Pre-workout supplements are popular. Not surprising: to get a training boost from a pot is an attractive idea for the strength athlete. Yet many of those jars give little more than a placebo effect, no matter how many superlatives they are touted. And if they do contain good ingredients, they are often underdosed. Therefore, a small guide to what a good pre-workout should meet. And from that how you make the perfect pre-workout yourself.
DO YOU REALLY NEED A PRE-WORKOUT?
First and foremost: strength sports supplements are overrated. In principle, you do not need them at all to achieve maximum results. Only protein powders can sometimes be useful, namely if you find it difficult to get enough protein from regular food. In addition, creatine can be a helping hand. That is, after all, the only strength sports supplement whose effect has been conclusively proven.
And what about pre-workout boosters? Whether they ‘do’ something strongly depends on the composition. But if you sleep well, if you don’t stress too much and eat enough carbohydrates, you should normally have enough energy to train optimally. You don’t have to expect many extras from a supplement, although we understand that you cherish every little bit. Fine, as long as you don’t see supplements as a compensation for when you don’t have much more important things in order, such as nutrition and sleep.
Some natural bodybuilders only use pre-workouts in the cut, because you will lose energy with a long-term calorie-restricted diet. A logical thought, we think.
PAY ATTENTION TO THE LABEL
Wherever you buy your pre-workout supplement and how much or how little you pay for it — always check what’s in it and in what amounts. Distrust products that are not transparent about this: there is no valid argument for a manufacturer not to provide complete information on the label about the composition of the product.
For example, some pre-workouts bundle certain ingredients in a so-called ‘blend’, ‘mix’ or ‘matrix’. You can not see what the doses of those ingredients are separately. A turn-off for us.
WHAT SHOULD A PRE-WORKOUT DO?
The name suggests it: a pre-workout supplement is meant to be taken right before your workout, so you can perform better during that workout. By ‘performing better’ we mean that you have roughly more strength (aerobic energy) and more endurance (anaerobic energy).
That means, strictly speaking, the ingredients must meet two criteria:
- they must promote strength and/or endurance;
- they should have an immediate effect.
NO REAL PRE-WORKOUT INGREDIENTS
Three substances that you often come across in pre-workouts are creatine, beta-alanine and (less frequently) betaine. But according to ‘our’ criteria, they don’t belong in a pre-workout, because they don’t have an immediate effect. This means that the time of intake is not important and therefore does not necessarily have to be immediately before the training. For creatine, there are even arguments for consumption immediately after training.
Still, you can find creatine throughout pre-workout supplements. If you’re already using creatine, that’s not a problem, unless you try to cover up the ineffectiveness of the other ingredients in that way. Because well, by putting creatine in your product, you as a manufacturer ensure that it will have some effect on most users.
Beta-alanine is also a popular pre-workout ingredient, although you don’t have to time its intake. Specifically, beta-alanine could help you with efforts of 1 to 4 minutes. The alleged effect may therefore be noticeable in longer sets, say from 8 to 30 reps. The recommended daily dose is 4 to 6 grams for 2 to 4 weeks. After that, a maintenance dose of about 1.2 grams can suffice.
We said “supposed” because most studies on beta-alanine show no positive effects on strength training. Professor Jason Cholewa, who specializes in sports nutrition, concludes:
Beta-alanine is certainly not going to have a harmful effect, but whether it has a beneficial effect on resistance exercise performance, strength outcomes and muscle hypertrophy, it’s probably limited.
A side effect of beta-alanine is a prickling sensation in the skin (not necessarily annoying, nor dangerous). To reduce this, you can divide the recommended dose over several intake times. At a dose of 1.6 grams or less, those ‘tingling’ should be eliminated.
The tingling sensations you feel after taking your pre-workout are thus caused by beta-alanine and are often mistakenly associated with an acute effect on exercise performance. Some claim that pre-workout manufacturers deliberately put beta-alanine in their product because of that tingling, so that users feel that it ‘does’ something.
