What Are Pre Workout Supplements?

Heading into a workout, your ultimate goal is to perform your best, whether that means lifting more weight, doing more miles on the bike, or swimming more laps in the pool. You want to hit new personal records (PRs) and constantly level up. That lets you know your hard efforts are paying off and you’re inching closer to your fitness goals.

The problem is, your body can only do so much, especially when subjected to strenuous exercise. Perhaps you’ve noticed instances in which you just could not hit your previous max on the bench press no matter how much you try. You were able to lift more weight just a few days ago, so what gives? 

First, don’t be discouraged—this is a very common phenomenon for gym-goers to experience, and it can happen for many reasons. One of the main reasons is simply not being fully recovered from your prior workouts. Maybe you didn’t get enough sleep the last few nights and weren’t able to refuel properly? Several “hidden” factors can hinder your performance on any given day, even your stress levels. 

So, what can be done to avoid having those lackluster workouts where you just don’t feel energetic and vigorous? Well, aside from nourishing yourself adequately with a protein-rich diet and resting enough between workouts, taking pre-workout supplements can help supercharge your training. By providing high-octane ingredients that enhance focus, energy, motivation, blood flow, strength, and endurance, pre-workouts are a worthwhile investment for athletes, gym-goers, and fitness aficionados alike.

But what are pre-workout supplements, exactly? How do pre-workouts work? Read on and we’ll get you up to speed on these highly popular sports supplements.

Pre-Workout Supplements Help You Make the Most of Every Workout

Pre-Workout Supplements

Pre-workout supplements are not just about boosting energy. While having energy is important, you also want to give your muscles the right nutrients to allow for optimal muscle contraction and function during your workout.

The good news is there are pre-workout supplements formulated for women and some developed specifically for men, as well as organic pre-workout supplements for anyone. Having such a vast range of pre-workout formulas to choose from means there is a suitable option for virtually everyone!

In a three-week study published by the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, recreational athletes who took a pre-workout supplement daily before high-intensity exercise had significant improvements in their VO2 max, lean body mass, and training volume compared to those given a placebo. 

In simple terms, the pre-workout supplement helped these athletes train harder and longer, resulting in more muscle growth and fat loss.

Sounds pretty great, right? But how do pre-workout supplements work?

How Do Pre-Workout Supplements Work?

Pre-workout supplements

The goal of pre workout supplementation is to provide the body’s cells with the nutrition they need to operate in their most efficient and effective mode. Now, what one person considers optimal will be different from another person. For some people, it’s about building body mass. For others, it’s about shedding weight. Athletes, then, need to provide their bodies with the type and amount of supplementation ideal for their specific goals.

Most of the pre-workout supplement products you can purchase are in a powder form. Others are in pill form. Both are good options depending on how you plan to use them.

Most of the time, pre-workout supplements are made up of a combination of carbs, antioxidants, and vitamins (specifically, B vitamins). How they achieve this ranges widely from one product to the next. 

What’s most important for most people is choosing a product that works for them. 

Are Pre-Workouts Bad for You?

Unfortunately, the supplement industry is rife with poorly formulated pre-workouts, some of which are arguably more harmful than they are beneficial. This is just one reason it’s crucial to know exactly what’s in the supplements you take. 

Overall though, pre-workouts are not bad for you if you take them in appropriate doses and ensure the formula is high quality. With that in mind, let’s take a look at which ingredients to look for (and which to avoid) in pre-workout supplements so you can get the results you’re after.

What Should Be in a Pre Workout Supplement?

pre-workout supplements

The first step is to consider what you want the pre-workout supplement to do for you. There are various ingredients used in pre-workout formulas that can help:

  • Improve endurance
  • Boost metabolic rate (i.e., calorie burning)
  • Increase strength
  • Enhance athletic performance
  • Reduce muscle breakdown
  • Promote focus
  • Elevate energy levels

While pre-workouts may come with dozens of ingredients, there are a select few that have stood the test of time in scientific and clinical research. Here are the top five ingredients to look for in a pre-workout supplement:

  • Creatine monohydrate
  • Beta-alanine
  • L-citrulline
  • Caffeine
  • Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)

On the flipside, the following ingredients should be avoided due to safety concerns and/or lack of efficacy:

  • 1,3-Dimethylamylamine (DMAA)
  • Hordenine
  • 2-Dimethylaminoethanol (DMAE) Bitartrate
  • N-methyltyramine (NMT)
  • Ephedrine

Once you know what your fitness goals are, you can compare products to find the pre-workout supplements capable of helping you achieve these outcomes. The good news is that most of the recommended ingredients above are beneficial for all people who work out regularly, but not all products offer a comprehensive blend of effective ingredients. For that reason, it is important to choose a few key areas of focus and look for a formula tailored to your needs.

