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The Best Pre-Workout

Essential info on pre-workout and our top recommendations.

pre workout

When it comes to fitness, there’s no such thing as an athlete who doesn’t want an extra edge. The thought process usually goes something like this, “If I could just train a little longer, harder, or more often I’ll be able to…” Sound familiar? Enter Pre-Workout.

What Is Pre-Workout?

Pre-Workout is a supplement commonly used by bodybuilders and strength-based athletes to improve athletic performance and strength by increasing energy, focus, and muscle metabolism. It contains a broad range of ingredients with the most common being caffeine, creatine, beta-alanine, and branched-chain amino acids. It’s typically ingested 30 minutes before exercise and the effects can last anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. It is typically found in powder form, but also comes in liquids, pills, and bars.

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History of Pre-Workout
two friends exercising bench press in gym
Westend61Getty Images

Since the mid-1900’s bodybuilders have been looking for an extra boost to help them get through their most intense training sessions. Back then, caffeine, mostly in the form of coffee, was the most accessible way to power up before a workout. It wasn’t until 1982 when Dan Duchaine, who later would be nicknamed “the steroid guru” created a concoction called Ultimate Orange. What would later be considered the very first Pre-Workout supplement, Ultimate Orange contained a stimulant called ephedra. Users claimed Ultimate Orange helped them stay focused longer, lift heavier weights and gain muscle mass. However, after seemingly healthy men and women started having heart issues from Ultimate Orange, which was largely related to ephedra, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned all dietary supplements that included ephedra. Over the next decade, without ephedra as an ingredient, pre-workout evolved to become safer and more mainstream.

What Is In Pre-Workout?
Courtesy of Naked Nutrition

How many and exactly what ingredients are in pre-workout vary greatly depending on the brand. However, there are a few key ingredients most pre-workouts will have because they have been shown to aid in athletic performance. Here are the five most common ingredients and what they do.

Caffeine is a natural stimulant that comes in the form of beans or leaves that are most commonly found in coffee and tea. Its largest benefit for athletes is on the central nervous system to help reduce the perception of fatigue and/or pain.

Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid, meaning your body produces it naturally. A favorite ingredient for Jason Kozma, winner of a Mr. America title, suggests beta-alanine “for the lactic acid buffering performance enhancement.” It supports the production of carnosine, which helps buffer acid levels in your muscles to delay muscle fatigue, ultimately allowing you to push harder and longer. Just a heads up on one common side effect — at higher doses you may feel tingling over your skin.

Creatine is found naturally in our muscles. It aids in the production of adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, which supplies the muscles with short, intense bursts of energy. By supplementing with creatine you can potentially increase the production of ATP, thus improving short, powerful bursts of exercise. Creatine is also thought to increase muscle size and strength.

L-Citrulline & L-Arginine
Citrulline is a non-essential amino acid. Its primary benefit to athletes is that it triggers the production of arginine, another non-essential amino acid. Arginine is then converted into nitric oxide which allows muscles to acquire more oxygen and nutrients and aids in the removal of metabolic waste. More oxygen and nutrients flowing to your muscles allows them to work more efficiently, while the removal of metabolic waste helps you recover faster.

Branched Chain Amino Acids
Branched Chain Amino Acids or BCCAs are shown to stimulate muscle growth and decrease delayed muscle soreness. The three non-essential amino acids that make up BCCAs are leucine, isoleucine, and valine.

Is Pre-Workout Safe?
naked nutrition
Naked Nutrition

Pre-Workout has come a long way since its ephedra days. While it’s still not subject to FDA approval, it is a widely used supplement. As with any supplement, it’s best to approach Pre-Workout with caution and consult a physician first. “Pre-workouts are the most notorious for having things that aren't so great for your health in them,” says Shannon O’Grady, Ph.D. who has a doctorate in biology with a focus in nutritional physiology.Due to the wide variance in ingredient content and dosage in pre-workout, what may be safe for one person, could potentially cause adverse effects in another. It’s important to read the labels and stay within the manufacturer’s suggested servings. O’Grady strongly suggests looking at the ingredients and paying special attention to the amounts of each. If you’re not familiar with an ingredient, she suggests seeing what the FDA says about it on their website. To ensure pre-workout doesn’t contain banned substances, O’Grady recommends making sure it has been certified by independent testing firms such as NSF or Informed Choice.

Just Get This
C4 Original

Made by Cellucor, one of the largest and most trusted sports nutrition and dietary supplement companies, C4 is their top-selling Pre-Workout, making it one of the best on the market. Feeling tired? With caffeine (150mg), beta-alanine (1.6g), and creatine (1g) you’ll power through the toughest of workouts, even on off days. Seven different sugar-free flavors including orange burst, cherry limeade, and watermelon are sure to satisfy the pickiest of taste buds. It’s worth noting it is independently tested for ingredients and contaminants, but not NSF tested.

  • Reputable company
  • Delivers on performance promise
  • Seven flavors

  • Not NSF certified
The Step Up
Gnarly Pre Workout

A popular brand among outdoor athletes, Gnarly Nutrition Pre-Workout cuts out the fluff ingredients that others do not. It features only six natural ingredients with zero proprietary blends and transparent labeling to give your workout a boost you can trust. Power through with caffeine (180mg) from green tea leaf and ginseng (150mg) root powder while 2.5 grams of beta-alanine helps delay fatigue. NSF certification means you can have faith it’s free of banned substances.

  • Great boost of energy
  • NSF certified
  • Simple ingredients

  • Tingling from beta-alanine
  • Expensive
The Smart Spend
C4 Sport Pre Workout
Now 36% off

This Pre-Workout is a less potent and cheaper sibling of our “Just Get This” pick, C4 Sport. It dials back on just about every active ingredient, making it a great option for a new Pre-Workout user. You’ll still get a nice boost of energy from 135 mg of caffeine, while the C4 Performance Blend with beta-alanine, creatine, and arginine helps your muscles perform better. At only $0.66 per serving and NSF certified against banned substances, it’s hard to beat.

  • NSF certified
  • Excellent price
  • Reputable company

  • Lower quantities of key ingredients
Best Caffeine Free
Legion Pulse Caffeine Free Pre-Workout

If caffeine gives you a jittery feeling or prevents you from sleeping after late-night workouts, Legion stimulant-free Pre-Workout is just what you need. What it lacks in caffeine, it makes up for in other key performance ingredients. The 3.6 grams of beta-alanine and 8 grams of ​​L-citrulline are among the highest in Pre-Workout supplements.

Best Clean
Naked Energy Pure Pre-Workout Forumula

You know when nutrition labels say “none” in other ingredients you’re getting the cleanest, the most natural product you can buy. With only 10 ingredients and no additives or artificial sweeteners, Naked Energy derives its 200mg of caffeine directly from unroasted coffee beans. Don’t think natural isn’t as good. Naked Energy still contains beta-alanine (2g), creatine (1g), and L-arginine (1g) like the more complex ingredient Pre-Workouts. For those that hate most Pre-Workout flavors, try the natural flavor mixed with your favorite sports drink.

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