Best Pre-Workout for Beginners: Ingredients to Look For (and Avoid)

Best Pre-Workout for Beginners: 5 Ingredients to Optimize Athletic Performance

Pre-workout powders are among the most popular sports supplements on the market. This niche has thousands of products to choose from—a gift and a curse for beginner gym enthusiasts.

Some pre-workouts contain stimulants to provide energy before training, while others are stimulant-free for those sensitive to ingredients like caffeine and theobromine. Unfortunately, it can be hard to decipher what products work and which are pretty much bunk (or even harmful). 

For example, many companies formulate pre-workout supplements with ingredients that lack scientific credibility; instead, these formulas rely on egregious doses of harsh stimulants that "feel" great the first few times you take them. But the perceived benefits wane after a week or two, and the side effects take over.

Moreover, quality control is often lacking in the supplement industry, leaving consumers with the onus of distinguishing between honest and untrustworthy brands.

At Transparent Labs, we continually research the most effective and safe ingredients to include in our lineup of pre-workouts for beginners, intermediate, and advanced trainees. Read on to learn more about the five best pre-workout supplement ingredients (backed by science) and the ingredients you should avoid before hitting the gym, especially if you're new to the realm of pre-workout powders.

The Five Best Pre-Workout Supplement Ingredients Backed by Science

Pre-workout supplements are a staple for many gym-goers thanks to their ergogenic (performance-enhancing) properties. Taking a pre-workout supplement before exercising can bolster strength and power, support endurance, improve focus, facilitate muscle building, and enhance nitric oxide production (i.e. increase blood flow and muscle pumps).

Sounds pretty awesome, right? Well, it certainly can be if you know which pre-workout supplement ingredients are effective (and safe). We perused the current body of evidence to curate a list of the best ingredients to look for if you're after a solid pre-workout for beginners.

Caffeine

best pre-workouts for beginners

Caffeine is a naturally occurring methylxanthine that predominately stimulates the central nervous system by blocking adenosine receptors and inhibiting phosphodiesterase activity [1]. In so doing, caffeine enhances focus, energy levels, and fat oxidation ("burning") during exercise while also reducing the rate of perceived exertion and muscle fatigue [2].

More simply, the caffeine in a pre-workout supplement allows you to train harder, longer, and more effectively. Hence, caffeine anhydrous is one of the most common ingredients in pre-workouts.

By stimulating lipolysis and preserving muscle glycogen, caffeine is suggested to facilitate the use of fatty acids for energy [3]. Thus, supplementing with caffeine before exercise may favorably impact the body composition of active individuals and support weight loss and muscle gain.

A range of studies also show that a moderate pre-workout dose of caffeine (e.g. 200 mg of caffeine per serving) significantly improves both physical and mental performance aspects of aerobic and anaerobic exercise [4]. ("Moderate dose" meaning 2-4 mg of caffeine per kg of body weight.)

Further evidence suggests that caffeine synergizes with L-theanine, another of the best pre-workout ingredients we will discuss below [5]. However, beginners sensitive to stimulants may fare better with caffeine-free pre-workouts.

L-Citrulline

L-Citrulline is a non-proteinogenic amino acid first discovered in the rind of watermelon (Citrullus lanatus). Hence, "citrulline" is an eponym of the scientific name for "watermelon."

Instead of being used for protein synthesis like branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), L-citrulline has a well-established role in the urea and nitric oxide (NO) cycles. It is a precursor and metabolite of L-arginine, a conditionally essential amino acid [6].

As part of the nitric oxide cycle, arginine is converted to citrulline, thereby releasing NO and promoting better blood flow. Interestingly, L-citrulline is more effective than L-arginine in increasing NO production [7].

Citrulline acts like a reservoir of arginine and, therefore, NO in the body. As such, citrulline is arguably the best pre-workout ingredient to amplify the esteemed "muscle pump" that bodybuilders and gym-goers crave.

Numerous studies have also shown that taking 4 – 8 grams of L-citrulline before exercise can significantly increase oxygen uptake (VO2 max) and reduce blood lactate levels, which are conducive to athletic performance, recovery, and muscle cell volumization [8, 9, 10]. A good pre-workout for beginners should contain at least 4 grams of L-citrulline for proper efficacy.

Note: In contrast to citrulline malate — the citrulline salt of malic acid — pure L-citrulline is the native free-form amino acid (the most researched form of L-citrulline). However, citrulline and citrulline malate are both effective pre-workout ingredients for exercise performance and blood flow since malic acid appears to have ergogenic properties of its own [11].

