A pre-workout supplement is almost standard for gym-goers these days.

It’s the best way to ensure you are energized and motivated for your next gym session, cardio workout, or competition event. They also help prepare your body for exercise with lots of vitamins and minerals.

Here are the best pre-workout supplements for peak workout performance and optimal post-workout recovery.  Afterwards, we’ll dive into the details on how a pre-workout supplement can help you out.

Rankings

Last updated: August 3, 2022
Pre-workout supplements considered: 19
Hours of research: 52
Experts reviewed: 5
Scientific papers referenced: 11

1. Transparent Labs Pre-Workout

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When it comes to pre-workout mixes, nothing is better than Transparent Labs. Why?

They offer 3 “custom” options of pre-workout—one for people who’re bulking (BULK), one for people who’re slimming down (LEAN), and one that is stimulant-free for all those people who freak out over stimulants (hey, I’m not mad at ya…).

All of this, and you still get a super “pump” with no artificial sweeteners, no artificial coloring, no artificial preservatives and 100% GMO-free.

They are also not stingy with the goods: BULK is stacked with 4,000 mg of beta-alanine and 4,000 mg of BCAA’s—a big reason why Transparent Labs has been one of the trendiest pre-workouts of 2021.

2. Blackwolf Pre-Workout

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If you’re looking for a pre-workout supplement for men that will boost energy, enhance focus, and increase endurance during workouts… then you obviously need to be looking at Blackwolf Track Pre-Workout.

This all-in-one pre-workout supplement will increase not only your pump, but also the intensity of your workouts and your ability to focus on them.

The secret is Blackwolf’s specially formulated Blackwolf Power Blend, which is designed to help increase energy levels and really dial-in your ability to focus.

Key ingredients in this dynamic mix include vitamins B12 and B6, vitamin C, magnesium, potassium, pantothenic acid, zinc, selenium, thiamin, whey protein isolate, citrulline malate, and more.

It also contains some caffeine to top off the nice pump.

3. Ladder Pre Workout

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Ladder provides a powerful pre workout supplement, packed with all the goodies. It stands out by providing a lower dose of caffeine, allowing you to enjoy your coffee as well – without worrying about caffeine overdose.

The inclusion of beta-alanine and creatine help push your muscles to the max, and beyond. With just a few grams of sugar, and a delicious flavor, it’s one of the top choices for the serious athlete.

4. 4 Gauge

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4 Gauge delivers explosive power and laser-sharp focus — boosting both the mind and body —to help you achieve a better workout.

Their high-quality formula is backed by a considerable amount of research. Their are four key players in this formula that we want to highlight: caffeine anhydrous, l-theanine, creatine, and l-citrulline dl-malate.

The caffeine in this mix is well-dosed at 150 mg which, research suggests, should seriously improve physical performance. When combined with the l-theanine, it provides a powerful energy boost, but it does so with a smooth increase that’s proven to enhance mental focus. A strong serving of creatine brings the power in 4 Gauge, and an optimal dose of l-citrulline dl-malate is proven to boost endurance.

This supplement is completely natural, very generously dosed, and doesn’t contain any unnecessary fillers or proprietary blends. Overall, it’s simply a great supplement, and it’s no surprise that it’s popular.

5. Performance Lab SPORT Pre-Workout

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Looking for a pre-workout that promises everything other pre-workouts do but without the stimulant crash?

Performance Lab Pre is the solution.

It contains scientifically backed ingredients that raise nitric oxide (NO) levels and maintain them throughout your workout and after, giving you a lasting pump and superior circulation.

Performance Lab Pre also contains antioxidants to help replace the electrolytes lost through sweating during intense exercise. An additional 1.25g of creatine replenishes ATP energy stores throughout your workout and boosts your strength and performance.

It also delivers 800mg of Carnosyn® beta-alanine that fights lactic acid build-up, the chemical responsible for muscle fatigue during your workouts, increasing your anaerobic capacity and reduce fatigue.

Importantly, it doesn’t contain caffeine so you’ll never be at risk from suffering jittery side effects. It’s a clean, vegan-friendly pre-workout that can still deliver improved performance.

6.  BeetElite Sport

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BeetElite is a great pre-workout option for endurance sports thanks to its laser-focused composition that uses beet concentrate to boost oxygen availability during high-intensity exercise. If an aerobic boost is what you need, BeetElite Sport is a great choice.

7.  Legion Pulse

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Legion Pulse is a powerful pre-workout supplement formulated for serious athletes: the caffeine content—350 mg in two scoops—packs a serious punch, but it might be a bit much for some users.

