The Best Pre-Workout Supplements
A lift before you lift
Give your body the right kind of fuel, and it will perform accordingly — right? The elite sports nutritionists we spoke to said no pill or powder is going to beat a healthy diet and good night's sleep. But for that extra little boost, the best pre-workout supplements will have a mix of clinically proven ingredients, like creatine and beta-alanine to super-charge anaerobic strength, and caffeine and citrulline to improve endurance. Just as important: they'll skip all the junk ingredients.
Gnarly Nutrition Gnarly Pump is our top pick for a safe, natural pre-workout supplement for athletes at all levels, and not just because the name makes us want to ride a surfboard off a cliff. While there’s no single pre-workout supplement that features every energy booster, muscle builder, and focus sharpener out there (none of our top picks include energy-boosting taurine, for example), Gnarly Pump’s powder offers the most potent combination of clinically proven ingredients in one package. With creatine for enhancing muscle mass, citrulline and arginine for stimulating nitric oxide production, and naturally derived caffeine for that extra kick of energy, it’s a well-rounded supplement that doesn’t resort to dubious “proprietary blends” to get the job done.
For those who get enough caffeine from coffee or don’t react well to the stimulant, S.A.N. CM2 Supreme is a great option that builds lean muscle mass with citrulline, beta-alanine, and creatine. And for low-intensity workouts such as yoga and Pilates, Vega Sport Sugar-Free Energizer delivers a good combination of natural boosters like green tea, which a recent Penn State study suggests may enhance the effects of exercise, and yerba mate, which has been shown to enhance fat metabolism during light and moderate exercise without negatively affecting performance.
The 4 Overall Best Pre-Workout Supplements
How We Found the Best Pre-Workout Supplements
Spoiler alert: The best pre-workout supplement isn’t a supplement at all. There’s no powder or tablet that beats a sustained commitment to living right and not indulging in too much junk food, says Lindsay Langford, sports dietitian for SVSP. Langford and the other sports nutritionists we talked to promoted a “food-first approach” with a focus on fruits, vegetables, and pre-workout meals rich in carbohydrates.
Still, she claims that supplements can make a difference when combined with good eating habits. “I do feel that when you’re working with athletes especially, a lot of time there’s room for that extra 1 or 2 percent that we can get from a supplement,” she says.
And it’s not just the pros who benefit. Rudy Mawer, an elite sports nutritionist and researcher who has worked with everyone from NBA players to Olympic gold medalists, often recommends supplements to recreational athletes. “There’s still a lot of areas they could get bigger improvements on, such as being on a better training plan or a better diet or sleeping more,” he admits. “But while I’m working on those aspects with a client, I’ll still put them on a pre-workout supplement because it’s a very easy habit — you just put a scoop in water and drink it before you train.”
To find the best pre-workout supplements, we started with more than 300 products including powders, tablets, and drinks targeting everyone from professional bodybuilders to endurance marathoners. Certain supplements focus on supercharging anaerobic strength with proven ingredients such as creatine and beta-alanine, while others boost endurance with caffeine and citrulline. We wanted our top picks to do just enough of both.
We cut any supplements with potentially harmful, dangerous, or banned substances.
Thanks to the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), pre-workout supplements don’t have to be approved by the FDA prior to marketing. Many companies in the supplement industry use this controversial piece of legislation to their advantage, selling products that may contain harmful, untested, or just plain ineffective ingredients. “Don’t believe all the claims that are made from supplements,” confirmed Simin Levinson, a clinical assistant professor in the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University. “Oftentimes they make up a lot of false promises that are not backed by legitimate science.”
A Closer Look at Ingredients We learned a lot about what goes into these supplements by reading clinical studies and consulting with expert sports nutritionists. We also referenced Examine.com, an independent encyclopedia of ingredients that draws upon research from thousands of scientific studies.
