The Best Pre-Workout Supplement
Best for Strength Workouts
Best for Endurance Workouts
Best Caffeine-Free Supplement
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. ($45)
This supplement ditches muscle builders in favor of more carbs and gentler caffeine sources like green tea and yerba mate, making it perfect for lower-intensity workouts. ($40)
All the beneficial boosters without the caffeine, making this a great choice for people with caffeine sensitivity. ($30)
The Best Pre-Workout Supplement
- Gnarly Nutrition Pump -
Best for Strength Workouts
- Vega Sport Sugar-Free Energizer -
Best for Endurance Workouts
- S.A.N. CM2 Supreme -
Best Caffeine-Free Supplement
Gnarly Nutrition Gnarly Pump is our top pick for a safe, natural pre-workout supplement for athletes at all levels. While there’s no single pre-workout supplement that features every energy booster, muscle builder, and focus sharpener out there, 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’s ultra transparent about every ingredient it contains.
If getting ripped isn’t your main concern when working out, Vega Sport Sugar-Free Energizer is a great option for low-intensity workouts like yoga and Pilates. It skips out on the creatine and amino that help build muscle in strength workouts — instead, it 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. It also contains a higher amount of carbohydrates than our other picks, making it more effective for endurance workouts.
For those who get enough caffeine in the rest of their day — or just don’t react well to the stimulant — S.A.N. CM2 Supreme is a caffeine-free supplement that’s great at building lean muscle without an unwanted energy boost. It has arginine to get the blood flowing to your muscles, creatine to build lean muscle mass, and the amino acid beta-alinine, which increases endurance during high-intensity strength workouts. We did prefer Gnarly Pump’s mixable powder to CM2 Supreme’s six-tablet servings, but it ultimately wasn’t a dealbreaker for those who are sensitive to stimulants.
How We Found the Best Pre-Workout Supplement
Spoiler alert: The best pre-workout supplement isn’t a supplement at all. Every sports nutritionist we talked to emphasized a “food-first approach,” with a focus on fruits, vegetables, and pre-workout meals rich in carbohydrates. Stella Metsovas, a former USA competitive swimmer and author of Wild Mediterranean, told us, “Supplements should never replace the nutrient quality found in whole foods,” adding that you should focus first on “a healthy balance of macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, and fat) around two to three hours before your training session.”
Still, supplements can make a difference when combined with good eating habits. Lindsay Langford, sports dietitian for SVSP, says, “I do feel that when you’re working with athletes especially, a lot of time there’s room for that extra one or two percent that we can get from a supplement.”
To find the best pre-workout supplement, we started with more than 300 of the most widely-available 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 ingredients, banned substances, or proprietary blends.
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. “Supplements aren’t regulated the same way that food products are,” confirms Dylan Ketchum, creator of vegan plant-based protein drink UpWild. “We encourage consumers to be very careful, since most supplement claims are often not substantiated by any real scientific research.”
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. With that in mind, we gathered every ingredient found in our contenders — around 300 total — then cross-referenced those ingredients with clinical studies and information from expert sports nutritionists. We also referenced Examine.com, an independent encyclopedia of ingredients that draws upon research from thousands of scientific studies.
To start, we made sure all of the formulas we considered don’t contain any form of steroids or banned substances, so any ingredients prohibited by the NCAA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, or the FDA were immediately cut.
Unfortunately, there’s a vast grey area with most other ingredients — no authoritative research saying they’re 100% safe or harmful. Even creatine, one of the most thoroughly studied nutrition substances on the planet, still has its naysayers. For most ingredients, there isn’t enough long-term research to definitively assess their effects.
However, there are some ingredients whose reputations lean more heavily negative. One example 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 — which is a fairly common ingredient in workout supplements. To err on the side of caution, we cut any supplements with controversial ingredients that had too little research to ease our concerns.
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).
Finally, we eliminated any products with suspect “proprietary blends.” Companies aren’t required by law to disclose what’s in these mixes or in what quantities, so they can get away with a lot of filler. The concern isn’t necessarily hiding dangerous ingredients — those would have to be listed — but rather, excessive amounts of ingredients that don’t have any real benefit.
Daniel Nyiri, personal trainer and CEO of 4U Fitness, is adamant about this, saying, “Always avoid pre-workouts with proprietary blends. The majority of the time these blends are used to deceive the customer. Companies will often hide under-dosed and/or ineffective ingredients in fancy ‘blends’ or ‘matrixes’. It’s important to use products from companies that are transparent about their ingredients so you know exactly what you’re consuming.”