Beta-Alanine

Like L-citrulline, beta-alanine—not to be confused with betaine anhydrous—is another non-proteinogenic amino acid. It is the rate-limiting factor for muscle carnosine synthesis.

When beta-alanine bonds to histidine in the body, the dipeptide carnosine forms. Carnosine is a crucial buffering molecule in muscles for maintaining optimal cellular pH during a strenuous workout.

By "soaking up" free hydrogen ions (H+) and reducing lactic acid buildup, carnosine buffers muscle pH and increases your capacity to train at high intensity [12]. A significant drop in skeletal muscle pH reduces contractile force, causing your muscles to feel fatigued and ineffectual.

Thus, beta-alanine is one of the best pre-workout ingredients for beginner athletes and gym-goers looking to boost anaerobic and aerobic workout performance.

Research has demonstrated that muscle carnosine can increase as much as 58% after just four weeks of supplementing with 2,500 mg of beta-alanine daily [13].

You may be wondering, "Wouldn't it be more effective for pre-workouts to contain carnosine instead of beta-alanine?"

Well, not quite. After ingesting carnosine, it is rapidly hydrolyzed (broken down) into beta-alanine and histidine. Since histidine has a molar mass of about twice that of beta-alanine, an efficacious dose of carnosine would have to be considerably larger than the recommended 2, 400 - 4,500 mg of pure beta-alanine.

Normally, that wouldn't be a hindrance, but high doses of histidine (from carnosine) can increase histamine production and trigger an inflammatory response that may lead to various side effects, like nausea and upset stomach.

Therefore, the best pre-workouts for beginners should contain at least 2, 400 mg of beta-alanine per serving.

Note: The beta-alanine in pre-workouts may cause a tingling sensation in the skin, especially for first-time users. This effect, called paraesthesia, is benign and becomes less intense over time.

Creatine Monohydrate

creatine pre-workout

The body naturally produces creatine in small amounts to help sustain cellular energy (ATP) for vital biological processes. During high-intensity workouts, however, muscles constantly use ATP to perform work (i.e. contract).

Creatine monohydrate bolsters the ATP regeneration process, and it is unequivocally effective for increasing strength and building muscle [14]. Creatine monohydrate also has an exceptional safety profile in healthy adults [15].

Moreover, creatine monohydrate has been consistently shown to improve athletic performance, especially during high-intensity training like weight lifting and running sprints.

Over time, taking creatine can boost muscle strength, increase muscle growth, and help reduce recovery time between workouts [16].

While not a pre-workout per se, creatine monohydrate works great as either a pre-workout or post-workout supplement. You can easily add it to your favorite pre-workout supplements if it's not already in them. The key is taking creatine monohydrate consistently — 3,000 mg to 5,000 mg per day — to saturate muscle creatine stores.

Be wary that supplement companies often cut corners and use bulk-sourced creatine monohydrate rife with impurities (e.g. heavy metals and organic synthesis contaminants) [17]. As such, Transparent Labs Creatine HMB packs 5,000 mg of creatine monohydrate that's tested for quality and purity, plus 1,500 mg of synergistic hydroxymethyl butyrate (HMB) and vitamin D for enhanced muscle growth.

L-Theanine

L-theanine is an amino acid found in green tea. Chemically, it is similar in structure to glutamate, glutamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). However, L-theanine has the advantage of being able to readily traverse the blood-brain barrier, which confers a variety of nootropic effects.

Research suggests that L-theanine is absorbed into the brain where it modulates alpha brainwave activity [18]. Thus, L-theanine helps you feel more at ease while remaining attentive. Clinical trials have also shown that patients who take L-theanine feel less anxious than those taking a placebo [19].

Arguably one of the best properties of L-theanine is its synergy with caffeine. Studies demonstrate that L-theanine can effectively extend the beneficial effects of caffeine while attenuating the side effects (e.g. jitters and restlessness) [20].

When it comes to pre-workouts for beginners, look for formulas that contain a 3:2, 2:1, or 1:1 ratio of L-theanine to caffeine, such as Transparent Labs LEAN Pre-Workout.

Worst Pre-Workouts for Beginners: Ingredients You Should Avoid

Now that you know what ingredients the best pre-workouts for beginners should contain, let's shift gears and look at the other end of the spectrum. The list below details the worst pre-workout ingredients and why you should avoid them (especially if you're a newbie to pre-workout supplements).