This doesn’t mean that all pre-workout supplements are inherently unhealthy; it just means that we have to pay special attention to the ingredients and dosages of each product. A supplement you buy down at the local GNC won’t contain banned or regulated substances such as HGH or synthetic testosterone, but its formula may contain other unregulated ingredients that set off alarms among nutrition experts. Levinson warns that consumers with no prior knowledge of what to look out for are most at risk: “The tricky part is that when you’re reading supplement labels, it’s so hard to decipher what the chemical names of some of these substances actually are.”
None of the formulas we considered contain any form of steroids or banned substances. But we also flagged other ingredients that may cause negative side effects or simply haven’t been tested thoroughly enough. One such ingredient is bitter orange, an herb made from the bitter orange tree and found in many supplements. It contains synephrine and octopamine — two chemicals linked to high blood pressure, strokes, and heart attacks — and so we cut it along with any formulas containing synephrine or octopamine on their own.
We also cut ingredients that may counteract a supplement’s other effective ingredients. Agmatine sulfate, for example, may interfere with the nitric oxide boosters citrulline and arginine, so it had to go. Other ingredients that were a no-go: yohimbe (a powerful stimulant linked to panic attacks) and acacia rigidula (an untested stimulant that nonetheless still crops up in some dietary supplements).
360CUT 360PUMP, 360CUT 360Rage, 4 Dimension Nutrition ATTI2UDE, ABB Ripped Force, ABB Speed Shot, ABB Speed Stack, Adaptogen Science WARP 5, AI Sports Nutrition Furious, AllMax Nutrition Hemanovol, AllMax Nutrition HemaNOvol, AllMax Nutrition MUSCLEPRIME, AllMax Nutrition Razor8, ALPHA PRO NUTRITION UPLOAD, ANS Performance DILATE Powder, ANS Performance RITUAL, ANSI Xtreme Shock N.O. Powder, Applied Nutriceuticals N.O.Vate, Arnold Schwarzenegger Series Iron Pump, Axis Labs Rainmaker, Beast Sports Nutrition Beast Mode Black, Beast Sports Nutrition Beast Mode, Betancourt Nutrition B-Nox Androrush, Betancourt Nutrition Pump’d, Blue Star Nutraceuticals P.P.K., Body Fortress Super NOS Blast, Body Nutrition Mad Dog, BPI Sports 1.M.R Vortex, BPI Sports PUMP-HD, BSN N.O.-Xplode RTD, BSN N.O.-Xplode XE Edge, Champion Performance Turbulence, Controlled Labs White Pipes, Controlled Labs White Rapids, Core Nutritionals FURY Extreme, Core Nutritionals Pump, CTD Sports Noxivol Powder, CTD Sports Noxivol, Cutler Nutrition Legend PRO, Cutler Nutrition Legend, Dymatize M.P.ACT, Dynamik Muscle Savage Roar, EPIQ EPIQ Power, EVLUTION NUTRITION BCAA Energy, EVLUTION NUTRITION ENGN, EVLUTION NUTRITION ENGN, FINAFLEX STIMUL8 CAPS, FINAFLEX STIMUL8, FitMiss Ignite, Force Factor VolcaNO, Fuel:One 6th Gear, GAT PMP Stim-Free, GAT PMP, Genomyx EVOL, Grenade .50 Caliber, Gym Angel Energy Angel, HALEO VICI, Hi-Tech Pharmaceuticals N.O. Overload, HIT Supplements Built Pre Workout, HIT Supplements Igniter Extreme Women Only, HIT Supplements Igniter Extreme, Human Evolution Dragon Override, Human Evolution Extreme Override – Size Series, Human Evolution Extreme OverRide, iForce Nutrition HemaVol