This article shares what sports science has proven are the best performance-enhancing pre-workout supplements, and I provide their effective clinical doses as well.
There are dozens of pre-workout supplement powders on the market. But do any of them actually help you reach your fitness goals?
Science shows that only the ones with the right ingredients at the right doses will do that.
What are the best pre-workout ingredients?
Strong evidence exists for the effectiveness of the following exercise supplements, according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition:
- Creatine Monohydrate
The ISSN has stated that although limited, scientific evidence has shown performance-enhancing benefits provided by these supplements as well:
- Citrulline / Citrulline malate
Later in the article we’ll look at each of those 7 effective pre-workout ingredients in more detail, and I’ll share what specific benefits each provide you & your body during your workout.
Next I discuss why you want to be picky over what pre-workout supplement you take.
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science & medical resources, clinical studies, and nutritional data used in this article.
Does pre-workout work?
Since a lot of people ask each other, personal trainers, & Google if pre-workouts work, let’s talk about that word work.
I want to take a sec to make sure we’re on the same page before we get to the heart of the article.
(If you’ve been athletic or strength training for any length of time you’re already well aware of what I’m going to say. This next bit is for people who are new to working out, weightlifting, &/or fitness in general.)
You do the work
I’m not trying to be cute, but a dietary supplement does not do any of the work necessary to transform your body & level of fitness to something much better than it is now.
Pre-workout doesn’t get you to the gym, or make you start your home workout routine every day.
It doesn’t do all of the sets & reps necessary to grow your muscles and lose your fat.
Pre-workout supplements will not change your body’s appearance, your strength, or your fitness level – unless YOU do the work.
Pre-workout works if it enhances our work
So when the article title asks if pre-workout works, this has to do with how effective it is at doing what it’s supposed to do.
Pre-workout works when it helps us improve our workout results above & beyond what we would achieve without it.
And as we’ll see in a little bit, there are a lot of different ingredients in all of the dozens of marketed pre-workout powders.
But sports science has found that many pre-workout ingredients are ineffective when it comes to exercise performance enhancement or building muscle.
The right pre-workout supplements help
For those of us that take some form of pre-workout supplement formula that is actually effective, we know how it helps us as we train.
As this article clearly shows, sports science has proven that just a handful of essential supplements provide a serious fitness trainee either muscle-building or exercise performance-enhancing benefits.
Here are those supplements again:
Effective for muscle-building
- Creatine monohydrate
- Protein / Essential amino acids
Effective for exercise performance enhancing
- Creatine (again)
- Citrulline / Citrulline malate
Bottom line #1: Be picky about your ingredients
As I mentioned earlier, these 7 ingredients have been identified by the ISSN as having strong evidence that they provide significant benefits during or after your workouts.
(The International Society of Sports Nutrition is one of the highest authorities in the world when it comes to exercise & supplements.)
There are many other ingredients commonly found in pre-workout supplements.
But the supplements listed above are the ones with enough proven sports science behind them to be recognized by the ISSN for athletic & strength training purposes.
You could be paying for a lot of ingredients that don’t do what you’re expecting out of your pre-workout supplement.
Pre-workout works at the right dosages
The other area I recommend you be picky with is in regards to the amount of each ingredient you’re getting in your pre-workout powder.
This is important since many pre-workout supplement powders currently available shortchange you when it comes to those essential ingredients I listed earlier.
As the ISSN noted in their thorough review of commercial pre-workout powders:
“…the doses found in MIPS are generally far lower than those that have shown ergogenic effects.” (1)
MIPS – multi-ingredient pre-workout supplements
Ergogenic – Something that can enhance physical performance, stamina, or recovery
In other words, a pre-workout powder may contain the proven ingredients, but in far too small a quantity to provide you its proven benefits.
Most people aren’t aware of what the clinically-proven doses are.
Clinically-proven refers to the doses that were used to prove that ingredient’s effectiveness in the first place.
The manufacturer’s label lists the essential ingredient, but in many cases it’s more eye candy since there isn’t enough of it in the scoop, and many people just don’t know the difference.
Bottom line #2: Be picky about the right dose
I will provide the doses used in the sports science research studies for each of the 7 pre-workout supplements featured in this article.
Once you know the numbers, you can make sure you’re getting the right amount necessary to provide you with the exercise benefits you’re expecting.
Again, you want to avoid paying for a pre-workout supplement that has a lot of stuff you don’t need and not enough of the legitimate ingredients you’re looking for to boost your workout results.
The best pre-workout ingredients
We’ll look at each of the supplements listed at the beginning of the article individually here, and I’ll get into what they do for us and what the right dosages are.
