Pre-workout supplements are quite the buzz of late. Accordingly, there is no shortage of pre-workout supplements to choose from. So how does one go about choosing the right one? Well it partly depends if one wants a ‘nuts and bolts’ or a ‘bells and whistles’ pre-workout supplement. The ‘nuts and bolts’ pre-workout supplements tend to contain fewer ingredients with proven benefits, while the ‘bells and whistles’ pre-workout supplements may contain many of the ‘nuts and bolts’ ingredients (albeit at lower doses) but typically have a number of other ingredients. These extra ingredients are typically different mixes of carbohydrates, vitamins or amino acids. The ‘nuts and bolts’ pre-workout supplements are often classified as concentrated pre-workout supplements.

While ingredients will have a major impact, the pre-workout supplement one choses will also depend largely on how serious one is about their training; their budget and, what phase of training they are in, namely bulking up or trying to cut up. There is a big price range in pre-workout supplements so it’s important to know what ingredients tend to be more costly and which ones are most effective. We will provide some input on these issues throughout the article.

Ergogenic Mechanisms of Pre-Workout Supplements

Pre-workout supplements exert their ergogenic effects via differing mechanisms. One of the popular mechanisms by which a lot of pre-workout supplements purport to work is by increasing nitric oxide levels. The other mechanism is by modifying the acid-base balance in muscle during high-intensity workouts. Lastly, pre-workout supplements can work via increasing high-energy reserves, such as ATP and creatine-phosphate. The other class of ingredients that are popular in pre-workout supplements are central nervous system stimulants, the most popular of which is caffeine. For more information on caffeine as a pre-workout supplement, please read our caffeine article. Prior to August 2012, 1, 3 dimethylamylamine (DMAA) was another popular stimulant in pre-workout supplements that is actually banned in Australia and by certain sporting, defence and government organisations/bodies. This article will discuss some of the pros and cons for supplements containing DMAA.

Increase Nitric Oxide

Citrulline and glycine propionyl-l-carnitine (GPLC) are some of the newer ingredients which have good research behind them regarding their ability to increase nitric oxide levels. Arginine and its derivatives like arginine alpha-ketoglutarate are perhaps the most popular ingredients included in pre-workout supplements for increasing nitric oxide. In the body, arginine is the major precursor to nitric oxide, which is why theoretically it makes perfect sense to include it in pre-workout supplements. However, the research on arginine and its derivatives ability to effectively raise nitric oxide is a little ambiguous1. While there are plenty of studies showing that supplementation with arginine at various doses can have ergogenic effects1, it’s not clear whether these effects are mediated by an increase in nitric oxide. This is because oral arginine is largely consumed by the gut and liver with little reaching the blood stream. Read our article on the arginine-citrulline for a more thorough discussion of the topic. Citrulline and GPLC tend to be more expensive than arginine and its derivatives so expect to pay more for products containing these amino acids.

Buffer Muscle Burn

Without doubt, the ingredient with the most supporting research on its ability to buffer muscle acidity is beta-alanine. Put simply, supplementation with beta-alanine increases muscle carnosine levels, the primary action of which is to buffer muscular acidity caused by intense exercise. Read our articles on carnosine and beta-alanine to get more info as well as practical tips on how best to avoid the ‘tingling’ side-effects commonly associated with supplementation. The other ingredients to receive renewed interest as buffers in blood are sodium bicarbonate and sodium citrate2. As opposed to beta-alanine, which works intracellularly, sodium bicarbonate and sodium citrate are considered ‘extracellular’ buffers. This means they work primarily in blood as opposed to muscle to buffer acidity. So there’s nothing wrong with combining beta-alanine and sodium bicarbonate or sodium citrate. However, beta-alanine is a more expensive raw material than sodium bicarbonate and sodium citrate so formulas containing high amounts of beta-alanine will generally be more costly.

Increase ATP Synthesis

Creatine is the most obvious candidate here. There’s no question that creatine works, which is why it is a staple in soo many pre-workout supplements. Check out our creatine article for more information. D-ribose is an ingredient starting to appear in some pre-workout supplements, which has been shown to raise ATP levels in patients with certain types of heart disease, but it remains to be seen if it will do the same for the average bodybuilder3. Trimethylglycine (also called betaine) and dimethylglycine are two other ingredients worth noting that are starting to appear in some pre-workout supplements. Both serve as precursors to creatine, with some studies showing ergogenic effects in strength and power athletes4, 5.

Stimulant-Based Versus Stimulant-Free Pre-Workout Supplements

As highlighted earlier, caffeine is one of the most popular ingredients in stimulant based pre-workout supplements. There is considerable genetic variation in how individuals respond to caffeine, which is why ‘caffeine-sensitive’ individuals may prefer to purchase pre-workout supplements without caffeine. DMAA was the other popular stimulant, albeit more controversial. DMAA was marketed as a constituent of various geranium extracts and oils. So if trying to avoid DMAA, one has to be careful to check the ingredients list or label for geranium. Because of the negative press on DMAA, some supplement companies do not specifically specify DMAA content, other than to list geranium as an active ingredient.

