The supplement industry is a huge business and my personal favorite sup has to be my pre-workout.
Is it the best most necessary and beneficial thing to take? No, but I like it.
The main reason is because unlike other supplements I feel the effects almost immediately. It really gives me energy, focus, strength, a better pump and just makes me feel like an animal while I’m lifting.
While I do admit some of these results are probably due to some placebo effect as well as a lot of caffeine, I always lift better with a pre-workout supplement than without one.
Who are Pre-workouts for and not for?
There are some supplements that I think are pretty important such as a good multivitamin and fish oil.
As much as I love pre-workouts, they are not necessary for great results.
Most of your overall results will come from consistency with your nutrition, workouts and rest. There really is no substitute for these 3 things. If one or all three are screwed up, your results will be dramatically less no matter what kind of supplement you take.
With that said, a good pre-workout powder can give a boost to your training and allow you to lift more weight. Over time stringing together great workouts will lead to better and quicker results.
I would not recommend a pre-workout supplement for a beginner. The main reason is that a beginner will see results pretty quickly and doesn’t need to spend money on extra supplements.
The other reason I would not use a pre-workout if I was a beginner is because of the stimulants. Not all, but many pre-workouts contain stimulants like caffeine. Stimulants cause the heart to beat faster and if you are brand new to working out your heart may not be able to take the added workload from the workout and stim combination.
In my opinion, pre-workouts are most beneficial for intermediate and advanced lifters. Your body is more accustomed to hard workouts, which means you can handle more training intensity and volume than a beginner. A pre-workout can help with increasing both.
Getting used to an intense workout can also make the stimulants a bit safer since the heart will most likely be able to handle the elevated rate from the workout.
Ultimately it is up to you whether you feel you need a workout boost or not. If you are unsure about any of the ingredients, especially the stimulants, in a pre-workout supplement check with your doctor.
What to watch out for
Most of the pre-workout supplements on the market are crap. They might make you feel great from the stimulants, they might give you a better workout from a placebo effect, but a lot of them are a waste of money.
I’ve bought into some of the hype and wasted my money on a lot of these products. Some worked great and others did not.
Here are some of the tricky things that these companies do to help sell their products.
There are some ingredients in pre-workout powders that have the scientific research to back up their effectiveness. Each requires certain dosages to be effective.
One trick that supplement companies use to sell their products is to put in some great ingredients, but the dosages are so low that you may not see any positive effects.
The dosages are important. If you don’t get enough of a fancy ingredient, it doesn’t matter how great it is. The effects from it will be reduced or nullified.
Know what the proper dosages are and read the labels of any product you may consider buying.
The concentrated formulas:
Some of the companies will even be bold enough to claim that their product is “concentrated.”
When compounds are tested they are already in pure form. How can you concentrate a pure ingredient? You can’t.
If you see the word “concentrated” on your pre-workout, this is a red flag that you should check the dosages to make sure they are at the effective levels. Most of the time the serving size is just not large enough to fit all the ingredients in the proper amounts.
This has to be the biggest scam of the entire supplement industry. The words “proprietary blend” are supposedly to protect trade secrets like their “secret formula.”
The truth is that if someone wanted to spend the money on a lab test they can easily find out the exact dosages of an ingredient. The only real reason to use a proprietary blend to hide it’s dosages from most people who will not get a product tested.
A company can put a bunch of cheap crappy fillers in their product then put a few good ingredients in it and tell you about all the awesome active ingredients and the great results they will deliver. Unless the dosages are correct all the effective ingredients are just a waste.
If a company uses a proprietary blend you won’t know how much of each ingredient you are actually getting.
Think about it, if a company had a product that had the right dosages wouldn’t they want their consumers to know that they are getting the correct amounts of each ingredient?
I would run away from any product that hides their ingredient dosages behind the words “proprietary blend.”
The Best Pre-workout
After looking at most of the pre-workouts being sold, most of them are crappy but well-marketed products that look and sound really good until you look at the label.
There are some good ones out there, but they can be pretty expensive per serving. This is especially true for the good ones that contain the correct dosages.
