How many boxes does your pre workout tick?

The Great Pre Workout Checklist

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

10 min read

Most people don’t know how to spot a great pre-workout.

Heck, slap a set of flaming biceps on a tub and give it some other-worldly hype, and you can sell a ton of product to unsuspecting fitness enthusiasts.

(I know this because after reviewing supplements for over ten years I can tell you that several companies actually do that!)

So to stop you from wasting any more of your hard earned money on bullshit supplements that fail to deliver, I’ve compiled my great pre-workout checklist. If your desired product can do these things, consider it worthy.


It Has To Do These 4 Things

  • A great pre-workout will use a transparent formula.
  • A great pre-workout will be free of exotic stimulants.
  • A great pre-workout will give you clinical doses of these proven ingredients.
  • A great pre-workout will exclude these over-hyped ingredients.

Yep, there are only four things.

Let’s take a look at each one in more detail next.


A Great Pre-workout Will Use A Transparent Formula

great pre workout

When I say a transparent formula, I mean you should be able to see all of the ingredients and their doses on the label.

If a company has developed a really strong pre-workout then they will 100% use this approach, because the best way to advertise a great product is to show you how great it is.

Unfortunately, lots of supplement brands are shady as fuck. They’ll take advantage of an outdated supplement industry loophole which allows them to slap a proprietary blend over the label, so the customer can’t actually see what’s in the product. This means they can create crappy products which are dirt cheap to produce, but cost full price to the customer. I wrote an article on this here.

Another technique you’ll see is the use of concentrated formulas. This was huge in the 2010s, when pre-workout tubs seemed to be getting smaller and smaller, and I still see a few brands using it today. They’ll hype up the power of their mini-scoop and claim that it’s going to give you more bang for your buck, but riddle me this… How can you squeeze 30 grams of performance-enhancing ingredients into a 5 gram scoop? The truth is you can’t, and that’s why concentrated formulas are just caffeine.



A Great Pre-workout Will Be Free Of Exotic Stimulants

exotic stimulants in pre workouts

Exotic stimulants are an interesting conundrum.

There’s no denying the training benefits of they offer, such as the hyper focus you’ll feel from Eria Jarensis, but there’s also very little data to show the safety and effectiveness of these ingredients. USADA (the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency) are also pretty fast to prohibit these ingredients from competitive sports, so consuming them as part of a pre-workout (even if the athlete is unaware) would raise a red flag.

To give you some context, the entire body of research behind the aforementioned Eria Jarensis consists of just one single study – and it dates back to 1958!



A Great Pre-workout Will Give You Clinical Doses Of These Proven Ingredients

A list of the best pre workout ingredients

Some pre-workouts claim to have as many as 27 active ingredients.

However, when we get down to the real science regarding which ingredients have the biggest impact on training and performance, the list is a lot shorter!

Citrulline Malate (CitMal for short) sits at the top of that list. This amino acid will help you to recover faster between sets, experience a better pump, and improve delivery of key nutrients to your muscles as they work. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that trainees typically achieve 1-more rep on every single set with a proper dose of CitMal. You’re looking for 6-10 grams. (1, 2, 3, 4)

Caffeine is up next. This famous stimulant can improve your workout by enhancing mental focus, providing greater energy output, and increasing explosive strength (although you need a huge dose for that). You’re looking for 200-400mg. (5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11)

Beta-alanine comes next. This amino acid is perhaps best-known for the tingly feeling it creates (parasthesia), but there’s a lot more going on under the surface. It’s second-to-none for boosting training endurance, as shown by researchers from England who improved the punching power of boxers by an astonishing 2000% (no typo), and a team from The College Of New Jersey who found that continued usage helped trainees achieve an average of 25% more reps per set during a squat and bench press program. You’re looking for 3.2 grams. (12, 13)

Next we have one of the lesser-known pre-workout heroes; betaine. It’s actually pretty difficult to find a product which contains this ingredient, because the bodybuilding world has taken a long time to pay attention to what sprinters and cyclists have been saying for years, so if yours does then you get extra credit! Betaine can have a profound impact on explosive strength, muscle recovery, and muscular endurance. You’re looking for 2.5 grams. Some companies like to use beetroot extract to fool customers that their product contains betaine. Don’t fall for that, you’d need about 20 grams of beetroot extract for it to be as effective as 2.5g betaine. (17, 18, 19)



A Great Pre-workout Will Exclude These Over-Hyped Ingredients

bad ingredients for a pre workout

Alongside your proven essentials, you’ll see a whole lot of other ingredients which have been included in the formula.