First up are the 4 supplements whose effectiveness has the strongest sports science research support:
- Creatine monohydrate
1. Creatine monohydrate
Effective clinical dose: 3-5 grams per day
Role: Muscle builder & exercise performance enhancer
As pointed out early on in the article, there exists strong evidence for creatine’s benefits for increasing lean muscle mass, strength, and exercise performance (1).
Creatine is one of the most researched fitness supplements ever, and the ISSN goes so far to say that
“creatine monohydrate is the most effective ergogenic nutritional supplement currently available to athletes in terms of increasing high-intensity exercise capacity and lean body mass during training” (2).
And please note that creatine provides women the same benefit as men (3).
I go into this in detail in my article on creatine for women, which you can read here.
If you’re taking it in a multi-ingredient pre-workout supplement, look for an amount in the neighborhood of the clinically-proven daily dose of 3-5 grams.
Taking it 30-60 minutes before your workout is good.
Tip#1: Take creatine separately from pre-workout
A better idea is that you could skip getting your creatine from a multi-ingredient powder pre-workout formula.
Take creatine on its own instead.
There are good brands that make pre-workout without creatine if you decide to go this route, so you can still get the other effective ingredients.
(Though you could take those individually as well…).
Again, 3-5 grams/day has been shown to be an optimal dose for creatine supplementation, and taking it close to your workout time will do you even better than just “whenever” (4).
Note that studies have shown that there is little difference between taking creatine before or after your workout (5).
Another option is to split the daily dose up, and take 1.5-2.5 grams before your workout and 1.5-2.5 grams after your workout, which many others (like me) do (6).
If you’re interested in what sports science has found on when’s the best time to take creatine, I wrote a research paper on that very topic which you can read right here on heydayDo.
Tip #2: Try a loading phase
Per the sports science researchers at the ISSN and strength & conditioning experts elsewhere, the best way to have creatine help your workouts is to build up the creatine stores in your muscles by starting with a loading phase of several days.
This is followed by a daily dose of 3-5 grams per day which will then maintain your optimum creatine level (2).
2. Protein / Essential amino acids
Effective clinical (pre-workout) dose: 10-25 grams
Role: Muscle builder
The second supplement that has very strong evidence proving its effectiveness at increasing muscle growth is protein.
When combined with strength training, protein can activate muscle growth when it’s taken before or after exercise (7).
This has been proven effective whether protein was taken before, after, or both before & after.
Protein’s usually excluded from pre-workout powders
Most multi-ingredient pre-workout formulas don’t have any protein in them, even though it’s one of the two most effective supplements for muscle building on the planet.
Since protein comes from food sources, it’s a little bulky even after being dehydrated down to a powder.
That’s why it usually comes in its own tub.
So you’ll need to take this on its own.
Whey is one of the fastest digesting proteins we eat, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s so popular among athletes, fitness trainees, weightlifters, etc.
Whole food protein works, but…
You could just eat complete protein foods like eggs, meat, chicken, & fish before hitting the gym.
Studies have shown that food proteins can stimulate muscle protein synthesis as well as any amino acid supplements (10).
But before a workout?
Those protein foods digest slowly and leave us full, which isn’t exactly what we want to be feeling while training hard.
So again, here’s protein powder to the rescue.
As Peter Frampton sang back in ’75, “Show me the whey”. 😜
Tip: Don’t forget > Protein all day, every day
If you’ve been athletic or strength training for any length of time, you’re probably already aware of the fact that your muscles need a lot more protein than the average sedentary Joe (or Joan).
Several research studies included in the ISSN’s Position Stand on Protein & Exercise demonstrate the ideal range of both the per meal & per day total of protein for athletes & weightlifters.
If this is you, treat your muscles right by consuming 20-40 grams of protein every few hours.
And the daily protein intake range for those engaged in strength training is “generally” agreed upon as 0.7 – 1 gram per lb. of bodyweight (11).
How much protein to consume per day depends on several factors:
- Your age (older trainees need more)
- Your body weight
- Your training volume & intensity (sets, reps, weights)
Effective clinical dose: 4-6 grams daily, broken into several small doses.
Role: Exercise performance enhancer
Beta-alanine is the most common ingredient in pre-workout supplement powders, according to a recent research study that examined the 100 most popular pre-workout products on the market (12).
Unfortunately, in most of those pre-workout formulas the doses they’re selling you are lower than the ones used in the most successful beta-alanine research studies.
Regardless, beta-alanine’s benefits have strong evidence support from sports science, and so it’s considered a legitimate exercise performance enhancer by the International Society of Sports Nutrition (13).
