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Pre-pre. Swole supplements. Jolt juice. Legal performance enhancers. Workout shots. Call pre-workout whatever cutesy nickname you want, just don’t 1) snooze on its benefits or 2) overestimate them.
Got questions? Read on for a comprehensive crib sheet on what pre-workout is, what it can and cannot do, and what the best pre-workout supplements in 2021 are.
Pre-workout is basically a dietary supplement formula designed to give your workouts a little extra oomph. It’s most commonly bought in powdered form, mixed with water, and chugged about 30 minutes ahead of activity.
Sports dietitian Marley Oldham Carnes RDN, says, “pre-workout is commonly taken by athletes and fitness enthusiasts ahead of exercise to increase energy, power, strength, speed, or endurance.”
Here’s the thing: There are practically more pre-workout supplements than there are exercises. As in: A lot. And the formula of the pre-workout will affect how it impacts you. (More on this below).
Not too surprisingly, this varies a lot from tub to tub, but you’ll see some common ingredients as you browse labels, including: caffeine, amino acids, creatine, and B vitamins, and often artificial sweeteners to make it taste good.
Based on a deep-dive analysis of the 100 best-selling pre-workout supplements, the most prevalent — present in over 85 percent of commercially available pre-workout products — are:
- Beta-alanine. A non-essential amino acid that produces carnosine, supports muscle pH balance, and improve exercise performance.
- Caffeine. Ding, ding, ding you guessed it: designed to boost your energy (caffeine offers a few additional benefits that we’ll touch on below).
Most pre-workout products also contain a mix of amino acids in addition to beta-alanine. These are among the most common, based on the same study:
- Citrulline. An amino acid that can help widen blood vessels and may play a role in muscle building.
- Tyrosine. An amino acid that helps your body make dopamine, adrenaline, and thyroid hormones.
- Taurine. An amino acid shown to improve sports performance.
- Creatine. A substance found naturally in muscle cells that helps produce energy during high-intensity exercise.
The ABCs on “BCAAs”
BCAA stands for branched-chain amino acids. It’s a group of three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Why take BCAAs? They may encourage muscle growth and weight loss, balance blood sugar, ease muscle soreness, and boost overall physical performance. However, studies have concluded that BCAAs are effective when taken in conjunction with other essential amino acids.
Other pre-workout ingredients that make a show:
- sodium or magnesium (to replenish electrolytes lost through perspiration)
- beetroot juice (for boosted blood flow)
You may also see something called C4, a multi-ingredient pre-workout product (generally, for non-professional athletes looking to speed up recovery).
Other than that, the most notable thing in many pre-workout powders is a “proprietary blend” — which is where things get fuzzy. How much of what is in a product’s personal blend isn’t regulated by the FDA so there’s no way to verify it without third-party testing.
The real scoop on ingredients
The FDA does not regulate supplements as carefully as other products so really, there’s no easy way to guarantee that what’s on the ingredient list is *actually* in the mix itself.
There are third-party testing services that certify products for accurate labeling, so shopping for third-party tested supplements can increase the likelihood that you’re actually getting what’s on the label.
Yep! Some are science-backed… others are more personal/anecdotal.
For an obvious reason: The caffeine.
Pre-workout usually packs 150 to 300 milligrams of it per serving. (For comparison: A cup of joe only hits you with 95 milligrams and a Red Bull weighs in at 111 milligrams per 12-ounce can. Yeah, wowza).
So, know your body. If one or two cups of coffee makes you anxious or sends you to the loo, a serving of pre-workout will likely land you with a panic attack and/or diarrhea.
“Although rare, ingesting too much caffeine can be fatal,” adds Carnes.
Improved performance and recovery
Beyond just making you feel wired AF, research shows that this amount of caffeine may even improve performance and speed up recovery.
There are many studies linking caffeine to increased performance and speed.
One study found that people who drank coffee before running 1500 meters on a treadmill finished their run over 4 seconds faster than those who didn’t have coffee beforehand.
New nickname: Wheels.
A second study found that due to its pain-relieving properties, when taken prior to exercise caffeine decreases delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS),
More enjoyment while you exercise
One more perk of caffeine: it can actually make the training session more enjoyable!
Improved cardiovascular performance
About to hit the track? Opt for a pre-workout with beetroot juice.
