Do you take a pre-workout supplement? If so, what’s your reason for taking it?  Do you like that extra boost of energy? Maybe you just have been told it is needed by a supplement store worker? Although whole food is always recommended before taking a supplement, pre-workout can sometimes be beneficial.   

With pressure from strong marketing and sponsored Instagram-influencers, it can be nearly impossible to determine what is actually proven by science to be beneficial for performance and what is a waste of your money.  There is a lot of research out there about pre-workouts, but unfortunately many are low-quality studies due to small sample sizes and a wide variety of formulations.  If you do decide to take a pre-workout or just take individual supplements to potentially enhance performance, let’s take a deep dive in the science to discuss what ingredients are effective, not effective, and simply dangerous!

Effective Ingredients

Ingredients that are research-backed and that may potentially be beneficial and safe include creatine monohydrate, beet root extract, HMB, beta-alanine, caffeine, and sodium bicarbonate. 

Creatine monohydrate has been shown in studies to increase lean mass and strength, which could translate to better sprint performance and anaerobic power.  When just starting to take creatine, it can be taken in 20 g/d (loading phase) spread throughout the day in four-5g doses for 5-7 days.  After this, it can safely be consumed in doses of 3-5 g/d (maintenance phase).  There is no evidence that creatine is more effective right before exercise versus right after, so if you decide to supplement this independently of a multiple ingredient pre-workout, you can choose to take it either right before or right after training!

Caffeine may improve endurance and high intensity exercise greater than 20 minutes, reduce perceived exertion, and stimulate the central nervous system.  Caffeine can be consumed in dosages of 2-6 mg/kg of body weight before training and is commonly consumed 60 minutes before exercise. It is important to know that a urinary caffeine concentration greater than 15 mg/ml will result in a positive drug test in the NCAA. 

Beta-alanine may potentially be useful for buffering muscle acid by increasing carnosine levels in the muscle, therefore leading to better muscular endurance, but it may take a while to see results.  This is most beneficial for events that last 60-240 seconds. Beta-alanine is recommended to be consumed in doses of 1.5-6.4 g/d.  It can be spread out throughout the day, with doses of 0.8-1.6 g/4xday over 10-12 weeks. Beta-alanine may also be best consumed with meals. Interestingly, beta-alanine taken in large doses before exercise may not be as effective for performance due to strong paresthesia, changes in pH, higher excretion rates, and not effectively loading the muscles.  

Sodium bicarbonate may delay muscular fatigue by decreasing the lactic acid during exercise and may help improve anaerobic and peak power. You know that burn you feel when you are all-out sprinting?  Hydrogen ion build-up is what is causing that “burn!”  Essentially, sodium bicarbonate can help buffer or delay that feeling. An effective dose of sodium bicarbonate is 0.2- 0.4 g/kg of body weight per day. Sodium bicarbonate has been shown to maybe be more beneficial when taken with beta-alanine! 

Beet root may increase nitrates and improve aerobic endurance performance by increasing time to exhaustion at less than or equal to VO2max intensity when consumed 90 minutes before training. Nitric oxide helps with vasodilation (the widening of vessels) to improve delivery of oxygen and nutrients to working muscles.  An important factor to point out when choosing beet root is not all supplements are created equal.  Research shows that there is large variation in nitric oxide content between beet root products, even variation within the same product! Makomas Ginger Beet juice, James White Beet It Organic Beetroot Shot and the Pro-Elite Shot, and Pomona Organic’s beet juice were found to have appropriate doses of nitric oxide in them. If packaging specifies, you should look for concentrations of nitric oxide between 6-8 mmol and consume 90 minutes before training.  This dose has been found to be most effective, with a higher concentration not showing additional benefits. 

With resistance training, Beta-hydroxy beta-methyl butyrate (HMB) may increase lean muscle mass and strength, improve aerobic capacity and prevent muscle wasting by accelerating recovery.  HMB is most effective in doses between 1-3 g/d before exercise.

