We all need a little energy to jump start the engine. Coffee is usually the go-to for this. But sometimes that one cup does not suffice. Pre-workout supplements enter the market as a way to provide a boost and a “pump” for your workouts. They are a blend of ingredients that are designed to provide not only energy but an amplitude of benefits to get the most out of your exercise session. Whether you are a pre-workout junkie, or a newbie searching for the right formula, this post will shed light on some things to consider when looking for the right product. From proprietary blends to the key ingredients that work.

Proprietary Blends

I will be blunt about this. Most pre-workout supplements are the biggest waste of money. Let me explain why. Supplement companies try to “hide” their formulas so other companies don’t copy them. This allows them to put, in the form of “Proprietary Blends”, a mix of ingredients which you don’t know in what amounts are present in your scoop. The truth is, companies don’t really care about hiding these ingredients into a secret formula, some do. But most “Fairy Dust” the contents instead.

What is “Fairy Dusting” in the supplement industry?

This means adding a group of ingredients in small amounts yet enough to disclose on the label (typically under a proprietary blend). Usually the quantities added to the formula do not even reach half of the dose that is recommended in scientific studies. For example, let’s take creatine. Creatine has been studied for decades. We are pretty confident now that 5 grams/day are enough to increase muscle creatine levels. Supplement X creates a pre-workout supplement and adds a proprietary blend of great ingredients including “creatine monohydrate”. They disclose the total amount in weight of blend (Let’s say 5,558mg or 5.5 grams), but you do not know how much from those 5,558mg are actually creatine. It could be 1 gram or it could be 8 for all I know. See example below

So why go through all that? Well fairy dusting is cheap. You save a lot in the blending and production of your supplements, but still sell it 20 times more of what it costs to make it. Supplement industries care about your wallet, not how effective their product will be at helping you improve performance. Some do care but they are limited. You may say… “wait a minute, I have taken pre-workouts with proprietary blends and I get a huge rush and feel amazing” You are absolutely correct. Why? Well caffeine is not too expensive, and it is pretty effective too. In pre-workouts with proprietary blends, sometimes you feel 3-4 cups of coffee’s worth of caffeine that provide that rush making you fall in love with the product. Did I say you can buy 40 times (or 40 servings) the amount of caffeine in a pre-workout supplement for a fourth of the average prize of a pre-workout supplement? Introducing… Caffeine Pills or Tablets. You want a rush and surge of energy? Take 1-2 tablets before workouts and you tell me what do you like best.

“Did I say you can buy 40 times (or 40 servings) the amount of caffeine in a pre-workout supplement for one quarter of the average prize of a pre-workout supplement. This is 7$?”

This leads me to the important part of this article. What should I really buy? Not all pre-workout supplements are the same, and some companies do disclose what is in their products. Some others actually add the doses shown to be efficacious in the research. Those are the supplements I spend my money on. Caffeine alone confers many benefits but there are other ingredients that can provide a bigger edge in your performance. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Creatine Monohydrate (~5grams)

It has been studied for years. It is commonly found in food (mainly fish and meats), but is now sold in supplements alone or usually in pre-workout supplements.  Creatine has been shown to increase muscle creatine levels by 10-40% (1), and has been shown to improve performance particularly in high-intensity, intermittent disciplines (2), Some studies have been shown to improve body composition (increase muscle mass, and reduced body fat)

Recommended Dose: 5 grams or 5000 mg per day. Many people talk about a loading phase of 20 grams for 1 week to load up creatine stores in muscle, however, this is not necessary unless preparing for an even within the next 30-60 days.

Beta Alanine (2.6-4 grams) 

It is an amino acid similar to Alanine. When ingested in the recommended doses, it can convert into a molecule known as Carnosin. Carnosin has the ability to buffer acids in the body. This means it has the ability to reduce lactic acid build up in the muscle. How does that help you? Well it enhances muscular endurance. There are even studies that show it can improve moderate- to high-intensity endurance performance like sprinting and rowing. It is important to note that Beta Alanine in higher doses can cause paresthesia or the tingling sensation you feel in pre-workout supplements. This is completely harmless.

