The Best Pre-Workout Supplements
8 experts interviewed
300 supplements considered
3 top picks
The Best Pre-Workout Supplements
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.
How we chose the best pre-workout supplements
No steroids or banned/controversial substances
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. “Supplements aren’t regulated the same way that food products are,” explained 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.”
Unfortunately, there’s a vast grey area with most other ingredients — no authoritative research saying they’re 100 percent 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 herbs made from the bitter orange tree, which are found in many supplements. Bitter orange contains synephrine as well as octopamine — two chemicals linked to high blood pressure, strokes, and heart attacks. 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).
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.”
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. Other experts seem to agree that 400-450 mg a day won’t result in any adverse side effects. We cut any supplements with more than 200 mg of caffeine, an amount that our experts all agreed is safe and moderate.
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 more than 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.
The 3 Best Pre-Workout Supplements
Gnarly Nutrition Pump Pre-Workout Supplement
Why we chose it
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 its 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.
Points to consider
One serving of Gnarly Pump gives you 60 mg of caffeine, which is less than you’d get with one cup of coffee, and is pretty low by the standards of most pre-workout supplements. A number of reviews online love that the product is all-natural, but said that it just didn’t give them much of an energy boost. So you may not get the jitters from this product, but you won’t see dramatic, “wow”-inducing results either — expect a more subtle, natural lift to your workout.
Taste is subjective, and what appeals to one person might cause another to cringe. That being said, we found numerous internet reviews that were not fond of the cranberry and orange/mango flavors. One reviewer noted that the Crankin’ Cranberry tasted “like cough medicine and melted jello mixed.” In our own testing, we didn’t find the flavor to be that obnoxious; and we’d suggest you try it out yourself to see if it tickles your taste buds or not.
Vega Sport Pre-Workout Energizer
Why we chose it
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 — like yoga or Pilates. Experts recommend extra carbohydrates for endurance workouts because carbs delay fatigue and optimize muscle function.
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. It also delivers a good combination of natural boosters like green tea, which a 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. 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 a 75 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.
Points to consider
Doesn’t dissolve well
You start your workout early with this supplement, because it takes work to get it to dissolve nicely in water. Online reviews mention having to use a blender or shaking vigorously to get all the chunky bits broken up, and it tends to leave a bit of residue in the bottom of your glass.
This is a very minor quibble, but it’s worth noting that, especially with the lemon-lime flavor, it will stain if you spill it on your clothes.
S.A.N. Nutrition CM2 Supreme Creatine Supplement
Why we chose it
Everything but caffeine
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.
Points to consider
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.
Guide to Pre-Workout Supplements
How to find the right pre-workout supplement for you
Assess your workout
As we’ve already indicated with our choices, the type of workout you’re planning has a lot to do with the supplement you choose. If you’ve got a sustained cross training session on your schedule, for example, you need to focus on endurance and your ability to sustain your energy levels for an hour or more. But if it’s leg day and you’re doing squats for a shorter but more intense workout, energy isn’t as important and your muscles may be crying out for a product that builds them up and helps them recover. If you do both types of workouts on alternate days, consider investing in more than one product to give you the right kind of lift for each workout.
Never experiment 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.
Consider your gender
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.”
Guide to concerning ingredients
Not everything in a pre-workout supplement is good for you. Here’s a brief list of the concerning ingredients (and their side effects) we found in the pre-workout supplements we researched. Our top picks minimize these ingredients, but we had a hard time avoiding them entirely.
Pre-Workout Supplements FAQ
The Best Pre-Workout Supplements: Summed Up
More Supplement Reviews
Supplements can help you bring out the best in a variety of circumstances. Check out some of our other supplement reviews to get the full story in which ones offers the most benefit.