The Best Pre-Workout Supplement
The best pre-workout supplement has a mix of clinically proven ingredients: creatine and beta-alanine to super-charge anaerobic strength, plus caffeine and citrulline to improve endurance. It also skips junk ingredients like artificial colors and sweeteners. While no pill or powder is going to beat a healthy diet and good night’s sleep, the best pre-workout supplement will safely and conveniently give you that extra boost.
- March 15, 2018 - For this update, we re-evaluated all 318 of our contenders, looking for updated formulas and new players. In addition, we consulted new experts to gain more context about the pre-workout supplement space. All three of our top picks still hold up, so we’ve expanded our reviews of them, as well as our methodology.
- January 23, 2018 - We’ve updated this review to include updated research about potentially harmful substances, as well as a clearer methodology. While we’re still confident in our top picks, keep an eye out for further testing in the months to come.
The Best Pre-Workout 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.”
360CUT 360PRE, 6 Servings, 360CUT 360PUMP, 40 Servings, 360CUT 360Rage, 6 Servings, 4 Dimension Nutrition ATTI2UDE, 615 Grams, ABB Ripped Force, 12 – 18 Fl. Oz. Bottles, ABB Speed Shot, 12 – 8.5 Fl. Oz. Bottles, ABB Speed Stack, 12 – 18 Fl. Oz. Bottles, Adaptogen Science WARP 5, 30 Servings, AI Sports Nutrition Furious, 30 Servings, AllMax Nutrition Hemanovol , 30 Servings, AllMax Nutrition HemaNOvol, 240 CapTABS, AllMax Nutrition MUSCLEPRIME, 14 Servings, AllMax Nutrition Razor8, 1 Serving, ALPHA PRO NUTRITION UPLOAD, 30 Servings, ALPHA PRO NUTRITION VEX, 30 Servings, ANS Performance DILATE Powder, 5 Servings, ANS Performance RITUAL, 5 Servings, ANSI Xtreme Shock N.O. Powder, 323 Grams, ANSI Xtreme Shock, 12 – 12 Fl. Oz. Bottles, Applied Nutriceuticals Drive, 110 Capsules, Applied Nutriceuticals N.O.Vate, 15 Quick Dissolve Tablets, Applied Nutriceuticals RPM, 110 Capsules, Arnold Schwarzenegger Series Iron Pump, 30 Servings, Axis Labs Hemodraulix, 96 Liquid Softgels, Axis Labs N’Ergized Instantized N’Gage Amino, 30 Servings, Axis Labs Rainmaker, 30 Servings, Axis Labs SMA5H Compound 5, 45 Servings, Beast Sports Nutrition Beast Mode Black, 30 Servings, Beast Sports Nutrition Beast Mode, 30 Servings, Betancourt Nutrition B-Nox Androrush, 35 Servings, Betancourt Nutrition Pump’d, 56 Grams, Black Skull Bone Crusher, 300 Grams, Blackstone Labs Resurgence, Blue Star Nutraceuticals P.P.K., 30 Servings, Blue Star Nutraceuticals Power XD, 120 Capsules, Body Fortress NOS Concentrate, 250 Grams, Body Fortress Super NOS Blast, 16 Oz., Body Nutrition Mad Dog, 30 Servings, BPI Sports 1.M.R Vortex, 7 Servings, BPI Sports Best Pre Workout, 30 Servings, BPI Sports PUMP-HD, 5 Servings, BSN Hyper FX, 30 Servings, BSN N.O.-Xplode RTD, 12 – 16 Fl. Oz. Bottles, BSN N.O.-Xplode XE Edge, 30 Servings, BSN N.O.-Xplode, 30 Servings, BSN N.O.