I think the best pre-workout is the one you make yourself.
A homemade pre-workout powder has a lot for benefits and I make my own pre-workout for a couple reasons.
The first is I can put in the ingredients that I want in the dosages that I want. I don’t have to put in any crappy filler ingredients that I don’t need and I won’t have a powder that is skimping on the dosages.
I buy the ingredients in bulk without any fancy packaging or marketing. This is a lot more economical and you can make a great preworkout for less than half the cost per serving of a commercially produced product.
For some people, taste is a big factor in their pre-workouts and they can put in whatever artificial flavor that they like best. I personally don’t care about taste so I don’t put any artificial flavors. It’s really up you.
If you are going to make your own pre-workout mix, the first thing you need is a scale for obvious reasons.
The Ingredients: How to Make Your Own Pre-workout Drink
Some pre-workout powders have a ton of ingredients. There are only a few that have enough research to back their effectiveness though. Here are the one’s that actually have some science behind them and the recommended doses that are researched.
Keep in mind even though I list certain effective dosages I am not recommending any of these products. If you are unsure about any of them please check with your doctor.
The fact is that most commercial pre-workout supplements have caffeine in it and that is where a lot of the results are coming from since some of the other active ingredients are under-dosed. Caffeine is cheap and not a lot is required for an effective amount.
Some people like stimulants in their pre-workout and some don’t which is why there are some preworkouts with no caffeine.
Some people get jitters, are highly sensitive to caffeine, or workout late at night and will have trouble sleeping. If this is you then you should skip adding this to your preworkout.
I like the boost that I get from caffeine before my workout. I think caffeine helps my workouts but sometimes I feel like crap afterward so that is the tradeoff, at least for me. It’s up to you if you want to include it your mix.
Caffeine has been shown to increase energy, focus and alertness. It can also delay muscle fatigue and help increase fat burning.
The good thing about caffeine is that is very cheap and delivers good results.
The bad thing is the possible withdrawal symptoms that you get once you get off the stuff. Like other stimulants your body will develop a tolerance for it, so more and more will be necessary to feel the same effects.
Effective Dosage: 50-300mg before your workout. This dosage range is pretty wide because people have different tolerances. If you are unsure about yours, start small and see how your body reacts.
Caffeine can come from a supplement or a simple cup of coffee or tea.
I keep my dose in the 200mg range and don’t go above that. I only take this on workout days and will cycle off of it every so often to bring my tolerance back down to normal.
There are not a ton of studies done with citrulline malate, but the limited amount of studies do show positive results.
Studies from 2002 and 2010 both show that Citrulline malate has been reduce muscle fatigue and speeds up muscle recovery.
L-Citrulline is an amino acid that can be converted to arginine which is a precursor to nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is a vasodilator that allows more blood to enter the muscles. Citrulline may help to increase the nitric oxide in the body.
Citrulline malate is formed when citrulline is mixed with DL-Malate (aka malic acid or malic salt). The malic acid helps to enhance the benefits of the citrulline alone. Citrulline malate is usually sold as 1:1 or 2:1 ratios. The 2:1 ratio has more Citrulline than the 1:1 ratio. since most of the benefits come from the citrulline, 2:1 is more beneficial than a 1:1.
Since citrulline malate aids in helps to decrease muscle fatigue, you will experience the best results if you are doing a moderate to high rep program with little rest.
Most people will not see too much of an effect on their first set but will see a minimal drop off in strength with subsequent sets.
Don’t expect an immediate boost to your one rep max but you should still be able to kick butt with sets 4-8. Over time the increase workload capacity should help your overall strength and muscle gains.
The downside to citrulline malate is the cost. Even if buying in bulk, it can still be pretty pricy compared to other supplements.
Some people experience stomach discomfort when using Citrulline malate.
Dosage: 6-8 grams before your workout. This is a pretty big serving size but this is the dosage that was used in the studies.
Many pre-workouts will skimp on the dosage amount because of the large dosage amount.
Please note that the taste is very sour due to the malate so this may limit your options if you like to add artificial flavoring. Fruity flavoring works best.
