Pre-Workout Supplements: What to Look For and What to Avoid
When you're looking to get an edge at the gym, something that will give you energy and enhance your performance, look no further than pre-workout supplements. This is not a supplement you need, but it's one you'll want to have in your pantry of supplements because it comes in handy on the days you just don't have the willpower (or energy) to work out. Take one scoop of a good pre-workout and you'll get the willpower and strength you needed to make it to the gym. But this supplement is one new lifter and gym-goers are often wary about due to the mountain of choices and the promises they make on the labels. They use words that are meant to excite you like "explosive energy", "#1 performance enhancer", etc. and ingredients with weird names that can lead to a lot of confusion. The promises, the exciting words, the confusing blends, might make you turn around and never look for a pre-workout supplement again! We're here to stop that from happening by giving you the information you need to help you find a quality pre-workout that will work for you, not against you... And unfortunately, there are a few bad ones that won't do anything to benefit your workouts.
Despite there being some bad apples in the supplements market, there are plenty of good ones that can maximize your workouts. That is if you know what to look for! So, with that being said, we're going to give you the most important information about pre-workout - what they are, what to look for, and what to avoid - that way you can find the best one for your training!
What are pre-workout supplements?
It's typically a powder drink mix that is consumed before a workout to help increase your energy levels, boost exercise performance, and a few other things depending on the kind. How they work really comes down to the combination of ingredients. They can contain a blend of ingredients that are meant to increase muscular endurance, power, speed, maximize fat loss, or provide a gnarly muscle pump. So, although pre-workouts share similarities, each pre-workout supplement company has its own formula blend that makes it distinct from the others. The one thing they all share in common is they are meant to provide stimulation to get your heart rate up and blood pumping to help you have the energy for your workout, and this can be done with or without caffeine (but the most popular pre-workouts contain caffeine).
But do they actually work? It really comes down to the ingredients and the amount in each blend! The problem is that a lot of pre-workouts in the market contain something known as a proprietary blend. In fact, in a study conducted in 2019, half of the top 100 commercially available pre-workout supplements were shown to have a "proprietary blend". This means the amounts of each ingredient were not disclosed, so although pre-workouts share similar ingredients the amounts might be greatly different. And it's quite important to know the amount because a pre-workout can claim to have BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids), but not have a substantial amount to make a difference. You might want 5 grams of BCAAs but only get 1 gram. This goes for any of the ingredients, including caffeine. So you'll end up paying a good amount of money for a supplement that might make you feel energized and tingly, but not give you the benefits you're looking for. But don't worry, not all is lost, we're about to give you tips on what you should look for and what to avoid...
How do I find a quality pre-workout?
To find a quality pre-workout you have to know what to look for, but it also really depends on what you need. Do you want something just to increase your energy? Or are you looking for something that will help increase blood flow? Or to enhance your focus and performance so you push through that extra rep to achieve better muscle growth? You'll have to look for certain pre-workout ingredients depending on what your needs are! We don't know your goals, but we can give you a list of ingredients to look for along with details on how they work so you can determine which ones you need the most in your next pre-workout!
What to look for
When it comes to pre-workout ingredients, these are the topmost effective, and proven ingredients that you should look for...
- Caffeine: There are stimulant-free pre-workouts (no caffeine or stimulants used), but if your primary purpose is to use it for energy then caffeine is something you should look for. Caffeine has been shown to be effective at decreasing the rate of fatigue and increasing muscle endurance, anaerobic capacity, and strength output (ideal for those who want to increase muscle strength). The optimal amount really depends on your weight, for it to be effective look for a range from 3-6 milligrams per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight. Just don't exceed anything above 400mg, too much caffeine can cause unpleasant side effects.
- Beta-alanine: Ever had a pre-workout and felt the jitters or a tingly sensation all over after drinking it? That's thanks to the amino acid beta-alanine. This feeling is harmless and subsides quickly, but aside from that, the beta-alanines primary purpose is to increase muscular endurance while also reducing muscular fatigue. It has been shown to help improve your training volume by buffering hydrogen ions that give you the ability to keep up your workout intensity for longer periods. This means it'll help you pump out extra reps which is ideal for muscle building. If this is something you're looking for in your pre-workout then look for an effective dose between 1.5-5 grams.
- Amino acids: We already covered one, but there are 20 amino acids! And when looking for a pre-workout you might want to have all or some of these - L-Citrulline-Malate, L-Arginine, and L-Tyrosine. These amino acids are absorbed quickly to enhance athletic anaerobic performance, relieve muscle soreness, and promote energy production. The optimal dose varies since amino acids can be found in various high-quality protein sources, so if you're eating enough of it a smaller dosage of these amino acids is fine. But to be more specific, you'll want at least 4 grams of citrulline malate and 1-2 grams of arginine and tyrosine for it to be effective.