-Xplode, 30 Servings – Caffeine Free, BSN Nitrix 2.0, 90 Tablets, Cellucor C4 – GEN 3, 30 Servings, Cellucor C4 50x, 30 Servings, Cellucor C4 Mass, 30 Servings, Cellucor C4 Neuro, 30 Servings, Cellucor C4 On The Go, 1 – 10 Fl. Oz. Bottle, Cellucor C4 Ripped, 30 Servings, Cellucor C4, 5 Servings, Cellucor NO3 Chrome, 90 Capsules, Champion Performance ADRENOL8, 1.8 Lbs., Champion Performance Turbulence, 30 Servings, COBRA LABS The Curse, 3 Servings, Controlled Labs Green Bulge, 150 Capsules, Controlled Labs Green MAGnitude, 1 Serving, Controlled Labs Purple Wraath, 10 Servings, Controlled Labs White Pipes, 10 Servings, Controlled Labs White Rapids, 10 Servings, Core Nutritionals FURY Extreme, 28 Servings, Core Nutritionals Pump, 28 Servings, CTD Sports Noxivol Powder, 45 Servings, CTD Sports Noxivol, 180 Tablets, Cutler Nutrition Legend PRO, 30 Servings, Cutler Nutrition Legend, 7 Servings, CytoSport Fast Twitch RTD, 12 – 16.9 Fl. Oz. Bottles, DreamBrands Mdrive Elite, 90 Capsules, Dymatize M.P.ACT, 30 Servings, Dynamik Muscle Savage Roar, 30 Servings, EPIQ EPIQ Power, 40 Servings, EPIQ Stryke, 60 Servings, ErgoGenix ErgoAmino+, 50 Servings, ErgoGenix ErgoBlast, 30 Servings, EVLUTION NUTRITION BCAA Energy, 5 Servings, EVLUTION NUTRITION ENGN, 20 Servings – Caffeine Free, EVLUTION NUTRITION ENGN, 3 Servings, Evogen EVP Plus, 40 Servings, Evogen EVP, 40 Servings, Femme Nutrition ZIP, 135 Grams, FINAFLEX STIMUL8 CAPS, 120 Capsules, FINAFLEX STIMUL8, 10 Servings, FitMiss Ignite, 30 Servings, Force Factor BRX, 40 Servings, Force Factor VolcaNO, 120 Capsules, Fuel:One 6th Gear, 30 Servings, Gamma Labs G FUEL, 40 Servings, Gaspari Nutrition SuperPump MAX, 640 Grams, GAT JetFUSE NOX, 2.35 Lbs., GAT NITRAFLEX, 7 Servings, GAT NITRAFLEX, 8 Packets, GAT PMP Stim-Free, 7 Servings, GAT PMP, 7 Servings, Genomyx EVOL, 40 Servings, Genomyx STIMaholic, 10 Servings, Gifted Nutrition Accelerate PreWorkout, 30 Servings, Grenade .50 Caliber, 5 Servings, GU Energy Chews, 24 – 1 Oz. Packets – Caffeine Free, GU Energy Chews, 24 – 1 Oz. Packets – w/ Caffeine, GU GU Energy Gel, 8 Pack, GU Roctane Ultra Endurance Energy Drink, 10 Packets, GU Roctane, 24 Pack, Gym Angel Energy Angel, 30 Servings, HALEO VICI, 20 Servings, Hi-Tech Pharmaceuticals N.O. Overload, High Energy Labs Galvanized N.O., 363 Grams, HIT Supplements Built Pre Workout, 30 Servings, HIT Supplements Igniter Extreme Women Only, 30 Servings, HIT Supplements Igniter Extreme, 30 Servings, HIT Supplements Peak Perform, 5 Servings, Human Evolution Dragon Override, 30 Servings, Human Evolution Extreme Override – Size Series, 20 Servings, Human Evolution Extreme OverRide, 35 Servings, iForce Nutrition HemaVol Powder, 10 Packets, iForce Nutrition Max Out, 30 Servings, Infinite Labs Juggernaut HP, 60 Servings, Infinite Labs Juggernaut X, 21 Servings, iSatori Energize, 84 Tablets, iSatori Pre-Gro Max, 60 Servings, John Scott’s Nitro Amino Armor, 270 Capsules, John Scott’s Nitro Shot, 1.65 Lbs., Kaged Muscle PRE-KAGED, 20 Servings, Labrada PE1, 30 Servings, Labrada Power Carb Gametime, 2.2 Lbs., Labrada Super Charge Pre-Workout, 5 Servings, Labrada Super Charge Stim Free Pre