Do you want to know if your preworkout is truly as good as it claims? Run it though my 'Great Preworkout' checklist right here.
The preworkout sector of the fitness industry is one which has two very different sides.
In one corner, you've got very hypey products which rely on bold claims and bright ads to sell you products which leave you feeling flatter than a hedgehog at a steamroller convention. And in the other corner, you've got manufacturers who make science-backed preworkouts that will definitely elevate your training experience.
The problem is telling the difference between the two!
Luckily, you've got me for that.
And I totally understand why most people are lost.
Because let's be honest, the preworkout industry is full of shade.
With ingredients constantly getting banned (check out my list of banned preworkouts for evidence), the times change so fast that people can't keep up.
And then there's the false marekting..
I recently ran a poll on my Twitter feed asking people to tell me the best preworkouts they've ever used, and I was surprised to see how many people named products which contain below-par formulas.
So today I'm going to break it down for you.
The next time you look for a preworkout, make sure it ticks as many boxes as possible on my 'Great Preworkout' checklist below.
Don't worry if it doesn't tick them all (nothing is perfect), but a solid pre should be hitting at least 5/6 of my checklist while avoiding at least 1/3 of the red flag ingredients below.
Ready to dive in?
Make this even more fun by grabbing your current pre and let's see how it does!
Here's my comprehensive guide on what to look for in a great preworkout supplement.
I'll explain why each one is important.
Imagine you bought a movie with one of your favourite actors on the cover, only to discover that he/she is only in the movie for 10 minutes.
This happened to me once with a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie.
I felt like someone had took a s**t in my shaker.
The marketing made it seem like you were getting exactly what you wanted for Friday night entertainment - Van Damme, explosions on the cover, somebody's gonna get got!
And technically you did get that - there was some action, and the actor was indeed in it.
So screw you. Stop complaining.
That's a proprietary blend.
A supplement company will have the audacity to give a list of the ingredients inside the product, and all of the accompanying hype about what those ingredients can do for your workout, but will refuse to tell you how much of each ingredient is in each scoop.
It used to mean they were hiding their formula to prevent rivals from copying it. But in 2018, it means one thing - it's underdosed.
Citrulline is the unsung hero of a truly fantastic preworkout.
See those headlines that emblazen the packaging about "skin splitting pumps"? Citrulline is responsible for that.
Ironically, most preworkouts are shockingly underdosed to give you those kind of results, or rely instead on sub-par ingredients like niacin.
I recently released a comprehensive article which goes into more depth on all the benefits of using citrulline malate before a workout, but the tip of the iceberg here is that you'll experience faster recovery between sets, greater training endurance (typically leading to more reps per set) and a pump so big you'll your arms are going to fall off. (1, 2)
Some supplement companies will substitute citrulline for it's cheaper cousin, arginine.
They'll make the same promises on the packaging, but don't be fooled here.
See, once citrulline is inside the body it is broken down into arginine, which leads many people to presume "Why not just use arginine? Especially if it's available cheaper!" but the kicker here is that arginine is not absorbed very well by the body.
In fact, one study found that as little as 1% of a typical arginine serving made it to the muscle cells, with the rest being consumed by the intestines and liver. (3)
Meanwhile, citrulline has been shown to have an absorption rate (meaning the amount of your dose to reach the muscle cells) of 80%. (4)
So citrulline is basically a superior way of supplementing with arginine, than using arginine directly!
It's important to know this, because some hugely popular preworkouts are still using arginine. For example, BSN No Explode 3.0 uses 6 grams of arginine per serving, but no citrulline.
You're looking for a preworkout that gives you no less than 6 grams of citrulline malate per serving. And I'm talking full citrulline, not some bogus half citrulline, half arginine split. Some recommend going as high as 8 grams, although 6g will do the job just fine.
Caffeine is a key component of any solid preworkout, and rightly so.
Because caffeine as been shown time and time again to increase focus, energy, and even calorie burn. (5, 6, 7)
By blocking adenosine receptors in the brain (which make us sleepy when activated) and increasing dopamine levels, caffeine makes us feel a sudden surge of energy and alertness. (8)
Caffeine has also been shown in numerous studies to significantly boost explosive strength output during weight training, although this is usually via dosages of 400-600mg. (9, 10, 11)
So right now you might be thinking "Hang on.. why do you recommend a supplement with only 200mg?"
