Pre-workout supplements represent one of the bestselling and fastest-growing categories in the supplement market today. It makes sense, when you consider how critical the one-hour window before training is for providing your body with the nutrients it needs to perform at its optimal level.
The right pre-workout supplements can boost your strength, endurance, focus, and muscle pump. There are, however, endless numbers of products to choose from.
On the following pages, we provide guidelines to help you find one that's right for you, so you can avoid wasting money on those that aren't.
Strength And Power Boosters
Too many pre-workout supplements rely on stimulants and fail to deliver real nutrients to muscle fibers.
Be sure that your pre-workout supplement provides at least a few of these ingredients, all of which are clinically suggested to increase muscle strength and power.
Also known as trimethylglycine, this modified amino acid, typically derived from beets, has been suggested in research studies to boost strength and power by as much as 25%.
This amino acid forms the dipeptide (a double amino-acid protein) carnosine, which helps muscles contract with more force.
Research suggests that taking beta-alanine before training promotes muscle strength and power. It can also enhance muscle endurance. One way to tell if your supp has enough beta-alanine is if your skin, especially around your lips, gets tingly or itchy.
Only products that use time-released beta-alanine won't give you this sensation. This tingle is a sign of substandard beta-alanine.
You may be surprised to find that we didn't put creatine first on the list of strength and power boosters.
While you definitely want to be sure that you are taking some form of creatine pre-workout, the reason we put it after beta-alanine is many guys prefer to take creatine as a separate supplement from their pre-workout product.
If that's not you, then be sure that the pre-workout product you select offers some form of creatine, as it's been suggested time and again to be one of the most effective strength-boosting supplements ever.
This category does not include stimulants. While caffeine can increase muscle endurance, "energy boosters" refers to nutrients that actually increase endurance without the major mode of action being central nervous system stimulation.
Make sure there are at least two of the following in your pre-workout supplement.
This amino acid has a proven track record for supporting energy without any jittery side effects. Research also suggests it can increase stamina and focus.
The body uses it as a precursor to producing several important hormones and neurotransmitters, such as epinephrine (adrenaline) and dopamine.
Studies suggest that taurine may help increase muscle endurance by up to 50%. One way that taurine may enhance endurance is by helping the heart to pump more blood to the muscles, as one German study reported. And we're not just talking about the type of endurance you associate with cardio.
A separate study found that subjects who consumed a drink containing taurine before a workout were able to complete more reps on the bench press than when they consumed a placebo.
If your preworkout does not include taurine, be sure that it includes some other energy booster.
This herb is considered a stimulatory adaptogen because it increases the body's resistance to a variety of stressors.
It can help support critical hormones such as testosterone, growth hormone (GH), insulin- like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), dopamine, and thyroid hormone.
In addition, it may help promote healthy levels of the catabolic hormone cortisol.
The berry of this native Chinese vine has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine. It can support muscle endurance as well as aid brain function and even keep cortisol levels down.
The vitamins B6 and B12 are critical for energy production. If you take a separate B vitamin complex, it's not essential that your pre-workout provides these vitamins.
A lot of guys want a pre-workout product that is so packed with stimulants that it'll make their heads explode. Don't be that guy.
First make sure that the supplement you choose has some of the real strength and energy-boosting nutrients, and then you can worry about the buzz it gives you.
Not only will the world's most popular supplement give you that pick-me-up you need to train after a long day, it also boosts muscle strength and endurance. Caffeine has even been found to blunt muscle pain, meaning you can train beyond the pain barrier.
For best results, look for it in pill or capsule form (anhydrous). Caffeine from guarana, coffee, or green tea is good, but many find it less effective than the anhydrous form, which has been shown to boost performance in clinical studies.
The leaves of this powerful plant contain a unique blend of xanthine alkaloids, such as theobromine, theophylline, and caffeine, which work together to amp you up before workouts, boost strength and endurance, and help clear your mind.
Many claim that the type of buzz they get from yerba mate is more prolonged without jittery side effects. If you are sensitive to most stimulants, a pre-workout product that uses yerba mate may be the way to go without having to use a stimulant-free product.
Certain ingredients taken right before your workouts can help you increase muscle growth. Sure, creatine will help you add size, but it also makes you stronger for your workouts. Its muscle-building benefits come indirectly from that strength increase, and directly during recovery, which is why you also want to take creatine post-workout.
This section covers nutrients that can actually aid muscle hypertrophy during your workouts.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
The BCAAs leucine, isoleucine, and valine are the most critical group of aminos for muscle growth. They also blunt fatigue and are used by the muscles as a fuel source.
Some pre-workout products may provide just leucine, which is fine since leucine is the MVP of BCAAs due to the fact that it can instigate muscle protein synthesis on its own.
During intense workouts, muscles can deplete glutamine, which in turn compromises muscle growth as well as immune function, making you more susceptible to illness.
Glutamine can also boost growth hormone levels, and even buffer acidity levels to blunt fatigue and keep endurance up.
One of the main ways glutamine encourages muscle growth during workouts is by keeping leucine levels in the muscle fibers high, so if you get ample leucine, then getting glutamine in your pre-workout product is not a must, though it can be beneficial.
We've listed this multifaceted amino-acid-like compound as a muscle builder since so many of its benefits lead to muscle growth.
For example, carnitine has been found to enhance blood flow to working muscles and aid recovery. It has also been suggested to support androgen receptors in muscle cells, to which testosterone binds to instigate growth.
In addition to stimulants, most guys also look for pre-workout products that provide nitric oxide (NO) boosters.
It's these two categories, NO boosters and stimulants, that forged the pre-workout supplement market that exists today. Getting a good muscle pump not only helps you look impressive in the gym, but the stretch it places on muscle membranes can activate pathways in the muscle cells that lead to long-term muscle growth.
