6 Key Ingredients in Effective Pre-Workout Supplements

Pre-workouts are some of the most popular products on the market today, and for a good reason:

They boost your workout performance, making you feel like the Incredible Hulk.

But what precisely is a pre-workout, and what makes these supplements effective?

Stick around to learn how pre-workouts work and what active ingredients provide the associated benefits.

Let’s dive in.

What Is a Pre-Workout Supplement?

A pre-workout supplement, commonly known as a pre-workout, is designed to boost your energy levels and optimize your workout performance.

As the name suggests, you should take such a product before working out. The reason is that the active ingredients provide acute benefits, which we will look at next. 

In other words, you take a dose of the supplement, your body absorbs the active ingredients, which allows them to positively affect various systems in your body.

It’s important to note that not all pre-workouts are created equal. Some products are formulated intelligently, allowing each main ingredient to offer unique benefits. Others are, well, not.

Unfortunately, the supplements industry is notorious for its shady practices and low-quality products. Some manufacturers focus only on making a profit by not including enough active ingredients in each dose. Instead, they only add trace amounts and fill the rest with cheaper compounds. 

As someone looking to make an intelligent investment in a quality product, your job is to examine each potential product and determine if it’s worth the money. To do that, you need to know which active ingredients work

The 6 Main Ingredients In Pre-Workout Supplements

1. Beta-Alanine

Beta-alanine is a naturally-occurring amino acid found in poultry, fish, red meat, etc. Sadly, getting adequate amounts of the compound through diet alone is impossible, which is where supplementation comes in.

(To be clear, by adequate, we mean amounts high enough to provide athletic benefits.)

Supplementing with beta-alanine provides a concentrated dose of the nutrient, leading to muscle saturation and the associated athletic effects. Speaking of that, we must backtrack a bit to understand how beta-alanine actually works.

Your skeletal muscles and brain are home to an endless variety of molecules, each with unique functions. One of these molecules is carnosine, which directly affects your ability to do physical tasks. More specifically, carnosine serves as a buffer to hydrogen ions, reducing their impact on your muscles.

As you exercise, your body breaks down adenosine triphosphate (ATP) molecules at a faster pace. Demand for these molecules can increase as much as 1,000-fold, leading to rapid ATP depletion.

Once you deplete your muscles’ ATP supply, muscle fibers don’t have the energy they need to produce more contractions. Taking a break gives your body time to synthesize new ATP molecules, allowing you to do another bout of exercise.

Unfortunately, as your body goes through ATP breakdown and synthesis, hydrogen ions accumulate inside your muscles. As a result, pH drops, creating an acidic environment, and leading to the familiar burning sensation that results from exercise. The more ions build up, the greater the burning sensation and the more tired you feel. 

Let’s now circle back to beta-alanine:

Supplementing with the amino acids increases carnosine levels, which, as mentioned above, serve as a buffer in your muscles. More carnosine means muscle pH drops more slowly, delaying the burning sensation and associated fatigue.

The mechanisms make a lot of sense when considering the real-world benefits of beta-alanine supplementation. Specifically, the amino acid appears to improve athletic performance in the 60 to 240-second (1 to 4-minute) range. 

As we know, the burning sensation takes time to grow and impairs our performance, often more than a minute of moderately-intense exercise. By supplementing with beta-alanine, you can delay these effects, allowing you to train harder and get tired more slowly.

Research indicates that a daily dose of 3 to 6 grams is enough to deliver the full spectrum of benefits. 

2. L-Citrulline

L-citrulline is an amino acid similar to beta-alanine. Research indicates that supplementing with it before training can bring ergogenic effects.

The amino acid is classified as non-essential, which means we don’t necessarily have to consume it through food, as the body can synthesize it from other nutrients. Still, as with beta-alanine, supplementation is necessary for getting enough of the amino acid to experience the athletic benefits.

L-citrulline is known as a pump product because its effects on the body largely relate to vasodilation: the widening of blood vessels. Vasodilation allows blood to flow more freely around the body, providing much-needed oxygen and nutrients to our muscles. 

Unsurprisingly, the primary benefit of l-citrulline is better muscle pumps. Supplementing with the amino acid before working out can make it easier to achieve and maintain good muscle pumps during training, which can be quite fulfilling.

The amino acid achieves these effects by increasing levels of another amino acid: l-arginine. It is a crucial piece in nitric oxide (NO) production, a signaling molecule that promotes blood vessel relaxation.

Interestingly, research indicates that citrulline supplementation more effectively boosts arginine bioavailability in the body than supplementing with arginine.

In addition to promoting better pumps, vasodilation can bring other athletic benefits. Most notably, supplementation has been shown to:

  • Improve strength
  • Reduce the perception of fatigue
  • Improve muscular endurance
  • Speed up the recovery process

The most widespread form of l-citrulline is citrulline malate. It consists of citrulline and malic acid, which provides some unique benefits.

3. Caffeine

Caffeine is perhaps the most popular compound on our list. Unsurprisingly, manufacturers often include it in their pre-workout formulas because caffeine is a potent nervous system stimulant. 

First, it’s important to debunk one myth regarding the compound. Caffeine is incapable of providing energy because it doesn’t contain any calories. Even a strong cup of black coffee has 0 calories. 

Caffeine works by reducing the perception of tiredness and muscle fatigue, allowing us to do more work and perform better at the gym. 