Plus, you can skip the pre-mixed pre-workout formulas and take it on its own.
What beta-alanine does:
It increases carnosine in your muscles, which in turn fights the lactic acid buildup in them that happens when you’re working out hard.
Lactic acid can cause your muscles to tire, so beta-alanine is effective at preventing that from happening as quickly as it would normally (14).
30 days of supplementation by football players resulted in them increasing their training volume (sets & reps) and reporting lower feelings of fatigue (15).
And here, another group of athletes took beta-alanine for 4 weeks with the researchers reporting that
“Results indicate that four weeks of beta-alanine supplementation can significantly improve muscular endurance during resistance training in experienced resistance-trained athletes” (16).
Tip #1: Pre-workout formulas use low doses
Check the beta-alanine dose in the pre-workout formula you’re thinking of buying.
The reason is, many of the pre-formulated powders use lower doses than those used in the clinical trials that demonstrated benefits.
For example, in the two studies I referenced above, those participants were taking 4.6 & 4.8 grams per day.
In that survey of the top 100 pre-workout formulas I mentioned, the average beta-alanine dose was only 2 grams (17).
You may be better off taking beta-alanine on its own. I do, because I believe it works plus the one I get from Bulk Supplements is cheap.
Lower doses only taken on your workout days aren’t going to be anywhere near as effective as the daily doses accrued in those athletic studies I referenced earlier.
Tip #2: Daily load with small doses throughout day
So, the best way to get the same benefits that the athletes got in those first two studies we looked at is to copy what they did.
They took a little over 4 ½ grams of beta-alanine a day.
And beta-alanine’s been proven to be more effective after you’ve loaded it at a dose of 4-6 grams a day for a month (20).
IMPORTANT NOTE: If you go this route, DEFINITELY spread your daily dose into several smaller amounts sprinkled throughout the day.
Beta-alanine in sufficient doses causes that tingling prickly feeling very similar to the famous Niacin Flush.
(This is known as paresthesia, and is harmless.)
This does bother some people at too strong a dose, including me.
Break it down to 1-1.5 grams per pop, and any tingling sensation you feel will be minor and not uncomfortable.
It goes away after an hour or less.
Effective clinical dose: 200-400mg
Role: Exercise performance enhancer
Caffeine’s just a hair behind beta-alanine as the most common ingredient in the top 100 pre-workout products for sale these days, showing up in 86% of them (21).
Caffeine is also the last of our pre-workout ingredients whose effectiveness is backed by solid & extensive sports science research (22).
It’s important to mention that caffeine anhydrous (the dehydrated concentrate caffeine powder) is better absorbed & therefore more effective than regular coffee (23).
Side Note: The studies I refer to in this article all used caffeine anhydrous.
Caffeine supplementation before exercise or athletic performance been shown to:
- Increase exercise endurance (24)
- Increase muscular strength & power (25)
- Increase muscular endurance (26)
- Improve mood & brain function under stress (27)
Caffeine in pre-workout formulas
Most of the pre-workout powders on the market use adequate caffeine to generate its benefits.
No surprise, since synthetic caffeine anhydrous is very cheap to make (28).
Tip: DIY caffeine supplement
If you want to save money but still get caffeine’s performance-enhancing benefits, you can skip the pre-workout powder formulas and either:
1) drink a couple of cups of coffee pre-workout if you’re a coffee lover, unless it’s late in the day; or
2) buy caffeine anhydrous and dose yourself from that**.
CAUTION** – Unless you’re a whiz at measuring tiny quantities on a scale that can weigh in grams, I STRONGLY suggest you avoid buying bulk caffeine anhydrous powder.
Instead, go for pre-measured caffeine anhydrous capsules.
They usually come in 200mg or 100mg sizes.
** – I wrote an article here on heydayDo about caffeine anhydrous’ benefits & risks recently.
During my research I found out about a lot of unintentional overdosing with awful consequences while using bulk powders.
Summary of the 4 best pre-workout ingredients
*Creatine monohydrate, protein, beta-alanine, & caffeine are recognized by sports science authorities as the 4 best supplements for building lean muscle or for improving exercise performance.
*Pre-formulated pre-workout powders often lack sufficient doses that match what was used in sports science research for creatine & beta-alanine.
*Notice that all four of these recognized supplements can be taken every day, not just on workout day.
*Note too that creatine & beta-alanine provide better benefit for you if you load them every day for their respective time periods.
That way they fill your muscles stores.
This is much better than taking a pre-mixed powder filled with small doses only on your workout days.
*Protein you supplement separately, since it’s never included in pre-workout powders.
