Best Pre-Workout (2022): Updated Guide to Ingredients & Supplements

Best Pre-Workout Supplements: 2022 Update

To take your exercise performance to the next level, it's essential to use the best pre-workout ingredients based on your specific goals. But once you dive into the realm of pre-workout supplements, you'll soon realize the options are endless. 

The hard part is sifting through the marketing, exaggerated performance claims, and opinions of gym-goers, Reddit users, and fitness influencers. To make your search for the best pre-workout a little less arduous, we've compiled a list of the top pre-workout ingredients based on science and how they work.

And if you're already up to speed on pre-workout ingredients, skip ahead to see our rankings for best pre-workouts by category (e.g. best pre-workout for weight loss, best non-stim pre-workout, and best pre-workout for muscle gain).

The 10 Best Pre-Workout Ingredients

There are hundreds of dietary supplement ingredients that promise to boost workout performance and recovery, but only a few have evidence-backed benefits.

Don't worry — we compiled a list of the 10 best pre-workout ingredients and their effective dosages.

Most of these ingredients can be found in the Transparent Labs PreSeries lineup, but not all since some have overlapping benefits with unlikely synergy (making them redundant).

1. Citrulline Malate

Citrulline molecule formula

L-citrulline is a popular ingredient in pre-workout supplements due to its ability to boost nitric oxide levels [1]. When nitric oxide production increases, blood flow improves and allows both nutrients and oxygen to replenish muscle tissue more efficiently. Ultimately, this translates to greater muscle pumps and heightened energy levels.

While L-citrulline is ideal for bodybuilders and those who lift weights, endurance athletes may also benefit from it [2]. In fact, L-citrulline malate, the citrulline salt of malic acid, is one of the most common pre-workout ingredients.

However, pure L-citrulline is seemingly just as effective as citrulline malate, so long as the doses of citrulline are matched. Malic acid is an important intermediate compound involved in energy production, but its ergogenic effects remain to be demonstrated.

Additionally, research has found that citrulline malate enhances the anti-catabolic effects of branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) supplements [3].

It isn't uncommon for citrulline to be replaced with L-arginine, beetroot, or agmatine sulfate to support nitric oxide production. When dosed appropriately, these ingredients will increase circulation and blood flow to skeletal muscle. However, citrulline and citrulline malate tend to be the most effective of the bunch.

Studies indicate that the optimal dose of citrulline (malate) is 4 – 8 grams taken before a workout [4]. However, most pre-workouts on the market only contain around 1 – 2 grams of citrulline due to its cost.

2. Beta-Alanine

Beta-alanine is a beta-amino acid that combines with L-histidine to form a dipeptide known as carnosine. Since beta-alanine is the rate-limiting substrate for carnosine synthesis, supplementing with this amino acid can rapidly increase muscle carnosine levels. In turn, carnosine acts as a buffer that neutralizes acidic byproducts of intense exercise [5].

Numerous studies are now available demonstrating the efficacy of beta-alanine as a pre-workout supplement. Relevant benefits of beta-alanine include improving muscular endurance, reducing muscle fatigue, and supporting muscle growth [6].

However, many pre-workout supplements miss the mark on beta-alanine by skimping on the dose. Research suggests that active individuals need 3 – 5 grams of beta-alanine daily for ergogenic benefits [7].

Beta-alanine is an oft-maligned sports supplement due to a harmless side effect known as paresthesia (which resembles a tingling sensation under the skin). Thankfully, this side effect dissipates if you use beta-alanine consistently.

This pre-workout ingredient doesn't necessarily need to be taken right before exercise. Much like creatine, your carnosine concentrations will remain effectively elevated if you take beta-alanine daily.

 

3. Betaine Anhydrous (Trimethylglycine)

Betaine molecule formula

 

Betaine anhydrous, aka trimethylglycine, is an amino acid derivative found primarily in beetroot. The body also produces betaine endogenously, as it's an essential regulator of homocysteine levels and cellular fluids.

More specifically, betaine is an important methyl donor that impacts several physiological processes from DNA replication, blood pressure balance, and neurotransmitter function [8].

