A great pre workout should resemble Appetite For Destruction.
If you’ve ever listened to Guns N’ Roses’ debut album, you’ll know precisely what I mean.
All killer. No filler.
It was lightning in a bottle.
Heck, it still is.
Sadly, the pre workout market is filled with below-par supplements that fall well short of the grade. And most people don’t know how to tell a good pre workout from a bad one.
Let’s put this into context. Have you ever bought a pre workout that your friend claimed was “awesome!”, only to find that it did nothing for you?
Tell me about it…
Feeling underwhelmed by a pre is as soul-destroying as listening to actors talk politics.
Another commonly experienced problem is adaptation. Our body is a wonderful machine, so one scoop of something initially blowing your head off soon turns into four scoops and a shot of adrenaline in a bid to recapture the glory days.
Today I’m going to show you how to eliminate both problems.
My clients have been making their own pre workouts for years. It’s something I’ve done since 2010. And now, for the first time, I’m going to show you how to make your own pre workout.
Why Most Pre Workouts Suck
The vast majority of pre workouts are under-dosed in key ingredients.
The real problem here is that most people do not know what to look for when buying, so supplement manufacturers continue to push out awful products because they know they’ll sell.
Some companies will just blatantly under-dose key ingredients because they know they can get away with it as long as the hype on the front of the product is good enough.
So we get bright tubs with big slogans about “an avalanche of muscle gains!” or “unleashing the beast!”
Others will hide their formula behind a proprietary blend, meaning they will tell you which ingredients are in the product but won’t disclose any of the dosages (sadly, under FDA rules this is allowed to happen). They’ll claim that this is to “protect their formula from rival companies looking to rip off their product” but it’s not.
It’s because they know they’ve under-dosed key ingredients, and they don’t want you to know.
How TO Make Your Own Pre Workout Supplement
The sooner these “loopholes” in the supplement industry are outlawed, the better. But the bodybuilding industry as a whole went unregulated for so long, it’s not going to go away anytime soon.
So a quicker solution is to become an educated supplement user.
I’ve found that there are two kinds of people who buy pre workouts and other bodybuilding supplements:
1. Those who read the front of the packaging.
2. Those who read the back of the packaging.
I encourage you to join the second group.
I used to be a person who read the front of the pack. As such, a cool image of some florescent bodybuilder with arms the size of legs, and a slogan about “skin-splitting pumps!”, hey, I was sold.
So much money wasted…
I’d skip from product-to-product every other month, trying to find one that actually worked like it said it would.
Eventually, I took the time to learn about the ingredients inside the tub. I encourage you to do the same thing – become a consumer who knows how to read the back of the pack!
I can’t teach you how to make your own pre workout supplement without teaching you about the key ingredients and what each of them do. So that’s what we’ll be doing in this section right here.
Supplement companies like to throw in unnecessary ingredients in a bid to stand out (i.e. some fancy herb which came from the summit of Mount Everest which promises to burn fat like a motherf**ker) but when we get down to the real nitty gritty, the proven essentials that will genuinely boost your performance when lifting weights, your ingredients should look quite simple and straightforward.
I call this little cocktail “Appetite For Destruction”.
(You know why.)
Ingredient 1 – 200mg Caffeine
Most people are already consuming caffeine on a daily basis in the form of coffee or (yuk!) energy drinks.
And most people are aware that caffeine is an energy booster.
As such, it’s often the primary ingredient in pre workout supplements.
It’s been shown to increase everything from focus, to energy levels, to calorie burn (although that last one is often over-hyped, leading to it’s false reputation as a “fat burner”). (1, 2, 3)
It has also been associated with increased strength output, but this requires a very high dosage of around 400mg. (4, 5, 6)
Interestingly, a 2012 meta-analysis published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal concluded anything less than 2.1mg per lb of body weight isn’t sufficient enough to provide any training benefits. For a 175lb person, that’s 168mg or below. (7)
So there’s another reason to put those God-awful Monster and Rockstar energy drinks down…
Of course, a top-end serving size of 400mg is enough to tranquilize a rhino and would be far too much for most people to consume. This is why most pre workout supplements hover between 150-300mg.
But while the strength output benefits are hidden in the upper ranges to caffeine dosage, the energy boosting qualities can be obtained with smaller dosages and this depends largely on the individual’s tolerance levels (meaning a complete newbie won’t require as much as a hardened coffee drinker). (8)
But you now have some baseline figures to work with, and that helps you spot a genuinely powerful caffeine-based pre workout in future.
I recommend starting at 200mg and increasing the dosage when necessary.
Ingredient 2 – 6g Citrulline Malate
Citrulline malate is the real powerhouse in your pre workout.
So much so, it’s the first ingredient I tell my clients to look for when checking out a new product.
You can go read my article Citrulline Explained for a complete breakdown of what this mighty amino acid is capable of, but for this post let’s just stick to the surface level benefits (i.e. the ones you actually care about).
A 2010 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research concluded that supplementing with citrulline malate boosts weight training performance by as much as 1 rep every single set. (9)
Imagine being able to perform an extra rep on every single set you do from now on.
When put into context, this is potentially amazing, right?