Powder, iForce Nutrition Max Out, Infinite Labs Juggernaut HP, Infinite Labs Juggernaut X, iSatori Pre-Gro Max, Labrada PE1, Labrada Super Charge Pre-Workout, Lecheek Nutrition PumpX3, Liftag Sport ULift, Magnum Nutraceuticals Limitless, MAN NOOPump, MAN PepTest BULK, MAN Pump Powder, MET-Rx Nuclear X, MET-Rx Thermo Rush, Metabolic Nutrition E.S.P. Pre-Workout, MHP Fit Trainer, Millennium Sport Agmatine Elite, Millennium Sport Nitroceps Elite, MRI BLACK POWDER ULTRA, Muscle Elements PreCre XS, MusclePharm Hardcore Wreckage, MuscleTech Anarchy, MuscleTech Nano Vapor, MuscleTech NeuroCore Pre-Workout, Myogenix HYPERSHOCK RAGE – Caffeine-Free, Myogenix HYPERSHOCK RAGE, Myokem NITRAMINE, Myonox Pre-Workout Powder, Neogenix Bodyforge Ultra, Neogenix Neurosurge 3.0, Neon Sport Volt, New Whey Nutrition Beta NOX, NLA for Her Uplift, Nutrabolics Supernova, Nutrex HEMO-RAGE Black Ultra Concentrate, Nutrex Niox, Nutrex Outlift, Nutrex Outrage Shots, Nutrex Research Hemo Rage Black, NutriForce Sports PreWOD NS, NutriForce Sports PreWOD, OhYeah! Nutrition Rush, Old School Labs Vintage Blast, Olympian Labs E Force, Panthera Labs Kardio Fire, Panthera Labs VME – Vaso Muscle Expander, Performix ION, Performix Iridium Series IONi, Performix PUMP, PEScience High Volume, PharmaFreak SUPER FREAK, Platinum Labs Defcon 1, Prime Nutrition MAX-HP, Pro Supps DR. JEKYLL, Pro Supps MR. HYDE, Pro Supps NO3 Drive Powder, Pro Supps NO3 Drive, RIVALUS Powder Burn 2.0, Ronnie Coleman Signature Series Stacked-N.O. Powder, Ronnie Coleman Signature Series Yeah Buddy, RSP Nutrition AgmaGen, RSP Nutrition Agmatine Sulfate, RSP Nutrition DyNO, RSP Nutrition Fast Fuel, Ryno Power Gladiator, S.A.N. Fierce Domination, SizeSlim Pre-Workout Focus + Stamina, Top Secret Nutrition Cardio Igniter, Top Secret Nutrition Pump Igniter Black, Total Body Nutrition 1, Twinlab Pro-Series MVP Fuel, USN 3XT-Pump, USN Amino Stim, USN B4 Burn, USN B4-Bomb, USP Labs Jack3d, VPX Redline White Heat
We cut supplements with proprietary blends.
“A lot of supplement companies will try to hide under proprietary blends because they don’t have to list the dose,” explains Mawer. “It’s very funny, because people think that a proprietary blend means there’s some magic formula the company has made. But there are no magic blends or formulas. People like me are the ones researching this stuff, and we publish our studies online for everyone to access.”
The right ingredients in the right dose is what works, and no special combination is going to make it work any better.
When a company chooses not to list its product’s ingredients properly, consumers have no way of knowing the exact doses they’re taking. It’s a surprisingly common practice, but that doesn’t stop it from being as shady as a bodybuilder’s shadow. “In my eyes, if a supplement company is doing everything right and using the right dose, why would they not promote that?” asks Mawer. Marie Spano, a sports nutritionist for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, agrees: “Proprietary blends aren’t necessarily bad, but it’s hard to tell if they have efficacious amounts of certain ingredients since they’re all grouped together. Why would they not list every ingredient to show people that they’re using all the right dosages?”