Are You Looking to Improve Power and Strength?

pre-workout supplements

For those who are in the gym to build strength and muscle mass, a pre-workout supplement will be a key component of any workout. It should provide you with ingredients designed to increase the energy reserves (i.e., adenosine triphosphate/ATP) in your muscle cells and help reduce muscle fatigue. To accomplish this, here are some ingredients to look for in a pre-workout formula:

Creatine monohydrate: Creatine is a naturally occurring molecule that helps the body—especially muscle cells—regenerate ATP (“energy”). There are hundreds of studies showing that creatine monohydrate can increase athletic performance by improving strength, stamina, and explosiveness during high-intensity exercise, particularly weight lifting. The key with creatine is taking it consistently and in proper doses. Look for a pre-workout supplement that contains at least 3,000 mg of creatine monohydrate, and be sure to consume it about 20-30 minutes before exercising. On days that you don’t work out, taking 2,000-3,000 mg of plain creatine monohydrate on an empty stomach will ensure your muscles stay saturated with creatine.

Betaine Anhydrous (Trimethylglycine): Another important nutrient for increasing strength and power is the amino acid derivative betaine (trimethylglycine). Betaine is useful for several reasons, notably by supporting cellular hydration, creatine synthesis in skeletal muscle, and promoting proper blood flow. Research suggests that consuming 1,250 to 3,000 mg of betaine anhydrous before exercise can increase peak power production and total training volume. In other words, it can help you lift heavier weights and perform more sets and reps in the gym.

Want More Energy During a Workout?

pre workout supplements

In this case, by “energy” we mean “pep,” or the sensation of feeling energetic as you work out.  Being mentally and physically “amped up” can take your workouts to the next level. If you’re walking into the gym feeling lethargic and foggy in the head, chances are you’re not going to perform your best.

Thankfully, most pre-workout supplements contain some ingredients to boost your focus and perceived energy. Here’s the key: You want more than just some B vitamins. While B vitamins are definitely important, they are only part of the equation.

So, how do you get the energy you need? Look for a pre-workout supplement that also offers the following nutrients:

Caffeine: As the most-consumed stimulant across the globe, caffeine is revered for its ability to increase mental and physical performance by boosting perceived energy levels. Caffeine works by stimulating the central nervous system, primarily via adrenaline. It also helps release fatty acids into the bloodstream, thereby providing energy for exercise. However, the trick with caffeine is not overdoing it, as it can lead to adverse effects that hamper your workouts. Look for a pre-workout that contains just enough caffeine in it to boost your energy, but not so much as to make you feel jittery and nauseated. For most people, 100 to 250 mg of caffeine will suffice.

L-Tyrosine: Another important energy- and focus-enhancer is the amino acid L-tyrosine. Tyrosine is a precursor to the neurotransmitter dopamine, which plays a major role in reward-driven behavior and feelings of motivation. Taking L-tyrosine has been shown to improve exercise capacity, enhance cognitive function, and even reduce stress, ultimately allowing you to keep your eyes on the prize while you push yourself physically. Typical L-tyrosine doses range from 250 to 600 mg..

Do You Need More Endurance?

pre workout supplements

For those who need endurance, whether that is to run longer distances or to increase your reps in the weight room, pre-workout supplements can help. The pertinent ingredients to look for in this case include:

Beta-Alanine: This is an important amino acid that the body requires to synthesize carnosine in muscle tissue. Carnosine is a peptide that helps control the acid-base balance in your muscle cells, which is crucial for intense, prolonged exercise. Quite a few studies have shown that taking 2,000 to 4,000 mg of beta-alanine before training can improve exercise output, sprint performance, and physical working capacity. 

L-Citrulline: Another amino acid that can promote endurance is L-citrulline. This particular nutrient works by boosting nitric oxide (NO) levels, and thus blood flow, as well as reducing muscle tissue breakdown during lengthy bouts of exercise. The caveat with L-citrulline is that most pre-workout formulas contain a dose that is well below the apparent minimum effective dose of 2,400 mg. Be mindful of this when buying a pre-workout supplement.

What Are Pre-Workout Supplements: Key Takeaways

It’s very likely you’ll find a multitude of “additional” ingredients in pre-workout supplements, such as vitamins, minerals, and herbal extracts. Most of these are “icing on the cake,” so to speak. However, the bread-and-butter ingredients like creatine, caffeine, and beta-alanine are what have the most benefit, so these should be your main focus.

All in all, pre-workout supplements tend to be very valuable tools for active individuals. If you’re ready to see an improvement in muscle growth, endurance, and overall energy levels, start by looking for pre-workout formulas with the ingredients mentioned throughout this article, and ensure they include the recommended doses.

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Elliot Reimers

Elliot Reimers is a NASM Certified Nutrition Coach (CNC) and M.S. candidate at Michigan State University, where he is studying Molecular Pharmacology and Toxicology. He has been a freelance science writer since 2013, centering on the topics of nutritional science, dietary supplementation, fitness, and exercise physiology. He received his B.S. in Biochemistry from the University of Minnesota and is an inveterate “science nerd” who loves fitness. He is passionate about coaching and educating people about how to live healthier, be smarter about what they put in their bodies, and perform better. In his spare time, you’re most likely to find Elliot hoisting barbells, hiking the mountains of beautiful Colorado, or working on content for Simply Shredded.