Studies suggest that supplemental betaine may provide several benefits, including:

  1. Improving body composition [9]

  2. Increasing power output and force [10, 11]

  3. Boosting muscular endurance [12]

Effective doses of betaine anhydrous fall between 2,400 and 4,000 mg taken prior to exercise.

4. Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAA)

Branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) are one of the most common ingredients found in pre-workout formulas, particularly stim-free pre-workouts. The term "BCAAs" refers to three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. 

Leucine is widely considered the most important of the three BCAAs, working to activate the mTOR pathway responsible for muscle protein synthesis. And while isoleucine is suggested to increase glucose uptake by skeletal muscle cells, the effects of valine supplementation are less patent [13]. However, it's thought that valine inhibits tryptophan metabolism, which may augment athletic performance.

BCAAs, as a whole, have been shown to reduce muscle soreness and prevent muscle wasting, particularly during weight-loss phases [14]. BCAA supplementation may also improve stamina by sparing muscle glycogen during exercise. One study even demonstrated significant power increases in subjects given pure L-leucine [15].

 

5. L-Theanine + Caffeine

Best Pre Workout Supplements

We all know the energizing effects of caffeine supplementation — the "pep" kicks in minutes after drinking a cup of coffee or slamming an energy drink. Yet, many aren't aware that L-theanine — an amino acid in green tea — bolsters the cognitive benefits of caffeine [16].

Therefore, pairing L-theanine with caffeine in the evidence-based 3:2 or 2:1 ratio is prudent before hitting the gym. L-theanine and caffeine work together to improve reaction time, focus, cognition, and mental acuity [17].

Although caffeine is unique in the way it immediately ramps up your alertness and motivation, be mindful of the slippery slope of tolerance. Many people fall victim to ever-increasing caffeine dosages in pre-workouts.

We suggest keeping your daily caffeine intake below 7 mg per kg of body weight. Too much caffeine can cause heart palpitations, tremors, restlessness, and anxiety.

Fortunately, taking L-theanine with caffeine (anhydrous) can help attenuate the side effects of the former. Hence, PreSeries LEAN and PreSeries BULK both have generous amounts of L-theanine to go along with caffeine.

6. CDP-Choline or Alpha-GPC

Choline is an essential B vitamin that the body needs to create the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which plays a major role in cognitive function. Unfortunately, choline is commonly lacking in the modern diet; In fact, 94% of the adults in one study had a choline deficiency [19]. As such, taking a choline supplement is generally wise even if you're not an avid gym-goer.

There are three popular forms of supplemental choline: choline bitartrate, CDP-choline, and alpha-GPC. While choline bitartrate may sound familiar — especially if you're into nootropics — you may not be up to speed on alpha-GPC and CDP-choline (citicoline).

In contrast to choline bitartrate, alpha-GPC and CDP-choline are highly bioavailable sources of choline that enhance mental acuity and physical performance [18]. Choline bitartrate can still be an effective pre-workout ingredient, but the dose needs to be quite a bit higher (e.g. two to three times more) than alpha-GPC and CDP-choline. An effective dose of the latter two options ranges between 150-600 mg.

7. elevATP®

elevATP® is a patented extract of ancient peat that's suggested to fortify cellular ATP levels. Thus, elevATP® can boost exercise performance and has been demonstrably effective in a handful of human studies [20, 21, 22].

The recommended dose of elevATP® ranges from 150 mg to 300 mg per day, taken before and/or after training.

8. Taurine

Taurine molecule formula

Taurine is another worthwhile pre-workout ingredient with multifarious benefits for athletes and gym-goers. For one, taurine is a potent brain booster that confers synergy with caffeine to boost focus and reduce brain cell inflammation and oxidative stress [23]. 

Taurine can also boost performance via increased blood flow to skeletal muscle tissue [24, 25]. Greater blood flow to muscle tissue can enhance muscle growth and recovery after a tough workout. Taurine supplementation has even been shown to improve performance in endurance athletes [26].