8.  Alpha GX7

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Power and energy are the name of the game when it comes to Alpha GX7.  All of the ingredients in this powder-based pre-workout supplement are geared towards boosting your energy levels and improving your peak power output: caffeine, theobromine, and yohimbe all contribute to its ability to boost your power output in short, intense gym sessions.

9.  Do Vitamins Pure Pump

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Do Vitamins Pure Pump focuses on boosting muscle force production and improving muscular adaptations to exercise, thanks to an innovative blend of ergogenic aids (beta-alanine, citrulline, creatine) and branched-chain amino acids.

10.  NO-Xplode

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NO-Xplode is a broadly-popular favorite among serious gymgoers that boasts 225 mg of caffeine, huge doses of B-complex vitamins, and a blend of performance enhancers, fat burners, and energy boosters. It’s a solid broad-spectrum option for better workouts across the full range of options from heavy lifts to power-oriented circuit workouts.

Who should buy a pre-workout supplement?

A pre-workout supplement is well-suited for people who are serious about the intensity and quality of their training sessions. If all you do is hit the gym to stay in decent shape, a pre-workout supplement probably isn’t necessary.

On the other hand, if you want to improve your personal bests or achieve the highest level performance possible, a pre-workout supplement can help you take things to the next level.

Pre-workout supplements include ergogenic compounds like caffeine, beta-alanine, and L-carnitine, all of which can increase your performance on lifts, intense anaerobic circuits, and endurance events alike.

The combined action of these supplements can boost your workout performance in the short term, as well as build up your body’s capacity for high-level performance in the long term. Compounds like caffeine or guarana can boost your performance short-term (i.e. today), while supplements like creatine and beta-alanine accumulate in your system, increasing your ability to perform in workouts over the course of weeks and months.

Since pre-workout supplements combine both of these types of performance enhancers, they’re the optimal tool for perennial high-level performance.

Category winners

Best pre-workout overall: Transparent Labs Pre-Workout BULK and LEAN

Whether you’re lifting for strength and size or hitting the gym to shed some pounds, Transparent Labs has you covered. The BULK formulation is packed with amino acids for rapid muscle growth, and the LEAN formulation is designed for optimal fat oxidation. 

Best pre-workout for lifting: Blackwolf Pre-Workout

For maximum gains, choose Blackwolf—its combo of whey protein isolate, creatine, and branched chain amino acids is unbeatable when it comes to supercharging your muscular supercompensation after tough lifting workouts. 

Best pre-workout for cardio: Ladder Pre-Workout

Ladder gets the mix for cardio just right: a moderate amount of caffeine, plus beta-alanine for high-intensity cardio output. On top of that, you get just enough sugar to increase endurance performance without getting stomach cramping even during hard running, cycling, or rowing.

Best pre-workout without caffeine: Blackwolf Pre-Workout Fruit Punch

Looking to ditch caffeine jitters? Blackwolf has got you covered. The Fruit Punch flavor of their excellent pre-workout formula uses huperzine, taurine, and betaine to sustain high-energy output from your muscles instead of leaning on high doses of caffeine. 

Best pre-workout for bodybuilders: Transparent Labs Pre-Workout BULK

BULK provides all the essentials for bodybuilders working to maximize muscle size and definition: zinc for optimal testosterone, betaine and beta-alanine for sustaining high-rep lifts, and a wide range of amino acids (including BCAAs) for optimal muscle recovery. 

Best pre-workout for women: Ladder Pre-Workout

Ladder is perfect for women thanks to its simple, clean, and effective formulation. Unlike many of its competitors, it’s not bloated with excess sugar or way too much caffeine, yet it still provides creatine and citicoline for extra strength, power, and energy.

How we ranked

We took a holistic approach to pre-workout supplements, keeping in mind the multi-purpose nature of the range of compounds included in pre-workout formulations.

For each of the pre-workout products on the market, we analyzed the ingredients to identify the biologically active ingredients, then classified each of these ingredients as a short-term ergogenic (like caffeine) or a long-term ergogenic (like L-carnitine).

To make our rankings, a pre-workout supplement had to include at least one potentially ergogenic compound from each category.

We looked specifically for scientifically proven supplements like beet root powder, caffeine, beta-alanine, BCAAs, and creatine: these have the most evidence behind their efficacy.

We also evaluated supplements on the presence of other, more cutting-edge performance enhancers like yohimbe, but put less stock in these emerging ingredients, because the scientific evidence to support them is not as strong as the core stack of performance enhancers we were looking for.

When it came to the short-term ergogenic aids, we took a very close look at caffeine content. We tossed out products that leaned too heavily on caffeine content, and made sure to include some pre-workout formulations that were totally stimulant-free. 