Workout, 5 Servings – Stim Free, Lecheek Nutrition Hottie, 30 Servings, Lecheek Nutrition PumpX3, 40 Servings, Lecheek Nutrition Speed X3 Test, 40 Servings, Liftag Sport ULift, 390 Grams, Magnum Nutraceuticals Hi5, 24 Servings, Magnum Nutraceuticals Limitless, 4 Servings, Magnum Nutraceuticals Rocket Science, 10 Capsules, Magnum Nutraceuticals SERUM, 40 Servings, MAN Game Day, 8 Servings, MAN NOOPump, 10 Servings, MAN PepTest BULK, 35 Servings, MAN Pump Powder, 30 Servings, MET-Rx Advanced Creatine Blast, 3.17 Lbs., MET-Rx Extreme NOS Pumped, 12 – 16.9 Fl. Oz. Bottles, MET-Rx Nuclear X, 24 Servings, MET-Rx Thermo Rush, 12 – 16.9 FL Oz. Bottles, Metabolic Nutrition E.S.P. Pre-Workout, MHP Clinical Strength NO-Bomb, 90 Capsules, MHP Fit Trainer, 40 Servings, MHP Trac Extreme-NO, 775 Grams, Millennium Sport Agmatine Elite, 60 DR-Caps, Millennium Sport CRE-02, 90 EC-Tabs, Millennium Sport INFINIT-E, 910 Grams, Millennium Sport Nitroceps Elite, 120 DR-Caps, MRI Anabolic Switch, 2 Lbs., MRI BLACK POWDER ULTRA, 40 Servings, MRI Black Powder, 20 Sticks, MRI Black Powder, 800 Grams, MRI EO2 EDGE, 300 Grams, MRI NO2 Black Full Cycle, 150 Caplets, MRM All Natural Driven, 350 Grams, Muscle Elements PreCre XS, 30 Servings, Muscle Elements PreCre, 30 Servings, MuscleMeds NO Bull XMT, 230 Grams, MusclePharm Hardcore Wreckage, 20 Servings, MuscleTech Anarchy, 3 Servings, MuscleTech Gakic VO2 Max SX-7, 128 Caplets, MuscleTech Nano Vapor, MuscleTech NeuroCore Pre-Workout, 40 Servings, MuscleTech Plasma Muscle, 84 Capsules, MUTANT Pump, 154 Capsules, Myogenix HYPERSHOCK RAGE – Caffeine-Free, 40 Servings, Myogenix HYPERSHOCK RAGE, 40 Servings, Myokem NITRAMINE , 30 Servings, Myonox Pre-Workout Powder, Neogenix Bodyforge Ultra, 30 Servings, Neogenix Neurosurge 3.0, 30 Servings, Neon Sport Volt, 36 Servings, New Whey Nutrition Beta NOX, 680 Grams, New Whey Nutrition BetaNOX, 12 Pack, NLA for Her Uplift, 40 Servings, Novex Biotech Prime, 30 Servings, Novex Biotech Prime, 4 Pouches, Nutrabolics Supernova, 20 Servings, Nutrabolics SWOLLEN, 36 Grams, Nutrex HEMO-RAGE Black Ultra Concentrate, 30 Servings, Nutrex Niox, 120 Capsules, Nutrex Outlift, 5 Servings, Nutrex Outrage Shots, 1 – 4 Fl. Oz. Bottle, Nutrex Research Hemo Rage Black, NutriForce Sports PreWOD NS, 280 Grams, NutriForce Sports PreWOD, 392 Grams, OhYeah! Nutrition Rush, 30 Servings, Old School Labs Vintage Blast, Olympian Labs E Force, 30 Servings, Optimum Nutrition Essential AmiN.O. Energy, 10 Servings, Optimum Nutrition Essential AmiN.O. Energy, 12 – 16 Fl. Oz. Bottles, Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Pre-Workout, 4 Servings, Optimum Nutrition Platinum PRE-, 112 Grams, Panthera Labs Kardio Fire, 5 – Serving Sample, Panthera Labs Primal Pump, 180 Tablets, Panthera Labs VME – Vaso Muscle Expander, 2 Lbs., Performix ION, 10 Servings, Performix Iridium Series IONi, 40 Servings, Performix PUMP, 40 Servings, PEScience High Volume, 18 Servings, PharmaFreak SUPER FREAK, 50 Grams, Platinum Labs Defcon 1, 30 Servings, Pride Nutrition Retaliate, 780 Grams, Prime