An effective dose of taurine is 1 – 2 grams taken shortly before exercise. Taurine is also generally recognized as safe, as it's created naturally in the body and present in many foods, particularly seafood, poultry, and beef.

9. Acetyl L-Carnitine

Acetyl L-carnitine (ALCAR) is the more bioavailable and cognitively active form of L-carnitine, an important molecule that transports long-chain fatty acids into mitochondria so they can be used as energy [27].

ALCAR has been shown to reduce the symptoms of muscle damage and oxidative stress after resistance training in healthy, adult males [27]. Further evidence suggests that ALCAR has neuroprotective benefits and can improve blood flow to the brain [28].

A recent meta-analysis also highlights the efficacy of ALCAR supplementation for treating symptoms of depression [29]. An evidence-based dose of ALCAR ranges from 1,000 – 3,000 mg per day.

The inclusion of stimulant-free pre-workout ingredients like ALCAR, L-tyrosine, and alpha-GPC is how we can keep the caffeine content relatively modest in BULK and LEAN while maintaining the energy and focus benefits users should expect from the best pre-workout supplement.

10. Astragin™

Astragin™  is a water-soluble extract of Panax notoginseng and Astragalus membranaceus two promising adaptogenic herbs with longstanding medicinal use [28]. So, how does this ingredient work?

The constituents in these plants are suggested to selectively increase the absorption of molecules by enhancing intestinal permeability [29]. In other words, Astragin™ helps your body absorb the other ingredients in your pre-workout supplement, making them more effective.

What About Creatine?

Creatine is undoubtedly effective for increasing muscle mass and athletic performance. However, research suggests that caffeine may inhibit the uptake of creatine [30]. Granted, the inhibitory effects of caffeine on creatine absorption are somewhat equivocal.

Regardless, we recommend taking a stand-alone creatine product like Creatine HMB post-workout instead of before training, just to be on the safe side.

The Best Pre-Workout for Muscle Gain

Perhaps the biggest mistake supplement companies make is overloading their pre-workouts with caffeine and harsh stimulants. In the long run, these formulas are not sensible due to rapid induction of drug tolerance (and feelings of adrenal fatigue); it's a slippery slope when you're relying on large doses of caffeine just to get through a workout.

As such, we recommend moderating your caffeine intake from all sources, pre-workouts or otherwise. (And if you're looking for a caffeine-free pre-workout, scroll down to see our best stim-free pre-workout rankings.) 

"Bulking" pre-workouts are typically formulated for muscle growth, muscle pumps, and strength. Here are our rankings of the best pre-workout for muscle gain:

1. Transparent Labs PreSeries BULK

PreSeries BULK is our best pre-workout for muscle gain — each ingredient in this pre-workout formula is backed by scientific and clinical research, and dosed accordingly. and matched to clinical studies. The "star players" in BULK are L-citrulline malate, BetaPure™ betaine anhydrous, beta-alanine, alpha-GPC, and caffeine/Infinergy™.

But BULK also has plenty of other "players" that come off the bench when you're pushing through a tough workout, such as testosterone-boosting micronutrients, L-theanine, taurine, and L-tyrosine. These ingredients provide clean, lasting energy without jitters or post-workout crashing.

What we like: 

✅ A full dose of citrulline malate in a 2:1 ratio for extended nitric oxide production and blood flow

✅ Fermented vegan BCAAs

✅ Ample dose of beta-alanine (full clinical dose)

✅ L-theanine + caffeine in a 2:1 ratio

✅ No food dyes, no artificial sweeteners, or flavors

✅ Testosterone support complex (with vitamin D, Zinc, and Boron)

2. JYM Supplements Pre JYM High Performance Pre-Workout

Pre workout ingredients: Bottle of JYM Supplements Pre JYM High Performance Pre-Workout supplements

 

Jim Stoppani knows his stuff, and his JYM series lineup is revered in the supplement realm. His cleverly named pre-workout formula, Pre-JYM, comes in at number two in our rankings of the best pre-workout for muscle gain — here's why:

What we like:

✅ Hefty doses of citrulline malate and BCAAs

✅ Provides a solid range of nootropics, notably alpha-GPC, caffeine, and huperzine-A

✅ Great tasting pre-workout formula

What we don't like:

❌ A tad low in beta-alanine and betaine.

