Rankings: best pre-workout supplements of 2018

Pre-workouts are one of the most common supplements men and women pick up when they first start hitting the gym; aside from protein powder. It makes sense though.

Everyone wants that slight edge and to squeeze the most out of their workouts. By having something you can consume before you train to boost your fat loss and prime you for faster muscle growth, pre workout concoctions are the easiest solution. 

That being said, do pre-workout supplements live up to all hype? Let’s examine 23 facts about the ingredients in pre-workout supplements and discover if pre-workout supplements are a fit for you.

Spoiler alert: they probably aren’t…jk, or am I?

1. Hidden caffeine in pre-workouts can send you to the ER.

Nearly all pre-workout supplements contain caffeine. Caffeine isn’t necessarily bad for your health. However, too much can send you to the emergency room, fast. 

In fact, caffeine boosts workout focus and intensity so well that with too much caffeine you run the risk of a dangerously high heart rate, over exertion, and even injury (1). 

The issue is that most pre-workout formulates concentrate caffeine, packing in around 435 milligrams on average (1).  This varies from product to product so be sure to scope out the caffeine content if you do decide to take a pre-workout. 

You want to be mindful of this especially if you are older, overweight, or have any other signs and symptoms of cardiovascular issues because caffeine consumption increases cardiac output AND blood pressure (1).

2. Creatine- draws fluids and boost energy production

Another common ingredient in many pre-workout formulations is creatine.  Creatine is the most researched supplement. Luckily it is safe, effective, and inexpensive to use- if used correctly (2).  I bet you’re already using creatine!

If so, excellent job.

First off, creatine works because your body uses creatine to create energy. This creatine-phosphate pathway provides extreme levels of energy for only a second or two though, giving you enough juice for an extra rep or enough of a start to reach a new personal record in your lift (2) or to look extra strong for that hottie checking you out (I know, you know what I’m talking about).

3. Increase your power with creatine.

Because the creatine energy pathway is so rapid, creatine is most useful for short explosive activities, the kind of activities that are great for muscle and strength development, such as max lifts, plyometrics, and lifts under at most 10 repetitions (3).

Power exercises draw the most energy as you’re applying your strength with greater speed, having the significant advantage from creatine can actually help you get that edge in your training for even faster recovery, progress, and performance.

This way you don’t have to be “that guy” grunting and twisting up your face as you lift to squeeze out an extra rep.  You can be the shredded guy, effortlessly pumping out one rep after another.

4. Creatine ONLY works if you take it regularly.

Unlike caffeine, which you can drink and feel the effects immediately, creatine needs to be stored and accumulated in the body.  Remember creatine increases fluid retention in the muscle, so you need time to build up these creatine and fluid stores so that your muscles will have access to creatine when you’re in the gym. 

Typically, each creatine supplement has instructions on how to start supplementation, I recommend going for a longer initial period instead of taking megadoses of creatine from the start for more effective and safe results (4).  Preworkouts aren’t supposed to feel like you’re doing the cinnamon challenge!

5. Guarana works similarly to coffee.

Guarana is actually a plant from the Amazon that finds its way into many different preworkout formulas.  Aside from being exotic, it doesn’t have any other special attributes when compared to coffee (5). 

While guarana is commonly used for weight loss, it seems to work by stimulating your body, with caffeine, to improve your focus and speed up your metabolism.

6. Pre workout Improves your workout state for better results.

Many pre-workout supplements may work simply as a placebo! 

By taking a dose before you workout, you might be psychologically warming up to put yourself in the best mental frame for exercise; kind of like having Tony Robbins in a can, to pump you up before you lift. 

It’s an idea referred to as anchoring a conditioned response. 

The most famous example of this is how one researcher trained his dogs to salivate on command.  Dr. Pavlov wanted to see if he could make his dogs salivate at the ring of a bell.  Naturally, the dogs salivated around food only.  So, Pavlov rang a bell just before he would give the dogs a piece of meat.  Before long, Pavlov would ring a bell and make the dogs salivate WITHOUT giving them any food at all (6).

Similarly, if you take a pre-workout before every training session you have, it may be psyching you up and getting you ready for another great training session simply because you naturally push yourself and have excellent training sessions.  This can be useful, but there are many free ways to get the same exact effect.

7. Increase focus in the gym for more intensity and faster results.

Exercise is more than physical, there’s a huge mental component on how much you feel you can lift and how far you can keep going.  Research reports that pre-workout supplements in general can increase your focus during a training session so that you’re better in touch with your mind and body as your train giving you faster results down the road (7).

