While you may think about how to nourish your body after a workout to ensure that your muscles recover quickly and resist fatigue, it is also vital that you take measures before working out. Just like you warm up your muscles to perform more effectively, the best pre-workout supplements can enhance your performance as well.
“It is essential that a pre-workout helps to support the physiological needs of an athlete as they are warming up,” Dr. Dana Ryan Ph.D., who handles Sports Performance, Nutrition and Education at Herbalife Nutrition.
Pre-workout supplements can be very beneficial for boosting workouts. If you’re an evening fitness kind of person, pre-workout supplements offer a major energy boost after a long day at the office. The same goes for first-thing-in-the-morning workouts, particularly if you don’t fancy a cup of coffee before hitting the gym.
But, especially when taken in excessive amounts, pre-workouts also come with risks, like headaches, upset stomach and other reactions. Too much caffeine can also wreak havoc on your body, causing insomnia, nausea, anxiety and other side effects. Many pre-workout supplements on the market are loaded with unfamiliar ingredients, so we’ll break down the best ones to look for, and the ones to avoid.
From there, we’ll recommend the best pre-workout supplements for every type of training.
All pre-workout supplements are not created equal. You can consume pre-workout supplements such as drinks, pills, gummies or powders. The ingredients and composition will also differ depending on your fitness goals and preferences. In general, the most common pre-workout ingredients are:
- Caffeine — A stimulant used to boost energy and focus. It’s also been shown to have an effect on weight loss.
- Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) — Essential amino acids and building blocks for protein. Your body does not produce BCAAs naturally, so it’s critical to get these through diet and supplements.
- Beta-alanine — A non-essential amino acid that helps reduce lactic acid buildup.
- Creatine — A naturally-produced chemical compound that aids in muscle mass, strength, performance and recovery time.
- L-citrulline — One of a few compounds used to make nitric oxide, which improves blood flow.
In addition to those core ingredients, many pre-workout supplements are loaded with artificial sugars and excessive caffeine, so it’s best to carefully consult the list of ingredients before purchasing one.
“I don’t recommend (pre-workout supplements) simply because they can be high caffeine, and many people take them after work, which can keep them up far past their bedtime,” said Julia DeLissio, a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer based in Massachusetts. “In general, Americans overconsume caffeine anyways. I would try to boost their energy naturally by adding more walks, water, and fruits and vegetables. Ideally, this would work, but some people just need the kick in the pants that pre-workout provides.”
Should I Take Pre-Workout Supplements?
As you can see, there isn’t a huge consensus on pre-workouts in the fitness industry, mostly because there simply isn’t that much research on them.
“Many pre-workout supplements are not FDA approved and can be very dangerous, says Samantha Parker, yoga, kinesiophobia and movement specialist MS, CEO of Neoteric Movement Systems.
This means that the manufacturer of the product is responsible for making sure the product is safe before they are sold.
DeLissio suggests looking for a label that says NSF — for the National Science Foundation — or GMP, which stands for good manufacturing practices. U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) is another good indication. Because supplements lack that FDA approval, labels with these regulations usually indicate a good product.
You should avoid pre-workout supplements if you suffer from heart conditions or kidney issues.
“Those with kidney complications have very low fluid intakes,” DeLissio said. “Caffeine can be dehydrating as is, and swapping out pre-workout for water could have detriments. Those with tachycardia, atrial Fibrillation, or hypertension, should be on a low sodium and low caffeine diet to prevent additional strain on the heart.”
The bottom line?
Pre-workouts can enhance your workouts in a ton of ways, offering boosts for your brain and body. You should consult the list of ingredients and ensure your pre-workout supplement has all the right credentials. But once you do your research, you may find that the best pre-workout supplements become part of your regular workout routine.
Here are some of the best pre-workout drinks available for purchase right now, categorized by type of training.
1. All-Around Athletes
“Caffeine is beneficial, especially for sports that require focus, for example, a soccer goalie,” says Ryan. However, caffeine can be helpful in any sport as it can potentially reduce the perception of fatigue. But do keep in mind that caffeine can interact with other stimulants and lead to unwanted issues. C4 Sport Pre Workout Powder contains 135mg of caffeine — a typical 8 oz cup of coffee has 96 mg — micronized creatine monohydrate, carnosyn(R) beta-alanine, arginine alpha-ketoglutarate vitamins B6 and B12. It’s available in watermelon, raspberry, strawberry lemonade and fruit punch. For the everyday, all-around athlete, this is a great pre-workout supplement.