360CUT 360PRE, ALPHA PRO NUTRITION VEX, ANSI Xtreme Shock, Applied Nutriceuticals Drive, Applied Nutriceuticals RPM, Axis Labs Hemodraulix, Axis Labs N’Ergized Instantized N’Gage Amino, Axis Labs SMA5H Compound 5, Black Skull Bone Crusher, Blackstone Labs Resurgence, Blue Star Nutraceuticals Power XD, Body Fortress NOS Concentrate, BPI Sports Best Pre Workout, BSN Hyper FX, BSN N.O.-Xplode, BSN N.O.-Xplode, BSN Nitrix 2.0, Cellucor C4, Cellucor C4 – GEN 3, Cellucor C4 50x, Cellucor C4 Mass, Cellucor C4 Neuro, Cellucor C4 On The Go, Cellucor C4 Ripped, Cellucor NO3 Chrome, Champion Performance ADRENOL8, COBRA LABS The Curse, Controlled Labs Green Bulge, Controlled Labs Green MAGnitude, Controlled Labs Purple Wraath, CytoSport Fast Twitch RTD, DreamBrands Mdrive Elite, EPIQ Stryke, ErgoGenix ErgoAmino+, ErgoGenix ErgoBlast, Evogen EVP, Evogen EVP Plus, Femme Nutrition ZIP, Force Factor BRX, Gamma Labs G FUEL, Gaspari Nutrition SuperPump MAX, GAT JetFUSE NOX, GAT NITRAFLEX, GAT NITRAFLEX, Genomyx STIMaholic, Gifted Nutrition Accelerate PreWorkout, GU Energy Chews, GU Energy Chews, GU GU Energy Gel, GU Roctane, GU Roctane Ultra Endurance Energy Drink, High Energy Labs Galvanized N.O., HIT Supplements Peak Perform, iSatori Energize, John Scott’s Nitro Amino Armor, John Scott’s Nitro Shot, Kaged Muscle PRE-KAGED, Labrada Power Carb Gametime, Labrada Super Charge Stim Free Pre Workout, Lecheek Nutrition Hottie, Lecheek Nutrition Speed X3 Test, Magnum Nutraceuticals Hi5, Magnum Nutraceuticals Rocket Science, Magnum Nutraceuticals SERUM, MAN Game Day, MET-Rx Advanced Creatine Blast, MET-Rx Extreme NOS Pumped, MHP Clinical Strength NO-Bomb, MHP Trac Extreme-NO, Millennium Sport CRE-02, Millennium Sport INFINIT-E, MRI Anabolic Switch, MRI Black Powder, MRI Black Powder, MRI EO2 EDGE, MRI NO2 Black Full Cycle, MRM All Natural Driven, Muscle Elements PreCre, MuscleMeds NO Bull XMT, MuscleTech Gakic VO2 Max SX-7, MuscleTech Plasma Muscle, MUTANT Pump, New Whey Nutrition BetaNOX, Novex Biotech Prime, Novex Biotech Prime, Nutrabolics SWOLLEN, Optimum Nutrition Essential AmiN.O. Energy, Optimum Nutrition Essential AmiN.O. Energy, Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Pre-Workout, Optimum Nutrition Platinum PRE-, Panthera Labs Primal Pump, Pride Nutrition Retaliate, Prolab QUICK FIRE, ProMera Sports AMINO-TREN, ProMera Sports Beta-Cret 2.0, ProMera Sports WOMEN’S ELITE, QNT International HYDRAVOL, Revolution Nutrition BullDose Pump, Ronnie Coleman Signature Series Stacked-N.O., RSP Nutrition AminoLean, S.A.N. LAUNCH 4350 RELOADED, SciVation Xtend Perform, SES Nutrition Prime Blast, Six Star Pro Nutrition N.O. Fury Caplets, Six Star Pro Nutrition Pre-Workout Explosion, Six Star Pro Nutrition Pre-Workout Ignition, SNAC XPEDITE, SNI Hardcore Series Nitric Shock, StrongGirl BCAA, StrongGirl Pre-Workout, Swole Sports Nutrition PreWrek, Top Secret Nutrition Astravar, Twinlab Nitric Fuel, Ubervita RocT Workout Igniter, Universal Nutrition Animal Pump, Universal Nutrition Animal Rage XL, Universal Nutrition NOX3, Universal Nutrition Shock Therapy, Universal Nutrition Storm, VPX SHOTGUN 5X
We eliminated supplements with more than 200 mg of caffeine.