Whether betaine can also boost your strength performance is still doubtful. All studies that suggest this are sponsored and therefore not independent. But maybe it’s enough to give the stuff a chance. But betaine is also not a typical pre-workout supplement: its potential effectiveness is not tied to timing.
It is usually recommended to take 2.5 grams per day, possibly divided over two intake times of 1.25 grams. And according to researcher Eric Helms, you would have to take the betaine for at least 6-8 weeks to notice any effect. According to Jason Cholewa, it doesn’t matter whether you take betaine on an empty stomach or not.
Note: There are two types of betaine: hydrochloride (HCL) and anhydrate. According to Jason Cholewa, it is best to buy betaine anhydrate.
If there is creatine, beta-alanine and/or betaine in a pre-workout, that’s okay, because of the all-in-one principle. But the actual pre-workout boost has to come from other ingredients.
4 INGREDIENTS OF A GOOD PRE-WORKOUT
Which ingredients actually give an immediate training boost? There are actually not that many, at least, judging by the scientific literature. After all, we suspect that you only want to spend your money on a product with ingredients that have been scientifically proven to work.
And so we come to a list of just four ingredients that can acutely improve strength and/or endurance on the one hand, and for which there is a solid scientific basis on the other.
We try to indicate globally with stars how great the scientific evidence is. Creatine (as said, not a typical pre-workout ingredient) gets five stars from us. After all, countless studies have been done on this, with convincing results. All other strength sports supplements are fairly insignificant, which is why we give a maximum of three stars.
1. CITRULLINE MALATE (***)
Citrulline malate increases anaerobic energy, according to a number of studies, which could allow you to do slightly more reps in the 5-10 rep range.
The effective dose is 6-8 grams to be taken 30-45 minutes before training. Most pre-workouts contain a much lower and therefore ineffective dose. This is probably because citrulline malate is relatively expensive and because a large amount of this acidic stuff does not improve the taste of a pre-workout.
2. CAFFEINE (***)
Caffeine has a scientifically proven positive effect on strength performance (explosive strength and maximal strength). To take advantage of that, take 200 to 500 mg of caffeine 60 minutes before your workout – depending on how sensitive you are to it. Lower doses have at most an uplifting effect, a more general feeling of energy, as you may experience after a cup of strong coffee. However, that is different from the ergogenic effect that you wish to achieve with a higher dose.
Although that ergogenic effect has been fairly well established scientifically, we only awarded caffeine three stars. That’s because that effect is canceled out when your body gets used to caffeine. Even a higher dose (than the 500 mg) will then no longer have any effect (we call it insurmountable tolerance). In fact, according to supplement expert Kurtis Frank, you should only take (a large dose) of caffeine once every two weeks to benefit your strength performance. A recent study outlined a framework for periodizing caffeine consumption over a year so that you can get maximum benefit from it as an athlete.
If you use caffeine every day, you should therefore not expect too much from the possible ergogenic effect. Nevertheless, a large caffeine shot just before your workout will increase your alertness, since caffeine has no insurmountable tolerance in that area.
Do not exceed 9 mg of caffeine per kg of body weight per day to avoid side effects such as insomnia. For example, if you drink a lot of coffee and also take a pre-workout supplement, that can be too much of a good thing.
3. RHODIOLA ROSEA (**)
Rhodiola rosea is the elegant name of a plant that grows at high altitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. The extracts from the roots of this plant are said to have a medicinal effect on fatigue and exhaustion. Numerous studies suggest meaningful effects on this point, especially in people with stress and anxiety disorders.
Based on some studies, consumption of Rhodiola could also have an acute positive effect on performance during (strength) training (especially on endurance) and it could reduce muscle damage as a result of that training. The effective dose is several hundred milligrams (288-680 mg).
Coach and author Greg Nuckols, known for Stronger by Science, is also positive about rhodiola. But more research is needed to substantiate the claims regarding strength sports, according to Examine.com.