That being said, it doesn’t matter if you’re spending $50 on a preworkout or $5 on a cup of coffee, the mental effects will still be the same.

8. Pre workout Increases heart rate to pump you up.

Some pre-workouts don’t work at all (8).  They end up pumping you up with different stimulants that raise your heart rate and make you feel ready for exercise, but can actually lead to dangerously high blood pressure and cardiovascular system strain (8).  Keep an eye out for excessive caffeine and any amphetamine-like substances on the label!

9. Beta-alanine: non essential, but helpful

Beta-alanine is an amino acid that your body can actually create, meaning you don’t need to consume it regularly in your everyday diet.  However, beta-alanine is converted into other compounds that do support and enhance lean muscle tissues, sounds good right?

In elderly populations it’s been seen to help preserve muscle mass, however there needs to be more research done in younger populations (who are the ones more likely to consume this ingredient) to see if it’s worth your money (9).

10. WARNING: Watch out for amphetamine-like substances and steroids

Most men and women out there love that first sip of a pre-workout supplement.  You feel the energy roaring through you and you know it’s time to go hard.  However, there are some pre-workout supplements that go overboard.

You know there’s a problem when your pre-workout can cause you to fail a drug test! 

The issue is typically found in the proprietary blend on the label.  Now, proprietary blend may seems like a fancy deeply researched blend of scientific compounds….

…Unfortunately, it typically is a way for supplement companies to hide ingredients into products to sneak past FDA approval and can contain pre-hormones, amphetamines, and other chemicals (10).  Make sure the preworkout you consume has transparency to let you know what you’re consuming.

11. Coffee is helpful, but you do develop a tolerance.

One excellent stimulant is coffee.  With a modest 100 mg on average per cup, you can increase your focus just a notch without overdoing it and dealing with stress on your heart, body, and even brain (11). 

The one drawback is that you develop a tolerance for caffeine, making it less effective over time unless you up the dose (11).  If you end up carrying a gallon container of coffee to the gym, you know you’ve gone way too far.

I recommend keeping caffeine around 200 mg, or less, and cycling your coffee.  Coffee is dehydrating, so on cardio days or recovery days stick with water, but if you’re lifting heavy go with the java.  This will help you lower your weekly caffeine intake and keep your body sensitive to caffeine so you get the biggest jolt of energy on the workouts that you need it.

12. Niacin to quadruple your energy.

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to turn into the Hulk?

Have too much niacin and you’ll find out.  Niacin is used for energy metabolism in the body, amongst other functions.  If you have a little it can increase carbohydrate mobilization into the bloodstream, giving you a boost of energy to burn more fat and energy in a workout (12).  If you mega dose niacin, you’ll actually end up mobilizing more fats and can “hit the wall” in your workouts (13).  The bottom line is that a bit of niacin is excellent for a pre-workout, however take too much and you can put your body out of balance and bottom out your energy levels.

13. Citrulline boosts blood flow for enhanced performance

Citrulline is a phytonutrient, or a plant-specific compound that has effects in the body. 

Specifically, citrulline is seen to work as a vasodilator and can increase time to exhaustion during exercise (14).  This means that your blood vessels are opened up to allow for more blood flow, making you feel ready to train harder.  Definitely a helpful ingredient in any pre-workout blend and easy to find in citrus fruits.

14. Never ever believe anything you read on a label- ever

The federal drug administration (FDA) does not closely regulate pre-workout supplement claims. This means that many products can be misleading or even outright dangerous.

This is why it is essential to buy from a trusted and reputable supplement company instead of settling for the best claims or prices. What you may be putting your money towards is a bloated marketing budget instead of a product that increases your health AND gets you the best results in the gym.

15. Dangers and damages of pre workout supplements are real

Some marketing claims are more than false- they’re deadly.  For instance, the Food and Drug Administration recently filed criminal charges against USP Labs, the makers of the pre-workout supplements Jack3d and OxyElite Pro, which have been linked to acute liver damage and multiple deaths (15). 

Once again, be sure to buy supplements only from trusted safe sources.

16. How’s YOUR workout?

We’ve spent a lot of time looking at all the ingredients and implications of a pre-workout supplement here, but what about the main course?  If your workout isn’t effective then pre-workout supplements won’t be helping you at all!

If you don’t train with any kind of intensity you won’t be stimulating muscle growth (16).  You definitely don’t need a preworkout for a Zumba class or to sit on the floor foam rolling all day before you do one set of squatting.

  Make sure your goals match up with your use of a pre-workout supplement- otherwise use your money for something better.