To analyze the dosage, transparency was critically important to us. We strongly penalized formulations that hid the specific amount of each ingredient in the supplement behind a “proprietary formula,” as these types of tricks make it impossible to fully evaluate the efficacy of a supplement.

Our final rankings, sorted by overall quality and efficacy, represent the best products on the market according to these criteria—they balance out short-term performance, long-term improvement, and all-around efficacy.

Benefits

A pre-workout can include a lot of different ingredients all at once. Pre-workout supplements combine the benefits of amino acids which increase protein availability to your muscles before and after a workout with more advanced blends of stimulants, herbal extracts, and energy-boosting products that elicit the best possible effort from your body during a workout.

Caffeine can improve many different types of performance. Caffeine is a powerful and well-known ergogenic aid.  According to a review by the International Society of Sports Nutrition published in 2010, caffeine is a highly effective performance enhancer across many different types of exercise, including endurance (running cycling, rowing) to intense coordination and starting and stopping (pickup basketball, ultimate Frisbee) and maximal strength (Olympic and powerlifting) (5).

L-Carnitine can increase anaerobic power and strength. L-Carnitine is included in pre-workouts principally to boost the hormonal response to resistance exercise (i.e. lifting weights).

A study published in 2006 by William J. Kraemer and other researchers at the University of Connecticut showed how taking L-Carnitine after a strength workout increased the activity of the androgen receptor response (6), meaning that your muscles get more attuned to the muscle-building effects of androgen hormones like testosterone.

This effect could mean bigger gains from your lifting program, especially if you consume a meal containing carbohydrates, fat, and protein soon after finishing the workout.

Beta-Alanine boosts anaerobic power as well. In pre-workout supplements, beta-alanine builds up your muscular content of carnosine, which helps increase your tolerance for the buildup of acidity in your muscles.

According to a scientific paper by Guilherme Giannini Artiolo and other researchers at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, beta-alanine acts directly to increase muscular carnosine concentrations and directly improves performance in activities that are limited by intramuscular acidity, since carnosine acts as a buffering agent, delaying the onset of the “burn” during high-intensity exercise that causes fatigue (7).

Creatine increases muscle mass and strength by up to 25-30%. Creatine increases muscular strength, enables higher quality workouts, and directly increases the concentration of phosphocreatine inside your muscles.

According to a 1999 study by Jeff Volek and colleagues at the Pennsylvania State University, supplementing with creatine can increase muscular creatine content by over 20%, and total body mass and lean body mass increases can be expected while taking a creatine supplement, and muscular ross-sectional area and raw strength, as measured by bench press and squat, can be expected to increase by 25-30% (8).

More advanced pre-workout ingredients such as yohimbe could help cut body fat. According to a study published in 2006 in the journal Research in Sports Medicine (9), yohimbe supplementation in athletes could lead to a drop in body fat percentage over a period as short as 21 days. Pre-workouts with yohimbe could be a useful way to drop body fat, even while continuing an intense training program.

BCAAs in a pre-workout can help prevent soreness. Branched-chain amino acids (aka BCAAs) can reduce some of the damage induced by intense workouts, according to research published in 2010 in the journal Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise (10).

The researchers found that BCAA supplementation decreased soreness after an eccentric knee strengthening protocol, suggesting that a pre-workout supplement that includes BCAAs could be well-suited for workouts with a lot of eccentric-dominated exercises like squats and lunges.

Side effects

Pre-workout supplements with high doses of caffeine can cause nausea, jitters, and sleeplessness. When taken in too high of a dose, caffeine can even cause heart arrhythmias, seizures, and other serious medical problems.

Pre-workouts with synephrine might interact negatively with caffeine. A few pre-workout supplements contain bitter orange or its active ingredient, synephrine.  This ingredient has caused some doctors to issue warnings that it has a side effect and biological profile similar to that of the banned stimulant ephedra; indeed, many weight loss supplements that used to contain ephedra now switched to using synephrine after the FDA banned ephedra.

If you’re concerned about the potential cardiovascular side effects of synephrine, avoid supplements that contain it—especially when they also contain caffeine (11).

Beta-alanine in pre-workouts can cause mild tingling or prickling sensations. These sensations are called ‘parathesia’, and are a mild and common sensation in response to beta alanine dosing. This sensation is the result of peak levels of beta-alanine in the blood, so all you need to do to avoid this in the future is split up your pre-workout supplement into smaller doses taken at thirty or sixty minute intervals.