1,3-DMAA (Dimethylamylamine)

1,3-dimethylamylamine (DMAA), also known as methylhexanamine, has a similar chemical structure (and effect) as ephedrine, the latter being a popular weight-loss ingredient banned for over-the-counter use by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the early 2000s [21]. Circa 2008, 1,3-DMAA made its way into dietary supplements throughout the U.S., particularly those in the pre-workout category.

Unsurprisingly, 1,3-DMAA faced a similar fate—being banned by the FDA—after a 2012 case study reported the death of two active-duty soldiers who experienced cardiac arrest after consuming pre-workout supplements with the sympathomimetic drug [22]. Abuse of products containing 1,3-DMAA became apparent as supplement users relished the potent stimulating properties (and euphoric effects) of the ephedrine-like compound.

Despite the FDA ban on 1,3-DMAA, it's still found in "black market" pre-workouts. Some supplement labels hide 1,3-DMAA under the guise of "geranium extract," which is quite misleading. Regardless, this stimulant has no place in your pre-workout supplements.

Picamilon

Picamilon is a synthetic prodrug of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) originally created by researchers in the now-dissolved Soviet Union. GABA is the chief inhibitory neurotransmitter in humans that plays a versatile role in alleviating stress and anxiety [23]. In fact, anti-anxiety medications like benzodiazepines (e.g. Xanax) typically work by modulating GABA receptors.

Picamilon is an intriguing nootropic because, unlike GABA itself, it permeates the blood-brain barrier and is broken down into niacin (vitamin B3) and GABA [24]. In turn, GABA transmission increases, and niacin relaxes blood vessels in the brain.

Sounds pretty great, right? 

While picamilon is generally a beneficial nootropic for relaxation, it produces effects that directly counteract the "kick" you want from a pre-workout. Moreover, picamilon does not meet the statutory definition of a dietary ingredient, nor is it approved for over-the-counter use by the U.S. FDA [25].

As such, picamilon is banned as a dietary supplement sold in the U.S. You should be skeptical if you see it in a pre-workout supplement.

Higenamine

Higenamine is a plant-derived compound with mild sympathomimetic properties; it binds to adrenergic receptors in the body, much like epinephrine and norepinephrine do [26]. Specifically, higenamine stimulates beta-adrenergic receptors of the heart and alpha-adrenergic receptors in the periphery [27].

While there is promising data on the use of higenamine for medicinal purposes, a recent peer-reviewed study from Harvard University warns that supplements containing higenamine should be avoided due to their unpredictable nature and inaccurate product labeling [28]. Many of the sports supplements analyzed in the study had more than twice as much higenamine as the labels claimed.

With a volatile stimulant like higenamine, the seemingly inconsequential difference between taking 100 mg instead of 50 mg could be the deciding factor for a trip to the hospital instead of the gym. Steer clear of pre-workouts with this ingredient, especially if you're a beginner.

Artificial Food Coloring

Many pre-workout powders come in a variety of colors depending on the flavor that's used. If you see ingredients like "FD&C Blue Lake 2" or "Sunset Yellow" in a pre-workout, it has artificial food coloring.

Artificial food colorings aren't necessarily "bad" or "toxic," but the safety of their ubiquity in foods, beverages, and supplements remains controversial. A growing body of evidence suggests synthetic/artificial food coloring may be harmful in doses relevant to everyday consumption [29]. Researchers note that various synthetic food dyes increase inflammatory response and inhibit enzymes responsible for metabolizing noxious substances [30].

The simple workaround is to look for pre-workouts that use natural food coloring, like beetroot powder and spirulina, instead of synthetic dyes.

Choosing the Best Beginner Pre-Workout Supplements

Pre-workout supplements are always evolving, and so is the hype behind them. While it's certainly exciting to experiment and try new pre-workouts, remember that the best pre-workout ingredients are few and far between. You don't need to get too fancy, and "cutting-edge" ingredients aren't necessarily better for muscle building and losing weight than those that have stood the test of time, like creatine monohydrate, citrulline, caffeine, and beta-alanine.  

Also, be mindful of supplement brands that "label dress" their pre-workout supplements by sprinkling in negligible doses of ingredients. Needless to say, such products are ineffective.

For optimal exercise performance and training results, stick to the basics. The best pre-workout supplements include tried-and-true ergogenic ingredients in proper doses. This is why Transparent Labs BULK Pre-Workout is so dependable and highly rated — it's formulated based on science and clinical research instead of anecdotes and conjectures. For beginners that want a caffeine-free pre-workout powder, opt for Transparent Labs Stim-Free Pre-Workout.

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