17. BCAAs help preserve lean muscle mass.

Adding in BCAAs to the mix is a big help- especially if you train fasted (17).  Branched chained amino acids are easily broken down and used to provide energy to spare your muscle tissues during fasted, long lasting, or intense sessions (17).

The best way to take this is by having 10 grams before the workout and then 10 grams after you finish training (17). Honestly, you can still lose fat and gain muscle without BCAAs, but they are effective in speeding up results and safe to consume.

18. Pre-workout meals are the key to mass building.

Interestingly enough, research illustrates that pre-workout meals are more effective than post-workout meals in terms of your results and recovery.  The pre-workout meal should be 2-3 hours before your activity, where it is digested and freshly absorbed into your bloodstream.  This way, the food you’ve eaten is right where it needs to be to fuel your exercise (18)!

One tweak to your routine would be to play with different foods before exercise to see how they naturally affect your energy and focus because at the end of the day adding a cup of broccoli to a pre-workout meal a few hours before you lift is much less expensive than a clump of pre-workout powder.

19. Vitamin C speeds up workout recovery

Speaking of broccoli, and other vegetables, these foods are loaded with vitamins and minerals most folks don’t pay much attention to.  That’s their loss, luckily we know better!

Micronutrients are the small hinges that swing BIG doors in the body to allow for greater immune function, better skin, improved performance, and even faster weight loss (19).  Particularly, Vitamin C is seen to boost immune system and fight oxidative stress during exercise and is a great ingredient to find in your pre-workout mix (19).

20. Tart cherry mirrors NSAIDs effects – without the damage.

Not sure what an NSAID is?

I have you covered. A NSAID is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, such as aspirin or ibuprofen.  While these drugs can reduce swelling and signs of overtraining, they can lead to deeper issues.  In fact, NSAID use can cover up underlying nerve or muscular disorders that lead to further damage and even opioid use. 

I recommend sticking with the tart cherry juice if you’re an Iron Addict to avoid becoming a heroin addict.

If that’s not enough NSAID use can also irritate your stomach according to several studies.

Fortunately, tart cherry juice, or tart cherries, have been seen to reduce inflammation and boost recovery in marathon runners (20).

21. Save the protein for after for greater muscle growth

You don’t need to have a ton of protein in your pre-workout formula because you typically have enough proteins floating around to recruit during your workout- if you need any. 

If anything, you need BCAAs.  These will spare your muscle tissue during the workout if need be and help you stay leaner and lose weight faster otherwise muscle growth typically occurs after the workout when you’re resting and recovering.  That’s why it’s so important to have time to activate recovery time, eat well, and rest between workouts.

Plus you’ll have more time to soak up more fantastic action steps to get even faster results with time.

22. Fats are not necessary and can kill your workouts.

Fats tend to damage endothelial tissues, the lining of your blood vessels, and restrict blood flow during your exercise (21).  Don’t worry, those effects only last a few hours!

The issue is that pre-workouts typically aim to increase blood flow because with less blood flowing it is difficult to get the most out of your workout. 

If you have a high dose of fat before you start to train you may end up being more sluggish and “hit the wall” during your workout.  On the other hand, there are (elite) athletes that train and adapt themselves to be more efficient at burning fat by switching their diet to one mostly based around fats. 

For the average person, it’s best to avoid large quantities of fat in your pre workout.

23. Carbohydrates can make or break your results.

Carbohydrates can make or break pre-workout formula.  Typically, carbohydrates are the preferred fuel in the body.  Ideally, you would want to have carbohydrates in a pre-workout meal because you can eat it with more fiber, fat, and protein to slow the absorption of sugar into the body. 

Otherwise, you’d be consuming sugar in a pre-workout mix and that would cause a sharp increase in your blood sugar leading to a rapid decline (22).  Along with falling blood sugar you’d lose focus his energy and not get too much anything out of your workout. 

Although, in the past they have in athletes who have got their mouth with sugar water to trick your body into thinking that they’re consuming more calories from sugar to prime the body to actually burn more energy during exercise.  However, that’s anecdotal and not the best source to go on so I would stick with a sugar-free pre-workout

In summary

The quality of your pre-workout varies from company to company and from ingredient to ingredient.  If you’re looking to get the most out of your strength training session, your competition, or your big endurance-style session it may pay to invest in a pre-workout supplement.

But, there are many risks when you aren’t sure what you’re getting in a pre-workout supplement so you definitely want to do your research first to figure out if it’s worth the money your health and if it will give you the results that you are looking for.

For the average gym-goer I’d highly recommend ditching the pre-workout supplement for plain coffee and putting a bigger focus on what you eat during your meals.


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