How many boxes does your pre workout tick?


Written by Russ Howe PTI, and most recently updated 1 day ago.

17 min read

Do you want to know if your pre workout is as good as it claims?

Is it really worthy of having pictures of flaming biceps and high speed jets on the tub?

Of course you do!

And now it’s super easy – run it through my Great Pre Workout Checklist…

This article will show you EXACTLY what your pre workout should contain in order to be considered a true game-changer/market leader.

how to tell the difference between a good and bad pre workout

Why We Use The Checklist

Here’s the thing…

The bodybuilding/fitness supplement industry is full of s**t.

Lots of companies use bright ads and misleading slogans to sell poor under-dosed products, and these companies hate when I do this type of thing.

But companies who create fantastic products don’t hate it.

In fact, they love it.

Because the truth is the hype and misleading BS actually works, and those good products often go undiscovered by the public because they get buried under all the s**t.

Example; When I ran a poll on my Twitter page asking people to tell me their favorite pre workout, about 75% of the answers contained under-dosed formulas.

The truth is the majority of us don’t know how to tell the difference between a good pre workout and a bad pre workout.

So today I’m going to break it all down for you…

Use the list next time you buy a pre workout and you can’t go wrong. Make it even more fun by grabbing your current pre workout and seeing how it fares…

The Great Pre Workout Checklist

  • No proprietary blends
  • No exotic stimulants
  • At least 6 grams of citrulline malate
  • At least 200mg caffeine
  • At least 2g beta-alanine
  • At least 2.5g betaine
  • No BCAAs
  • No niacin
  • No taurine
  • No concentrated formulas

That’s it. There are only 10 things.

If your pre workout manages to do all ten, consider it a muscle building masterpiece and let the company know about it.

Those products are rare, and I give them a massive thumbs up.

Let’s go through each item on the list in some more detail, so you can see why I give these recommendations…

what is a proprietary blend

1. No Proprietary Blends

Allow me to explain how this works via a harrowing experience from my childhood.

I went to watch a movie called Executive Decision, with Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal.

The poster had it all; angry action movie stars, airplanes, explosions, killer slogans…

(Beware: all the spoilers are coming!)

Then Seagal got smashed in the first third of the movie and I wanted to eat my own arm off.

And that’s proprietary blends.

See, as explained in this post, a proprietary blend means a supplement company can disclose which ingredients are in the product without telling us how much.

So just like Time Warner tricked Uncle Russ into believing he would be watching Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal face off, your supplement company can fool you into believing you’re getting all the right ingredients without telling you how much of each is actually in there.

And just like that movie poster, they can lie their butt off on the tub.

Because including an ingredient in the product is enough for them to legally make big claims associated with that ingredient (i.e. more energy, better pumps, etc) even though the product may contain insufficient amounts to produce any results at all.

If a company uses a proprietary blend, consider it an instant red flag.

2. No Exotic Stimulants

I actually like exotic stimulants.

But that doesn’t make it right.

I mean, I actually like white socks.

So my reason for including exotic stimulants from pre workouts is not from the standpoint of “they don’t work”, but rather that they throw your product into a grey area in regards to its legality.

If you compete in a sport, this can make or break your career.

There have been some great exotic stimulants in the past (eria jarensis) and will probably be more in the future, but we do not have enough research to document their safety for human consumption, so they instantly raise a red flag.

Thankfully, more and more supplement manufacturers are realizing that while including these ingredients may give their product a reputation as being “more hardcore”, it also greatly limits their potential audience, so they’re moving away from adding exotic stimulants into the mix.

best pre workout ingredients

3. At Least 6 Grams Of Citrulline Malate

Citrulline malate is the unsung hero of your pre workout supplement.

I recently compiled an article which goes in depth on all the training benefits of citrulline, but the crux of the matter here is you’ll experience better training endurance, faster recovery between each set, and a pump so big your arms might fall off. (1, 2)

The problem is we need a lot of it to get these effects, and it’s expensive.

Six grams is the clinical dose for CitMal, and up to 8 grams has been shown to be even more effective, so this encourages supplement companies to cut costs by under-dosing it then try to mask it with poor substitutes like arginine.

Do not buy a pre workout which chooses arginine over citrulline.

Essentially they do the same thing, but one is just much better at it than the other.

(Perhaps this could be another Kurt Russell – Steven Seagal reference?!)

Once citrulline is inside your body it actually becomes arginine. But the difference between the two is that citrulline has a much higher absorption rate – meaning more of it reaches the muscle cells, and less of it gets destroyed by the liver and intestines.