Of course, the companies that do list their doses properly run into a different problem: Sometimes, those doses are just too high. This can be an issue when it comes to caffeine, a naturally occurring and extremely well-researched stimulant that 85 percent of the U.S. population consumes on a daily basis.
Caffeine gets a bad rap because it can be mildly addictive and even lethal in the kind of pure, massive quantities that almost never appear in pre-workout supplements, but Mawer swears by it. “I’m a big advocate of caffeine,” he says. “For an endurance athlete it’s probably the number one supplement based on the research.”
“Caffeine is perhaps the most studied ergogenic aid,” agrees Spano, and it can be a powerful pre-workout stimulant when consumed in safe doses. Levinson notes that caffeine’s benefits even extend beyond the pre-workout period. “It can help provide additional mental focus and clarity, which is also one of the reasons why business executives rely on it before meetings,” she explains.
Of course, how much caffeine you should take — or even if you should take it at all — varies greatly among individuals. “Everyone reacts to caffeine differently,” explains Levinson, who notes that some people get jittery or anxious while others really benefit from the stimulant.
So how much caffeine is too much? One review carried out by the government regulatory agency Health Canada considered more than 200 studies and concluded that a daily dose of 400 mg is perfectly safe for most adults. (According to the FDA, the average American consumes approximately 300 mg a day). Other experts seem to agree that 400–450 mg a day won’t result in any adverse side effects.
|Brewed coffee (8 oz)||95-200 mg|
|Black tea (8 oz)||14-70 mg|
|Green tea (8 oz)||25-45 mg|
|Coca-Cola (12 oz)||25-35 mg|
|5 Hour Energy shot (2 oz)||200-207 mg|
|Red Bull energy drink (8.4 oz)||75-80 mg|
|Semisweet chocolate (1 cup)||104 mg|
Via Mayo Clinic. Adapted from Journal of Food Science, 2010; Pediatrics, 2011; USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 26; Journal of Analytical Toxicology, 2006; Starbucks, 2014; Food and Chemical Toxicology, 2014; Keurig, 2014
Via Mayo Clinic. Adapted from Journal of Food Science, 2010; Pediatrics, 2011; USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 26; Journal of Analytical Toxicology, 2006; Starbucks, 2014; Food and Chemical Toxicology, 2014; Keurig, 2014
If a daily cup of coffee or tea is already part of your routine, taking a pre-workout supplement like Legion Pulse (350 mg of anhydrous caffeine) or iSatori ISYMFS Pre-Workout Amplifier (a whopping 425 mg of caffeine in various forms) already puts you over that threshold. Add the occasional chocolate bar or energy drink, and we start to get into dangerous territory. (Too much caffeine may result in trouble breathing, hallucinations, an irregular heartbeat, and even convulsions — all of which might make it just a little hard to focus on working out.) That’s why we cut any supplements with more than 200 mg of caffeine, an amount that our experts all agreed is safe and moderate.
Those with a higher tolerance might want to consider a higher dosage, but they might also be able to get that extra kick from the beverages they’re already drinking on a regular basis. The important thing is to plan your diet and try not to go over that daily 400 mg mark — especially if you aren’t already habituated to caffeine. If you suspect that your body might be able to tolerate a higher dosage, consult with your doctor first.
Athletic Edge Steel Edge, Beast Sports Nutrition Predator, COBRA LABS Shadow-X, iSatori ISYMFS Pre-Workout, JYM Pre JYM, Legion Pulse, MusclePharm Assault, MUTANT Madness, Revolution Nutrition TNT, VPX Bang Master Blaster
We got rid of supplements with artificial colors, sweeteners, and other junk your body doesn’t need.
Back when we reviewed protein powders, we asked over 4,000 registered dieticians for their opinions and their response was unanimous: Avoid artificial sweeteners and colorings whenever possible. The same holds true for pre-workout supplements, many of which come loaded with artificial sweeteners your body can’t digest or convert into useful energy.
