What To Look For in a Pre-Workout

by Joseph Munoz

If you've ever been in the market for a pre-workout supplement, you’ve probably noticed that there are DOZENS of different products, all of which claim to be “the best pre-workout.” The question is, how do you determine what makes a good pre-workout product?

In this article, we will cover exactly what to look for and what you should avoid when choosing a quality pre-workout supplement.

What does a pre-workout do?

As the name implies, a pre-workout is a supplement that you consume right before working out. The purpose of a good pre-workout is to boost energy, improve mental focus, and increase your physical performance. A good pre-workout supplement should help you feel a bit more energized in the gym, and it should help you perform one or two more reps or sets throughout your workout, which could result in slightly better gains over time.

Do pre-workouts actually work?

A pre-workout can provide some performance benefits, but it isn't magic. Unfortunately, many supplement companies over-exaggerate the benefits of their products. A pre-workout supplement is not going to make up for poor nutrition or inadequate recovery, such as lack of sleep. The effort you put into your diet, training, and recovery are going to significantly outweigh any benefits that a pre-workout supplement will give you.

With that being said, if you train hard, eat right, and get plenty of rest, a pre-workout supplement can give you an extra boost for training and help you perform your best.

How long do pre workouts take to kick in?

Many people drink their pre-workout while driving to the gym or right when they get to the gym. 10 minutes later, they’re maxing out on the bench… If this sounds like you, then you may not be getting maximum benefit from your pre-workout.

Just like food, the ingredients in your pre-workout take time to travel down the esophagus, through the stomach, to the small intestine, and then get absorbed into the bloodstream. Pharmacokinetics studies show that it can take anywhere from 45-60 minutes for blood caffeine concentrations to peak. However, this number can also widely vary depending on individual differences in gastric emptying and the recency of a meal [1]. For these reasons, timing studies have demonstrated that when using ergogenic supplements such as a pre-workout, consuming them roughly 45-60 minutes prior to exercise may be best [2].

For example, if your typical warm up at the gym takes roughly 15 minutes, then you should probably consume your pre-workout anywhere from 30-45 minutes before the gym. This will allow your first working sets to align with peak blood concentration of ergogenic ingredients in your pre-workout. If your schedule cannot accommodate this much time before the gym, don’t worry, you will still see benefits. Just keep in mind that the ergogenic ingredients may peak later in your workout.  

Avoid Proprietary Blends

If you grab any pre-workout bottle and look at the nutrition label, you'll see a bunch of different ingredients as well as the quantity of each ingredient. You'll also notice that many supplement companies use what's called a proprietary blend. Proprietary blends tell you what ingredients are in the product, but don't tell you the exact amounts of each ingredient.

Proprietary blends are the biggest red flag when it comes to pre-workouts.

Companies that use proprietary blends claim to do so because they what to "protect" their "secret" formula.

But that’s just bullsh*t.

When it comes to effective supplements, there are no “secret formulas” that are better than the rest. We can look at scientific research and determine what ingredients are beneficial and in what amounts. If a company is not being transparent and telling you exactly how much of every single ingredient is in their product, you shouldn't purchase it. Most likely they are simply trying to hide the fact that they are under-dosing particular ingredients in order to cut costs.

Best Pre-Workout Ingredients

Pre-workouts include a bunch of different ingredients. It's rare that any two formulations are exactly the same, although there are a few core ingredients you'll find in most pre-workouts that provide performance benefits.

Caffeine

Caffeine is a major performance enhancer. For example, a study by Grgic et al., showed that compared to a placebo, supplementing with a dose of 6mg/kg of caffeine significantly increased one rep max strength in the back squat by about 3% [3]. The benefits are likely due to the fact that caffeine also helped decrease rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and pain perception in the participants. In other words, if your max squat is 300 lbs, caffeine may help you squat an additional 5 to 10 pounds by increasing your arousal, making the weight feel slightly lighter, and allowing you to exert more effort.

According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, a dose of 3 to 6 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight is appropriate for increasing performance [4]. For a 180 lb adult, that would equate to about 240 to 480 milligrams of caffeine. If you happen to be sensitive to caffeine, you can stick to the lower side of this recommendation. Most quality pre-workouts will contain about 300 milligrams of caffeine, which is an effective dose for most people.

Citrulline Malate

Citrulline Malate is another important ingredient to have in your pre-workout supplement. When ingested, citrulline malate is converted to arginine, which can then be used to increase nitric oxide production. The reason your pre-workout should contain citrulline malate instead of arginine is that arginine has poor gastric absorption. In other words, you can’t absorb arginine as easily or as well as you can citrulline malate.

Now, why would you want to increase nitric oxide production?

