There are many choices when your looking to purchase the best preworkout supplements and it is in our best interest to understand what ingredients are effective and what ingredients are just filler. We are looking to identify what is optimal in terms of building muscle for resistance trained athletes. If you prefer to just have a cup of coffee and head to the gym, there is nothing wrong with that either. We are going to be looking at some of the top pre-workout supplements available on the market today. We will attempt to decode the ingredient’s list to help you make the best possible choice in regards to your pre-workout. Why? Well, because this day in age we have something called science and accurate data does not lie. Good marketing can be very deceiving because well when someone wants to sell you something, they’ll pretty much tell you anything. Our basic ingredient list that we look for in our pre-workouts include the following:
Creatine: Creatine monohydrate is one of the most effective and most studied supplements available on the market today. It acts as an energy supply for muscle and helps in the production of ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate). Although we derive creatine from food sources such as meat, it is suggested that we consume it as a supplement because we can only produce so much from a high protein diet (around 1G per day1). Vegetarians are also advised to supplement with creatine especially as their diets produce significantly less creatine. Claims from supplement companies say that it increases overall size and strength. Actual science proves that supplementing creatine monohydrate along with a resistance training program has been shown to increase overall muscular strength2.Based off this evidence, we highly suggest looking for a product containing creatine monohydrate. With many supplements on the market, you will discover that they use other forms of creatine such as buffered creatine (Kre-Alkalyn), Creatine HCL, and Creatine Nitrate. There is no data suggesting that any of these forms of creatine are superior to creatine monohydrate and the only benefit creatine hcl and creatine nitrate have is that they are more water soluble3. Buffered creatine has no evidence to suggest its superiority in terms of effectiveness as compared to Creatine Monohydrate4 and might even be less effective.
Beta-Alanine: Beta alanine is the ingredient found in pre-workout supplements that gives you the tingly sensation before and during a workout. Besides feeling pumped, does it have any other benefit? Supplement companies claim that it promotes muscular endurance, increases energy for high intensity exercise, and improves workout performance. What does science say? Beta Alanine helps act as a buffer to hydrogen ion accumulation in the muscle which helps delay fatigue5. It appears that beta alanine does improve strength performance and along with creatine has been shown to be more effective than when consumed alone6.
Caffeine: Of all the ingredients found in pre-workout supplements, caffeine tends to be included in all of them. Caffeine stimulates to central nervous system and helps to raise overall awareness. Please understand that the actual ingredient caffeine does nothing to improve strength or delay fatigue, but it does allow you to perform at higher levels which in turn results in more effective workouts and therefore greater muscle gains. The body does get accustomed to regular caffeine intake so it is advised that you cycle your caffeine intake. You should not remove it completely from your daily intake but taper your intake down over a few weeks to allow your body to adjust. This will allow you to optimize its effects on the body.
Citrulline/Arginine: I have included these together as they are both found in many pre-workout supplements and are the precursors for Nitric Oxide (NO) synthesis. Both are consider non-essential amino acids. Supplement companies claim that they increase vasodilation and blood flow to the muscle. What does science say? Studies have shown that oral L-citrulline supplementation raises plasma L-arginine concentration and increases NO signaling7. A recent small clinical study has suggested that oral l-citrulline may actually lead to higher elevations of plasma l-arginine concentrations than administration of l-arginine itself8. The rate of ATP production during exercise has been shown to increase in subjects supplemented with citrulline9. So what does all this mean? If you want to increase blood flow to the muscle and get a good pump in the gym, it is highly recommended that you look for a pre-workout supplement containing at least l-citrulline.
BCAA’s: One of the more important ingredients to look for in a pre-workout supplement are branched-chain amino acids (BCAA’s). They consist of leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Leucine content is a critical factor for muscle protein synthesis. A combination of a carbohydrate source should be consumed with the protein source, as leucine cannot modulate protein synthesis as effectively without the presence of insulin10. So what does this mean? In order, to maximize muscle protein synthesis (make gains), we suggest looking for pre-workout supplements containing branched-chain amino acids. The combination of increased amino acid levels at a time when blood flow is increased appears to offer the maximum stimulation of muscle protein synthesis11.
Now that we have identified key ingredients to look for in pre-workout supplements, we will look at some of the top-selling products available on the market today. We will identify what we like and what we don’t like. Depending on your preferences, you can purchase the ingredients included above individually and create your own stack. You also have the option of purchasing one of the products below based on your needs. Please keep in mind that although some products won’t include certain ingredients, you can always add that ingredient to your pre-workout. Check out our breakdown of the best pre-workout supplements and see our top pick at the bottom of the page.
