The Best Pre-Workout Supplements
Would you believe that the original pre-workout supplement was a cup of coffee and a banana? The industry has come a long way since with dozens of pre-workout brands now available and offering a variety of flavors and potency.
As the name suggests, a pre-workout supplement is taken 20 to 30 minutes before your planned exercise program. Fitness enthusiasts use pre-workout supplements to increase their mental energy and physical performance, including strength and raw power.
Not all supplements are created equal. Let’s take a look at the best pre-workout supplements along with what you need to know before buying one.
The Best Pre-Workout Supplements
We’ve ranked the following top 10 pre-workout supplements based on two categories: mental energy and performance. Why the split?
Anyone can drink a cup of coffee and enjoy a short-term boost in their perceived energy levels. But what happens when they hit the bench or get under the squat rack? Will they notice a difference in their physical performance? Probably not, but with the proper pre-workout supplement ingredients, you can improve both mental energy and performance simultaneously.
Pre-Workout Supplements for Mental Energy
Mental energy can be defined as the amount of focus, attention, and perceived energy you have. The bottom line is that when you’re using a potent pre-workout supplement, you’ll find that you can concentrate on what’s important: your workout.
Best for Mental Energy: Caffeine
Caffeine is the unofficial foundation of most pre-workout supplements. You’ll find it in all, but those that are specifically labelled as non-stimulant. Caffeine has been shown in several studies to trigger an increase in focus and attention at a low dose of around 40 mg. At higher doses of 200 mg to 400 mg, caffeine can significantly boost physical energy levels and performance.
The issue with caffeine is that it can cause a few side effects including anxiety and increased heart rate. The latter can lead to medical complications and panic attacks in some people. To mitigate these side effects, you can use L-theanine (more on that below).
Best for relaxed focus: Sports Research L-Theanine
L-theanine is an amino acid that is commonly used in nootropics or brain-boosting supplements. It has been shown to promote a relaxed focus, and when used before bed, it can help with sleep. If you are interested in using it as a sleep aid, we recommend taking it with MCT oil as this will improve absorption.
L-theanine has a unique relationship with caffeine. Studies show that when taken together, l-theanine promotes the benefits of caffeine (energy) while alleviating its side effects (anxiety). Best of all, no current studies have found any side effects from supplementing with l-theanine.
Best for Cognitive Boost: B-Vitamins
Considered the “energy vitamin,” B12 is found in a variety of energy and brain-boosting supplements. Studies show that vitamin B12 can boost cognitive function including focus and memory. With that said, we recommend taking vitamin B12 as a part of a B-complex blend. B-vitamins are known to work synergistically, meaning they are more effective when taken together and not in isolation.
Another way to promote the benefits of B-vitamins is by combining them with electrolytes. Just like with a B-complex, the two will support one another and provide a higher level of benefit to you.
Taking too many vitamins presents the risk of toxicity. Take care not to supplement with too many B-vitamins throughout the day as overdosing can cause nausea, vomiting, and fatigue. In some extreme cases, overconsumption of B-vitamins was found to cause nerve and liver damage.
Best for Memory: Huperzine A
Considered the grandfather of nootropics or brain-boosting supplements, huperzine A is a powerful energy, focus, and memory supplement.
Huperzine A works by improving the health and function of neurotransmitters in your brain. Think of neurotransmitters as forming an information superhighway across your brain. The healthier they are, the better your cognitive function.
Studies show that students who take huperzine A before a cognitive test perform better. What’s more, when you use it before studying, research has found that you retain more information.
Huperzine A can dramatically improve your focus and concentration, ensuring you get in “the zone” and stay there.
While powerful and effective, huperzine A might cause a number of side effects depending on your tolerance level. Common side effects include sweating, nausea, vomiting, and blurred vision. It’s important to test your tolerance by starting with the smallest dose and gradually increasing based on how you feel.
Pre-Workout Supplements for Performance
Now that you have the best pre-workout supplements for mental energy, let’s explore the other half of workout energy: performance. Pre-workout ingredients that improve performance have a direct impact on strength, power output, and acute variable completion, or the number of sets and reps you can complete.
Ideal for Muscular Energy: Creatine
No pre-workout is complete without creatine. This is a veteran supplement of bodybuilding that is often connected with building muscle mass. Creatine is naturally found in beef and fish.
Creatine is broken down into adenosine triphosphate or ATP, which is the preferred fuel source for your muscle tissue. The more ATP you have during your work, the more sets and repetitions you can perform at a greater intensity and duration.
A number of studies show that creatine is effective in improving sports performance, intra-workout strength, and quick-burst power. While deemed generally safe, some recent studies question whether creatine is safe as a long-term supplement. This is why supplement cycling – one month on, one month off – is recommended.
Best for Intra-Workout Strength: Beta Alanine
Did you ever take a pre-workout supplement and feel a tingle that ran up your neck and down your ears? If so, you tried beta alanine. This is an amino acid that is another supplement staple.
Studies show that beta alanine boost endurance and reduce intra-workout fatigue. What we find most intriguing are the studies that show beta alanine can increase your strength levels during a workout.
