What to look for in a pre-workout

Pre-workouts are all the rage these days – and for good reason.

So many people in today’s society overburden themselves with things like work, school, and raising a family. They do this to the point where they simply can’t get through a workout without feeling physically and mentally exhausted. Pre-workouts, in many cases, are a reliable solution to such a problem.

In addition to providing people with the extra “boost” they need to ensure a productive workout, some pre-workout supplements actually come with a host of health benefits that go beyond a short-term mental or physical kick. On the other hand, there are some pre-workouts on the market that can be detrimental to your health, especially if taken too often or in too high a dosage. So how do you know which pre-workouts are both safe and effective?

For starters, each and every pre-workout you take should include a nutrition facts label and a list of ingredients (and if it doesn’t, definitely don’t take it). Most all food and supplement companies are required to label their products with detailed information regarding the ingredients used to make them. This is such an important development because it allows consumers to physically see what they are going to be ingesting in their bodies; it’s no longer a guessing game. While “being healthy” might have, at one point, been predominantly about counting your calories, there are so many other variables that have recently come into play – the frequent use of pesticides, preservatives, and artificial substitutes have seen to that. Instead, the customers are now forced to do a little extra research if they want to make sure that they’re doing right by their bodies.

Fortunately, we have the means to do it (thanks, internet).

Now, is this research really necessary for every ingredient listed on every package of every product we buy? No, not always. However, it is important that we at least understand the most beneficial ingredients added to our foods, and this is especially true when it comes to pre-workouts because they are stimulants.

What is a stimulant?

A stimulant is defined as a “substance that raises levels of physiological or nervous activity in the body.” In the simplest terms, they wake you up and help you stay alert. In complex terms, they affect your cardiac and nervous systems, which means they have a direct impact on your brain and heart. Any substance with that type of power should be carefully monitored and consumed, which is yet another reason why it is so important to be aware of the ingredients your pre-workout does and does not contain.

Again, you don’t need to know everything about your pre-workout, but do yourself a favor and pay special attention to these three ingredients prior to taking your next serving:


Undoubtedly the most recognized additive on this list, caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world. It is a stimulant found in common drinks like coffee, tea, and soda, and it works by binding to adenosine receptors in the brain, a process that simultaneously blocks adenosine from binding. When adenosine – a molecule that plays a hugely important role in the sleep cycle – is blocked by caffeine, the body is basically tricked into thinking that it doesn’t need rest. So while the brain is being tricked by the caffeine, blood cells start to see an increase in the adenosine that hasn’t been bonded in the brain, which causes the adrenal glands to release higher levels of adrenaline.

While all this is happening, the dopamine system is influenced in a temporarily positive way because the caffeine has given the body’s central nervous system an increase in stimulation. Since dopamine is the compound that makes people feel good, adrenaline is what makes people more alert, and adenosine plays a big role in sleep, it makes sense why people tend to crave this stuff.

But how much is too much, specifically at one time?

This number can differ from person to person (some people are particularly sensitive to caffeine and have reported side effects such as sleep deprivation or restlessness, while others – especially those who have developed a tolerance over time – are unaffected by the average recommended intake levels), but the general consensus is that up for 400 mg of caffeine per day is safe. So basically, you would need to drink over four cups of coffee a day in order to surpass that number. That might seem like a lot, but people who take pre-workouts, drink soda or tea or coffee, and take certain medications can easily eclipse 400 mg daily.

The bottom line? If you hardly ever consume caffeinated beverages and don’t have an abnormal sensitivity to its effects, most pre-workouts will be fine for you caffeine-wise. If you are a coffee drinker or get your daily pick-me-up some other way, monitor your supplements accordingly. Most pre-workouts have anywhere between 150 – 300 mg of caffeine in a single serving.


Many people have heard of beta alanine, but few can adequately explain what it is. Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid, meaning that the body needs it to survive but can produce it on its own, so you don’t need to take any additional supplements to get the required amount. With that said, going above and beyond the call of duty is proven to have fantastic benefits for gym-goers – especially in regards to endurance training.

Beta-alanine is converted into carnosine after it is taken, which basically helps to stabilize muscular pH (potential hydrogen) levels. When you exercise, you put a strain on your muscles, and thus you put a strain on your blood cells, which causes your pH levels to drop. For many reasons, this quick drop results in fatigue; however, if you have increased levels of beta-alanine in your system, that newly-formed carnosine will block out the hydrogen ions and allow the blood’s pH levels to stabilize and delay that feeling of exhaustion.

What is interesting about beta alanine is that it works better in the long term. This is entirely different from caffeine, which always results in a short-term boost. Beta-alanine works best when taken regularly for 4-6 weeks at a time, and the research has shown that it is safe to supplement in high doses every single day for up to 12 weeks per cycle.

The bottom line? Beta-alanine can be a game-changer when taken at the recommended dosage level (4-6 grams per day divided into doses of 2 grams or less). If you exceed 800mg at a time, you may experience a tingling sensation, but such a reaction is harmless, albeit sometimes a bit uncomfortable. Still, if you can bear the sensation, this supplement can seriously improve your endurance levels in as little as a month.


BCAAs (Branched-chain amino acids) are, in essence, broken down proteins. In many ways, they allow our bodies to trigger protein synthesis. If we didn’t consume BCAAs – which are found in foods like chicken, fish, eggs, nuts, etc. – then our bodies couldn’t process protein, and we wouldn’t be able to survive.

Their importance cannot be overstated, especially for those who are active. When people are active, their bodies are placed under more stress, and thus more proteins and BCAAs are needed to replenish and rejuvenate all the nutrients, energy stores, and muscle fibers have been lost or damaged during exercise.

For whatever reason, BCAAs are widely overlooked in relation to pre-workout supplements. Instead, many people opt to drink them after their workouts, or on rest days to promote recovery. While this type of usage is all well and good, BCAAs as a pre-workout supplement might just be the most beneficial way to consume them.

BCAAs are one of the most important supplements for muscle building, mainly because of the way they help to synthesize and break down protein. Their benefits are numerous, and when taken as part of a pre-workout, they do things like:

  • Provide an increase in energy (due to their ability to bypass the liver and break down immediately)
  • Keep serotonin levels stable due to the conversion of valine (one of the branched-chain amino acids), which delays fatigue
  • Help people lose fat
  • Reduced soreness the next day

The bottom line? Make sure you’re getting an sufficient amount of your BCAAs, especially if you work out. Supplementing them throughout the day is a great way to do so, and taking them before you exercise is even better. Aim to consume 5-7 grams per serving.

Extra credit: Creatine Monohydrate

Creatine intake could make up an entirely different blog on its own, so just know this: there are tons of different creatine supplements on the market, and many pre-workout brands have laced their supplements with it. That said, if it isn’t creatine monohydrate, it isn’t worth it. Creatine monohydrate is the safest, most proven version of creatine out there, and this is likely to ring true for a very, very long time.

If you currently take a pre-workout – or are planning to start – you need to make sure that it is safe. Once you’ve narrowed your list down to a few harmless options, you’ll now be able to find a supplement that both fits your needs and helps to maximize your true potential.

For more advice on how to better your physical and emotional self, check out the other fit tips from Frankie.


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