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If you’ve ever taken a pre-workout and felt a tingly feeling, it is probably because of the beta alanine.
Some people like the tingling feeling and add it to their pre-workout for that reason. Don’t worry, the tinglling feeling is harmless.
Though it’s a very popular ingredient in pre-workout supplements, it does not need to be taken right before your workout to see it’s effects.
Beta-alanine is converted into carnosine after you ingest it. The carnosine is stored in your muscles and is released when your pH drops. This means as your muscles get more acidic from energy being used, the carnosine is being released to delay your fatigue.
This means more reps and less rest time between sets.
Many studies have confirmed the ability of beta-alanine to increase muscular endurance. (1, 2, 3, 4) It may also have minor effect on reducing fat and increasing muscle.
Dosage: A daily dose of 3-6 grams is a good start. You do not need to take it right before your workout for it to be effective.
It may take a few weeks for you to notice a difference in your workouts with beta-alanine since the carnosine levels need to build up.
If you don’t like the tingling feeling you can split up the doses throughout the day if you want to avoid it.
I saved the best for last. (I did this mainly because, like beta-alanine, it does not necessarily need to be taken right before your workout.)
Creatine has been around for a while and has a lot of research to back up all the claims that are made.
It is well documented that creatine increases strength, muscle size (although a lot of it is due to water retention). There is also evidence that shows that creatine decreases fatigue and may slightly increase testosterone levels along with numerous other benefits.
Creatine is manufactured naturally in the body and increases the efficiency at which it converts ATP (Adenosine triphosphate ) to energy.
There are a lot of “advanced” creatine products out there but there is no real benefit to those over regular old creatine monohydrate. They are a lot more expensive though so don’t waste your money on them.
Creapure is a more concentrated form of creatine monohydrate that is a little more expensive. Over time though you muscles will get saturated anyway so both monohydrate and creapure are fine.
There is some evidence to show that taking creatine around the time of your workout is more effective but it does not seem to make a difference whether it is before or after.
The bad thing about creatine is that some people are non-responders which means they will see no effects at all.
The good thing is that most people will see results and it is cheap so you can see if it works for you. It will take a few weeks to saturate your muscles though so give it time.
Dosage: A daily dosage of 3-5 grams is recommended.
The old school thinking was that you need to do a loading phase where you take 20-30 grams a day for the first week. The other old school view was to cycle on and off of it.
While a loading phase won’t necessarily hurt you, it may get your muscles saturated a little quicker, but there won’t be too much difference after a few weeks anyway.
As far as cycling, it’s not really necessary since your body won’t build up a tolerance to it like with caffeine.
You can load or cycle creatine if you want, but both practices are unnecessary.
You also don’t need to take creatine with sugar or juice. The sugar raises insulin which may help creatine to be absorbed faster, but it’s really not necessary for most people. The extra sugar is probabaly where the “creatine makes you bloated” myth comes from.
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Wrapping it up
There are a few other ingredients like BCAAs, Acetyl L-Carnitine and L-Tyrosine that provide some minor benefits to your workout.
L-Carnitine and L-Tyrosine both help to improve cognitive function and focus. BCAAs have some value if you are working out in a fasted state but can also be found in protein.
You can add them in if you want but I think that Caffeine and Citrulline Malate are the most beneficial. I like to add creatine and beta-alanine to my pre-workout since I like them and I need to take them some time during the day so I just put them in my pre-workout.
My current pre-workout stack has:
5 grams creatine monohydrate
200 mg caffeine
6 grams citrulline malate
2 grams beta-alanine (I add another 2 grams in my post-workout shake)
And that’s it. I don’t put any flavors or anything else. It works pretty well for me even on days when I don’t eat enough food beforehand and my energy sucks.
This adds up to less than $1 per serving when bought in bulk. I challenge you to find a commercial pre-workout with those ingredients in those amounts that costs less per serving.
So what do you use? Are there any other active ingredients you like to add to your pre-workout? I’d love to hear your feedback. Leave a comment below or in the facebook group.
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