The Best Pre-Workout Supplements

A lift before you lift
The 30-Second Review

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.

Top Picks
Best Overall

A well-rounded powder with nitric oxide boosters to increase blood flow, creatine to build lean muscle, and green tea for energy — with no junk ingredients "dusted" on top.

Other Top Picks

The Best Pre-Workout Supplements

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.

Our Picks for the Best Pre-Workout Supplement

Best Overall

Gnarly Pump There’s no supplement that's one-size-fits-all, but this one checks off the most boxes.

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.

Best Caffeine-Free Supplement

S.A.N. CM2 Supreme An effective option for those who are particularly sensitive to caffeine — or just don't want it as part of their supplement.

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.

Best for Low-Intensity Workouts

Vega Sport Sugar-Free Energizer Specifically formulated for workouts like yoga, Pilates, and light jogs around the neighborhood.

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.

Pre-workout Supplements
Best For...
Gnarly Pump
Pre-Workout Supplements
S.A.N. CM2 Supreme
Caffeine-Free Supplement
Vega Sport Sugar-Free Energizer
Low-Intensity Workouts

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Best Overall

Gnarly Pump The most potent combination of clinically proven ingredients in one package.

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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  • Zhang M., Izumi I., Kagamimori S., Sokejima S., Yamagami T., Liu Z., & Qi B. (2004). Role of taurine supplementation to prevent exercise-indused oxidative stress in healthy young men. Amino Acids, 26(2): 203-7.