A Guide to Pre-Workout Ingredients

11 Common Pre-Workout Ingredients: Which Ones Are Important?

Pre-workout drink mixes have become increasingly popular over the last decade in the health industry due to the many purported benefits from their consumption.

As the field has grown, research has expanded and we have come across a wide variety of different pre-workout ingredients that have been shown to increase performance in the gym. These advances in the field have been accompanied with scandal as well. From fake to harmful ingredients, supplement companies have tried it all with pre-workouts. This is why it is important to understand the ingredients on the label so you can determine what is not only effective but safe as well.

The 5 Most Important Pre-Workout Ingredients: BCAA, Creatine, Caffeine, Beta-Alanine and Citrulline

There are several common key ingredients that we see in many pre-workouts. The most common five are BCAA’s, creatine, caffeine, beta-alanine, and citrulline. All 5 of these ingredients have had an adequate amount of research on them to determine their positive effects on performance.

BCAA’s

BCAA’s or branched chain amino acids consists of the amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine.

Consumption of BCAA’s has been shown to increase muscle protein synthesis due to the stimulation of the mTor pathway via leucine. Consumption has also shown minor increases in endurance and fat oxidation making it a nice addition to a pre-workout.

The recommended dose does depend on an individual's weight; however, 3 grams of leucine is typically required to stimulate protein synthesis so a 3:1:1 ratio of the three amino acids is recommended.

Learn more about branch chain amino acids​.

Creatine

Creatine is an amino acid that is produced by the body but can also be acquired through diet or supplemental intake. Creatine in the body is broken down to produce energy and support the function of the muscle cells.

Supplementing with creatine has been shown increase the concentration of creatine in the muscle, increase power output, and increase lean body mass. 

There are many forms of creatine on the market; however, creatine monohydrate is the form that has been studied the most and shown the most benefit. You will often hear people make the claim that creatine will lead to water retention making people think they will bloat from consuming it. This water retention discovered in the retention is intramuscular or inside the muscle; which is important for cell hydration and potentially muscle hypertrophy.

Creatine has been proven to be safe but can be accompanied with gastric distress so one should test their tolerance. Most of the literature states that 5g is the recommended dose.

Caffeine

Caffeine is a very common ingredient found in almost every pre-workout. Most are aware of the stimulatory effects of caffeine but there are also potential performance benefits as well. Research has shown caffeine can increase endurance, power output, fat oxidation, and reaction time.

Certain people may experience adverse effects to taking caffeine so again one should test their tolerance. Recommended dosing is around 200 mg but is subject to change based on bodyweight.

Learn more about caffeine.

Beta-alanine

Beta-alanine, another amino acid, has increasingly gained popularity over the last few years. Beta-alanine can act as a muscle buffer which can lead to increased muscular endurance and decrease fatigue. There are also some studies suggesting that it can increase lean mass but this could be due to the increased training volume experienced as a result of increased muscular endurance.

Beta-alanine is also an ingredient that can be responsible for the tingly feeling that you experience from taking your pre-workout. This is a harmless side effect but some people may not enjoy experiencing this. Recommended dosing appears to be between 2 and 5 grams pre-workout. 

Learn more about Beta-Alanine​

Citrulline

Citrulline, again an amino acid, has also gained more and more exposure over the last few years.

When consumed, citrulline is converted to L-arginine. In fact, consumption of citrulline leads to higher increases in circulating arginine levels than arginine consumption alone. Citrulline has been shown to have cardiovascular health benefits as well as increasing blood flow, training volume, and endurance.

The most common form of citrulline is citrulline malate and should be consumed at 8g per dose.

Just because your pre-workout contains these ingredients doesn’t mean that it is a good supplement.

Often these ingredients are underdosed as a way to cut cost. For some of the ingredients, there is conflicting evidence depending on which study you read. The human body is extremely difficult to study so it's not surprising that for many of these substances, which just started to gain popularity, more research is needed. 