Well, that’s not all.
Using citrulline will also improve your recovery between sets, as well as providing you with a great pump. (10)
It does this by using nitric oxide pathways to widen your blood vessels, allowing for greater blood flow and increased delivery of key nutrients during exercise.
Back in the early 2000’s, nitric oxide pre workouts (“N.O. Boosters”) were all the rage, and this was typically done via arginine. Citrulline is converted into arginine inside the body, but has an absorption rate over 50% greater, so it makes sense to opt for citrulline. (11)
Ingredient 3 – 2g Beta-Alanine
If you’ve used a pre workout before, then you’ll be familiar with the effects of beta-alanine.
It causes the tingly, skin-crawling effect most people experience when trying a new pre.
This is called paresthesia, and it curses beta-alanine with something I call “The Europe Effect”.
When I was growing up, Europe were a rock band known only for their seminal hit “The Final Countdown”. Couldn’t escape it. But once you got beyond that track, they actually have some pretty cool numbers in their back catalogue.
Once you move past the tingles of beta-alanine, it does much the same thing by offering us some rather interesting training benefits that most people are unaware of.
The main feature of those benefits being it’s ability to act as a buffer against lactic acid build-up.
A 2008 study concluded that using beta-alanine can increase the number of repetitions per set by as much as 25%, which is no mean feat! Further research then tested the effects of beta-alanine with a group of boxers, and saw improvements of almost 2000% (not a typo) regarding their ability to throw power punches in the closing stages of a round. (12, 13)
A full clinical dosage of beta-alanine is 3.2g, but most pre workouts come in at around 1.6-2g.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, as new research suggests that consuming your 3.2g beta-alanine across two servings may actually lead to slightly greater absorption (and is a bit easier to handle than a full 3.2g serving of “TingleMania”). (14)
Training benefits are maxed out at 3.2g per day so there is no need to go any higher.
We all have that one pal who is a beta-alanine fiend, though, double-scooping his pre in a desperate bid to re-experience those tingles. This is both unnecessary and dangerous.
Unnecessary because the tingles are not the real benefit of beta-alanine and your body will adapt to it over time, and dangerous because double-scooping a standard pre also means a double serving of every other ingredient in the tub (unless you enjoy caffeine headaches).
Ingredient 4 – 2.5g Betaine
Betaine (science name: trimethylglycine) is a greatly under-used pre workout ingredient.
However, it’s usefulness is catching on.
It is converted into nitric oxide once inside the body, opening up those all-important N.O. pathways which help us to train harder for longer.
A useful study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology back in 2013 showed that betaine supplementation significantly boosts sprint performance, and that’s what kick-started it’s rise up the supplement ranks. (15)
This research tied in with earlier findings showing that betaine could prolong time to perceived exhaustion during exercise by a whopping 15%. (16)
Several other studies have also concluded that it can boost cycling performance, enhance recovery between sets, endurance, and even explosive strength. (17, 18, 19, 20)
If you perform high intensity interval training, sprint training or lift weights on a regular basis then there are clear training advantages to be had here.
That’s it. Only 4 ingredients.
Sound a bit too simple, right?
Well, these 4 ingredients are the MVP’s in your pre workout. They take center stage. And they are responsible for almost all of the effects you are feeling while you train.
Like I said in the intro, if you cut your pre workout to just the essentials (i.e. the stuff with actual research showing performance benefits), the ingredient list is much shorter and sweeter than the nonsense most supplement companies put out because most of it is purely “for show”, in a bid to make their product different than their competitors.
But there are a few big players missing here that you may be wondering about.
Let’s cover them now and I’ll explain why they’re not here.
First up, no BCAA’s.
Don’t get me wrong, BCAA’s (well, leucine in particular) are great for building muscle. But there’s a time and a place for them, and that time is not in a pre workout. (21)
Taking leucine pre workout can inhibit dopamine production, leading to quicker-than-normal CNS (central nervous system) fatigue. (22)
Secondly, there’s no arginine.
Yes, despite the fact that it’s no longer 2004, most supplement companies still throw arginine into their formula and claim it’ll increase your performance.
I’ve already explained that using citrulline malate is a superior method of supplementing with arginine, so that’s why it doesn’t feature.
Taurine is a firm favourite of the pre workout (and energy drink) industry.
It’s pretty hard to find a pre which doesn’t contain it.
That’s because it can boost mental focus and blood flow while training. (23, 24)
Which sounds great!
But these benefits come with a heavy price, because taurine is an antagonist of caffeine.
When we take both ingredients together, taurine opposes some of caffeine’s effects and increases the likelihood of a) headaches, and b) decreased training performance. (25)
The potential benefits of caffeine far outweigh those of taurine, so it makes sense to opt for caffeine.
- Agmatine Sulfate
A lot of supplement companies have started adding agmatine sulfate into their formula, given it’s billing as a nitric oxide booster.
But there is zero scientific evidence to support this billing.
In fact, there are studies which show it does the opposite! (26, 27)
The researchers behind a 2014 study on agmatine concluded:
“That agmatine is touted for bodybuilding, is completely unsubstantiated and is backed by outright false claims.”