Ineffective Ingredients

There are several products that are popular but ineffective in pre-workouts.  Although these won’t necessarily harm you, they just aren’t proven to be effective in pre-workout and are likely a waste of your money. 

Arginine can actually blunt growth hormone (GH) release during workouts.  GH is important in exercise because it supports the building of skeletal muscle and eliminates body fat, so if this response is blunted, your progress will slow.  In addition, research is inconclusive that arginine increases nitric oxide release or that in increases muscle creatine levels.

BCAAs are thought to work preventatively against muscle breakdown when taken pre-workout, but there is no concluding evidence.

L-carnitine could be more beneficial post-workout and is not necessary in a pre-workout. L-carnitine can lessen the side effects of high-intensity training by improving exercise induced oxidative stress levels and muscles injuries, leading to a better recovery. 

Glutamine is also a common ingredient, but it is more beneficial for immune health should be easy to get enough of in a well-balanced diet.

Dangerous Ingredients

We discussed the effective and ineffective ingredients, but there is one more category, the dangerous ingredients.  Some of these may be effective, but there are serious consequences.  A supplement is dangerous when it has the potential to cause severe or permanent harm to the body, may result in death, or could lead to a career-ending positive drug test.  Some ingredients to steer clear of include: 

  • Ephedrine
  • Strychnine
  • Herbal stimulants
  • DHEA
  • Androstenedione
  • Prohormones
  • Testosterone boosters.

Third-Party Testing

Did you know the FDA is very limited in what it regulates for supplements?  Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), the FDA regulates products once they have hit the market.  If a product is adulterated or misbranded, the FDA is responsible for taking action.  This means that any company can make claims about their product’s effectiveness, manipulate ingredients and dosages, and not disclose ineffective or even dangerous ingredients added and will not potentially be investigated by the FDA until after the product has already been on the market.

This is very unsettling for sports dietitians, considering an athlete’s whole career can be halted if caught [knowingly or unknowingly] taking an illegal substance during a random drug test.   To ensure that your pre-workout is clear of banned substances, look for the BSCG, Informed Choice, or NSF seal (gold standard). This means that the product has been tested by a legitimate testing agency. A substance becomes NSF certified after passing a label claim review, toxicology review, and contaminant review.  NSF screens for banned substances, undeclared ingredients like stimulants, narcotics, steroids, diuretics, beta-2 agonists, masking agents and other substances.  However, NSF does not test for efficacy, meaning it cannot test to see if the product will provide the desired results or if the dosage of each ingredient is effective in improving performance.  You should also look to see if the company follows the Current Good Manufacturing Practice regulations (cGMP).  This ensures the product is following FDA guidelines for safe manufacturing.  
A red flag you should also be aware of is vague nutrition labels, like proprietary blends or generic ingredients. When I see “proprietary blend” on a label, I immediately think, “We have these ingredients in this product [maybe] but we are not going to disclose the actual dosage of each ingredient because it is likely formulated in insufficient amounts.” To ensure an ingredient is potent, pure, and safe, choose branded ingredients [especially patented ones] over generic ingredients because it can be very hard to tell if generic ingredients are what they claim.  Patented supplements are manufactured with strict quality control and have been scientifically proven for efficacy.  

The Bottom Line

Do you need a pre-workout?  Not exactly.  If you are interested in taking one, question your products and read the label! Some of the ingredients could be to your benefit, and some may not.  The majority of current research shows minimal significant results from using a pre-workout, so spending your money on a well-developed workout and diet regimen may be a better option! Just because your favorite sponsored Insta-model is shredded from supposedly taking a product does not mean they weren’t shredded before.  If you have questions about your pre-workout want further information, consult with a Sports Dietitian over at Power Portions to get the evidenced-based facts.  Happy training!

Written By: Francine Hoffman CSCS, NSCA-CPT


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