3 Common Unnecessary Pre-Workout Ingredients : L-Carnitine, Glutamine and Niacin

There are several other ingredients commonly found in pre-workouts that may not have much upside.

Theoretically, many of the ingredients in this class could be beneficial but the scientific community has yet to link these ingredients to any training benefits.

We will be discussing the ingredients l-carnitine, glutamine and niacin. 

We also discuss the drawbacks of caffeine in this section and potential reasons why supplement companies might amp up the caffeine dosage.

L-Carnitine

Carnitine is a compound found in the body and is an important part of energy metabolism.

Endogenously, or in the body, carnitine is responsible for the transport of fatty acids into the mitochondria of the cell for oxidation. Due to its physiology, it is thought that supplemental consumption of the compound will increase fat oxidation. 

Theoretically, this sounds great; however, there are studies that have shown l-carnitine consumption can increase the oxidation of the fat you consume but not the oxidation of your body fat. There are other potential benefits of consuming carnitine but it is typically not the benefits that people are thinking they are getting.

Glutamine

Glutamine is an amino acid that has been thought to increase muscle mass and enhance recovery.

It is thought that it could increase muscle protein synthesis leading to gains in muscle. There is some research suggesting that if someone is deficient in glutamine then they could benefit from a glutamine supplement and there is also a slew of other potential benefits not related to muscle mass. 

Niacin (Vitamin B3)

Niacin is often put in pre-workouts to elicit a stimulation feeling. Often times you will hear someone say they have flushing of the face or tingly face and think that it is due to the beta-alanine we previously discussed.

Certain pre-workouts actually underdose their beta-alanine and add niacin to produce this response. It is important to note this because it can tell you a lot about the quality of the product you are taking. 

Caffeine

We discussed some of the potential benefits of caffeine consumption prior to your work out, but there are also some things to be aware of with caffeine.

Many companies place high amounts of caffeine in their pre-workouts so people will experience notable increases in their energy, as well as training volume. This is typically a way to cover for the lack of beneficial ingredients in their product.

Additionally, consuming high amounts of caffeine can lead to adverse side effects. Caffeine can also be disguised on nutrition labels as 3-Dimethylamylamine.

3 Pre-Workout Ingredients That Need Further Studies: Ashwagandha, Betaine, Alpha-GPC

There is another class of ingredients that have shown some great potential as pre-workout ingredients but there has not been extensive research on them to determine their benefits or optimal doses.

The three ingredients we will be talking about are ashwagandha, betaine, and alpha-gpc. Each of these ingredients have shown benefit to be used for a pre-workout; however, we need a lot more research to enhance our understanding and optimize their use.

Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is a herb that can have a nootropic effect (an effect on the brain). The herb has been popularly used in cancer patients due to its ability to reduce stress and anxiety; however, this could have potential benefits when taken as a pre-workout.

Ashwagandha can lead to an increased sense of well-being which could have a very positive effect on an individual’s time in the gym. Supplemental dosing is recommended to be around 300-500 mg but we are still not sure if this is the most effective dosing.

Betaine

Betaine, another amino acid, has been shown to have several different cardiovascular benefits. In addition, it has also been shown to increase power output and endurance.

The literature on this is limited currently and so are recommendations on the optimal dosing. Expect more research to come out on this ingredients as a potential performance enhancer.

Alpha-GPC

Alpha-GPC was actually first discovered as a supplement to decrease cognitive decline and was used in Alzheimer patients.

Further research revealed that it could lead to increases in power output and small increases in growth hormone levels. Again, much more research is needed on this ingredient but it appears to have the potential to be a popular pre-workout ingredient.

There are many other pre-workout ingredients found on the market that we did not mention here. This was due to extreme lack of quality information on many of these ingredients. This is why it is important to do your research on a product before you buy it.

In my opinion, sticking to the ingredients that we know are safe and work is the best way to go when tring to determine the best pre-workout supplement for your needs.

It's worth mentioning, you can buy most of these ingredients as stand-alone powders that you can either mix into your favorite pre-workout to make it better or use to make your own pre-workout!