Many people find it difficult to get active and stay active. A lack of energy is a common reason why.
To get an extra boost of energy for exercise, many people take a pre-workout supplement.
However, a multitude of supplements is available, each containing many ingredients.
Because of this, it can be confusing to know what to look for in a pre-workout supplement.
When considering a pre-workout supplement, it is important to think about your goals and the type of exercise you normally take part in.
Typically, individual ingredients found in pre-workout supplements will only improve certain aspects of exercise performance.
Some ingredients may increase strength or power, while others may boost your endurance.
Each of the seven supplements below targets a specific type of exercise.
Knowing which ingredients are best for certain types of exercise will help you find the supplement that may work best for you.
Here are the 7 most important ingredients to look for in pre-workout supplements.
Summary Different ingredients in pre-workout supplements improve particular aspects of exercise performance. Some will help you increase strength or power, while others will help increase your endurance.
Creatine is a molecule found in your cells. It's also a very popular dietary supplement.
This is probably because creatine is an important part of the energy production systems inside your cells (5).
If your muscle cells have more energy when you exercise, you may perform better and experience greater improvements over time.
If you want to increase muscular strength, creatine is probably the first supplement you should consider.
A recommended dose starts with 20 grams per day, which are split into multiple servings during a short “loading” phase when you start taking the supplement.
After this phase, a typical maintenance dose is 3–5 grams per day (6).
Summary Creatine is one of the most studied sports supplements. It is safe to consume and can increase muscle strength and power, particularly when combined with weight training.
It is also a very popular ingredient in pre-workout supplements.
Caffeine is effective at improving several aspects of exercise performance.
Studies have also shown that it can improve performance during long-duration endurance events, such as running and cycling, as well as during intermittent activities like soccer (10).
Based on many studies, the recommended dose of caffeine for exercise performance is about 1.4–2.7 mg per pound (3–6 mg per kg) of body weight (10).
For someone who weighs 150 pounds (68 kg), this would be 200–400 mg.
Caffeine is considered safe at these doses, and the suspected toxic dose is much higher, at 9–18 mg per pound (20–40 mg per kg) of body weight (11).
However, doses of 4 mg per pound (9 mg per kg) of body weight may cause sweating, tremors, dizziness and vomiting (10).
People respond differently to varying amounts of caffeine, so it is probably best to start with a low dose to see how you respond.
Finally, it may be best to limit your caffeine intake to earlier in the day due to its anti-sleep effects.
Summary Caffeine is consumed by many people around the world. It is safe at moderate doses and can improve various aspects of exercise performance, including power output and performance during long-distance events or team sports.
Beta-alanine is an amino acid that helps fight muscle fatigue.
When acid starts to build up in your body during intense exercise, beta-alanine helps combat the acid (13).
Taking beta-alanine as a supplement increases its concentration in the body and may improve exercise performance.
Specifically, this supplement may help improve performance during intense exercise lasting one to four minutes at a time (14).
However, it may not be effective for improving exercise that lasts less than one minute, such as a single set during a weight-training workout.
The recommended dose for improving exercise performance is 4–6 grams per day (13).
Based on existing research, this dose is safe to consume. The only known side effect is a tingling or “pins and needles” feeling on your skin if you take higher doses.
Summary Beta-alanine is an amino acid that helps fight fatigue in your muscles. It is most effective at improving performance during short bursts of intense exercise lasting one to four minutes.
Citrulline is an amino acid produced naturally in your body.
However, consuming citrulline from foods or supplements can increase your body’s levels. These increased levels may be beneficial for exercise performance.
One of the effects of citrulline is increasing blood flow to body tissues (15).
In the context of exercise, this may help supply your exercising muscles with the oxygen and nutrients they need to perform well.
One study showed that cyclists biked about 12% longer before exhaustion when taking citrulline, compared to a placebo (16).
Another study assessed the effects of citrulline on upper-body weight training performance. Participants performed about 53% more repetitions after taking citrulline, compared to when they took a placebo (17).
Taking citrulline also significantly reduced muscle soreness in the days after exercise.
There are two main forms of citrulline supplements, and the recommended dose depends on which form you use.
Most endurance exercise studies have used L-citrulline, while most research on weight training has used citrulline malate. A recommended dose is 6 grams of L-citrulline or 8 grams of citrulline malate (16, 17).
These supplements appear to be safe and do not produce side effects, even at doses of 15 grams (18).
Summary Citrulline is an amino acid produced naturally in your body. It is also found in some foods and available as a supplement. Consuming citrulline may improve aspects of endurance and weight-training performance.
Many people are surprised to hear that this common household product is also a sports supplement.