Though most of the studies available on artificial sweeteners and colors don’t provide conclusive results, there’s enough of a controversy surrounding them that we think they’re best to avoid. Here’s a brief list of the concerning ingredients (and their side effects) we found in the pre-workout supplements we researched:
- Red 40 — has been proven to promote hyperactivity in children, immune system tumors in mice, and the US Department of Health and Human Services says it’s “reasonably anticipated” to be a human carcinogen.
- Blue 1 & 2 — have been linked to hyperactivity and cancer in a wide variety of artificial food coloring tests.
- Artificial Sweetener
- Acesulfame Potassium (Sunett) — Methylene chloride (a known carcinogen) is a by-product of the acesulfame potassium (ACK) creation process. However, the FDA states it does not expect methylene chloride to remain in the finished product due to: “(1) The multi-step purification process used in the manufacture of ACK and (2) the volatility of methylene chloride.”
- Splenda (Sucralose) — Splenda is the trade name for sucralose. Research notes that sucralose is made by adding more chlorine atoms to a sugar molecule. Notable side effects include bloating, gas, and diarrhea
- Sugar Alcohol
- Erythritol — If consumed in high amounts, erythritol can cause cramps, nausea, flatulence and diarrhea. While it is considered to be one of the safer sugar substitutes, people who overindulge on protein powder will exceed safe limits.
- Glycerin (Glycerol) — side effects include: diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and headache.
- Inositol — possible side effects include diarrhea, dizziness, flushing, itching, loss of appetite, nausea, upset stomach, and vomiting could occur if it is ingested in high quantities.
- Polydextrose — has the capacity to cause abdominal cramping, bloating, and excessive gas.
- Xylitol — gas, bloating, and diarrhea can occur with high dosages.
It’s important to note that these ingredients don’t just show up in supplements — they also appear in many of the snacks and candies nutritionists say to avoid. So if you’re going to make a point of staying away from artificial colors and sweeteners in your supplements, make sure you’re doing the same with everything you put in your body. “If you’re eating pizza and ice cream and candy every day, that’s going to be 20 million times worse for you than the artificial sweetener in a pre-workout supplement,” says Mawer. We’re not sure if 20 million is the exact figure, but you get the point.
ABB Speed Stack Pumped N.O., Beverly International Up-Lift, Carbon by Layne Norton Prep, Citadel Nutrition Tier 1, CNP Professional Pro-GF, Controlled Labs GlycerGrow 2, Controlled Labs STIMino, CytoSport Fast Twitch, CytoSport Monster Initiate, EAS Myoplex Pre-Workout, FINAFLEX Max Pump, FUSION BODYBUILDING Purple K Reps, Genomyx Endurate, Genomyx Glycerol Monosterate, GU Hydration Drink Mix, GU Hydration Drink Tabs, Inner Armour Impact N.O., Inner Armour Impact N.O. RTD, Inner Armour Muscle Rush Peak, iSatori Pre-Gro, LiveLong Nutrition GMS, Magnum Nutraceuticals OPUS, MAN Body Octane, MusclePharm Assault RTD, MuscleTech #Shatter SX-7, Myprotein MyPre, Nutrex OUTRAGE, ProMera Sports PEAK 400, Red Leaf Pre-Workout Energizer, S.A.N. Megatron, Sheer Strength Pre-Workout, Supreme Sports Enhancements AMPLIFY, True GRIT Pre, Ultimate Nutrition Horse Power
After cutting out all the junk and getting rid of products that might make users a little too jittery, we were finally able to arrive at our top picks. Of the remaining contenders, we favored those with the highest quantity of effective ingredients and the lowest quantity of superfluous nonsense. If there’s one word to describe our top picks, it’s “well-rounded.” These supplements don’t just rely on one ingredient to get the job done; they pull in everything from creatine to citrulline and round out the package with a nice kick of caffeine (or a milder stimulant like yerba mate).