Anyway, rhodiola rosea is a fairly well-researched sports supplement that could at least make you more alert during your workout. Unfortunately, the relatively expensive herb is not yet often included in pre-workout supplements, but it is available as a separate supplement.
4. ALPHA GPC (*)
Alpha-GPC (choline alfoscerate) is a natural choline compound found in the brain. Doses of 600 milligrams or more taken an hour and a half before exercise increase growth hormone release, according to some studies. That could increase the maximum power by 2-3 percent.
An important caveat to these findings is that they were sponsored studies. Expert Kurtis Frank nevertheless gives the supplement the benefit of the doubt. According to his colleague Jason Cholewa, Alpha-GPC is especially useful for strength athletes with voluminous workouts, for example two hours straight.
Alpha-GPC is missing from most pre-workout supplements offered on the European market, but it is available as a separate supplement. It is also a relatively expensive supplement.
Alpha-GPC may be less well absorbed if you also consume dairy with slowly digestible proteins (such as casein) around the time of its intake.
MAKE THE PERFECT PRE-WORKOUT YOURSELF
We don’t know of any ready-made pre-workout supplements formulated according to the above recipe. Probably not. But if you want the (in our eyes) perfect pre-workout, you can easily make it yourself based on the ingredients and dosages recommended in this article, namely:
- citrulline malate: 6-8 grams;
- caffeine: 300-500 milligrams (depending on how much caffeine you consume);
- rhodiola rosea: 288-680 milligrams;
- alpha GPC: 600 milligrams.
Possibly supplemented with
- creatine: 5 grams;
- beta-alanine: 4-6 grams*;
- betaine: 2.5 grams.
* Dose lower if you experience a lot of tingling. Then take the other dose at a different time of the day. After 4 weeks, a maintenance dose of 1.2 grams per day will suffice.
Don’t forget carbohydrates! A simple banana or other (healthy) source of fast-digesting carbohydrates just before or during your workout (if it lasts longer than 40 minutes) will also give you a boost and it will cost you almost nothing! If you want all-in-one, you can add a scoop of dextrose to your pre-workout.
An alternative is a meal with slow-digesting carbohydrates, such as oatmeal, a few hours before training.
The use of a pre-workout supplement (or any supplement) is not a prerequisite for optimal training performance. Good nutrition, adequate sleep and a well thought-out exercise program will do the trick.
Nevertheless, a pre-workout can give you that little bit extra in some situations, for example during a heavy or long training, or in the cut, when you have to train for a long time with a negative energy balance.
Whether a pre-workout indeed ‘does’ something depends on the composition. And that is often lacking, both in terms of the ingredients and the dosage thereof. Sometimes the exact dosage isn’t even listed on the label.
The ingredients in a pre-workout must have at least a somewhat proven positive effect on strength and/or endurance. In addition, that effect must be acute (ie it must occur within about an hour), otherwise there is no reason to take them immediately before training.
Creatine (5 g), beta-alanine (4-6 g) and to a lesser extent betaine (2.5 g) have scientifically proven positive effects on exercise performance, but these effects are not acute: you can in principle take these supplements at any time of the day. So they don’t really belong in a pre-workout. If they do (as is often the case), that’s okay, because of the all-in-one principle. But the actual pre-workout boost really has to come from other ingredients.
However, few other substances remain that, according to science, can actually boost training performance acutely. So far the only supplements that seem to (somewhat) do that are citrulline malate (6-8 g), caffeine (300-500 mg), and to a lesser extent rhodiola rosea (300-500 mg) and alpha-GPC (600 mg).
To our knowledge, there are no pre-workouts available on the European market that contain all these ingredients and also in the right doses. However, the ingredients in question are all available separately. That is why it is best to make a preworkout yourself. You may be a bit more expensive than if you buy a ready-made preworkout, but at least you know for sure that your preworkout works