No direct side effects have been reported from taking beta alanine. There’s the tingling feeling in the neck, but that isn’t a medical concern. Beta alanine may interfere with certain medications, so it’s best to talk with your doctor if you’re currently taking any prescriptions.
Best for endurance: L-Citrulline
L-citrulline is another amino acid that is commonly used as a nitric oxide booster. Nitric oxide-focused supplements are suggested to dilate or widen blood vessels while promoting the release of anabolic hormones such as insulin and human-growth hormone.
Studies show that nitric oxide supplements such as L-citrulline can help to boost your athletic ability and decrease the amount of resting time you need. An added bonus: L-citrulline can kickstart the recovery process early, helping to alleviate soreness. Another great way to promote performance and recovery is with CBD oil.
Best for vascularity: L-Arginine
Similar to how caffeine and L-theanine should be paired, the same goes for L-citrulline and L-arginine. Another amino acid, studies show that L-arginine is a nitric oxide booster that is a proven performance enhancer. While it works well on its own, it really shines when it’s with L-citrulline.
There are no reported side effects when using L-arginine, but studies do raise the concern of not knowing exactly how it improves performance
Best for muscle building: Beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate (HMB)
Beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate (HMB) is a metabolite of the essential amino acid, leucine. In other words, once leucine has been digested, HMB is what is left over.
HMB has been in industry news due to its potential as a muscle building supplement. As a pre-workout, HMB can be useful to promote the anabolic benefits of leucine without sacrificing it as fuel. Whether your goal is muscle or strength, you want to maintain high levels of essential amino acids. This is to ensure your muscle isn’t used as a fuel source. It’s also handy for promoting recovery.
Other studies find that HMB is useful for increasing intra-workout strength and priming muscle tissue for growth.
HMB is shown to be generally safe to supplement with; however, some research suggests that large doses can harm the kidneys. Always stick to the recommended dosage levels provided by your supplement brand.
Best for muscle protein synthesis: BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids)
There are 20 amino acids in the human body, but three are proven to promote a number of fitness-focused benefits. Leucine, isoleucine, and valine are called branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs, and they are the all-around workout supplement.
Without a doubt, BCAAs are most famous as a muscle building supplement. Studies show that using BCAAs, especially leucine, can promote protein synthesis or the creation of muscle protein.
As a pre-workout, BCAAs provide the literal building blocks of muscle tissue, protecting current levels of muscle from being broken down to be used as fuel. Studies show that BCAAs can also improve mental performance, which may translate into better physical performance.
BCAAs are effective for supporting intra-workout performance, but they also assist with post-workout recovery.
What You Need to Know
Ready to go shopping for one of the best supplements we listed above? Here are a few tips and tricks to keep in mind when searching for your ideal pre-workout supplement.
There are two types of pre-workout supplements:
Stimulant: A stimulant-based pre-workout will rely on one or more of the following ingredients: caffeine, theobromine, and yohimbine. These ingredients have a direct effect on your nervous system, causing an increase in heart rate, focus, and alertness. They are not recommended for anyone who has a pre-existing condition with anxiety, blood pressure, or heart health.
Non-Stimulant: Also called a non-stim, this type of pre-workout will only contain ingredients that do not influence the central nervous system. Ingredients such as beta alanine, BCAAs, and HMB can improve your performance, but they are not stimulants.
While some ingredients may have their own unique properties, all pre-workout supplements share these benefits:
Alertness: Stimulants such as caffeine and non-stims including BCAAs can help to increase alertness and focus. This is essential as it helps you focus on the mind-to-muscle connection that is important for results.
Mental and Physical Energy: We recommend combining ingredients from the two categories listed above so that you have both mental energy and motivation as well as physical energy to push your workouts further.
Better Performance: Pre-workout supplements have been shown to increase overall athletic performance. Whether it’s more reps, heavier weights, or longer workouts, pre-workout supplements can help get you there.
New Personal Bests: Continuing with the point above, when you’re performing at your peak level, you’re more likely to crush old records and set new personal bests.
As we mentioned above, not all pre-workout supplements are created. Here are a few things to watch out for when buying a supplement:
Proprietary Blends: This is when a brand will list the ingredients in the supplement but does not provide the exact dosage. This means you have no idea if you’re getting the dose needed to see results. On the flip side, you could be taking too much of an ingredient and not know it.
No Regulation: Believe it or not, fitness supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. This means a supplement brand could claim a capsule contains a variety of ingredients when it really doesn’t. It also sets the stage for dangerous claims and false advertising.
Artificial Additives: If you’re trying to adopt a cleaner diet, pre-workout supplements are notorious for having a variety of artificial sweeteners, flavorings, and fillers.
Why Would You Take Pre-Workout Supplements?
There’s a reason why the pre-workout supplement industry is worth billions: they sell products that take an average Joe’s performance to the next level. When you use the best supplements responsibly, you can improve your mental energy, cognitive function, strength levels, and overall athletic performance.
Pre-workouts are a cost-effective way to give yourself a boost early in the morning, right after work, or when you’re burning the midnight oil. They complement any workout routine and can help you achieve your goals faster when used in combination with a comprehensive training and dietary program.