ingredients in a good pre workout


A bad pre workout can leave you feeling flatter than a witch’s tit.

That’s a fact.

Unfortunately there are lots more bad ones out there than good ones, so I’ve put together this handy guide to help you steer clear of the duds and uncover the diamonds in the rough.

Of course, I’m notoriously harsh when reviewing pre workout supplements. That’s why companies send me their products (a 3/5 from me is worth more than top marks from some Instagrammer!).

So while I want you to look out for all the the things on my “s**t list” below, you’ll probably find that MOST products do at least one of the things I’ve mentioned. Therefore, I encourage you to give them a fighting chance, two strikes and you’re out!

Let’s begin.

what is a proprietary blend


Back in 2006, proprietary blends were fully acceptable.

When iSatori launched their flagship pre workout (the now legendary H-Blocker) they hid the formula behind a proprietary blend because it was the first pre workout to contain beta-alanine and they didn’t want rival companies to copy it.

The problem is it didn’t work.

(Evidenced by the fact every major pre workout supplement contains beta-alanine!)

Nowadays, though, it’s a strategy only used by companies who are trying to pull a fast one (i.e. sell under-dosed products).

Supplement industry regulations state that manufacturers are legally allowed to withold the dose of the ingredients if they choose. This means your pre workout may contain caffeine, citrulline malate, creatine and a bunch of other highly effective ingredients but you have no idea whether they are dosed properly to give you any of the benefits they offer.

Sounds crazy, but it’s legit.

After almost a decade of reviewing pre workouts for the biggest (and smallest) supplement brands in the world, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that if a company has a strong pre workout they will NOT hide it behind a proprietary blend.

how to tell if a pre workout is good


How do you get 27 grams of ingredients into a 6 gram scoop?

You don’t.

It’s like trying to fit Arnold Schwarzenegger into Charlie Chaplin’s suit.

Concentrated formulas rose to prominence in the mid-2000s when supplement companies figured they could trick YOU the customer into paying more for less. It was bizarre. Pre workouts were becoming absolutely tiny – the smaller the tub, the more “explosive” the company claimed the product to be, and it was a LIE.

The real reason a concentrated formula has a small scoop is because they’ve excluded several key ingredients entirely. This ensures the product is dirt cheap to make – you’ll usually find caffeine, some b-vitamins, and not a lot else!

how to spot a bad pre workout


Okay, this one depends on WHY you’re using a pre workout.

If you’re going to be a well-informed supplement user then you must realize that a good pre workout shouldn’t make you feel like you’re on drugs. It should improve performance, and that’s it!

There are only a few ingredients which have been shown to do this (caffeine, beta-alanine, citrulline malate, creatine monohydrate, betaine), and when people start looking beyond the proven basics it opens the door to all kinds of shenanigans.

Case in point; DMAA.

Everyone goes on about the original Jack3D pre workout being “hardcore”, and this nootropic stimulant was one of the key ingredients.

Unfortunately it was banned in 2013 after it was discovered that DMAA supplementation may lead to serious heart issues. It’s also a vasoconstrictor – meaning it restricts blood flow, which is the exact opposite of what we want duing training!

If you are an athlete you’ll want to stay away from banned substances for obvious reasons, and if you’re a regular gymgoer I’d advise you to stay away from banned substances simply because, well, they’re banned for a f**king reason.

best pre workout ingredients


This one drives me crazy because it’s a schoolboy error, but supplement companies still make it to this very day!

Taurine has some interesting benefits with regard to increased blood flow and mental focus (1, 2), but it is horrible in a pre workout because:

  1. The clinical dose is 2 grams which is higher than you’ll see in 99% of products.
  2. Taurine and caffeine do not mix well together AT ALL.