Well, this comes down to risk and reward...
The benefits of caffeine are largely subjective to the individual, meaning somebody who drinks coffee for fun would need a larger dose than someone who never touches the stuff, and adaptation occurs over time, rendering the results less significant.
So if we were to consume, say, 600mg of caffeine before a workout this would greatly increase our tolerance towards caffeine and leave us with nowhere to go just a few weeks down the line.
Not to mention, if you're not a huge caffeine user right now then 600mg will literally blow your head off your shoulders faster than a henchman in The Expendables.
Beta-alanine is responsible for the tingly, skin-crawling sensation you'll experience when you use a preworkout supplement.
And like caffeine, part of it's effects are lost when the user becomes used to it.
This is why guys start to double scoop their products a few weeks down the line in a bid to re-experience that sensation again (not realizing they're also double scooping all of the other ingredients in their pre, which is downright dangerous).
Thankfully, the only effects you lose with beta-alanine are the superficial ones (the tingles), and you'll keep all of the performance enhancing benefits if you maintain your supplementation of beta-alanine.
Unfortunately, the performance benefits are often swept under the carpet because most people focus on the skin-crawling feeling it provides (parasthesia). The main benefit is that beta-alanine will act as a buffer for lactic acid build up during intense exercise, meaning you can continue training through "the burn" for longer.
One interesting study from researchers at Manchester University found that boxers using beta-alanine improved punching performance in 3 minute rounds by as much as 2000%. (12)
In a gym context, a 2008 study confirmed that beta-alanine supplementation at the correct dosage could improve the number of repetitions possible in a single set by as much as 25%. (13)
These are huge potential benefits just waiting to be had.
So what is the optimal dosage?
Aim for 2 grams. This will be enough for you to maximize the performance benefits, any more than this is purely to experience parasthesia.
Betaine (betroot extract) is a criminally underrated preworkout ingredient which works great during high intensity training.
Thankfully, after years of flying under the radar while the likes of caffeine grabbed the headlines, betaine is starting to get the recognition it deserves and earning it's place in the top tier of serious pre workout supplements.
Betaine has been shown to improve muscle recovery, boost explosive strength and even improve muscular endurance, so it's definitely an ingredient I readily look for when trying a new preworkout for the first time. (17, 18, 19)
In order to draw the maximum benefits form betaine supplementation, your preworkout should come with a 2.5g dose.
A few years ago, it became trendy to condense preworkouts into ridicilously small tubs with miniscule scoops.
These formulas were billed as super concentrated, with manufacturers claiming they'd found a way to condense a fully dosed pre into a tiny serving size.
What voodoo was used to shrink a 25 gram serving down to 6 grams?
Simply put, nope.
6 grams of citrulline is 6 grams of citrulline. And if we shrink it down, it's less.
Concentrated preworkout formulas have basically pumped in lots of caffeine as the powerhouse ingredient and then filled the rest with below-par doses of other energy boosting ingredients in the hope they could get away with it.
They claimed they were giving you a better deal, but they were actually giving you much worse deal.
They go hand-in-hand with proprietary blends, so if you're unlucky enough to have spent money on a concentrated preworkout flip the tub and you'll probably also notice it's hiding it's formula behind a proprietary blend.
There are a few things often included in preworkouts that serve little or no purpose other than as a filler.
This may surprise you, but the three things that don't make the cut are BCAA's, taurine and niacin.
Flip your current pre around and look at the ingredients, you'll likely see at least one of these inside the tub. So here's why I class them as non-essential preworkout ingredients.
Branched chain amino acids are great for building muscle, but they are not a necessary ingredient in a solid preworkout formula.
Over the last 20 years, BCAA's have become the darling of muscle building magazines, with many recommending you "supp on them all day long". They'll claim that this is to prevent you from going catabolic and losing lean muscle tissue, but anybody who grasps basic human physiology will already know that this just isn't how the body works.
In fact, you'd need to be tackling the training regimen of a marathon runner to experience those problems.
Plus, providing you are eating plenty of protein throughout the day (and you train with weights, so you should already be doing this) then you're already getting plenty of BCAA's into your system and your muscle building results are just fine.
So no, you don't need to add BCAA's into your preworkout - in fact, you probably don't need them at all.
And you definitely don't need a trendy intra-workout BCAA drink.
Taurine is a commonly used in preworkout supplements and energy drinks, and it's easy to see why when we look at it's potential benefits.