Most of these are useless, and have only been included for marketing purposes.

However, there are certain ingredients which are downright silly, as they can actually have a negative impact on your training session. Some of these might surprise you.

First up we have BCAAs. Yep, good old branched chain amino acids! Supplement companies often thrown these into pre-workout formulas because a) they’re cheap as fuck, and b) it allows them to make claims about muscle building on the packaging, but they’re overlooking the fact that leucine (the main BCAA) prevents l-tyrosine (a precursor to dopamine) from entering the brain, which can cause the trainee to feel somewhat sluggish. (20, 21)

Niacin is next. This popular ingredient is added because it mirrors the tingly feeling you get from beta-alanine, so if a company has added a shit-ton of niacin to their product, it’s usually because they’ve under-dosed the beta-alanine. It doesn’t provide any notable training benefits, except for a tiny energy boost (and if you’re following a healthy diet you’ll already be ticking this box, because niacin is simply vitamin B3).

Next we have taurine. This ingredient can improve mental focus and also increase blood flow to working muscles, which is great, but we’d need a dose of 2 grams to unlock those benefits (significantly higher than most pre-workouts). Furthermore, taurine is a known antagonist of caffeine, meaning it literally prevents caffeine from doing its job! If you’ve ever felt tired or experienced a headache after drinking your pre, check the label to see if they’ve used both of these ingredients. (14, 15, 16)


5 Great Pre-Workouts That Get It Right

A list of the 5 best pre workouts

It’s important to remember that I’m being picky here.

After all, I’m not here to show you how to find a good pre-workout, but a great one!

With that in mind, finding a pre-workout which does all of these things is difficult (heck, only the top 3 on my list manage to tick every single box!), but if your pre-workout can do most of the things above, then consider it a decent buy. For those who prefer to cut out the shopping experience and go straight to the stuff that works, check out these products:

  • Pre Workout (AML)

This absolute masterpiece from Steve Blechman and Joe Donnelly contains 8g CitMal, 400mg caffeine, 2.5g betaine, and 2g beta-alanine. It also adds a full 5 grams of creatine monohydrate (so you don’t need a separate creatine supplement), and excludes all of the ingredients which I listed as red flags. See it here.

  • Pre Fierce (TruFierce Nutrition)

This one went under the radar to most gymgoers when it arrived in 2022, but it fully deserved the 4-start rating it received in my official review. The formula sticks to the basics, with 7g CitMal, 250mg caffeine, 3.5g beta-alanine, and 2.5g betaine, while also excluding all of the red flag ingredients I mentioned earlier. See it here.

  • Pinnacle (Northbound Nutrition)

It isn’t as well-known as some of the products on this list, but it deserves to be here nonetheless. Pinnacle gives you 8g CitMal, 325mg caffeine, 4g beta-alanine, and 2.5g betaine. It also excludes all of the red flag ingredients. See it here.

  • Pre JYM X (JYM Supplement Science)

Officially the best-selling pre-workout supplement of all time, Pre JYM X is Dr. Jim Stoppani’s magnus opus; a formula which somehow manages to improve the already strong original. It delivers 8g CitMal, 300mg caffeine, 4g beta-alanine, 3g betaine, and adds in a 3g serving of creatine hydrochloride for good measure. See it here.

  • Pre Train X (Adapt Nutrition)

Pre Train X delivers 4.5g l-citrulline (the equivalent of 6.75g CitMal), 350mg caffeine, and 3.2g beta-alanine. It doesn’t include betaine (bummer), but it manages to exclude all of the red flag ingredients. See it here.


References:

  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 russhowepti.com.

My job is to simplify fitness for my readers.

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