❌ Added sugars, albeit only 2 grams per serving

❌ Contains creatine HCl, which seems better as a post-workout recovery supplement

❌ Too much caffeine for most beginners (300 mg)

3. Cellucor C4 Ultimate

Pre workout ingredients: Bottle of Cellucor C4 Ultimate supplements

The original C4 pre-workout formula is admittedly not the best option before hitting the gym. It's mostly an exhibition of how hype and branding are what sell most pre-workouts, not necessarily the best formulas from a scientific standpoint.

However, if you are loyal to the Cellucor brand, C4 Ultimate is a decent pre-workout supplement with a much-improved formula over the original. The downside is, you pay for it. Twenty servings cost upwards of $40, which is much pricier per gram than our top two rankings of best pre-workout for muscle gain.

In any case, here's why C4 Ultimate made the cut:

What we like:

✅ A full dose of citrulline malate

✅ 3.2 grams of beta-alanine

What we don't like:

❌ Partial Proprietary blend (energy). Half of the formula is transparent, and the other half is proprietary. This may be a way to hide under-dosed ingredients (most likely TeaCrine® and AlphaSize®)

❌ No BCAAs

❌ Excessive caffeine (300 mg)

The Best Pre-Workout For Weight Loss

If formulated correctly, pre-workouts can also help preserve muscle mass and performance during a calorie deficit. Let's take a look at the rankings of best pre-workout for weight loss:

1. Transparent Labs PreSeries LEAN

If you're after the best pre-workout for weight loss, look no further than PreSeries LEAN. This formula is great regardless if you're doing an intense cardio session or pumping some iron. And being a vegan pre-workout, LEAN is suitable for trying to cut body fat on a plant-based diet.

What we like: 

✅ Two grams of BCAA 2:1:1 (fermented and vegan) to help prevent muscle breakdown and accelerate recovery

✅ Just enough caffeine, Infinergy™, and theobromine to power through your workouts without untoward effects

✅ A plentiful 6,000 mg dose of citrulline malate (2:1) and 3,500 mg of BetaPure™ betaine for extended nitric oxide production

✅ No food dyes, no artificial sweeteners, or flavors

✅ Added thyroid support complex to promote healthy metabolism and boost energy levels

2. Mr. Hyde NitroX

Pre workout ingredients: Bottle of Mr. Hyde NitroX supplements

Mr. Hyde's NitroX supplement promises laser-sharp focus, increased power, and more endurance during your workout sessions. Here are the key features of our second best pre-workout for weight loss:

What we like:

 ✅ 2.5 grams of beta-alanine is decent (enough)

✅ Blended caffeine sources (caffeine anhydrous, di-caffeine malate, and caffeine citrate)

✅ Good flavor and mixability

What we don't like:

❌ This product is stimulant overkill with nearly 400 mg of caffeine per serving plus yohimbine. For some gym-goers and athletes, this will hit a little too hard.

❌ Under-dosed pump ingredients. This has one-sixth the dose of nitric oxide boosters found in PreSeries LEAN.

❌ Contains artificial food dyes and sucralose

      3. EVLution Nutrition ENGN Shred

      Pre workout ingredients: Bottle of EVLution Nutrition ENGN Shred supplements

      ENGN Shred is a big seller, but the ingredient profile just doesn't stack up to most pre-workouts. At only 7.7 grams a scoop, you can be sure most of the ingredients are underdosed.

      What we like: 

      ✅ Beta-alanine — underdosed, but at least it's the formula

      ✅ Green tea extract is a decent thermogenic ingredient

      ✅ Extensive flavor options

      What we don't like:

      ❌ Offers little in the way of boosting blood flow and muscle pumps

      ❌ Contains a proprietary blend that may hide under-dosed ingredients (like betaine, choline bitartrate, L-tyrosine)

      ❌ Has food dyes and sucralose

        The Best Stimulant-Free Pre-Workout Supplements

        Many people wrongly assume that pre-workouts are only good for boosting physical and mental performance through stimulants like caffeine. This is simply not true. In fact, stimulant-free pre-workouts are a great option when you're craving intense muscle pumps and want to avoid the dreaded post-workout crash.