A study from a few years back actually showed that as little as 1% of a typical dose of arginine makes it to the muscle cells. (3)

One percent!

Citrulline, meanwhile, typically gets 80% of your serving all the way to your muscle cells. (4)

So, in a weird way, citrulline is a better way of supplementing with arginine than arginine itself.

It’s important to know this information because there are still some big players in the supplement game who try to pull this trick. For instance, BSN No-Xplode 3.0 uses 6 grams of arginine yet no citrulline…

Look for a pre workout which provides 6-8 grams of citrulline malate in each serving.

how to tell the difference between a good pre workout and a bad one

4. At Least 200mg Caffeine

Caffeine is the king of energy boosters.

Even after all these years, and all the research we’d done, nothing can defeat it.

TeaCrine looks promising, but for now at least, the big “C” is still on top.

And right so. It has the capacity to improve energy, mental focus, and even calorie burn. (5, 6, 7)

That energy boost comes from caffeine’s ability to block adenosine receptors in the brain (which make us sleepy) and increase dopamine production. (8)

And here’s something you might not know…

Although well-known for its energy-boosting assets, caffeine can also be used to improve explosive strength output during weight training..

But for that, we’d need a higher dose of around 400mg. (9, 10, 11)

If you’re caffeine naive then 400mg will likely see your head explode faster than a henchman in The Expendables, so opt for a product which gives you at least 200mg.

That way, you’ll get all of the energy-enhancing effects, and can work your way up to the stronger stuff when adaptation occurs.

In terms of performance benefits, you’ll never ever need to go higher than 400mg (useful info to know, when a lot of people just seem to think “more is better”).

what ingredients should be in a pre workout

5. At Least 2g Beta-Alanine

The tingles. Skin-crawling. Fire ants.

Whatever you wanna call it, you’ve probably experienced parasthesia before, and it’s likely due to it being the main side effect of beta-alanine.

But somewhere along the way, we got lost.

Supplements became about emphasizing that side effect, and the actual value of the ingredient was forgotten…

This is dangerous territory because it allows supplement companies to under-dose or even remove beta-alanine and throw in cheap substitutes like niacin in its place This will create a very similar tingly effect, but without any of the other benefits it provides.

So make no mistake about it, beta-alanine is a game-changer ingredient in you pre workout.

Researchers from Manchester University, UK, showed that boxers improved their punching power by an astonishing 2000% (no typo) thanks to continued beta-alanine supplementatin, so it’s definitely not something to forego. (12)

And when we take it into a weightlifting scenario, improvements continue.

A 2008 trial showed improvements of up to 25% more repetitions per set. (13)

These are huge potential benefits just waiting to be gobbled up.

So what dose should we take for maximum results?

Well, there are two ways you can fully dose beta-alanine. The first is to do it in one serving of 3.2 grams. The second is to split the serving into two and space it throughout the day. Your preference depends on how well you can handle parasthesia.

pre workout review

6. 2.5g Betaine

Betaine is criminally underrated.

To the point where it’s actually hard to find it, even in industry-leading products.

But, thankfully, betaine is starting to get the recognition it deserves and cementing its position in the top tier of pre workout ingredients.

That’s down to the great research which has been performed to show just how effective it is for boosting muscle recovery speed, strength output, and training endurance. (17, 18, 19)

Some companies like to use beetroot extract as a way to claim their product offers all of these results, but don’t be fooled.

We’d need about 20 grams of betroot extract!

In order to yield the maximum results, our pre workout should contain 2.5 grams of betaine.

bcaas pre workout

7. No BCAAs

Branched chain amino acids are vital for building muscle.

However, they are unnecessary in your pre workout.

In fact, providing you’re eating a balanced diet and hitting your protein target each day, you do not need to worry about consuming BCAAs at all!

Over the last thirty years, however, they’ve become the darling of the supplement industry.


Because they’re cheap to produce and very easy to sell.

So we get muscle building magazine recommendations about “supping on them all day long”, with talk of how we’ll go into a catabolic state and start losing muscle without them…


Also, consuming leucine prior to training is just flat-out a bad idea.

Research shows us that leucine prevents tyrosine from reaching the brain, and tyrosine is a precursor to dopamine. (20, 21)

list of best pre workout ingredients

8. No Niacin

There are two reasons niacin is included in pre workouts.

First, it’s a decent energy boosting ingredient.

However, niacin is vitamin B3, so provided you are eating a balanced diet you’ll already be hitting your daily requirements for these benefits.