In 2012, researchers from Tufts University, Medford, discovered that taurine is an antagonist of caffeine, and can actually reverse many of its energy-boosting effects. A year later, a study published in Appetite doubled-down on those findings and confirmed that these two ingredients work much better when kept away from eachother. (3, 4)

Given that caffeine has such MASSIVE benefits to physical performance (more on this later) it makes sense to prioritize it over taurine.

With that in mind, if you’d like to get the benefits of taurine I’d recommend either using it separately or grabbing a whey protein drink which includes it in the formula. Job done.

taurine caffeine bad

bcaas pre workout


Here’s where things get controversial.

Branched chain amino a**holes should NOT be in your pre workout.

There, I said it.

I’m not saying BCAAs are bad for you, I’m just saying they’re completely unnecessary before training.

The BCAAs are leucine, iso-leucine, and valine. These bad boys are often called “the building blocks of muscle” due to the important role they play in helping us to build more muscle tissue. When supplement brands got wind of this in the early 90s, they began hocking cheap-to-make BCAA supplements at everybody with instructions to “sip them all day long for maximum muscle growth”.

What they DIDN’T tell you is that if you’re eating a high protein diet (and you should be, because you’re reading my website so you’re trying to build muscle!) you are likely already getting enough BCAAs via your diet and don’t even need a dedicated BCAA supplement – and another key piece of information they left out is that BCAAs are f**king awful when used immediately 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 cause early CNS fatigue and leave you feeling sluggish. (5, 6)

pre workout supplements


There are a few substances which can DRAMATICALLY improve our performance when taken immediately before training.

They include:

  • 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.

  • Beta-alanine

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).

  • Betaine

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

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.

best pre workout supplements list

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.

Online Workouts Programs


  1. Kim S., et al. Taurine Induces Anti-Anxiety by Activating Strychnine-Sensitive Glycine Receptor in Vivo. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism (2009).
  2. Moloney M. A., et al. Two weeks taurine supplementation reverses endothelial dysfunction in young male type 1 diabetics. Diab Vasc Dis Res (2010).
  3. Giles G. E., et al. Differential cognitive effects of energy drink ingredients: caffeine, taurine, and glucose. Pharmacol Biochem Behav (2012).
  4. Peacock A., et al. Energy drink ingredients. Contribution of caffeine and taurine to performance outcomes. Appetite (2013).
  5. Walker D.K., et al. Exercise, amino acids, and aging in the control of human muscle protein synthesis. Med Sci Sports Exerc (2011).
  6. 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).
  7. Pérez-Guisado J., et al. Citrulline malate enhances athletic anaerobic performance and relieves muscle soreness. J Strength Cond Res (2010).
  8. Alvares T. S., et al. Acute l-arginine supplementation increases muscle blood volume but not strength performance. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab (2012).
  9. Hoffman J., et al. Beta-alanine and the hormonal response to exercise. Int J Sports Med (2008).
  10. Hoffman, J.R., et al. Effect of betaine supplementation on power performance and fatigue. J Int Soc Sports Nutr (2009).
  11. Lee E. C., et al. Ergogenic effects of betaine supplementation on strength and power performance. J Int Soc Sports Nutr (2010).
  12. 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).
  13. Pryor, J. L., et al. Effect of betaine supplementation on cycling sprint performance. J Int Soc Sports Nutr (2012).
  14. Duncan M. J., et al. The effect of caffeine ingestion on mood state and bench press performance to failure. J Strength Cond Res (2011).
  15. Childs E., et al. Subjective, behavioral, and physiological effects of acute caffeine in light, nondependent caffeine users. Psychopharmacology (2006).
  16. Kim T. W., et al. Caffeine increases sweating sensitivity via changes in sudomotor activity during physical loading. J Med Food (2011).
  17. Cook C., et al. Acute caffeine ingestion increases voluntarily chosen resistance training load following limited sleep. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab (2012).
  18. 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).
  19. Mora-Rodríguez R., et al. Caffeine ingestion reverses the circadian rhythm effects on neuromuscular performance in highly resistance-trained men. PLoS One (2012).

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