We eliminated supplements with more than 200 mg of caffeine.
With 85 percent of the US population consuming caffeine on a daily basis, it’s one of the most commonly used substances in the world. Sports nutrition expert Marie Spano referred to it as “perhaps the most studied ergogenic aid,” and there’s no doubt that it can be a powerful workout aid when consumed in safe doses. One study in Sports Medicine found that athletes can “train at a greater power output and/or train longer” after caffeine consumption. Another study in the British Journal of Sports Science found that testers who drank a cup of coffee before a 1,500-meter run finished 4.2 seconds faster than those who didn’t.
And the benefits don’t stop at performance: Researchers at the University of Illinois found that “caffeine resulted in a large reduction in leg-muscle pain-intensity” in one study on the drug. Simin Levinson, a clinical assistant professor in the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University, also notes that caffeine helps to reduce the perception of exertion. “The athlete can work harder without really feeling that they’re expending that much energy. It can also help provide additional mental focus and clarity.”
Mitchell Zandes, registered dietitian and certified strength and conditioning specialist, went as far as to say, “Caffeine is, without a doubt, the number one ingredient consumers should be looking for in a pre-workout supplement… In my professional opinion, the remainder of popular ingredients don't matter much in the immediate pre-workout period. These items are mostly built around hype and marketing without contributing much to performance."
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. But 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.
Daily Caffeine Doses Are Unlikely to Be Harmful
Via Mayo Clinic.
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. We cut any supplements with more than 200 mg of caffeine, an amount that our experts all agreed is safe and moderate. Make sure to plan your diet, and try not to go over that daily 400 mg mark — if you suspect that your body might be able to tolerate a higher dosage, consult with your doctor first.
We got rid of supplements with artificial colors and sweeteners.
Most of the studies available on artificial sweeteners and colors don’t provide conclusive results, but we felt that there was enough controversy surrounding them that they warranted a second look. As an article from the Harvard Medical School puts it, “Whether non-nutritive sweeteners are safe depends on your definition of safe. Studies leading to FDA approval have ruled out cancer risk, for the most part. However, those studies were done using far smaller amounts of diet soda than the 24 ounces a day consumed by many people who drink diet soda. We really don’t know what effect large amounts of these chemicals will have over many years.” The European Union has also banned many artificial colors and sweeteners completely, making it harder justify including them in products we’re recommending.
Experts tend to agree. Back when we found the best protein powder, we asked over 4,000 registered dieticians for their opinions on safe ingredients, 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.
Here’s a brief list of the concerning ingredients (and their side effects) we found in the pre-workout supplements we researched:
After cutting out all the junk and getting rid of products that might make users a little too jittery, we were down to 13 promising formulas. Of the remaining contenders, we favored those with the highest quantity of effective ingredients and the lowest quantity of superfluous nonsense. We prioritized ingredients like beta-alanine and creatine, which help support lean muscle growth, while docking points for things like Acetyl L-Carnitine, an amino acid typically used to treat mental disorders.
The 13 Pre-Workout Supplements We Tested
- Dymatize Pursuit-Rx Pre Workout
- Gnarly Nutrition Gnarly Pump
- Infinite Labs Arginine AKG
- Labrada GlycoCarn
- Labrada Jamie Eason Signature Series Stimulant Free Pre-Workout
- LiveLong Nutrition Glucuronolactone
- MMUSA Formula 99+
- MuscleTech Muscle Builder
- NutriForce Sports CarnoSyn Beta Alanine
- S.A.N. CM2 Supreme
- Vega Sport Pre-Workout Energizer
- Vega Sport Pre-Workout Energizer
- Vega Sport Sugar-Free Energizer
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) to support workouts of all intensities.
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 ($45) contains no artificial colors, flavors, or sweeteners and no proprietary blends that make you guess 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 boost energy levels without leading to a case of the jitters.
Gnarly’s entire philosophy revolves around transparency in their products and educating consumers about what they should put in their bodies — no false promise of instant six packs. All of their products are free of GMOs, hormones, and artificial sweeteners, a commitment that we only saw matched by Vega. 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. We’ll be honest, we got pretty immune to the sports nutrition marketing hype throughout our search. But Gnarly managed to break through that fatigue with genuinely inspiring articles about living a life of wellness. We highly recommend checking it out.