C4 Sport Pre-Workout Powder
2. Distance Runners
“If you are a distance runner or play tennis, you don’t need anything with a stimulant, just the energy,” says Jason Kozma “Mr. America,” celeb personal trainer of High-Performance Personal Training. “Try Gatorade or goo,” he says. Gatorade Thirst Quencher is often used by runners, athletes and pros to rehydrate and refuel with its carbs and electrolytes. If popularity is how you judge the best pre-workout supplement, then this beverage is up there.
Cycling is a great exercise for cardio, and it also works your muscles hard. Plus, it is a great mode of transportation that may be worth exploring as a recent study funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) School for Public Health Research found that individuals that walk or cycle are at a reduced risk of early death or illness compared with those who commute by car. Additionally, a study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology reported that walking and cycling to work were associated with fewer heart attacks. Gatorade Endurance Energy Gel is formulated with 20g of carbohydrates that may provide energy for endurance training and cycling. Gatorade recommends that you consume it shortly before you start exercising with water. It is available in apple pear, blackberry and vanilla flavored gels.
Gatorade Endurance Energy Gel
4. High-Intensity Athletes
High-intensity workouts are great for getting in a good workout in a short amount of time. They can work all muscles of the body in one session. These short bursts of exercise moves can last from 15-45 seconds. In a study published in Plus One, it was found to be beneficial as a moderate exercise for cardiovascular and metabolic health. “Though [the effects of] creatine isn’t something that will be noticed on the first day of use, building creatine stores can overtime help with explosive movements which are essential for anyone doing any sort of high-intensity interval or sprint work,” says Ryan. Creatine Monohydrate powder can be mixed into your smoothies, juices, or frozen to consume as you would a popsicle on a hot day. It is certified vegan, with no fillers or additives.
“Ingredients such as nitric oxide precursors help to circulate oxygen out to the working muscles,” says Ryan. “This ultimately helps with efficient energy production.” Garden of Life Sport Organic Plant-Based Energy + Focus is a pre-workout supplement with a nitric oxide blend consisting only of organic vegetables such as organic kale, spinach and beets with nitrates. It also contains vitamins C and B12 and 85mg of the organic coffee berry. It is non-GMO, NSF-Certified for Sport, vegan, gluten, dairy and soy-free. The brand suggests mixing one level scoop in 8 oz of cold water 20 minutes before workout.
Garden of Life Sport Organic Plant-Based Energy + Focus
6. Weightlifters / Strength Trainers
“The popular beta-alanine / NO2 (Nitrogen Dioxide), pre-workout formulas help with increasing blood flow to the extremities and increase pump,” says Kozma. “But keep in mind they also typically include caffeine.” So if you are sensitive to caffeine, are taking another pre-workout supplement or prefer to skip it, check the label. This can be found in formulas like Beyond Raw LIT which contains beta-alanine, l-citrulline (a non-essential amino acid that has been found to enhance cycling time and improve muscle fatigue), and 250mg of caffeine, equivalent to about 2.5 cups of coffee. It is available in flavors such as Jolly Rancher green apple, fruit punch, strawberry lemonade, grape and orange mango.
Beyond Raw LIT
7. Cardio Lovers
No round-up of workout drinks would be complete without mentioning ZOA Healthy Warrior Energy Drink from the Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. How could we skip something launched by the man who dedicates so much of his Instagram feed to reminding us about the importance of working out and being healthy? And it isn’t just lip service as he takes us through his exercise regimens in what he calls his iron paradise or whenever he is away filming or collaborating in one of his many projects.
The Rock recently dropped ZOA energy drinks with 160mg caffeine from green tea and green, unroasted coffee beans, amino acids, and vitamins. They are available in zero sugar or 100 calories and flavors such as wild orange, pineapple coconut, original and lemon-lime. Though we can’t promise you’ll get as ripped as The Rock, ZOA makes for a great pre-workout supplement.
ZOA Healthy Warrior Energy Drink
8. Honorable Mention
At SPY, we try to find the best of the best across a ton of categories, which is why we so often turn to experts. But sometimes, all we need to do is look at our own numbers to see what’s worth trying. Case and point: Burn-XT. This fat-burner supplement is incredibly popular among SPY readers, and constantly ranks among the most popular products on our site. Burn-XT is chock-full of green tea extract and caffeine to help you get juiced ahead of your workout.