Studies suggest that taurine supplementation can lead to greater heart health and increased blood flow. (14, 15)
But despite the potential benefits, there are two reasons taurine isn't fit for your preworkout.
First off, you'd need a dose of 500mg - 2000mg to get the full benefits of taurine and the majority of preworkouts fall well under this.
Secondly (and this is the big one), taurine does not mix well with caffeine.
In fact, one study published in Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior found that taurine actually opposed some of caffeine's effects, and that when we take both ingredients together we increase the likelihood of headaches and decreased training performance. (15)
Caffeine's training benefits outweigh taurine's training benefits, so it makes sense to go with caffeine here.
Niacin is the go-to ingredient of a supplement company looking to pass off a sub-par preworkout, and is typically included in products that also use proprietary blends.
You see, niacin (a.k.a. vitamin B3) is a useful substance as far as improving your cholesterol goes and it should find it's way into your daily multivitamin supplement, but vitamins have no place in a good preworkout formula.
So why is it included?
Well, one of the side effects of niacin is that it'll provide you with a flushing sensation similar to that of beta-alanine.
This allows a supplement company to mask the fact that their product is likely poorly dosed with beta-alanine, and gives the supplement user the impression that they can really "feel" the beta-alanine tingles kicking in - without any of the training benefits beta-alanine offers.
This gets back to our own incorrect idea that we must "feel" our preworkout or it is not working.
If I see niacin included in a pre I'm already of the mindset that the supplement in question was designed to take advantage of poorly informed supplement users, by creating a false effect of "Oh my God, I can really feel this working!" even though it offers no real performance benefits. The sad thing is niacin remains incredibly popular in the preworkout industry and some very big brands (and popular preworkouts) carry it (such as MyPre 2.0, Pre Kaged, and Total War) with only the top 3 on my list below leaving it out completely.
So for now at least, we'll have to wait until other supplement manufacturers catch up.
So now you know!
So now I've covered my checklist of exactly what to look for when trying to determine whether you've purchased a truly great preworkout supplement, and also three things which should raise the little red flags for you when you are looking to get your next one.
To finish this article, here's my list of a few preworkout supplements that do most of the above.
There isn't a pre in the world that currently ticks ALL of the boxes while avoiding ALL of the red flags, so the choices below represent the current best of the best.
As many of my readers know, I actually formulate my own preworkout by purchasing raw ingredients and then creating my own formula (get my free pdf on how to make your own preworkout) but if you want to get a ready-made product, these 5 suggestions will put you on the right track.
While Pre Jym sits atop the marketplace from a popularity standpoint, Sidewalk Kraka is hands down my favourite preworkout at the minute.
One of the main reasons for this is because when CT Fletcher first announced his Iron Addicts Brand supplement line, many industry snobs presumed it would be a cheap cash-in on his YouTube fame.
They were gloriously incorrect.
Sidewalk Kraka is a perfect example of a well dosed (but very, very strong) preworkout.
With it's mighty 3.2g beta-alanine, 300mg caffeine and again no proprietary blend, no BCAA's and no niacin, this is a fantastic preworkout for those looking to bottle one of CT's motivational speeches before they train. This DMHA-powered pre workout also contains 200mg eria jarensis (an exotic stimulant currently hyped as "the next big thing" in the supplement world) which creates a euphoric-like training effect. For the full lowdown on it, go read my Sidewalk Kraka review.
It's as close to "perfect" as we can get right now.
But I know what you're thinking...
What about citrulline malate and betaine?
Well, that's why Sidewalk Kraka isn't perfect.
You see, to really get the most out of this pre workout you should combine it with Sleeve Buster (the non-stim preworkout from Iron Addicts Brand), where you'll find 6 grams of citrulline and 2.5g betaine as well as a host of other performance boosting ingredients. Read my Sleeve Buster review for a thorough insight.
The two work as a tag team, meaning that while CT's supplement line is fantastic, it's pretty damn expensive.
Advanced Molecular Labs released this beastly preworkout last year.
It's a strong blend of beta-alanine (2g), citrulline malate (8g!!), caffeine (400mg), with the added benefit of 2.5g betaine and even 5g creatine monohydrate (all clinically dosed ingredients!) making it the go-to choice for serious athletes looking to boost training performance without using any of the exotic stimulants seen in other top contenders, like Sidewalk Kraka.
