The idea behind workout supplementation is to get a pre workout energy boost by ingesting something beforehand. Simple concept, but not so simple to make effective products in reality.
What ends up happening, as you’ll see in the products in the comparison table near the top of the page, is that most of them have proprietary blends. What this means is that they combine several chemicals, but are allowed to not disclose the exact amounts because this is essentially considered a company secret recipe; this is along the same lines as the coke recipe or recipe for KFC.
Because of this I struggled to try and come up with a good way to compare all the ingredients at the same time, and honestly I could not come up with any effective way to do so. My recommended way to evaluate the different pre-workout supplements is to find the supplements that are meet your size and cost criteria, and use the ratings, which are a compilation of external ratings of the product, to choose the product that has the highest chance of being the best pre workout supplement for you.
One final note before we move on to the science behind most of these products is that the difference between products is HUGE! Unlike whey protein where most products are pretty similar there can be large variance in the components of the product, so depending on your body, diet, and other factors, while one may not be very effective, another one could be excellent, so you may have to experiment a bit.
What’s in Pre-Workout Supplements?
L-Tyrosine, L-Tyrosine AKG, Taurine, Glucuronolactone, Methylxanthine etc… do you know what all these are? These are just some of the ingredients that can be listed on pre-workout supplements, so how are you supposed to know if it’s a good product or not?
Like I said above, there is huge variety in ingredients in these supplements; however, there are 4 main ingredients that are most commonly used as the base for these products.
A lot of people who don’t want the full spectrum of ingredients in a pre-workout supplement opt for caffeine supplementation alone. It can be bought in capsule form or simply taken from coffee or tea. It’s been well known as an effective stimulant for a long time which is why it is found in a lot of these products.
An Ephedrine-Caffeine (EC) stack as a stimulant and weight loss promoter is also very popular in the fitness community.
Creatine is another supplement that is often taken by itself. If you don’t want the ‘pump’ of a pre-workout supplement but still want the strength benefit you should look into creatine supplementation.
L-Arginine is one of the main amino acids that your body produces. The reason it is used in these products is that L-Arginine is in theory needed to produce Nitric Oxide, which is a vasodilator, meaning it allows increased blood flow. Increased blood flow would increase your performance and also recovery.
Now here’s the science to this theory. Several studies have been done on the effect of L-arginine supplementation and the results point to it not being very effective, if any effect at all. The thought behind these results is that the body is really good at regulating blood flow, so even though we can maybe increase flow by ~25% for a short time, the body corrects the flow rate through one of many possible mechanisms.
Another amino acid is Beta-Alanine, which is made into Carnosine in the body, which has a primary function to inhibit lactic acid from forming, and without lactic acid formation there will be reduced muscle fatigue. This helps in both short term and endurance applications of muscles.
The way in which Carnosine delays lactic acid formation is by buffering muscle acidity, a desirable quality during exercise. Many studies have been done and the overwhelming result is that Beta-Alanine works.
The first thing everyone should be aware of are that these supplements are not very heavily regulated. This means that there will some chemicals included that may have not been studied very thoroughly so the short or long term effects aren’t really known yet. Typically these will not be dangerous as they will be included in very small amounts, but you may react strongly to some of these where other people do not, so be careful and pay attention to your body’s reaction.
Secondly, everyone knows that while caffeine can have benefits, there are also some risks. Typically there is around the amount of caffeine in 1 cup of coffee in these supplements, but some of them can have up to 5 or 6! This could wreak havoc with your sleep, focus, and could possibly aggravate any heart issues you have.
Finally, you can become really dependent on these supplements if you use them every single day for an extended period of time. Just like people who can no longer ‘wake up’ without a cup of coffee you may feel weak and lethargic if you come to rely on these supplements.
How to Use Preworkout Supplements Effectively
There’s no doubt that there are many pre workout supplements that can help improve your training performances, but you need to remember 2 main things. First, once you’ve tried your supplement forget about everyone else’s opinion and reviews, how does it make you feel? If you feel invigorated and your training performance gets a boost like it’s intended to, great!! But you need to be aware if there are any effects that you don’t feel comfortable with.
Secondly, in order to avoid dependency try to only take a pre-workout supplement a few times a week, or cycle it on and off in 2 or 3 week periods. You don’t want to use supplementation as a crutch, only an aid in appropriate times.
Choosing the Best Pre Workout Supplement
Phew! We’ve covered a lot! You’ve now seen the good and the bad of pre-workout supplements and can use the comparison matrix to pick the top pre workout supplement according to your preferences.