*It is cheaper to buy creatine, beta-alanine, & caffeine anhydrous separately and make your own pre-workout powerhouse drink with some whey added, than it is to pay premium prices for pre-mixed pre-workout powders with weak dosages.
*Mixing your own insures you can get the correct effective dose.
Bottom line: It’s worth second guessing whether you need a commercial multi-ingredient pre-workout formula or not, considering all the options you have for building your own pre-workout drink.
3 more semi-proven workout supplements
These last 3 supplements – citrulline, betaine, & taurine – all have encouraging sports science research in varying degrees that indicates that there may be benefits that will improve your exercise performance, stamina, &/or recovery.
They are not regarded as highly as creatine, caffeine, beta-alanine, & protein by the sports science nutrition authorities because there’s not enough robust research yet.
Citrulline, betaine, & taurine deserve mentioning because there are many athletes & weightlifters who have experienced performance-enhancing benefits from supplementing one or more of them in their diet.
And like I said, there are positive research results too, especially with citrulline & citrulline malate.
Citrulline / Citrulline Malate
Effective clinical dose: Citrulline 6 grams per day, Citrulline Malate 8 grams per day
Role: Exercise performance enhancer
Citrulline & citrulline malate are considered nitric oxide agents, meaning that they increase blood flow to muscles (29).
This provides better oxygen flow which in turn contributes to improved exercise results.
In a study using high-intensity cycling exercise, citrulline
- improved blood pressure
- increased oxygen availability
- significantly increased the amount of high-intensity exercise work completed (30).
In another study using high-volume bench pressing with minimal rest between sets, researchers found that the group taking the citrulline malate outperformed the control group considerably.
The citrulline group performed 53% more repetitions, and also reported 40% less muscle soreness as well (31).
Researchers in that cycling study also discovered that taking citrulline daily over time produced greater exercise performance benefits than taking it only pre-workout on workout days (44).
Note clinically proven dose vs. pre-workout powders
In that high-intensity cycling study I referenced above, the dosage of citrulline used in the study was 6 grams.
And in the citrulline malate + bench press study above, the dosage was 8 grams.
Compare that to the average citrulline dose found in the 100 most popular pre-workout formulas of 4 grams (32).
Citrulline is the No. 3 most used ingredient in that top 100 list I keep referring to, showing up in about ¾ of all pre-workout powders.
There is a problem I noticed though.
The makers of one-third of all pre-workout powders with citrulline in them hide the amount of citrulline used in their recipe under the Proprietary Blend label.
This problem exists because the FDA doesn’t require the manufacturer to disclose how much of each ingredient there is in that “proprietary blend” if they choose to combine ingredients under that label.
Buy citrulline malate on its own.
It isn’t expensive and tastes tart like unflavored vitamin C (ascorbic acid).
Skip buying it in a pre-workout supplement formula where you’re likely to either:
1) get too little citrulline to match the results of sports science studies, or
2) you won’t even be told how much citrulline is in your pre-workout powder.
Bottom line: Citrulline & citrulline malate
Bonafide research studies showing enhanced strength training performance & reduced soreness make citrulline/citrulline malate a legitimate workout supplement.
(I think so anyway. I’ve been taking it for a couple of years now, and don’t intend to quit anytime soon.)
Citrulline malate is popular among many weightlifting strength trainees & trainers, yours truly included.
We can tell it works: it definitely keeps my 60+ year old muscles from getting too sore post-workout.
(Regarding its other benefits: I can’t tell if my citrulline malate provides other performance enhancement, since I’m also drinking coffee (my caffeine) and taking creatine too, and they’re powerful providers for all those other benefits already.)
Effective clinical dose: 1.25 – 2.5 grams daily
Role: Exercise performance enhancer
You may see betaine listed as an ingredient in a pre-workout supplement.
It’s the 10th most common supplement in the top 100 pre-workout products on the market, appearing in a third of them (33).
In a few research studies, betaine:
*Increased muscle power & force during weightlifting exercises (34)
*Moderately increased total repetitions & training volume in the bench press (35)
*Reduced feelings of fatigue after 15 days of supplementation while on a chest press program (36)
Bottom line: Betaine
Betaine appears to provide benefit after it has been taken for at least a couple of weeks.
It’s performance-enhancement evidence to date is not as impressive as that found in creatine, caffeine, beta-alanine, or citrulline.
Effective clinical dose: 1.5 grams
Role: Exercise performance enhancer
Taurine has a few studies that pertain to exercise performance in which it has provided benefits.
*Taurine contributed towards improving performance and decreasing muscle damage in a clinical trial using weightlifting (37).