The body converts citrulline to arginine, which is then converted to NO. So why look for citrulline before arginine? Because when you ingest arginine, much of it is used by the cells in the intestines.
This can lower the amount that gets into your bloodstream. When you ingest citrulline it actually boosts blood levels of arginine and NO better than arginine alone.
As we mentioned above, this amino acid is readily converted in the body to NO. But since L-arginine can be poorly absorbed, look for other forms of arginine, such as arginine-AKG, arginine HCL, or arginine ketoisocaproate to help boost NO levels.
A special form of carnitine known as glycine propionyl-L-carnitine (GPLC) is a patented compound that combines the amino acid glycine with a modified form of carnitine called propionyl- L-carnitine. This formulation helps increase carnitine uptake in muscle tissue.
One study reported that trained male weightlifters supplementing with GPLC for four weeks had 30% higher NO levels than when they used a placebo.
This flavonoid from the French maritime pine tree is a powerful antioxidant, so one way it can boost NO levels is by scavenging the free radicals that break down NO.
Research suggests that pycnogenol also boosts NO levels by increasing the activity of nitric oxide synthase, allowing more arginine to be converted into NO.
Nitrates are converted into nitrites by bacteria living on the tongue. The digested nitrite gets readily converted in the body to NO. Nitrates are commonly found in vegetables, with one of the richest sources being beets.
Some companies also attach nitrates to other compounds, such as amino acids or creatine. Regardless of how they are supplied, nitrates are a powerful NO booster.
Glycerol normally forms the backbone of triglycerides, which are the primary fats in our diet. While it is not an NO booster, it can enhance muscle pumps because it has strong osmotic properties, meaning it attracts and binds large amounts of fluids to blood vessels, enhancing muscle pumps.
Glycerol can also help prevent dehydration and improve body temperature control when exercising in the heat. While glycerol is far from critical for your pre-workout product, anecdotal evidence suggests that products that provide glycerol in a good dose deliver long-lasting muscle pumps.
When you train, you are essentially an athlete competing against yourself and against the weights. And just like any athlete, you need to have sharp mental focus.
Not only can this improve your performance in the gym, but it can help your mind/muscle connection, which studies show can actually enhance muscle growth.
Listed on the right are some highly effective brain boosters commonly used in pre-workout formulas.
This essential nutrient can increase muscle strength and brain function due to the fact that it is critical for the formation of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
By providing your nervous system with more acetylcholine, you can produce stronger muscle contractions for longer periods of time.
Dimethylaminoethanol (DMAE) was originally marketed in the '60s to enhance learning and memory in individuals with attention disorders.
DMAE increases choline levels in the brain better than taking choline itself, likely because DMAE inhibits the breakdown of choline, which should lead to higher acetylcholine levels, and thus better mental function, improved mood, and even greater muscle strength.
This extract from club moss prevents the breakdown of acetylcholine in the brain, which supports a sharper mind and improved mood and focus.
Even if fat loss isn't your main goal, fat-burning ingredients in your pre-workout product can help keep your mass gains lean while also providing more energy during workouts by way of burning more fat for fuel.
Green Tea Extract
Some pre-workout products include green tea extract because it offers a laundry list of benefits that can aid workout performance.
The active ingredient in green tea is a catechin called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which increases fat burning by inhibiting an enzyme that normally breaks down norepinephrine.
This results in higher epinephrine levels, which encourages greater fat burning and provides a mild stimulant effect.
With a structure similar to epinephrine, synephrine works to boost fat burning and is one of the active ingredients in the plant bitter orange (Citrus aurantium).
Extracted from the bark of the West African tree Pausinystalia yohimbe, this ingredient aids fat loss by doubling the amount of fat released from fat cells.
This means that yohimbe can increase muscle endurance like caffeine, allowing the body to burn more fat as a fuel source. In addition, yohimbe can increase blood flow to working muscles.
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
Supplements That Stack Up
To make your life even easier, we've compiled a list of our favorite pre-workout supplements, complete with a few stimulant-free options.
Every product you see listed here stacks up to M&F standards and contains several of the ingredients mentioned on the preceding pages.
If you choose to go outside this list, just remember, any product that doesn't include either beta-alanine or creatine may not be the best choice, regardless of how many stimulants it contains.
And if it doesn't deliver any of the energy boosters we listed, don't even bother, no matter how cheap you can get it.
- Beast Sports Nutrition Beast Mode
- BPI Sports 1.M.R
- BSN N.O. Xplode 2.0
- BSN Hyper FX
- CytoSport Monster Pump*
- Dymatize Xpand 2x
- Gaspari Nutrition SuperPump Max
- Labrada Super Charge! Xtreme*
- MHP Dark Rage
- MRI Black Powder
- MuscleTech NeuroCore*
- Nutrex Hemo-Rage Black
- Optimum Essential AmiN.O. Energy
- ProMera Sports Beta-Crēt
- Six Star Pro Nutrition Professional Strength Pre-Workout Ignition
- Universal Nutrition Shock Therapy
- VPX NO Shotgun
Stimulant-Free Pre-Workout Supps
Some guys want to avoid the stimulants found in most pre-workout products.
Here's a list of our stim-free favorites:
- BSN N.O. Xplode 2.0 Caffeine-Free
- Cellucor NO3 Chrome
- Dymatize Caffeine-Free Xpand Xtreme Pump
- Evogen EVP
- Gaspari Nutrition Vasotropin
- MHP NO Bomb
- MusclePharm Hybrid N.O.
- Nutrex Niox
*Being transparent: As supplement experts, we at M&F want to know how much of each ingredient we are taking. So we really appreciate the fact that the products marked with an * have fully transparent labels with no proprietary blends.