Choose between two flavors of powder, Crankin’ Cranberry and Orange Mango, both of which are naturally sweetened with plant-derived stevia extract.
Many 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 ($40) is specifically formulated for lower-intensity workouts like yoga, Pilates, and light jogs around the neighborhood.
Vega Sport Sugar-Free Energizer doesn’t have muscle-builders like creatine and beta-alanine, because that’s not what it’s designed for. Instead, it has 16 grams of carbohydrates per serving — compared to four grams for Gnarly Pump and zero for S.A.N. — making it an excellent choice for workouts that require more sustained, if less taxing, effort. Experts recommend extra carbohydrates for endurance workouts because carbs delay fatigue and optimize muscle function.
Vega also 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 without making you feel too jittery for a calmer workout like yoga. Vega includes several ingredients that promote overall gut health like ginseng, turmeric, and ginger. While they’re not proven to directly impact exercise performance, their benefits carry over well beyond the gym.
We were also extremely impressed with the overall quality of Vega’s ingredients. Labdoor, an independent company that tests health supplements for safety and efficacy, gave Vega an 85 out of 100 for ingredient safety (compared to an average of 58). Aside from its stellar safety score, Vega is also one of the only supplements we saw that is certified both vegan and gluten-free.
Everyone responds to caffeine a little differently. If you know you’re sensitive to it or if you’re already exceeding the recommended amount in your normal diet, S.A.N. CM2 Supreme is totally caffeine-free. It still has all the lean muscle-building ingredients we loved in Gnarly Pump, just without the additional energy booster. Without any caffeine, you’ll also lose some of the sharpened focus that is a big appeal of other pre-workout supplements, but it had everything else we were looking for.
This supplement comes with arginine (2,000 mg), a nitric oxide booster that promotes blood flow to your muscles, and creatine (1,000 mg), one of the most proven lean muscle builders around. While the doses of these ingredients are less than what you get with Gnarly, this is both a pre- and post-workout supplement, so you’re really getting double those amounts. S.A.N. CM2 Supreme also has one productive ingredient that we missed in Gnarly Pump: beta-alanine, a nonessential amino acid that’s been shown to increase exercise capacity during short, high-intensity workouts.
The only thing we weren’t crazy about was the form: Instead of a mixable powder, CM2 Supreme comes in tablet form. S.A.N. recommends six tablets per serving, so you could end up swallowing as many as 12 pills per day if you take them before and after your workouts. We found the supplements that mixed into a drink to be much, well, easier to swallow, particularly if you’re taking your supplements on the go.
It is slightly cheaper than Gnarly — 40 servings at $41.94 compared to 30 at $38.95 — but the lower levels of creatine and arginine make this difference pretty negligible.
Tips for Staying Safe with Your Pre-Workout Supplement
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.
Supplement your supplements with plenty of water.
As far as your body is concerned, the most essential pre-workout supplement is water. “Being dehydrated by two 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.
Misconceptions About Pre-Workout Supplements
Creatine isn’t dangerous, despite its reputation.
Despite its status as one of the most effective and well-researched supplements for building lean muscle mass, creatine is often looked upon with suspicion. That’s ironic, explains Rudy Mawer, an elite sports nutritionist and researcher who has worked with everyone from NBA players to Olympic gold medalists. “Creatine is actually safer than anything out there. It’s one of the safest supplements we’ve done studies on.”
Mawer 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,” he says. “It’s just a matter of education, I think.”
That being said, creatine's energy-boosting properties may be better suited to strength workouts than endurance — those bursts of energy don't necessarily benefit drawn-out workouts like yoga. It's also not totally necessary to take creatine immediately before your workout. Levinson says, “I don’t think it needs to be taken as a pre-workout supplement. 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.”
The best pre-workout supplement for women is no different than that for men.
While necessary ingredients won’t change, experts recommended that women keep a closer eye on dosage when looking for a pre-workout supplement. Spano says, “Women will need to carefully look at the amounts of each ingredient because of smaller body size. There are some ingredients that they may need in smaller amounts, particularly stimulants.” All of our top picks contain safe dosages, but if you’re still concerned, you might consider reducing the serving sizes.
There’s also some stigma around women taking muscle-building substances like creatine, but all the research has concluded that it’s just as beneficial for women as men. One study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research reported, “Men and women experience similar improvements in exercise performance following creatine supplementation, but women show a lesser increase in lean body mass.”