        Be sure to read the ingredient section above to dive deeper into the science behind our selections of best stim-free pre-workouts.

        1. Transparent Labs PreSeries STIM-FREE

        Our Preseries STIM-FREE is packed with clinical doses of L-citrulline malate, beta-alanine, BCAAs, betaine, elevATP®, and much more. It's similar to the BULK pre-workout formula, our best pre-workout for muscle gain, but without the caffeine. And with the massive 20+ gram serving size, this is our best caffeine-free pre-workout powder to boost blood flow, enhance muscle pumps, fortify mental focus, and reduce muscle fatigue every time you hit the gym.

        What we like:

        ✅ A full dose of citrulline malate 2:1 paired with L-norvaline for extended nitric oxide

        ✅ Clinical doses of non-stimulant pre-workout ingredients, notably L-citrulline, beta-alanine, betaine, L-tyrosine, taurine, and elevATP®

        ✅ No artificial sweeteners, food dyes, or artificial flavoring

        2. Genius Pre

        Pre workout ingredients: Bottle of Genius Pre supplements

         

          The main pre-workout ingredients in this supplement are nootropics. Genius has a penchant for making formulas with a cognitive edge you don't find in many supplements these days. They assert that your body performs best when better when your head is in the game, which is tough to argue against. Here are the highlights and lowlights of their pre-workout powder:

          What we like:

          ✅ A full dose of citrulline malate 2:1

          ✅ ElevATP is an intriguing ingredient for power output with a lot of promise, but more studies are needed

          ✅ Alpha-GPC is a powerful nootropic with evidence supporting increased mental and physical performance. It is one of the more efficient choline sources, but at 150mg, it is dosed pretty low.

          What we don't like:

          ❌ Less beta-alanine and betaine than PreSeries Stim-Free (mentioned above)

          ❌ Contains theobromine, a stimulant found in cocoa beans (thus, this is technically not a stim-free pre-workout, but rather a caffeine-free pre-workout)

          ❌ Taste leaves a bit to be desired

          3. NutraBio Pre Stim-Free

          Pre workout ingredients: Bottle of NutraBio Pre Stim-Free supplements

          The NutraBio Pre Stim-Free formula promises to "accelerate gains" and "increase power and endurance" without the use of caffeine/stimulants. Overall, it's a solid formula for a stim-free pre-workout. Here's what we like and don't like about it:

          What we like:

          ✅ Robust doses of L-citrulline (6 grams), beta-alanine (3.2 grams), and a full dose of betaine 

          ✅ Provides generous doses nootropics like L-tyrosine and choline bitartrate

          ✅ Full label disclosure

          What we don't like:

          ❌ Includes agmatine (we like agmatine for some applications, but it does not mesh well with L-citrulline)

          ❌ This is the most expensive of the three ($40/20 servings). PreSeries Stim-Free is a better value.

          ❌ Contains sucralose and artificial flavoring

              Where to Find the Best Pre-Workout Supplements

              You should now know what to look for — and what to avoid — when searching for your next pre-workout supplement. The tricky part, for some, is tracking down a single product that provides the best pre-workout ingredients without any of the fluff and filler. 

              The good news is we've done the work for you by creating an unmatched lineup of clean, evidence-based pre-workout formulas with full label transparency and no artificial flavors, sweeteners, or colors. Whether you're after the best non-stim pre-workout or best pre-workout for weight loss, we firmly believe we have the best pre-workout supplements for athletes, bodybuilders, beginner trainees, and active individuals that care about what they put in their bodies.

              But don't just take our (understandably biased) word for it — our pre-workout formulas speak for themselves. 

              If you’re looking to take your workouts to the next level, check out the newest addition to the Transparent Labs PreSeries, BULK BLACK. With a harder-hitting dose of caffeine than the original BULK formula, BULK BLACK is perfect for stim lovers that don't want to settle for "concentrated" pre-workouts.

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