- Exotic Stimulants
Exotic stimulants can be great.
DMHA and rhodiola rosea, in particular, are growing in popularity thanks to their ability to reduce fatigue and boost mood. (28, 29)
But if you want a pre workout containing exotic stimulants, I highly recommend just buying one (like this) because it’s dangerous to self-dose and get it wrong.
They also have a habit of getting banned.
If you are an athlete of any kind, experimenting with ingredients which might make it onto a USADA watch list is playing with fire.
This is mainly because there is a significant lack of research (for now) surrounding the safety and long-term side effects of many exotic stimulants that are currently popular in the marketplace. For example, the body of research surrounding the current “king” of DMHA supplementation, eria jarensis, consists of one mention in a 1969 study. (30)
Literally no other research exists.
I’ve used supplements containing eria jarensis and other stimulants, and they can work a treat, but I’m not going to tell people to use them in a way that could be dangerous. Until more significant research is done, we have to treat exotic stims with caution – after all, remember dendrobium extract?
This stimulant was used in popular pre workout Craze back in the 2000’s, only for it to later be discovered that it was actually spiked with a methamphetamine analogue. (31)
So, yeah, play it safe with exotic stimulants.
They’re not excluded because they’re bad, but rather because they’re potentially dangerous.
Is It Cheaper To Make Your Own Pre Workout?
Let’s break things down…
In each serving of our little D.I.Y. pre workout we get:
- 200mg caffeine
- 6g citrulline malate
- 2g beta-alanine
- 2.5g betaine
When I pick up each individual ingredient online from the best sources, the costs are as follows:
- Caffeine: £4.99 for 100 capsules (for 100 servings)
- Citrulline malate: £28.99 for 500g (for 83 servings)
- Beta-alanine: £22.49 for 500g (for 250 servings)
- Betaine: £17.99 for 500g (for 200 servings)
I also recommend throwing in some flavouring to give it a bit of taste, which will cost around £4.99.
That gives us a total of £79.45.
If you are training 4x per week, this formula lasts a minimum of 6 months. At that point, the only ingredient you’d need to replace is citrulline.
A poor pre workout which relies too heavily on caffeine and under-doses other key ingredients usually costs around £15 for a month’s supply, which means you’d be paying £90 over six months – for a product which isn’t even comparable to the one I’ve just built!
If we take a look the very top end of the fitness industry and compare this against products which will give us a full clinical dose of most of the key ingredients you see above, let’s see what we get.
- Pre Jym
The current top dog (sales wise, at least) in the pre workout market is Pre Jym.
The main drawbacks to Pre Jym are under-dosed betaine, and the inclusion of taurine and BCAA’s. Outside of that, it gives you full clinical dosages of most key ingredients: 300mg caffeine, 6g citrulline malate, 2g beta-alanine.
This comes at a cost of £40 for 30 servings. If we wanted to get six months out of Pre Jym, we’d be looking at around four tubs, or £160.
- RedCon1 Total War
One of my favourite pre workouts at the moment (and the one to go for if you’re looking for exotic stimulants) is RedCon1 Total War.
With the drawback of zero betaine, the inclusion of agmatine sulfate and once again taurine, it gives you a full clinical dosage of the other key ingredients: 350mg caffeine (yikes), 6g citrulline malate, 3.2g beta-alanine.
The cost here is £35 for 30 servings, so again we’d need four tubs if we were training 4x per week for six months, costing £140.
- Gaspari Nutrition SuperPump Max
The two listed above are examples of fine pre workouts. The real “cream of the crop”, so to speak.
But now let’s look at a more typical pre, which will still cost a fair whack but doesn’t do a fantastic job.
Despite being hugely popular, this is one of the worst dosed pre workouts around.
SuperPump Max carries a proprietary blend, which hides the key dosages of most of the main ingredients. Immediate red flag. We know it includes taurine, no betaine, no beta-alanine, and we know that citrulline comes in at only 2g (nowhere near enough to see training benefits), and that it includes BCAA’s.
Apart from that, we don’t even know what the f**k we’re getting.
For a six month supply, we’d need to buy 3 tubs, costing us £90.
(Although, on their sales page the company recommend doubling the serving size – which would still leave us short of a clinical dose – which would also double the cost to £180).
There are a couple of major benefits to learning how to make your own pre workout.
Firstly, it’s cheaper.
As you can see above, once you have picked up the bare essentials you’re good to go.
It also cuts out all the clutter – no unproven or unnecessary ingredients. Just the stuff that’s been shown to work time and time again.
Finally, you’re in control of the dosage of each ingredient.
That means no more trying to find a stronger pre workout every couple of weeks because you’ve adapted to the caffeine level in your last one.
Simply add a bit more caffeine.
But hopefully you’ve picked up more than just how to make your own pre workout in today’s post. Maybe, just maybe, you’ve learned some key information about how shady the supplement industry is (in general) and feel more confident in knowing what each of the major pre workout ingredients is responsible for, and what kind of dosages you need in order to experience those potential benefits.
If so, job done.
Enjoyed this post? Drop a big steaming ‘like’ on it below.
Now get creating!
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