According to a 2019 review, beetroot juice can improve cardiovascular output. How? Well, beetroot juice increases the body’s levels of something called “nitric oxide,” which helps the blood vessels and improves blood flow.
The theory is that as a result, the body has to work less to pump blood to your heart mid-workout. Will beetroot juice score you a mile or Fran PR liquidity split? No. They’re not moon shoes, Fam! But still, it can’t hurt.
More lean muscles mass
That is, so long as it contains creatine.
A well-studied ingredient, research has shown that those who supplement with creatine may make greater strength gains compared to those who don’t. Some research even suggests that those who supplement with creatine also recover from strength training significantly faster. Win-win.
Carnes says, “Creatine could be useful for exercisers on resistance training programs who are trying to increase lean muscle mass.”
Ditto goes for those playing sports with repeated brief, high-intensity efforts with short recovery periods (think: throwers and sprinters) and sports with intermittent work patterns (think: team sports and racquet sports), she says.
Babes with sensitive stomachs be warned: Some people find this stuff not so easy to digest. Anecdotally, there are reports of gas and abdominal cramping as their body adjusts.
Hate to sound like a broken record, but the fact that they’re not FDA approved (only FDA-regulated) is no small thing.
Sure, some pre-workouts contain totally safe and effective (see above) ingredients, other’s contain ingredients that are at best pointless and at worst harmful.
Many pre-workouts, for example, contain far more than 100 percent of your daily needs of certain vitamins and minerals. Not a case of ~more is better~, too much of certain vitamins can actually be toxic, according to Carnes.
Beware the B levels
Keep an eye on vitamin B levels if you’re consuming a lot of pre-workout. Daily consumption of more than the recommended upper level of vitamin B3 (niacin) has been shown to lead to acute liver failure in adults who are otherwise healthy.
She notes that for professional athletes and competitors, pre-workout can be especially murky territory.
“There are still many popular supplements that contain banned or harmful substances, which can be a career-ending decision for a professional or collegiate athlete,” she says.
(Cellucor, for example, previously contained a banned substance called synephrine). If you fall into that camp, she recommends getting your pre-workout of choice cleared by a sports dietician or coach.
And if you’re not a professional athlete, she suggests ringing your healthcare provider. Some ingredients (adaptogens and herbs for example) can interact with prescription medication and make them less effective, she says. Yikes.
Want to give pre-workout a whirl? We weeded through user reviews and rounded up the best of the bunch, judging them on criteria such as ingredients, taste, mixability, third-party testing, and company transparency.
Ultimately, we came up with this list of nine of the best pre-workout supplements on the market — most of them third-party tested.
Trust us, and save yourself from spending for-freaking-ever with your magnifying glass on the ingredient list.
- $ = under 50 cents per serving
- $$ = $1–$2 per serving
- $$$ = over $2 per serving
Best pre-workout before long workouts: Vintage Blast Pre-Workout
The first ever pre-workout that releases ingredients in two-stages, Vintage Blast is designed to keep you energized and focused up to the end of your much longer workouts.
Need proof that this third-party tested (!) pre-workout works? It has nearly 10,000 reviews and over 70 percent of them give this old-school product five stars. And another 13 percent are 4-star. Not too shabby.
(ICYWW: Most of the complaints center around the products strong Stevia-aftertaste).
In addition to an array of vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, niacin, vitamin B12, magnesium, and potassium, each scoop also contains 5000 milligrams L-citrulline, 1000 milligrams L-arginine, 150 milligrams caffeine, and 1000 milligrams beta-alanine.
Purchase Vintage Blast Pre-Workout online.
Best for pre-workout without creatine: Revere Pre-Workout
Made by under-the-radar brand, Revere, this mix is a great option for folks looking to avoid creatine or too much caffeine. For instance: Long-distance runners or cyclists.
With only 100 milligrams of caffeine you won’t have to worry about being plagued by ~the tingles~ while on the treadmill, trail, or road.
It’s also a good pick for those seeking natural ingredients. Eye the back of the package and you’ll see familiar food-based sources such as sweet potato, pomegranate, and beets.
Best pre-workout for CrossFit and HIIT athletes: Cellucor C4 Original Pre-Workout
Everything you need to know about this pre-workout can be summed up by the fact that it’s America’s #1 selling pre-workout *and* the choice of four-time fittest man on earth, Mat Fraser (duh).