What We Like: Beta-Alanine, Arginine, Citrulline, Creatine HCL
What We Don’t Like: Proprietary blend, NO BCAA’s
Amazon Rating: 4.1/5
What We Like: Disclosed Amounts, Beta Alanine, Creatine Nitrate, Arginine
What We Don’t Like: NO BCAA’s, No Citrulline
Amazon Rating: 4.4/5
What We Like: BCAA’s, Citrulline, Creatine Monohydrate, Creatine HCL, Arginine, Caffeine
What We Don’t Like: Proprietary Blend
Amazon Rating: 4.3/5
What We Like: Disclosed Amounts, Citrulline Malate, Creatine Monohydrate, Beta Alanine, Caffeine
What We Don’t Like: No BCAA’s
Amazon Rating: 4.4/5
What We Like: Beta Alanine, Creatine, Arginine, Caffeine
What We Don’t Like: No BCAA’s, Proprietary Blend
What We Like: Disclosed Amounts, Citrulline, Beta Alanine, Caffeine
What We Don’t Like: No Creatine, No BCAA’s
Amazon Rating: 3.8/5
What We Like: Citrulline, Arginine, Caffeine
What We Don’t Like: Proprietary Blend, No BCAA’s, No Creatine, No Beta-Alanine
Amazon Rating: 3.4/5
Wrap-Up: Depending on your individual needs, your pre-workout ingredient list will differ. For example, if you are taking another supplement containing creatine, you might not need to look for a pre-workout that has creatine in it. Another example is if you have a BCAA product, you might not need a pre-workout containing BCAA’s. Of all the supplements included on our list, our choice for overall effectiveness and value is Muscle Pharm Assault. On top of having all the ingredients included on our list, it is also banned-substance free. A close second choice is Cellucor C4 Extreme. On top of having a 4.4/5 rating on Amazon, it is also one of the only pre-workout supplements that discloses all ingredient amounts.
Which Pre-Workout Supplements are your favorite and why? Let us know in the comments below!
1)Creatine. Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. http://www.bidmc.org/YourHealth/ConditionsAZ.aspx?ChunkID=21706.
2)Percário S, Domingues SP, Teixeira LF, Vieira JL, de Vasconcelos F, Ciarrocchi DM, Almeida ED, Conte M. Effects of creatine supplementation on oxidative stress profile of athletes. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012 Dec 21;9(1):56.
3)What is creatine nitrate? Examine. http://examine.com/faq/what-is-creatine-nitrate.html.
4)Jagim AR, Oliver JM, Sanchez A, Galvan E, Fluckey J, Riechman S, Greenwood M, Kelly K, Meininger C, Rasmussen C, Kreider RB. A buffered form of creatine does not promote greater changes in muscle creatine content, body composition, or training adaptations than creatine monohydrate. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012 Sep 13;9(1):43.
5)R. M. Hobson, B. Saunders, G. Ball, R. C. Harris, and C. Sale. Effects of β-alanine supplementation on exercise performance: a meta-analysis. Springer Amino Acids. 2012 July; 43(1): 25–37.
6)Hoffman J, Ratamess N, Kang J, Mangine G, Faigenbaum A, Stout J. Effect of creatine and beta-alanine supplementation on performance and endocrine responses in strength/power athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2006 Aug;16(4):430-46.
7)Edzard Schwedhelm, Renke Maas, Ralf Freese,1 Donald Jung,2 Zoltan Lukacs,3 Alen Jambrecina,1 William Spickler,4 Friedrich Schulze, Rainer H Böger. Pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic properties of oral L-citrulline and L-arginine: impact on nitric oxide metabolism. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2008 January; 65(1): 51–59.
8)Kuhn KP, Harris PA, Cunningham GR, Robbins IM, Lawson WE, Summar ML, Christman BW. Oral citrulline effectively elevates plasma arginine levels for 24 hours in normal volunteers. Circulation. 2002;106:II1–766S.
9)D Bendahan, J P Mattei, B Ghattas, S Confort-Gouny, M E Le Guern, P J Cozzone. Citrulline/malate promotes aerobic energy production in human exercising muscle. Br J Sports Med 2002;36:282–289.
10)Matthew Stark, Judith Lukaszuk, Aimee Prawitz, Amanda Salacinski. Protein timing and its effects on muscular hypertrophy and strength in individuals engaged in weight-training. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012; 9: 54.
11)Kevin D. Tipton, Blake B. Rasmussen, Sharon L. Miller, Steven E. Wolf, Sharla K. Owens-Stovall, Bart E. Petrini, and Robert R. Wolfe. Timing of amino acid-carbohydrate ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2001 Aug;281(2):E197-206.