Well, higher concentrations of nitric oxide increases blood flow to your muscles during exercise, which increases the amount of oxygen and nutrients delivered to those muscles, which can improve performance. For example, a meta-analysis of eight clinical trials and over 130 participants showed that taking a citrulline supplement prior to training resulted in participants performing about 3 more repetitions over 5 hard training sets compared to placebo [5].

Put into context, if without citrulline participants performed about 50 repetitions in five sets of a particular exercise, taking citrulline helped increase that to about 53 repetitions in the same five sets. That may sound like a pretty small effect, but nonetheless, it can add up over years of hard training.

Beta-Alanine

Beta-alanine is converted to carnosine inside muscle cells, which acts as a buffer to help prevent the rise in lactic acid following exercise. The rise in lactic acid during exercise is one of the variables that cause you to get tired and hit failure during a set. In essence, beta-alanine helps improve performance by reducing lactic acid buildup and allowing you to perform slightly better during long intense workouts [6]. The appropriate dose of beta-alanine is about 3 grams per serving.

Keep in mind that the people who will benefit the most from taking beta-alanine are those that are doing exercises that result in increased lactic acid buildup, since the role of beta-alanine is to prevent a buildup of lactic acid. This applies to people who are training specifically for hypertrophy with really high training intensity, higher volume, and are really pushing their work capacity. On the other hand, if you train more like a powerlifter and your main focus is strength and you're lift mainly heavy loads, low rep ranges, and really long rest periods, you may not benefit as much from beta-alanine.

Nootropics

At Outwork Nutrition, we also include additional nootropics in our Pre-Workout for added benefits. These nootropics include Rhodiola and L-Dopa.

Rhodiola rosea is a medicinal plant that contains bioactive compounds. The main benefits of rhodiola include reduced stress and fatigue, as well as increased cognitive performance [7].

L-Dopa (from mucuna pruriens) is a mood booster that can help lower stress, reduce anxiety, improve focus, and support a positive mood overall [8][9][10]. This may help improve your sense of well-being, which can be helpful when going into an intense training session.

Is a Pre-Workout Worth It?

A properly dosed pre-workout supplement can provide performance benefits that may help you train harder and longer, allowing you achieve better results over time. However, a pre-workout is only going to work as hard as you do. No pre-workout supplement can make up for poor nutrition or lazy training. Ultimately, you have to put in the work and consistent effort to make sure your training, nutrition, and recovery is on point.

 

References

1. Cappelletti, Simone et al. “Caffeine: cognitive and physical performance enhancer or psychoactive drug?.” Current neuropharmacology vol. 13,1 (2015): 71-88. doi:10.2174/1570159X13666141210215655

2. Stecker, Richard A et al. “Timing of ergogenic aids and micronutrients on muscle and exercise performance.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition vol. 16,1 37. 2 Sep. 2019, doi:10.1186/s12970-019-0304-9

3. Grgic, Jozo, and Pavle Mikulic. “Caffeine ingestion acutely enhances muscular strength and power but not muscular endurance in resistance-trained men.” European journal of sport science vol. 17,8 (2017): 1029-1036. doi:10.1080/17461391.2017.1330362

4. Guest, Nanci S et al. “International society of sports nutrition position stand: caffeine and exercise performance.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition vol. 18,1 1. 2 Jan. 2021, doi:10.1186/s12970-020-00383-4

5. Vårvik, Fredrik Tonstad et al. “Acute Effect of Citrulline Malate on Repetition Performance During Strength Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism vol. 31,4 (2021): 350-358. doi:10.1123/ijsnem.2020-0295

6. Hobson, R M et al. “Effects of β-alanine supplementation on exercise performance: a meta-analysis.” Amino acids vol. 43,1 (2012): 25-37. doi:10.1007/s00726-011-1200-z

7. Ishaque, Sana et al. “Rhodiola rosea for physical and mental fatigue: a systematic review.” BMC complementary and alternative medicine vol. 12 70. 29 May. 2012, doi:10.1186/1472-6882-12-70

8. Wittmann, Bianca C, and Mark D'Esposito. “Levodopa administration modulates striatal processing of punishment-associated items in healthy participants.” Psychopharmacology vol. 232,1 (2015): 135-44. doi:10.1007/s00213-014-3646-7

9. Knecht, Stefan et al. “Levodopa: faster and better word learning in normal humans.” Annals of neurology vol. 56,1 (2004): 20-6. doi:10.1002/ana.20125

10. Lampariello, Lucia Raffaella et al. “The Magic Velvet Bean of Mucuna pruriens.” Journal of traditional and complementary medicine vol. 2,4 (2012): 331-9. doi:10.1016/s2225-4110(16)30119-5

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