If the Fraser namedrop didn’t give it away — dude doesn’t eff around with what he puts in his body — it’s been third-party tested by the Informed Choice Program.
With 150 milligrams of caffeine, 1 gram of creatine, 1 gram of arginine, 1.6 grams of beta-alanine, each scoop’s really got everything you need.
Best pre-workout drink: Cellucor’s C4 Energy On the Go
Don’t wanna deal with the chore of mixing pre-workout into your water bottle? Try Cellucor’s pre-mixed, pre-workout drink.
Calorie-free and sugar-free it doesn’t contain much other than 200 milligrams of caffeine, 650 micrograms vitamin B6, and 45.5 micrograms of vitamin B12 but it’ll still do #werk towards improving your focus.
Best pre-workout for strength trainers: Pre-Kaged Pre-Workout
With a number of ingredients that are thought to improve power output and performance — and a lot of them — this third-party tested, punch-flavored pick is well-known amongst strength athletes as a favorite pre-workout formula that delivers.
It contains 6.5 grams of fermented BCAAs, 6.5 grams of fermented L-citrulline, and a whopping 274 milligrams of caffeine in one scoop alone. It also contains 1.85 grams of tyrosine and 2 grams of taurine.
Oh, and good news for picky eaters: This mix also contains powdered veggies for an antioxidant boost. (Don’t worry, you can’t taste them. It invariably tastes like fruit punch).
Best pre-workout for Olympic lifters: Grenade .50 Caliber Pre-Workout
Grenade .50 Caliber Pre-Workout has major BDE. The font! The name! The packaging!
And it’s well-respected amongst resistance trainers — especially those who lift heavy, regularly. Why? Because it includes, like, every natural strength booster on the planet. Including: 4000 milligrams L-citrulline, 2000 milligrams beta-alanine, and 1500 milligrams of creatine.
Caffeine sensitive? Keep scrolling. One two-scoop serving dishes out 300 milligrams of caffeine. That’s A LOT.
Best pre-workout for vegans: MyProtein Vegan Pre-Workout Powder
Due to their animal-sourced amino acids, few pre-workouts are vegan friendly. Luckily, My Protein Vegan Pre-Workout is.
It tastes like Jolly Ranchers but unlike the popular hard candy, it contains 6 grams of L-citrulline, 150 grams of caffeine, and 50 milligrams of beetroot nitrates (to name a few of its ingredients).
One reviewer writes: “Just a scoop added to ice-cold water, and you get a thirst-quenching, super-boosting, pre-workout refresh! Couldn’t recommend this enough, great flavor, no grit, just a massive grin.”
Best overall caffeine-free pre-workout: Transparent Labs PreSeries STIM-Free
Nighttime lifter? It’ll serve your sleep schedule well to choose a stimulant-free (aka STIM-free) pre-workout.
With zero caffeine but a solid amount of citrulline (6000 milligrams), BCAAs (4000 milligrams), and beta-alanine (4000 milligrams) — to name just a few of its ingredients — this is a great stimulant-free pick for lifters and cardio junkies alike.
TBH, it’s a pretty great option for anyone hunting for a third-party tested pre-workout. All the products out of Transparent Labs are third-party tested. You can even access a certificate of composition for all their products.
*Throws one back for transparency*
Best caffeine-free pre-workout for a pump: RSP Nutrition Pump Boost Pre-Workout
Another option with zero caffeine, third-party tested Pump Boost does exactly as its name suggests: Support pump.
With zero carbs, calories, or caffeine you might be wondering WTF this punchy-flavored powder does contain. Well, let me tell you: 95 grams of vitamin C, an amino acid blend featuring taurine, beta-alanine, L-arginine, and L-leucine, and 200 milligrams of sodium.
“This BULLDOZED me past my plateau,” wrote one reviewer. Sold, sold and sold!
Does it do much more than that? Nope. But it’ll leave you feeling vascular AF for up to 12 hours after use.
With lofty promises to improve focus, boost gains, and support recovery, if you’re looking for an extra edge during your workout, pre-workout could be for you. Key word: could!
Just keep in mind that it could also land you with workout-ruining symptoms like:
- racing heart
If you experience any of these, discontinue use immediately. Instead, says Carnes, prioritize food-based energy sources like coconut water, whole grain toast, a banana, or oatmeal.