Our Picks for the Best Pre-Workout Supplement
Yes, we love the name, but there’s a whole lot more to love about a clean, all-natural supplement that focuses on the ingredients that work and kicks all the other garbage to the curb. Gnarly Pump contains no artificial colors, flavors, or sweeteners and no proprietary blends that make you guess about the dose you’re taking.
More important, however, is what it does contain. Many of the experts we talked to recommend a supplement with nitric oxide boosters, which help to dilate blood vessels and increase blood flow to key muscles. Gnarly Pump contains two such boosters in arginine (5,000 mg) and citrulline (1,000 mg), plus 5,000 mg of creatine to help build lean muscle. In keeping with Gnarly’s focus on all-natural ingredients, the supplement also contains 60 mg of green tea extract, a natural source of caffeine that may help to modestly boost energy levels, but won’t lead to a crazy case of the jitters.
Again, all of these ingredients are clearly listed on the product’s label and present in quantities that might actually be effective. While effective doses may vary depending on factors such as weight and muscle mass, experts typically recommend daily doses of 2,000-5,000 mg of creatine, 3,000-5,000 mg of arginine, and 6,000-8,000 of citrulline (because arginine and citrulline are nitric oxide boosters, most supplements don’t max out both). What separates products like Gnarly Pump from the pre-workout pretenders is the fact that the ingredients aren’t just there for show. Nothing is “dusted” on top of the formula here, and every effective ingredient is present in significant amounts.
This isn’t always the case in an industry that tends to favor tricks over transparency, but Gnarly’s entire philosophy revolves around educating consumers about what they should put in their bodies — no promise of instant six packs. The company even runs a blog that’s frequently updated with helpful articles on how to avoid overtraining, what to eat before a marathon, and how to fill your diet with more veggies.
Choose between two flavors of powder, Crankin’ Cranberry and Orange Mango, both of which are naturally sweetened with plant-derived stevia extract.
As we mentioned earlier, not everyone responds to caffeine in the same way. “Some people who are particularly sensitive may metabolize it differently,” says Levinson. “They can get jittery, or it may cause a bit of upset stomach and send people running to the bathroom,” which is pretty much the last thing you want to happen in the middle of a bench press or a marathon.
This supplement comes with arginine (2,000 mg) to get blood flowing to muscles and creatine (1,000 mg) to build lean muscle mass. Though the doses may be smaller than what you get with Gnarly, this is both a pre-workout supplement and a post-workout supplement, so you really get double those amounts. S.A.N. CM2 Supreme also features beta-alanine, a nonessential amino acid that’s been shown to increase exercise capacity during short, high-intensity workouts.
All these benefits — and the fact that you don’t have to mix the tablets in water or hide them in a smoothie — more than make up for a lack of caffeine.
Lots of people think they’re not a “serious” enough athlete to take a pre-workout supplement, but not every product caters to bodybuilders and marathoners. Vega Sport Sugar-Free Energizer is specifically formulated for lower-intensity workouts like yoga, Pilates, and light jogs around the neighborhood. For most of us, these are the only types of workouts that fit within our busy schedules, so it makes sense to have a pre-workout supplement that offers a nice boost of energy after a long day of work.
Vega Sport Sugar-Free Energizer won’t blow everyone out of the gym, but it’s not designed to. Instead, it offers a variety of natural boosters like green tea and yerba mate, a mild stimulant that may even help with fat metabolism. If you tend to work out at a slower or more deliberate pace, this could very well be the supplement to give you that extra bit of energy and focus.
Other Pre-Workout Supplements to Consider
ProLab Caffeine Maximum Potency 200 mg Tablets ($8/100 servings) offer a clean source of caffeine for people that want to try out the stimulant on its own. These tablets are a much better option than energy drinks if caffeine is all you’re looking for, says Levinson. “Energy drinks not only contain caffeine, but also contain a lot of other ingredients that may not be beneficial,” she adds. “So it’s a good idea to reduce that as much as possible and get one of the cleanest sources we can.” Other good options include espresso shots and black coffee.
