Russ Howe PTI's Dropset City

How To Spot A Bad Pre Workout

A bad pre workout can leave you feeling flatter than a witch’s tit, and unfortunately there are lots of them. Use this list to learn how to spot a bad pre workout before you buy it.

how to spot a bad preworkout

This article:

9 min read

Despite its primary job being to enhance your performance in the gym, a poor-grade pre workout supplement can leave you feeling flatter than a witch’s tit.

Perhaps even more unfortunate is that 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.

Don’t worry if your chosen pre-workout ticks a box on my “s**t list”, but my rule is two mistakes and you’re out.

Let’s begin!

what is a proprietary blend

🚩 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.

how to tell if a pre workout is good

🚩 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).

how to spot a bad pre workout

🚩 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.

best pre workout ingredients

🚩 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!).

taurine caffeine bad

bcaas pre workout

🚩 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)

pre workout supplements

🚩 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!

They are:

  • 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.

Who Is Russ Howe PTI?

russ howe pti

Featured in Men’s Fitness magazine and voted in the world’s top 50 fat loss coaches by HuffPost, Russ is among the UK’s most subscribed personal trainers with 104,357 people getting his free weekly fitness tips e-mail.

In the gym, clients range from busy parents, to models, to athletes and actresses. Russ also worked alongside the UK government for 8 years in a venture combating childhood obesity in England.

Outside of the gym, he’s a proud Dad to three young boys.

You can get more tips by joining the e-mail newsletter above, and you can instantly access full workout plans by hitting the button below!



  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. PΓ©rez-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-RodrΓ­guez R., et al. Caffeine ingestion reverses the circadian rhythm effects on neuromuscular performance in highly resistance-trained men. PLoS One (2012).
  20. Hedman K. Studies on Orchidaceae Alkaloids. XV. Phenethylamines from Eria jarensis Ames. Department of Organic Chemistry, University of Stockholm (1969).

2 responses to “How To Spot A Bad Pre Workout”

  1. Excellent article Russ. My old ‘go to’ Pre Jym made the BCAAS and TAURINE mistakes, so now I will be on the lookout for a new one.

    • The rest of the formula is solid, but yes those 2 things are what peaked it at #4 on my list of top pre workouts (search; The Russ List).

      Highly recommend AML Pre Workout if looking for a product which doesn’t hit any red flags.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

russ howe pti programs

Grab a membership to have access to all training programs, diet plans, supplement research and the famous Daily Trainer workouts from Russ!

Click here to see more.

russ howe pti musclefood live clean

I’ve partnered with Musclefood to make meal prep easier than ever. Tell ’em your calorie goal and they’ll send your entire diet to your door. Bosh!

Click here to see more.

  • How To Get In Photoshoot Shape In 2 Months

    In this article I’m going to give you a quick and easy nutrition plan you can use to whip yourself into photoshoot shape in just 8 short weeks.

    Click Here To Read

  • The Rules To Ripped

    These ten tips will help you to lay the foundations of a rock solid body transformation. I call them “The Rules To Ripped”.

    Click Here To Read


    What is the best pre workout of 2020? Don’t waste your money – it’s time for The Russ List 2020, my yearly breakdown of the best pre workout supplements!

    Click Here To Read

  • How To Make Your Own Pre Workout Supplement

    Want to learn how to make your own pre workout from scratch? This guide teaches you the four ingredients you’ll need.

    Click Here To Read

  • How To Use Periodization For Better Results

    Proper periodization is the difference between a good workout program and a great workout program.

    Click Here To Read

  • How Much Volume Do You Need For Muscle Growth?

    Explode your results by hitting each muscle group with the correct amount of volume to grow.

    Click Here To Read

  • Did You Spot These 4 Easter Eggs?

    There are several little Easter eggs built into which most readers never notice.

    Click Here To Read

  • Why Arnold Is Still The Best Bodybuilder

    Many people are hailing Chris Bumstead as the greatest bodybuilder of all time. Here’s my take on why Arnold is still #1.

    Click Here To Read

  • Creatine Myths Busted!

    There are many myths surrounding creatine and it’s potential side effects. This article addresses them one by one.

    Click Here To Read

  • Eating Fat Won’t Make You Fat

    Fat was demonized in the 1980s and is still misunderstood today. Here’s the science on optimizing your fat intake for results.

    Click Here To Read

  • Eat More Protein For Muscle Growth

    How much protein should you eat per day to build muscle? More than most people do. Here’s the lowdown on protein requirements for athletes.

    Click Here To Read

  • Omega-3: Behold The Alpha Omegas!

    Omega-3 supplements are an afterthought for most people, but more fool them!

    Click Here To Read