- Beetroot extract: This one might sound strange, but it's a common pre-workout ingredient due to how it works. Beetroot juice helps increase the body's levels of nitric oxide and improves cardiovascular levels. Nitric oxide dilates blood vessels to increase blood flow throughout the body thus increasing endurance. It can even help increase the muscle pump! The amount needed to reap these benefits is dependent on body weight, so it can be anywhere from 100-500 grams. Anything less than 100 grams won't make much of a difference.
- Creatine Monohydrate: This is a supplement you've probably seen on the shelves, but not many new lifters take it. Creatine is known to help provide explosive strength for your lower-rep workouts. So if you need a good energy source that produces a fast, big energy pump for your heavy lifts then look for a pre-workout with at least 5 grams of creatine in it (if you're not supplementing with it already). Creatine isn't necessary for a pre-workout because it doesn't make it any better to take it before or after, you just have to take it consistently to reap all the benefits it can provide.
- Vitamin B12: B vitamins, specifically B12, are important for energy metabolism. Vitamin B12 helps convert nutrients, including amino acids, into energy. So, if you want to get the most out of your amino acids having enough vitamin B12 in your diet is crucial! You can get this vitamin from animal sources, so if you already eat enough meat, seafood, and dairy products then you should be getting enough of it. But if it happens to be in your next pre-workout, you only need about 2.4 micrograms.
- Betaine: Betaine supplementation helps with long-term strength, size, and recovery gains, along with regulating fat metabolism and preventing an increase in blood pressure. Pre-workouts may include this ingredient because it can improve muscle endurance, and increase power and force which can help increase the volume load in key compound exercises. For an effective dose, look for a range between 1.25-2.5 grams.
- BCAAs: These are the essential amino acids - leucine, isoleucine, and valine. If you are already supplementing with BCAAs then you don't need a pre-workout with these ingredients, but if you aren't then it could be beneficial to find one that does! These essential amino acids are best known for regulating protein metabolism, increasing protein synthesis, and suppressing protein breakdown which is ideal to build muscle. If this is something you want in your pre-workout then look for at least 5 grams, and as an added tip, look for roughly 3 grams of leucine (the best at stimulating muscle protein synthesis).
- Minerals: Minerals like potassium and magnesium are quite important and should be a part of your diet! But having them in your pre-workout can help with your training. Potassium and magnesium citrate has the capacity to boost cardiovascular performance for improved endurance, while also helping buffer lactic acid buildup in the muscle which reduces the chances of muscle cramping. Your diet should provide you with plenty of these minerals, but to give you a better idea, you need around 300-400 grams of magnesium per day and around 4,000 mg of potassium. So just make sure your pre-workout doesn't exceed those numbers!
You don't need to look for a pre-workout with all of these ingredients, this information is just to help you figure out which ingredients you need in yours that will help with your fitness goals. And if you see any of these listed then you'll know not to worry because you'll know how they work!
What to avoid
When looking for the best pre-workout, you need to know what ingredients to look for and what to avoid. Don't fall victim to these three things:
- Proprietary blends: We've already discussed what these blends are, and if you don't know by now, you should avoid them completely! You might find the perfect pre-workout with everything you need, but if it's a proprietary blend then you won't know exactly how much of each ingredient is in it. It could be a microdose that isn't enough to give you the benefits you need. So try to avoid these types of blends.
- Soy lecithin and carrageenan: These are thickeners that can cause digestive problems or other problems when consumed too much.
- Glucose syrup, maltodextrin, and refined sugars: These are just sweet, unnecessary fillers that will be doing you more harm than good.
As with any dietary supplement (even foods), read the nutrition and ingredients label carefully. The longer the ingredients list, the higher the chance it's just a bunch of fillers and unnecessary junk. With that being said, pre-workouts aren't all that bad! You just need to know what to look for and avoid, and lucky for you, you now have everything you need to make a better-informed choice!
At 373 Lab we pride ourselves on creating supplements that will enhance your training performance and recovery by creating formula blends with fewer fillers, and more high-quality ingredients. One scoop of our Pre-Workout Supplement provides 150 grams of natural caffeine, along with effective doses of Citrulline Malate, Beta-Alanine, Arginine, Tyrosine, and Theanine. Plus, it's free of unnecessary additives like artificial dyes and sweeteners. All to provide you clean, sustainable energy that will enhance your exercise performance!