Beetroot extract or concentrated beet juice are also great options to add to your pre-workout routine. Both naturally stimulate nitric oxide production and dilate blood vessels to get blood flowing to muscles. Langford tends to prefer the extract, which comes in powder form. “With beet juice, a lot of times you have to drink a lot of it,” she says, which may be a no-go for people who don’t like the taste.
Did You Know?
The (not so scary) truth behind creatine.
Creatine is a top supplement that’s often looked upon with suspicion, despite its status as one of the most effective and well-researched supplements for building lean muscle mass. That’s ironic, says Mawer, because “creatine is actually safer than anything out there. It’s one of the safest supplements we’ve done studies on.” He has dedicated numerous articles to debunking the myths that creatine causes cramping (it may actually reduce cramps), fat increases (studies show it only affects lean body mass), and kidney problems (a long-term study revealed no negative side effects). Still, the stigma persists. “My parents were athletes and they still thought that I was going on dangerous stuff when I started taking creatine as a kid, and they’ve been in sports their whole life,” Mawer says. “It’s just a matter of education, I think.”
Most supplements can be taken throughout the day — not just before workouts.
The term “pre-workout supplements” is actually a bit of a misnomer, in the sense that you don’t necessarily have to take them immediately before a workout. Levinson agrees, for example, that creatine can help increase strength and power output, but she claims it doesn’t really matter when you take it. “I don’t think it needs to be taken as a pre-workout supplement,” she says. “As long as it’s taken throughout the course of the day consistently over a period of time, it’ll still have the same benefits.”
No supplement will help you if you don’t eat and live right.
There’s not a supplement in the world that can affect your workout performance more than a committed approach to eating healthfully and sleeping at least eight hours a night. That’s why so many nutrition experts emphasize a “food-first approach” before recommending any supplements to their clients. “I’m not anti-supplement,” says Langford, “but I’m generally not encouraging them to the majority of my clientele.” First, she goes through their daily eating habits to ensure that they’re getting enough vegetables and healthy carbohydrates, and then she’ll bring supplements into the conversation if they’re looking for that extra 1 percent or 2 percent boost.
Mawer also considers supplements only a small part of the equation. “With a lot of recreational athletes, there’s still a lot of areas that they could get bigger improvements on, such as being on a better training plan or a better diet or sleeping more,” he says. Supplements are an easy way to add a bit of nutrition, “but if you want to change someone’s diet or make them sleep two more hours a day, that could take weeks or months to do.” Those weeks and months are worth the effort for athletes who really want to see meaningful improvements.
The Bottom Line
Even the best pre-workout supplement can’t replace a balanced diet — but it can provide that extra boost you crave. Look for clinically proven ingredients like creatine, nitric oxide boosters, and a moderate amount of caffeine, and skip junk like artificial colors, sweeteners, steroids, and and banned substances.
Monitor your caffeine intake. As we noted earlier, experts recommend that most people not go over 400 mg of caffeine a day. Adding a supplement to your pre-workout routine can make it easy to go over that number, so it’s a good idea to keep a log listing all the caffeine sources you consume in a given day.
Stay hydrated. As far as your body is concerned, the most essential pre-workout supplement might be water. “Just being dehydrated by 2 percent can have a massive effect on exercise performance,” claims Mawer. Cells don’t function right when they’re dehydrated, and many athletes looking for meaningful gains should start by adding an extra glass of water to their pre-workout routine. This is especially important for those who take supplements with caffeine, as caffeine can pull water from cells when taken in large doses. “It does have an acute diuretic effect,” says Levinson, “so it can exacerbate the symptoms of dehydration or heat stroke.”
Never experiment with a new supplement on race day. Supplements affect different people differently, so it’s never a good idea to test one out on the day of a race or competition. Give yourself a few weeks to ease yourself into a new supplement and gauge how your body reacts to it. When it comes to the big day, the fewer surprises, the better.
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