They’re including it because it allows them to make claims of “increased energy” on the tub.

But the second reason is much more shady…

I touched on it earlier, niacin creates a similar “tingly” effect to that of beta-alanine, and it’s a lot cheaper to produce. If your product is under-dosed in beta-alanine, there’s a good chance they’ve stuffed lots of this in there and hoped you wouldn’t be able to tell!

caffeine taurine

9. No Taurine

Like BCAAs, taurine is another fitness industry favorite…

And yes, it can provide some nice benefits in terms of increased blood flow. (14, 15)

But despite those benefits, there are two reasons it shouldn’t be in the formula.

First, we need about 2 grams of taurine to get any of the benefits cited above. That’s much higher than most pre workouts.

Second, it does not mix well with caffeine.

In fact, a study published in Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior showed that taurine actually opposes the effects of caffeine. (15)

Ever had a headache or felt sluggish after drinking a pre workout? Meet the reason why.

The training benefits of caffeine far outweigh those offered by taurine, so that’s our priority.

pre workout checklist

10. No Concentrated Formulas

Remember back in the early 2000’s when mobile phones started to shrink?

Screens were getting smaller and smaller, and fiddly to use.

Until one day they started moving in the opposite direction. And now we have mobile phones the size of small children.

Interestingly, the same thing happened in the fitness industry.

For a while, an idea caught on trend where supplement companies would release concentrated formulas offering fully dosed products in tiny tubs, with even tinier scoops.

But tell me this…

How do we condense 25 grams of ingredients into 6 grams?

The truth is, we don’t.

This was back when proprietary blends were all over the place, and allowed companies to give you all the right ingredients in all the wrong doses.

what is the best pre workout

The Top 5 Pre Workouts By The Science

Now that I’ve given you all the correct things to look for in a great pre workout, you’ll be able to spot a dud from a mile away.

But no, I’m not done.

Because I know the next question I’m gonna get:

“Russ, is this product good?”

“Hey Russ, what do you think of this one?”

It’s the world we live in.

So down below you’ll find my “Top 5” in the pre workout category. That should save me some time. By the science, these are the best of the best of the best right now.

1. AML Pre Workout

AML Pre Workout nutrition info

AML are the current kings of the pre workout market.

It’s a strong blend of 2.5g betaine, 400mg caffeine, 8g citrulline malate, and 2g beta-alanine. We even have the added benefit of a full clinical dose of creatine.

There are no BCAAs, no niacin, and no taurine.

It’s worth noting that this is the only product to do all ten things on my list. As was reflected in its review here.

Click here to check this product out.

2. Northbound Nutrition Pinnacle

northbound pinnacle pre workout review

Here’s one you’ve likely never head of…

But that changes today.

With 8 grams of citrulline malate, 4 grams of beta-alanine, and 2.5 grams of betaine, it can stand toe-to-toe with anything from the fitness industry’s major players (Optimum Nutrition, Reflex, Grenade) and beat them comprehensively.

In fact, the only thing preventing it from toppling the mighty AML is the smaller caffeine serving and AML’s inclusion of potassium citrate alongside all their key ingredients.

Pinnacle is a rock solid product.

See it on this page.

3. Pre Jym

pre jym review

At one time, Pre Jym was deservedly the best pre workout in the world.

But that time was 2014.

Jim Stoppani changed the industry with Pre Jym’s open formula and clinically dosed ingredients.

But despite the doc’s insistence that he doesn’t need to update the formula because “it’s already perfect”, research shows us otherwise…

I’m not bashing it, of course. I love Pre Jym. This is one of the few pre workouts to make sure niacin is left out of the formula and, of course, there’s no proprietary blend.

We get 6 grams of citrulline malate, 2 grams of beta-alanine, 300mg caffeine, and 1.5g betaine alongside the inclusion of some unnecessary BCAAs and taurine.

It’s not perfect, but it was close enough to make it the number one selling pre workout in the world. And you don’t achieve something like that without being good at your job.

Click here to see Pre Jym.

4. Iron Addicts Sidewalk Kraka

CT Fletcher sidewalk kraka review

When CT Fletcher announced he was launching a supplement line, nobody expected it to trouble the big dogs.

But they should have.

When YouTubers release supplements, it’s usually nothing more than a cash-grab. But the Iron Addicts line is the exception to the rule.

We have a full 3.2 grams of beta-alanine (tingle-mania), 374mg caffeine, and a unique stimulant blend which will light a fire under you.

