A bad pre workout can leave you feeling flatter than a witch’s tit.
That’s a fact.
Unfortunately the bad ones greatly outnumber the good ones, so I’ve put together this handy guide to help you steer clear of wasting your cash by highlighting exactly what to look for.
You’ll probably find that almost all pre workouts check at least one box on my “s**t list”, so I encourage you to give them a fighting chance – my rule of thumb is two mistakes and you’re out.
🚩 Proprietary Blend
Proprietary blends were fully acceptable back in the mid-2000s, but those days are gone.
When iSatori launched their flagship pre workout (the now legendary H-Blocker) they decided to hide the formula because they didn’t want competitors to steal it – and they had good reason, because it was the first ever pre workout to contain beta-alanine. They slapped a proprietary blend on it to protect their interests.
The problem is it didn’t work.
(Evidenced by the fact every major pre workout now contains beta-alanine!)
Fast forward to today, proprietary blends are only used by companies who are trying to sell poorly formulated pre workouts.
You see, current supplement industry regulations state that manufacturers are legally allowed to withold the dosage of the ingredients from the nutrition label if they so choose. This means you could buy a pre workout which contains all the right ingredients (caffeine, citrulline malate, creatine, etc) but you’ll have no idea if they are properly dosed to produce maximum results.
Sounds crazy, but it’s legit.
So heed my warning: I’ve become quite well known for breaking down pre workout formulas over the last 10 years, and I can say without a shadow of a doubt that if a manufacturer has a strong formula they will never hide it behind a bulls**t proprietary blend. Instead, they will boast about it and show it off.
🚩 Concentrated Formula
How do you get 27 grams of ingredients into a 6 gram scoop?
The simple answer is you don’t.
It would be like trying to squeeze Arnold Schwarzenegger into Robert Pattinson’s suit.
But the early 2000s were a weird time, so we saw concentrated formulas become all the rage. Supplement manufacuteres believed they had struck gold because they were able to trick customers into paying more money for less product, it was bizarre! Pre workout tubs became absolutely tiny (with even tinier scoops!) and all of the big brands were in on the act.
The sad truth is the real reason those tubs were so small is because the only ingredients they provided were caffeine and b vitamins (which is dirt cheap to make).
🚩 Banned Substances
I love exotic stimulants but we simply don’t have enough research on them to dump them in a pre workout.
Eria Jarensis is a classic example.
When it first hit the market back in 2015 it was immediately hyped as “the next big thing”… but do you know how many studies we have which document its safety for human consumption?
One! Oh, and it dates back to 1969. (20)
Exotic stimulants are a gateway to the dark side of the supplement world, where manufacturers happily throw caution to the wind and hope their ingredient doesn’t kill anyone.
Case in point; DMAA.
If you’re an avid gymgoer then I guarantee you know someone who fondly remembers the original Jack3D pre workout from the early 2000s and waxes lyrical about how “hardcore” it was. DMAA was the key ingredient, and it was banned in 2013 after further studies showed it greatly increases the risk of a serious heart attack. It’s also a vasoconstrictor, meaning it restricts blood flow – which is the opposite of what we want during exercise!
Pre workouts which heavily use exotic stimulants are not only potentially dangeous, but they also throw you into a grey area if you compete in a sport. Remember the case where Usain Bolt and the Jamaican sprint team were stripped of their Olympic gold medals? That was DMAA.
🚩 Taurine & Caffeine
You’ll see this mistake in 70% of pre workouts.
Taurine is often included in pre workout supplements and energy drinks because it has some interesting benefits for increased blood flow and mental focus. (1, 2)
But here’s the thing:
It’s absolutely terrible in a pre workout!
Firstly because a full clinical dose to unlock those benefits is 2 grams, which is much higher than you’ll get in a pre. And secondly because it clashes horribly with caffeine. Researchers from Tufts University, Medford, confirm that taurine is an “antagonist” of caffeine which can stop it from doing its job. These findings were re-confirmed one year later in a new study published in Appetite. (3, 4)
Given that caffeine offers much more potential as a pre workout ingredient, it makes sense to prioritize it over taurine, so I’d suggest either using taurine separately or just grabbing a whey protein supplement which includes it (they exist!).
🚩 Motherf**king BCAAs
BCAAs should not be in your pre workout.
There, I said it.
BCAA supplements are pretty much useless provided you eat enough protein per day, so I’m not their biggest fan to start with – but they become downright counterproductive when taken before training!
Research from the University of Texas, Galveston, showed that taking BCAAs immediately before exercise (leucine in particular) can inhibit dopamine production by preventing tyrosine from reaching the brain. This is bad because it can lead to early CNS fatigue and make you feel sluggish in the gym. (5, 6)
🚩 Ignoring The Basics
Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel with fancy new formulas offering untested ingredients, the best pre workouts stick to the proven fundamentals.