*In an exercise + taurine study, taurine reduced DNA damage caused by exercise.
It also improved the capacity to exercise, as shown by an increase of time to exhaustion and total workload (38).
*In a study of taurine + endurance-trained cyclists, taurine supplementation resulted in an increase in fat-burning during exercise times (39).
Taurine tip: Once again, confirm the dose
These clinical trials I mentioned used taurine doses of 1.5 – 2 grams.
Taurine is the 5th most common ingredient in pre-workout formulas, showing up in about 50% of them.
However, 40% of those hide the taurine quantity under a Proprietary Blend label (40).
And in those that don’t, the average listed taurine dose is only 1.3 grams.
Bottom line: Taurine
Taurine has provided positive outcomes in a few studies, although its results are modest compared to other exercise performance-enhancers like creatine, caffeine, beta-alanine, & citrulline.
However, its role in reducing muscle damage & oxidative stress due to strenuous exercise should be noted.
Thus as a provider of enhanced recovery from intense workouts, taurine is worthy of consideration.
Here are answers to a couple other commonly asked questions regarding pre-workout ingredients.
Is pre workout bad for you?
This is a very generalized question because there are so many different pre-workout supplement powders being sold on the market these days.
Look at 10 jars of pre-workout made by 10 manufacturers and you’ll see 10 unique formulas.
There are some good ones
The best pre-workout supplements on the market are not bad for you.
They’re made by reputable companies with high manufacturing standards, and are designed to help you achieve better results with your workouts.
These are companies who are fully transparent with their ingredients & formulas, so you know what you’re taking and what effects to expect.
But on the flip side of those good pre-workout products…
…some bad ones have sugar &/or too much caffeine
No doubt, there are a few sketchy manufacturers overloading their pre-workout concoctions with lots of sugar or caffeine, or both.
Sugar’s no good for you and excess caffeine can give you a few negative side effects to deal with.
Second, there are pre-workout supplement makers who use herbal stimulants that aren’t heavily vetted by legitimate clinical research.
These stimulants might not interact very well with other supplements or medications you might be taking, and so there’s a potential health risk with those.
Some bad pre-workout powders are contaminated
Finally, among the low-quality pre-workout supplement manufacturers lies the risk of contaminants being mixed in with the rest of the pre-workout ingredients.
For example, meth-amphetamine of all things was found to be one of the unlisted ingredients in a popular pre-workout supplement (41).
Even traces of anabolic steroids were detected in 15% of some 600+ nutritional supplements tested by a research study team (42).
As the International Society of Sports Nutrition warns in their review of MIPS (multi-ingredient pre-workout supplements),
“Several supplements have been found to contain contaminants such as heavy metals, potent stimulants, or various banned ingredients.” (43)
Where they’re making the next pre-workout secret formula to sell you.
Some brands hide behind “Proprietary Blends”
Another unknown quantity to consider avoiding are pre-workout powders where the manufacturer hides the quantities of certain ingredients by using the term Proprietary Blend.
They might also give their secret formula a name too, like Hardcore Energy Matrix Bomb Yo! or something.
The outcome is the same in both cases: you don’t know how much of each ingredient you’re getting.
The FDA allows this, and considers it legal. But for you it’s like getting a mystery gift that you’re blindly putting into your body.
Take a look at this:
Over 25 ingredients and you have no idea how much of any of them you’re taking.
So maybe you want to pass on that brand and stick to companies that care enough about you to at least provide the important nutritional information you deserve.
I went into detail about this practice, the FDA’s loophole that allows it, and why you might want to avoid buying these unknown recipes in my article on proprietary blends I posted on heydayDo.
If interested, you can read that here.
How long does pre workout take to kick in?
Taking the pre-workout supplement 30-60 minutes ahead of when your workout kicks into gear is the general time frame given for the majority of pre-workout supplements to reach peak concentrations (43).
But keep in mind something I discussed earlier: many of these essential pre-workout ingredients are not time dependent.
Creatine, protein, beta-alanine, & citrulline can all be taken throughout the day and on a regular basis.
If this protocol is maintained, then come workout time all of these supplements will be in sufficient supply in your bloodstream and muscle stores already. You wouldn’t need to take a separate pre-workout supplement for those particular ingredients.
However (truth be told): It should be noted though, that most of us who take creatine, beta-alanine, whey protein, citrulline, & drink coffee or take caffeine on a daily basis will still down one of our daily doses of them before &/or after our workout anyway.
I hope my article on whether pre-workout supplements work or not is useful to you, and that the list of the most effective pre-workout ingredients is helpful too.
I wish you well on your fitness journey.