, you can see it’s important to judge your individual needs before choosing a pre-workout. What works for most may not be the best choice for your training styles.
Who should be taking pre-workouts?
Pre-workouts aren’t a necessary supplement. The exact nature of all supplements is to supplement a quality diet and exercise program, not be the difference between success and failure.
With that said, pre-workouts often contain ingredients that are clinically proven to boost performance. Improved performance can lead to better and faster results.
If you are someone that loves to push yourself to your limits and test what you are made of in the gym, a pre-workout may be a good choice.
If you can’t seem to make progress and have hit a dreaded plateau, a pre-workout with efficacious ingredients may help you busy through.
If you just started training and don’t take your nutrition seriously, a pre-workout may not be the right choice at the moment.
Adding a pre-workout to your routine without ensuring your nutritional intake is optimal is like icing a cake before it’s baked. Sure it looks pretty, but it’s not producing optimal results.
Pre-workout benefits & side effects
Here are some of the main benefits that are possible from the regular use of a pre-workout:
- Increased energy levels
- Increased focus
- Improved strength and endurance levels
- Optimized recovery
- Reduced soreness
- Increased fat oxidation
- Higher rate of muscle gain
- Adequate hydration
- Decreased rate of perceived exertion
They sound perfect, but the side effects are possible from pre-workouts. Here are a few common ones, with simple solutions to mitigate their recurrence:
1) Caffeine tolerance and addiction
Cycle off caffeine regularly and opt for a caffeine-free pre-workout from time to time.
2) Inability to fall asleep
Too much caffeine before bed can make falling asleep feel impossible. If you train close to the time you go to sleep, you’ll need to avoid CNS stimulants.
A harmless skin-tingling feeling from high doses of Beta-Alanine. Opt for a product that has sustained-release Beta-Alanine if it bothers you.
4) Digestive Issues
Some ingredients may cause some digestive distress in some users. If you are sensitive to particular sweeteners, coloring agents, or the active ingredients themselves, it’s important to pick products that don’t contain these.
Keep to reputable brands
Other than that, pre-workout supplements are safe for the majority of users. Sticking with reputable brands and products will ensure your safety, as there are shady companies out there that spike their products with dangerous and illegal ingredients that could cause damage.
Do I need a pre-workout?
Nobody needs any supplement if they have the perfect diet and training protocols. However, that doesn’t mean that pre-workout supplements don’t provide additional benefits.
It’s simple: if you want to get every bit of results possible from the gym, a pre-workout is one of the best ways to do so!
How long does pre-workout last?
This depends on the individual product itself and how full your stomach is when drinking it. The more empty your stomach, the less delayed the digestion is.
Most effects from pre-workouts go away after 1-3 hours. That’s why it’s best to take the supplement about 30 minutes before a workout to give it time to digest without risking the chance that it clears out of your system before you finish your training session.
Do pre-workout supplements make you gain weight?
No supplement will inherently make you gain weight. This is where your diet comes into play.
If you are eating more than your maintenance caloric requirement, you are bound to gain weight. If you eat below maintenance, you will be losing weight.
Pre-workouts tend to include ingredients that improve the rate of muscle gain, like Creatine and Betaine. So, pre-workout supplements may be useful when looking to gain most of the weight as muscle and not fat.
Is taking pre-workout safe?
As discussed earlier in the benefits and side effects section, most pre-workout supplements are safe for most users.
You may encounter issues with Caffeine if you use it too often or too close to bedtime. Simply cycling off for a while is a simple fix.
Others may find digestive issues when using certain pre-workouts. This may be countered by undergoing an elimination test, eradicating the pre-workout, and then adding each ingredient in one by one until you find the culprit(s).
Once you do that, you can pick a new pre-workout that doesn’t contain the ingredient(s) that aggravate your digestive tract.
Last but certainly not least, the supplement industry isn’t regulated as strictly as it should be. Due to that, there are have many cases where companies spiked their products with dangerous or even illegal ingredients to boost their effects.
However, this is certainly a cause for concern. Stick with a reputable brand and product with a proven track record if you want to avoid this risk.
Is it okay to take pre-workout supplements on an empty stomach?
This is the preferred method of taking a pre-workout as it doesn’t delay the digestion of the ingredients.
If this bothers your stomach, it’s okay to have a light meal about an hour before your workout or around 30 minutes before taking the supplement.
This may reduce the acute effects of ingredients like Caffeine since the digestion will be slowed, and the dose circulating your bloodstream will be lower than if you had no food in your stomach.
However, it’s better to have a slightly lower response to your pre-workout than to deal with digestive issues during your workout!
The Final Word
The best pre-workout for you is one that will deliver results based on your style of training. Someone performing strength training has many different needs from someone training for a marathon.
Know your individual needs, and you’ll be able to find a high-quality pre-workout that suits you. Chances are, it’s one of these top 10 found in this guide!
*Last updated April 2021