You see, there are only a few ingredients which have significant research to support them. If your pre workout provides those ingredients in a full clinical dose then you can expect maximum results!
- Citrulline Malate
CitMal can improve the number of reps you achieve before failure, speed up your recovery between sets, and even give you a better pump! It is one of the most important ingredients in a pre workout aimed at building muscle and it should be a top priority when scoping a new pre workout. (7, 8)
Clinical dose: 6-10 grams.
It’s probably best known for the itchy, tingly sensastion it causes when you first start using it, but beta-alanine also has some interesting training benefits. An interesting 2008 study from the College of New Jersey found that trainees using it alongside a heavy squat program saw a remarkable 22% increase in the number of reps they could perform to failure. (9)
Clinical dose: 3.2 grams (can be broken into two separate doses as well).
Track athletes have been using betaine for decades to improve endurance and explosive strength. Betaine is unlike most other pre workout ingredients in that the body doesn’t need continued usage before showing results. In fact, a study published in 2012 showed that trainees performing sprint-based cycling workouts improved their training output by 5% after just one week of usage. (10, 11, 12, 13)
Clinical dose: 2.5 grams (can be broken into two separate doses as well).
Caffeine is the most well-researched supplement in history. We have more than 50 years of academic studies showing what it can do for mental focus, energy, calorie burn, and even power output. (14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19)
Clinical dose: 200-400mg.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this research-backed article on things to watch out for in a pre workout supplement. I’ll add to this should any further research suggest changes are made, so it’ll remain up to date with current sports science.
Here’s a handy list of my ‘go to’ pre workout supplements, these bad boys get almost everything dead on.
- Kim S., et al. Taurine Induces Anti-Anxiety by Activating Strychnine-Sensitive Glycine Receptor in Vivo. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism (2009).
- Moloney M. A., et al. Two weeks taurine supplementation reverses endothelial dysfunction in young male type 1 diabetics. Diab Vasc Dis Res (2010).
- Giles G. E., et al. Differential cognitive effects of energy drink ingredients: caffeine, taurine, and glucose. Pharmacol Biochem Behav (2012).
- Peacock A., et al. Energy drink ingredients. Contribution of caffeine and taurine to performance outcomes. Appetite (2013).
- Walker D.K., et al. Exercise, amino acids, and aging in the control of human muscle protein synthesis. Med Sci Sports Exerc (2011).
- Choi S., et al. Oral branched-chain amino acid supplements that reduce brain serotonin during exercise in rats also lower brain catecholamines. Amino Acids (2013).
- Pérez-Guisado J., et al. Citrulline malate enhances athletic anaerobic performance and relieves muscle soreness. J Strength Cond Res (2010).
- Alvares T. S., et al. Acute l-arginine supplementation increases muscle blood volume but not strength performance. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab (2012).
- Hoffman J., et al. Beta-alanine and the hormonal response to exercise. Int J Sports Med (2008).
- Hoffman, J.R., et al. Effect of betaine supplementation on power performance and fatigue. J Int Soc Sports Nutr (2009).
- Lee E. C., et al. Ergogenic effects of betaine supplementation on strength and power performance. J Int Soc Sports Nutr (2010).
- Holewa J., et al. Effects of betaine on body composition, performance, and homocysteine thiolactone. Department of Kinesiology, Recreation, and Sport Studies, Coastal Carolina University (2013).
- Pryor, J. L., et al. Effect of betaine supplementation on cycling sprint performance. J Int Soc Sports Nutr (2012).
- Duncan M. J., et al. The effect of caffeine ingestion on mood state and bench press performance to failure. J Strength Cond Res (2011).
- Childs E., et al. Subjective, behavioral, and physiological effects of acute caffeine in light, nondependent caffeine users. Psychopharmacology (2006).
- Kim T. W., et al. Caffeine increases sweating sensitivity via changes in sudomotor activity during physical loading. J Med Food (2011).
- Cook C., et al. Acute caffeine ingestion increases voluntarily chosen resistance training load following limited sleep. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab (2012).
- Del Coso J., et al. Dose response effects of a caffeine-containing energy drink on muscle performance: a repeated measures design. J Int Soc Sports Nutr (2012).
- Mora-Rodríguez R., et al. Caffeine ingestion reverses the circadian rhythm effects on neuromuscular performance in highly resistance-trained men. PLoS One (2012).
- Hedman K. Studies on Orchidaceae Alkaloids. XV. Phenethylamines from Eria jarensis Ames. Department of Organic Chemistry, University of Stockholm (1969).