I think we’ve all had an experience with a bad pre-workout supplement before.
You read the hype, you shake it up, and then…
Instead of feeling energized, you feel flatter than a witch’s tit.
So to save you from wasting your cash on any more terrible pre-workouts in the future, I’ve compiled this handy guide on how to spot the duds. If your chosen product manages to tick two of these red flags I recommend upgrading to something better (I say two because nothing is perfect and the majority of pre-workouts will tick at least one).
Table of Contents
- 🚩 It’s A Proprietary Blend
- 🚩 It Contains Both Taurine & Caffeine
- 🚩 Motherfucking BCAAs
- 🚩 It’s A Concentrated Formula
- 🚩 It Contains Unproven & Untested Stimulants
- In Summary
- Who Is Russ Howe PTI?
🚩 It’s A Proprietary Blend
Red flag #1 is the good old proprietary blend technique.
This is where supplement companies list the total amount of all the ingredients, but not the individual doses. For example, the picture above shows a proprietary blend of 4.145 grams; we know it consists of the ingredients written below, but there’s no way of telling if the dose of each ingredient is correct.
How can they do this, you ask?
Well, they’re taking advantage of an old FDA loophole which should have been closed years ago.
You see, back in the early 2000s, supplement manufacturers were terrified that rival brands would steal their formulas, so the FDA allowed them to hide their labels behind a proprietary blend in order to protect their interests. The problem is it doesn’t work – it turns out supplement manufacturers can easily discover the contents of a rival product by taking it to a lab and putting it under the microscope, so that’s exactly what they did!
For example, back in 2005 iSatori slapped a proprietary blend on their groundbreaking pre-workout; H-Blocker. This was the first ever pre-workout to use beta-alanine, so it’s understandable why they wanted to keep the formula under wraps, but in the years which followed it was copied by every rival brand.
Fast-forward to now, and this loophole still exists, so let me make it clear: a proprietary blend means crucial ingredients have been under-dosed, so ditch the product!
🚩 It Contains Both Taurine & Caffeine
Have you ever felt sluggish and irritated after having an energy drink?
This is why.
Both taurine and caffeine are fantastic ingredients in their own right, but they should never be combined. Research published in Pharmacology, Biology & Behavior showed that taurine is an antagonist of caffeine, so when the two ingredients are taken together they clash, causing the trainee to feel sluggish and fatigued, instead of energized. (1, 2, 3, 4)
“When taurine and caffeine are consumed simultaneously, taurine appears to reverse caffeine’s effects on vigor.”
Fuck that with a capital fist.
🚩 Motherfucking BCAAs
This one has always frustrated me, because supplement manufacturers should know better.
You see, BCAAs (branched chain amino acids) are fantastic for helping you build muscle, but as long as you eat enough protein per day you probably do not need a BCAA supplement – and they definitely shouldn’t be in your pre-workout, because despite the label claims of “increased energy”, they simply get in the way of the other ingredients.
Research from The University of Texas shows that taking BCAAs immediately before exercise (leucine in particular) can inhibit dopamine production. It does this by preventing tyrosine from reaching the brain. This can lead to early CNS (central nervous system) fatigue and make you feel like crap in the gym. (5, 6)
🚩 It’s A Concentrated Formula
How do you get 27 grams of key pre-workout ingredients into a 6 gram scoop?
The answer is you don’t.
Concentrated formulas were a weird trend which rose to prominence in the early 2010, where tubs of pre-workout shrunk in size, and the scoops were absolutely tiny.
Supplement brands thought they’d struck gold here, because they could make customers pay more cash for less product. The marketing would make bold statements about “doing more with less” or “giving you more bang for your buck”, but this was a flat-out lie; the primary ingredients in these things were caffeine and B vitamins, and you’d be missing out on all of the “big guns” you’d get in a top quality pre-workout (such as CitMal, creatine, beta-alanine, betaine, and more).
🚩 It Contains Unproven & Untested Stimulants
In their haste to deliver “the next big thing”, supplement manufacturers occasionally include unproven and untested ingredients.
The best two examples I can give are DMAA and N,a-DEPEA.
DMAA (1,3-dimethylamylamine) is a stimulant which has first used in the infamous Jack3d pre-workout. It made you want to headbutt walls and crush dumbbells with your bare hands, but not enough was known about the side effects and lethal doses prior to it going on general sale. The manufacturers (USP Labs) should’ve waited for that research to be completed, because it went on to cause the death of several gym-goers before being banned from sale. USADA then banned it from the sports world, too, and there was a noteworthy incident in which Usain Bolt’s Jamaican relay team were stripped of an Olympic gold medal after one team member tested positive for DMAA.
Unfortunately, the supplement industry did NOT learn any lessons from its own fucking stupidity, and went in search of the next next big thing… which led them to N,a-DEPEA (N,a-diethyl-phenylethylamine).
This stimulant was used in the hugely popular pre-workout Craze (by DS Sports), until athletes started bizarrely started failing drug tests for methamphetamine. Yep, it turns out the reason N,a-DEPEA made you want to rip a hole in the gym is because it’s fucking meth!
Once again, the supplement industry did NOT learn any lessons from its own fucking stupidity, and went in search of the next next next big thing… which led them to DMHA.
You can see where I’m going with this, right?
The entire body of research surrounding DMHA (also now banned) consisted of just one study, and it was performed in 1969, and didn’t involve any kind of physical exercise. (7)
So my general rule here is that a supplement manufacturer should be able to provide you with the research to back up the claims they are making. If there are no studies available, take it as a sign that the ingredient is either totally useless, or remains unproven, or is potentially dangerous.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where bad pre-workouts vastly outnumber good pre-workouts.
This handy list should steer you clear of the duds for the most part, and you might also enjoy my more recent article The Great Pre-Workout Checklist (which shows you what to look for in a top pre-workout!).
If you’d like some quick go-to pre-workout supplements that’ll get the job done, here you go:
- 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).
- Hedman K. Studies on Orchidaceae Alkaloids. XV. Phenethylamines from Eria jarensis Ames. Department of Organic Chemistry, University of Stockholm (1969).
Who Is Russ Howe PTI?
Russ has been a personal trainer in the UK since 2002, and provided both training advice and full programs on this website since 2011.
His work has been featured in Men’s Fitness magazine, and the content on this website led to him being voted one of the world’s top 50 fat loss coaches by HuffPost.
Russ’ days are spent coaching men and women in the legendary Powerhouse Gym, and creating new content for the 109,246 followers of his popular free weekly e-mail, which you can join below!