Recommended dosage

Pre-workout dosing depends on the exact formulation, but here are some key guidelines:

Caffeine dosage should be 3 to 6 mg per kilogram of body weight—so a 170 pound man (77 kg) would consume 230 mg of caffeine to get a dose of 3 mg/kg. Doses >6 mg/kg don’t appear to be any more effective and they have a higher incidence of negative side effects.

Creatine dosage can be up to 25 g. If your pre-workout supplement doesn’t have this much, add a separate separate creatine supplement that you take during the day.

Beta-alanine dosage can be up to 1000-1500 mg. Ideally, your beta-alanine dosage would be split up into a few different doses taken at 30-60 minute intervals.

FAQ

Q: What is a pre-workout?

A: A pre-workout is a combined supplement that is designed to provide ingredients to increase your athletic performance in your workouts.

These supplements are designed to boost both short-term performance plus your longer-term athletic ability.

Q: What are some good natural pre-workouts?

A: If you are looking for natural foods and natural compounds to take as a pre-workout, things derived from real foods are a great place to start. BCAAs, coffee, and green tea extract are all effective and all-natural compounds you can take before you work out to increase your performance.

Some of the more specialized compounds, like beta-alanine, can’t be derived in significant amounts from a natural source: they need to be refined or synthesized in a lab.

Q: Is pre-workout safe?

A: The biggest potentially problematic pre-workout ingredients are stimulants, which can range from garden-variety things like caffeine to more potent and also potentially more dangerous compounds like synephrine or bitter orange peel.

Caffeine is safe when you keep the dosage under control, but things like synephrine can be riskier.

Q: Are pre-workout supplements necessary?

A: If you just want to get a solid effort in at the gym, and aren’t looking to smash any records or push yourself up to your body’s physiological limit, a pre-workout is not going to be necessary to achieve your workout goals.

If, on the other hand, you are looking to max out a lift, or push yourself harder than ever in a HIIT session, a pre-workout supplement might be just what you need. Pre-workouts can also be useful when you are not feeling up for high-level performance, but still need to work out.

Prime example? Early-morning gym sessions. If you are sleep-deprived but need to kick your body into high gear, a pre-workout supplement is one surefire way to do it.

Q: What does a pre-workout supplement do?

A: Pre-workout supplements work by activating multiple biological pathways in your body at once, all of which are connected to performance.

Some examples:

Caffeine disinhibits your central nervous system, allowing you to perform better and push yourself harder at high intensities. 

Fat burners like green tea extract increase your body’s rate of fat oxidation.

Compounds like carnitine and beta-alanine boost the ability of your muscles to sustain high-intensity anaerobic efforts.

BCAAs don’t directly boost performance, but protect your body from soreness and muscle damage induced by your workout.

Q: What’s the difference between a pre-workout and post-workout supplement?

A: Post-workout supplements are all about recovery. After you finish your workout, you need to supply your body with the nutrients it needs to rebuild muscle and replenish its energy stores. In contrast, before you work out, you want supplements that will prime your body for peak performance.

While there is a little crossover, such as with BCAAs, typically you’ll find that the ingredient profile in a pre versus a post workout are markedly different. You’re not likely to find caffeine, for example, in a post-workout supplement.

Q: How long does pre-workout last?

A: Most pre-workouts are engineered to last for around two to three hours, but getting more specific than this is tricky, because different ingredients operate on different timescales.

Caffeine has a fairly well-defined window of efficacy: you want to take it at least 45 minutes prior to working out, and once having taken it, the effects will last for up to five hours. Other ingredients like BCAAs are absorbed more quickly, and ideally you’d like your workout to be over before the BCAAs have been processed by your body.

Q: Why does pre-workout make you tingle?

A: Tingling after taking a pre-workout supplement means one of two things: either the pre-workout supplement that you are taking has a lot of beta-alanine, or a lot of niacin (also known as vitamin B3).

Both of these ingredients cause flushing and tingling at high doses, and while this side effect is unpleasant, it isn’t harmful.

Q: How can you spot a fake pre-workout?

A: Low-quality pre-workout supplements are characterized by the presence of a lot of sugar, a lot of caffeine, and very little in the way of other effective supplements.

Watch out for products that hide all of their ingredients in a “proprietary blend,” as this allows the manufacturer to obscure the fact that the amount of the active ingredients could be far below what’s necessary for optimal performance.

Choosing a reputable manufacturer, like those in our top rankings, is a good way to ensure you’re actually getting a beneficial pre-workout.

Related articles

Recap

Choosing the best pre-workout supplement can boost your performance at the gym and help you hit new levels of physical fitness. Whether you are training for stronger lifts, higher power output, or better endurance, a well-formulated pre-workout is a great way to achieve your goals.

For BodyNutrition’s #1 pre-workout supplement recommendation, click here.



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