One of caffeine’s functions is to inhibit adenosine, a compound that promotes tiredness and increases pain perception when it binds to brain receptors. In other words, consuming caffeine reduces the perception of fatigue. 

Another mechanism of action is that caffeine stimulates the production of catecholamines: a group of compounds that affect various nervous system functions. Some of these include cognition, motor control, cognition, hormone balance, and more. 

Often, consuming caffeine leads to improved alertness, more motivation, improved well-being, and sharper cognition.

On top of that, thanks to caffeine’s impact on catecholamine production, the compound stimulates fatty acid release and oxidation, which can have a glucose-sparing effect. Rather than solely relying on carbohydrates for energy, the body gets better at burning fat.

Still, one downside of caffeine is that it can interfere with sleep. Be mindful of this fact and avoid pre-workouts that heavily rely on caffeine if you plan on supplementing in the evening before working out.

No supplement on planet Earth is worth it if it stops you from sleeping well at night.

4. Creatine

Creatine is one of the most popular and best-studied supplements, with numerous human trials dating back decades. The first creatine study came out in 1912, and the body of research has gradually expanded since then.

Today, most people have at least heard of creatine, and many enthusiasts supplement with the compound to improve their performance and fitness results.

Like the amino acids we reviewed above, you can get some creatine through food––specifically, red meat and fish. Unfortunately, the amount is too small to make a difference, especially after the food gets cooked.

Your body can also synthesize small amounts of the compound, but supplementation makes the real difference here. Taking a concentrated dose leads to muscle saturation, which delivers the associated benefits, which we will review in a moment.

Most creatine is found inside skeletal muscle, but there are trace amounts in the brain, liver, and kidneys. Phosphocreatine, also known as PCr, is the primary form of creatine in the human body. 

To understand how creatine works, we must first look briefly at how your body uses energy, particularly during exercise.

Under normal circumstances, your body requires some ATP (we reviewed that molecule in the beta-alanine point) for energy. But exercise increases the energy demand, causing your body to rapidly burn through ATP. The more intense an activity is, the quicker you deplete your stores and get tired. 

Phosphocreatine boosts your exercise performance by lending a phosphate molecule, allowing your body to generate new ATP molecules more quickly from adenosine diphosphate (ADP). As a result, your training performance improves, and you recover more quickly between exercise bouts.

According to most research, creatine monohydrate strikes the perfect balance between price and benefits. Other more expensive forms supposedly deliver superior benefits, but research doesn’t suggest that to be the case.

5. BCAAs

BCAAs, short for branched-chain amino acids, is a collection of three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Each plays a crucial role in muscle growth, fat loss, and overall health.

For instance, leucine is perhaps the single most potent amino acid, capable of triggering protein synthesis. Isoleucine is also necessary for protein synthesis and provides building blocks for producing hemoglobin––a special protein that carries oxygen throughout the body.

Valine is the third amino acid under the BCAA umbrella and is also considered essential––the body cannot synthesize it, which means we have to get enough of it through food and supplements. Its primary functions relate to metabolic health, muscle recovery, blood glucose control, and human growth hormone (HGH) synthesis. 

Some people would have you believe that BCAAs are an essential supplement if you want to build muscle, get stronger, recover adequately, and hold onto lean tissue while dieting. 

Fortunately, that idea is incorrect largely because you can get BCAAs through food, so long as you eat enough daily protein. 

Still, having BCAAs as part of your pre-workout supplement can provide some benefits, especially if you enjoy early morning fasted workouts. 

Working out in a fasted state, such as first thing in the morning, can accelerate protein breakdown, putting you at risk of muscle loss. Taking BCAAs beforehand would theoretically keep you in a fasted state while supplying your body with amino acids that can prevent excess protein breakdown.

Having some BCAAs as part of your pre-workout can also be helpful if you train at a different time of day. For instance, if your last meal was more than two hours ago, a concentrated dose of these three amino acids can potentially support your recovery and slow down catabolism.

6. L-Glutamine

Glutamine is an amino acid with similar properties to leucine, isoleucine, and valine. It plays a vital role in making proteins, supporting brain function, and aiding digestion. 

The amino acid is also necessary for removing excess ammonia, a waste compound produced by various cells in the body. Elevated ammonia levels in the body increase the risk of toxicity.

However, unlike BCAAs, glutamine is a conditionally-essential amino acid. Your body can generally synthesize the amino acid but might not be able to under some circumstances, such as when dealing with a severe injury or illness.

In the context of improving athletic performance, taking a larger dose of glutamine can lead to higher bicarbonate concentrations in skeletal muscle. Bicarbonate is the most abundant acid buffer in skeletal muscle, and a higher concentration can reduce the burning sensation we experience during training.

As a result, glutamine can have similar ergogenic effects to beta-alanine by slowing down muscle pH decline and delaying the burning sensation, leading to superior performance.

Glutamine can also contribute to quicker recovery and a lower risk of muscle soreness, but we need more research before concluding.

Final Words

There you have it: the six main ingredients in pre-workout supplements and their associated benefits. 

Some of these compounds have more scientific backing and have been shown to work in a larger number of well-controlled human trials. Others could do with more research for us to fully understand how they might benefit us.

In any case, a pre-workout that combines at least some of the above compounds will generally improve your athletic performance reliably. Be careful not to fall for a product that relies solely on caffeine for ergogenic aid. 

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