Recommended Dose: 2.6-5 grams anytime in the day.

L-Citrulline (6 g) 

This non-protein amino acid is found largely in watermelon, and is a precursor of L-Arginine which is involved in the nitric oxide cycle. Citrulline supplementation in the form of Citrulline Malate has been shown to increase muscle ATP Efficiency (3) which is actually a similar effect to that seen with nitrate supplementation or even arginine supplementation. The advantage of Citrulline Malate is that it can be consumed in larger quantities without causing gastrointestinal stress. In summary, Citrulline is helpful for energy production and may play a big role in increase power output for the same increased energy production capabilities.

Recommended Dose for performance: 6g or 6000 mg/day 

Beet Root Extract (500mg) 

Beets are one of the vegetable with the highest amount of nitrates in nature. Nitrates are responsible in part of regulatory processes in respiration and increased blood flow. Beet Root Extract is a concentrated form, and it appear it may reduce oxygen cost of exercise and improving the efficiency of energy utilization. Beets can be consumed fresh (like me in smoothies), or a powder form as well.

Recommended dose: It appears around 500mg for a 150Lb person. This is equivalent to 1/2 Kg of Fresh Beets

Caffeine Anhydrous (>150mg) 

I will make a short stop here to say caffeine has been shown time and time to be effective to improve exercise performance. Caffeine acts as an adenosin receptor antagonist. In simpler words, caffeine acts in the cell receptors that catch adenosin, which is a compound responsible to mediate the perception of drowsiness and sleepiness. Caffeine blocks those receptors increasing alertness. Besides increasing alertness, caffeine has also been shown to reduce Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) during exercise, or how hard you may perceive a bout of exercise at a given time. More benefits of caffeine are not listed, but are certainly many. The problem with caffeine is building up a tolerance to it. You probably have noticed you need more and more coffee to stay awake right? There is a concept now called caffeine cycling you may want to explore. Here is an interesting write up on that.

Recommended Dose: There is not a right answer for this as everyone is different at metabolizing caffeine. However, a cup of coffee can range anywhere from 30-120mg/cup. Pre-workout supplements contain around 200mg which is helpful for it thermogenic effects, but higher doses in the research of >500mg have been shown beneficial for its strength benefits.


L-Theanine (100-200mg) 

This non-dietary aminoacid is in a way caffeine’s opposite in terms of the effect the produce in the body. It is a relaxing, yet not sedating compound. It is now used in many pre-workout supplements to ameliorate the “edge” effect of many stimulants that usually end up in a crash later. Combining L-Theanine with caffeine actually appears to be synergistic promoting cognition and attention.

Recommended Dose: ~100-200mg with caffeine.


Picking the right supplement can be daunting and to be truthful sometimes it is better to obtain these ingredients separately and combine them yourself. Convenience is however, nice. So I tried to select the best supplements with some of these ingredients that you may find worth purchasing:

JYM Supplement Science Pre workout

Legion Pulse Pre Workout Drink

As you can see in both of these examples, ingredients are openly disclosed with the exact amounts they are adding. Nothing hidden (at least on the label). These are the type of pre-workout supplements that are worth buying even when they are a bit more expensive. They do purchase ingredients to add to their blend in quantities that are similar to what many studies typically show to be effective to performance or body composition.

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1. Greenhaff P (1997b) The nutritional biochemistry of creatine. J Nutr Biochem 11:610–618

2. Kreider RB, Wilborn CD, Taylor L, Campbell B, Almada AL, Collins R, Cooke M, Earnest CP, Greenwood M, Kalman DS, Kerksick CM, Kleiner SM, Leutholtz B, Lopez H, Lowery LM, Mendel R, Smith A, Spano M, Wildman R, Willoughby DS, Ziegenfuss TN, Antonio J (2010) ISSN exercise & sport nutrition review: research & recommendations. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 7:7. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-7-

3. Giannesini B, et al. Citrulline malate supplementation increases muscle efficiency in rat skeletal muscle. Eur J Pharmacol. (2011)

Tags: Supplements Preworkout