The old version of Sidewalk Kraka contained the now-banned exotic stimulant DMHA, and the current version removes this in favor of a blend which stays within USADA guidelines (an example of what I was saying earlier regarding exotic stims).

I’m a big fan of this product and, in fact, of the entire Iron Addicts supplement line-up.

So why isn’t it number one?

Well, because it takes the popular route of splitting its formula into two separate products. Iron Addicts designed this pre with the idea that you should also use their “pump formula”, the equally-awesomely named Swoliosis. That’s where you’ll find the citrulline malate and betaine.

Click here to check this one out.

5. RedCon1 Total War

what is the best pre workout drink

Here’s one to keep an eye on…

RedCon1 are a supplement company on the rise, and Total War is an incredibly strong first effort which shows they definitely mean business.

Taking a leaf out of Grenade’s book with the military-themed branding, RedCon1 have already drawn a lot of comparisons to their UK neighbors.

And while they don’t go as far with the packaging (no grenade-shaped tubs, or ammo boxes full of protein), you’ll find superior products inside the tub, where it counts.

Total War contains 6g citrulline malate, 3.2g beta-alanine, 350mg caffeine.

It’s not perfect, though.

In order to obtain betaine we’d need to combine this with one of their other products, Big Noise, and the pre also contains some rather useless beetroot extract alongside taurine.

See it here.

And there you have it!

My complete guide to which ingredients should and shouldn’t be in your pre workout is complete.

The next time you pick up a pre, make sure it ticks as many of these off as possible, and you’ll be in for some great training!

Of course, as new ingredients and/or products hit the scene you can be sure I’ll keep the checklist updated, so you can be sure that whatever version of this article you’re reading right now is the latest version.

Jump on my email list at the end of the article for more training/supplement/nutrition tips.


  1. Pérez-Guisado J., et al. Citrulline malate enhances athletic anaerobic performance and relieves muscle soreness. J Strength Cond Res. (2010)
  2. Alvares T. S., et al. Acute l-arginine supplementation increases muscle blood volume but not strength performance. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. (2012)
  3. Castillo L., et al. Splanchnic metabolism of dietary arginine in relation to nitric oxide synthesis in normal adult man. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. (1993)
  4. Sureda A., et al. Arginine and citrulline supplementation in sports and exercise: ergogenic nutrients? Med Sport Sci. (2012)
  5. Duncan M. J., et al. The effect of caffeine ingestion on mood state and bench press performance to failure. J Strength Cond Res. (2011)
  6. Childs E., et al. Subjective, behavioral, and physiological effects of acute caffeine in light, nondependent caffeine users. Psychopharmacology (Berl). (2006)
  7. Kim T. W., et al. Caffeine increases sweating sensitivity via changes in sudomotor activity during physical loading. J Med Food. (2011)
  8. Holtzman S. G., et al. CGS 15943, a nonxanthine adenosine receptor antagonist: effects on locomotor activity of nontolerant and caffeine-tolerant rats. Life Sci. (1991)
  9. Cook C., et al. Acute caffeine ingestion increases voluntarily chosen resistance training load following limited sleep. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. (2012)
  10. 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)
  11. Mora-Rodríguez R., et al. Caffeine ingestion reverses the circadian rhythm effects on neuromuscular performance in highly resistance-trained men. PLoS One. (2012)
  12. Donovan T., et al. Beta-alanine improves punch force and frequency in amateur boxers during a simulated contest. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. (2012)
  13. Hoffman J., et al. Beta-alanine and the hormonal response to exercise. Int J Sports Med. (2008)
  14. Beyranvand M. R., et al. Effect of taurine supplementation on exercise capacity of patients with heart failure. J Cardiol. (2011)
  15. Moloney M. A., et al. Two weeks taurine supplementation reverses endothelial dysfunction in young male type 1 diabetics. Diab Vasc Dis Res. (2010)
  16. Giles G. E., et al. Differential cognitive effects of energy drink ingredients: caffeine, taurine, and glucose. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. (2012)
  17. Lee E. C., et al. Ergogenic effects of betaine supplementation on strength and power performance. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. (2010)
  18. 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)
  19. Hoffman, J. R., et al. Effect of betaine supplementation on power performance and fatigue. J Int Soc Sports Nutr (2009)
  20. Acworth I., et al. Effect of sustained exercise on concentrations of plasma aromatic and branched-chain amino acids and brain amines. Biochem Biophys Res Commun. (1986)
  21. 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)

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I’m Russ. I’ve been a personal trainer since 2002, and I own

My job is to simplify fitness for my readers.

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