Consumption of DMAA-containing supplements has been found to result in failure of a standard amphetamine drug test. For this reason, individuals who are part of sports, defence or government organisations that are required to undertake regular drug-screen testing are advised to abstain from DMAA-containing supplements, even if they are legal in your country.

Pre-Workout Carbohydrate Mix

Certain pre-workout supplements include active ingredients in a special carbohydrate matrix base. Typically the pre-workout supplements containing creatine tend to include high-glycemic mixes of carbohydrates such as dextrose, glucose and maltodextrin. Such carbohydrates are considered important to for creatine’s uptake into muscle. However, some individuals may not respond favourably to high-glycemic mixes prior to a workout due to the big jump and subsequent drop in blood sugar. Still other pre-workout supplements feature low-glycemic index carbohydrates, such as fructose, isomaltulose and high molecular weight carbohydrates, which are designed to provide a steady release of glucose during your workout. If on a tight budget, one might opt for a pre-workout supplement that doesn’t have any additional carbs. These will tend to offer better value for money and one can simply mix the powder in with cordial or a sports drink if extra carbs are required.

Pre-Workout Supplements for Bulking or Cutting Up

The particular phase of training an individual is in can also determine what pre-workout supplement they choose. If in a bulking phase, the main concern is maximising the anabolic response to training. Bodybuilders in this phase of training may opt for pre-workout supplements containing protein, amino acids and carbohydrates in the belief that these will be most anabolic. Based on the current research it is hard to say definitively whether carbohydrate and protein are essential components in a pre-workout supplement.

It has been shown that both carbohydrate and whey protein ingestion prior to workout raise insulin6. However 10 grams of whey protein was not superior to the same amount of carbohydrate in terms of peak insulin level or muscle protein synthesis6. This study used untrained individuals, which raises the question of whether the same results would eventuate in experienced trainers. Another study using a protein-only pre-workout supplement in unexperienced trainers showed a significant rise in muscle protein synthesis after a 4-week resistance training program when compared with the same amount of carbohydrate only7. So it would appear that for the carb conscious bodybuilder, a good quality protein-only pre-workout supplement can provide appreciable muscle gains without the possible fat-gaining effects of additional carbs. Having said this though, there are pre-workout supplements that contain low glycemic index carbohydrates for those not concerned with additional calories during their particular phase of training.

Choosing a Pre-Workout Supplement

In closing, there are a number of proven ingredients that appear in many pre-workout supplements, which warrant their regular use as part of a resistance training program. As to which one is the best; that’s hard to say. Many supplements list their active ingredients as part of a ‘proprietary complex’, which makes it hard to determine the exact amounts of each. For this reason, some may prefer pre-workout supplements that specifically state the amount of each active ingredient. If you want a good quality pre-workout supplement with proven ingredients, then you need to be prepared to pay good money. Having said that, there are a number of pre-workout supplements that offer great value for money, which contain therapeutic amounts of maybe just one or two of the aforementioned ingredients. It’s always a good idea to cycle different products to see what one works best for you, as individuals tend to respond differently to a given supplement.

1. Álvares TS, Meirelles CM, Bhambhani YN, et al. L-Arginine as a potential ergogenic aid in healthy subjects. Sports Med. 2011;;41(3):233-48.
2. Carr AJ, Hopkins WG, Gore CJ. Effects of acute alkalosis and acidosis on performance: a meta-analysis. Sports Med. 2011;41(10):801-814.
3. Shecterle LM, Terry KR, St Cyr JA. The patented uses of D-ribose in cardiovascular diseases. Recent Pat Cardiovasc Drug Discov. 2010;5(2):138-142.
4. Lee EC, Maresh CM, Kraemer WJ, et al. Ergogenic effects of betaine supplementation on strength and power performance. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2010;7:27.
5. Hoffman JR, Ratamess NA, Kang J, et al. Effect of betaine supplementation on power performance and fatigue. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2009;6:7.
6. Cooke MB, La Bounty P, Buford T, et al. Ingestion of 10 grams of whey protein prior to a single bout of resistance exercise does not augment Akt/mTOR pathway signaling compared to carbohydrate. J Int Soc Sports Nutr.2011;8:18.
7. Shelmadine B, Cooke M, Buford T, et al. Effects of 28 days of resistance exercise and consuming a commercially available pre-workout supplement, NO-Shotgun®, on body composition, muscle strength and mass, markers of satellite cell activation, and clinical safety markers in males. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2009;6:16.

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