Nutrition MAX-HP, 10 Servings, Pro Supps DR. JEKYLL, 30 Servings, Pro Supps MR. HYDE, 15 Servings, Pro Supps NO3 Drive Powder, 30 Servings, Pro Supps NO3 Drive, 90 Capsules, Prolab QUICK FIRE, 130 Grams, ProMera Sports AMINO-TREN, 6 Servings, ProMera Sports Beta-Cret 2.0, 5 Servings, ProMera Sports WOMEN’S ELITE, 36 Servings, QNT International HYDRAVOL, 1.8 Lbs., Revolution Nutrition BullDose Pump, 40 Servings, RIVALUS Powder Burn 2.0, 10 Servings, Ronnie Coleman Signature Series Stacked-N.O. Powder, 120 Grams, Ronnie Coleman Signature Series Stacked-N.O., 12 Capsules, Ronnie Coleman Signature Series Yeah Buddy, 0.52 Lbs., RSP Nutrition AgmaGen, 10 Servings, RSP Nutrition Agmatine Sulfate, 100 Servings, RSP Nutrition AminoLean, 5 Servings, RSP Nutrition DyNO, 5 Servings, RSP Nutrition Fast Fuel, 5 Servings, Ryno Power Gladiator, 12 Sticks, S.A.N. Fierce Domination, 10 Servings, S.A.N. LAUNCH 4350 RELOADED, 278 Grams, SciVation Xtend Perform, 44 Servings, SES Nutrition Prime Blast, 30 Servings, Six Star Pro Nutrition N.O. Fury Caplets, 60 Caplets, Six Star Pro Nutrition Pre-Workout Explosion, 30 Servings, Six Star Pro Nutrition Pre-Workout Ignition, 240 Grams, SizeSlim Pre-Workout Focus + Stamina, 30 Servings, SNAC XPEDITE, 320 Grams, SNI Hardcore Series Nitric Shock, StrongGirl BCAA, 30 Servings, StrongGirl Pre-Workout, 30 Servings, Swole Sports Nutrition PreWrek, 30 Servings, Top Secret Nutrition Astravar, 30 Veggie Caps, Top Secret Nutrition Cardio Igniter, 30 Servings, Top Secret Nutrition Pump Igniter Black, 30 Servings, Total Body Nutrition 1,3D NOX, Twinlab Nitric Fuel, 90 Tablets, Twinlab Pro-Series MVP Fuel, 30 Servings, Ubervita RocT Workout Igniter, Universal Nutrition Animal Pump, 30 Packs, Universal Nutrition Animal Rage XL, 30 Servings, Universal Nutrition NOX3, 180 Tablets, Universal Nutrition Shock Therapy, 200 Grams, Universal Nutrition Storm, 80 Servings, USN 3XT-Pump, 40 Servings, USN Amino Stim, 30 Servings, USN B4 Burn, 30 Servings, USN B4-Bomb, 360 Grams, USP Labs Jack3d, VPX Redline White Heat, 40 Servings, VPX SHOTGUN 5X, 28 Servings
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.
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 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:
- Red 40 — Has been proven to promote hyperactivity in children and 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 and 2 — Have been linked to hyperactivity and cancer in a wide variety of artificial food coloring tests.
- Acesulfame Potassium (Sunett) — Methylene chloride (a known carcinogen) is a by-product of the acesulfame potassium (ACK) creation process. 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,” but the connection remains.
- 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.
- 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 pre-workout supplements 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 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.
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 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.”