To further boost it's credentials, co-founder Joe Donnelly is a f**king legend.
There are no BCAA's and no niacin, although certain parts of the formula are hidden behind a proprietary blend (none of the key ingredients, but this should still be a thing of the past in order for it to secure the top spot).
The downside here is that you will run through the tub relatively fast as the price-per-serving is quite large.
However, this comes as a trade-off to being streets ahead of it's competitors at what it does.
Rounding out the list is Pinnacle, a shockingly good pre that outperforms products from much larger supplement companies who should know better!
With 325g caffeine per serving, this is a very strong product right out of the gate.
But it doesn't end there..
8 grams of citrulline (!!), 4 grams of beta-alanine (Tingle City), and 2.5 grams of betaine make this a very well formulated preworkout that can legitimately stand toe-to-toe with any product from the industry's biggest companies (looking at you Reflex, Optimum Nutrition and Myprotein) and beat them comprehensively.
Throw in 150mg choline for a great boost in focus and we're really getting the most out of our preworkout here.
But to top things off, Northbound Nutrition have even added 3.2 grams of creatine monohydrate to each serving of Pinnacle.
The similarities are clear when comparing Pinnacle to AML Preworkout, with both companies offering a very strong formula that puts science ahead of hype. Both of them are quite pricey, but they sit at the top of their industry for very good reason.
Between the two products, I believe AML gets the nod (at the moment) for the inclusion of a full 5g dose of creatine monohydrate.
(Yup, that's how close it is between these two, because creatine's not even on my checklist!)
That's not exactly a bad thing, though, because creatine monohydrate is so cheap to supplement on it's own at 5g per day (go here) that it doesn't make my list of must have ingredients for a great preworkout.
There are suggestions that when supplementing betaine we don't require a full 5g creatine, as betaine works in a similar fashion, but more research is needed here.
Top of the pile (still) is Pre Jym, from Jim Stoppani.
If you read my Pre Jym Review, you'll know that this product fully deserved it's claim as the king of the preworkout market - and it's still up there.
Pre Jym ticks all of the boxes above, with 6g citrulline malate, 2g beta-alanine, 300mg caffeine and no proprietary blend.
It is also another of the few preworkouts to keep niacin out of the formula, and in fact Jim has been quite vocal in his reasons for doing this, making it clear that he's not a fan of the whole "your pre must blow your head off!" trend, and instead focusing on the right ingredients to improve energy levels and then clinically dosing each one.
It's not perfect (it contains BCAA's and taurine) but it's close enough to be the best-selling preworkout in the world.
You don't achieve that without being good at what you do.
Now we move a cheeky contender (i.e. a supplement which has all the signs of being ready to challenge the industry's top dogs, but hasn't quite ticked as many boxes on my great preworkout list to make the top three).
RedCon1 took the military theme first started by Grenade and headed down a Special Forces path with it.
Sure, the packaging isn't shaped like a hand grenade or an ammunition pack, but their preworkout is actually superior once you open the tub.
And that's what counts.
Inside Total War, you're getting fully dosed levels of citrulline (6g), beta-alanine (3.2g), caffeine (250mg). Like CT Fletcher's Sidewalk Kraka, his is a DMHA-based supplement so you'll have an intense boost in energy and a somewhat euphoric response the first few times you use it.
It missed out on the top three because it includes 1g taurine and, once again, in order to fully get the most out of Total War we need to combine it with RedCon1's stim-free pre workout Big Noise, which will add a very useful 2.5g betaine into the mix to give you a killer pump while training, but drives the price up out of the reach of many gym members for the sake of a pre workout.
So, for now at least, this one sits at number 5.
But this is something that I'm keeping a close eye on.
Seeing as it only launched in 2016, RedCon1 have done incredibly well to even make this list with these big names, and I definitely recommend giving this product a try if you're looking to shake-up your preworkout with something new.
So there you have it! My complete guide on which ingredients should be in your preworkout, and my current top 5 preworkout supplements based on the ingredients inside the tub, rather than the hype outside.
Hopefully, the next time you change you preworkout you can use my list to ensure you only get a top quality one.
Of course, I regularly update the blog here so when new ingredients are discovered that can elevate workout performance and attain the status 'essential' you can be sure this preworkout checklist will be as up to date as it gets.
Which preworkout are you looking forward to trying to most? Let me know on my social media pages.
I'll see you next time!