Also known as baking soda, it acts as a buffering agent, meaning that it helps fight against acid buildup in the body.
In the context of exercise, sodium bicarbonate may help reduce fatigue during exercise that’s characterized by the “burning” feeling in your muscles.
This burning sensation is an indicator that acid production is increasing due to the intensity of the exercise.
Limited information is available for longer-duration activities, but one study found that it increased power output during a 60-minute cycling test (22).
Overall, the primary benefit of this supplement is probably for intense activities characterized by muscle burn.
The optimal dose for exercise performance is about 136 mg per pound (300 mg per kg) of body weight (23).
For someone who weighs 150 pounds (68 kg), this would be about 20 grams.
You can get sodium bicarbonate from regular baking soda or in supplement form.
One fairly common side effect of sodium bicarbonate is an upset stomach. You can help reduce or prevent this by consuming the dose more slowly or splitting it into multiple doses.
If you are salt-sensitive and want to take sodium bicarbonate, consider consulting a medical professional. The recommended dose for exercise performance will provide a substantial amount of sodium and may not be a good idea for those limiting their salt intake.
Summary Sodium bicarbonate, also known as baking soda, acts as a buffer that fights acid buildup during exercise. It is most effective for exercise that’s characterized by the feeling of “muscle burn.” It is not recommended for those who are salt-sensitive.
The branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) consist of three important molecules: leucine, isoleucine and valine.
These amino acids are found in high quantities in many protein-containing foods, particularly animal products.
The high-quality protein found in dairy, eggs and meat provides sufficient BCAAs to support muscle growth, and it also contains all of the other amino acids your body needs.
However, taking BCAA supplements has several potential benefits.
However, one study in marathoners reported that benefits were seen in slower runners, but not faster runners (26).
Despite some positive findings, the overall results for BCAA supplements are mixed.
Nevertheless, due to the possibility that they enhance endurance performance and reduce fatigue, BCAAs may be a beneficial part of a pre-workout supplement for some individuals.
Doses of BCAAs vary but are often 5–20 grams. The ratio of leucine, isoleucine and valine also varies depending on the supplement, but a ratio of 2:1:1 is common.
Many people consume BCAAs each day from food sources, so it makes sense that these supplements are generally considered safe at typical doses.
Summary Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are found in high concentrations in many foods. BCAA supplements are unnecessary for muscle growth, but they may improve endurance performance and reduce fatigue and soreness.
Small amounts are also produced naturally in the body.
Nitrate may be beneficial for exercise performance because it can be converted into a molecule called nitric oxide, which can increase blood flow (32).
Nitrate consumed as a sports supplement is often obtained from beetroot or beetroot juice.
A small amount of evidence shows that it may also reduce how difficult running feels (35).
Overall, this may be a supplement worth considering if you perform endurance activities like running or cycling.
The optimal dose of nitrate is probably 2.7–5.9 mg per pound (6–13 mg per kg) of body weight. For someone who weighs 150 pounds (68 kg), this is about 400–900 mg (36).
Scientists believe that nitrate from vegetables, such as beetroot, is safe to consume (37).
However, more research is needed on the long-term safety of taking nitrate supplements.
Summary Nitrate is a molecule found in many vegetables, including spinach and beetroot. It is commonly consumed as beetroot juice and may reduce the amount of oxygen used during exercise. It may also improve endurance exercise performance.
If you want to take a pre-workout supplement, you can buy one pre-made or make one yourself. Here’s what you need to know about each approach.
Most pre-workout supplements you’ll find in stores or online contain many ingredients.
While different brands may list the same ingredients, they may contain different dosages of each.
Unfortunately, these dosages are often not based on science.
What’s more, many individual ingredients and combinations of ingredients are not backed by scientific research.
This doesn’t mean that you should never buy a pre-workout supplement, but it does mean you should look at the ingredients and doses of each ingredient on the label.
Some supplements contain “proprietary blends,” which disguise the exact amount of each ingredient.
This means you won’t know exactly what you are taking, so it’s best to avoid these supplements.
You can also look at the label to see if the supplement has been tested by an independent laboratory.
If a supplement has been tested, it should have a logo from the testing service on the label.
Making Your Own Pre-Workout Supplement
Another option is to mix your own supplement. Although this may seem intimidating, it can ensure that you are only consuming the ingredients you need.
To mix your own, simply buy the individual ingredients you want. As a starting point, you could select ingredients from this article that match the type of exercise you do.
Making your own supplement also allows you to experiment with different dosages of the ingredients to see what works best for you.
It’s fairly easy to find packages of the ingredients discussed in this article. If you buy in bulk, you may end up saving quite a bit of cash in the long run.
If you aren’t comfortable making your own pre-workout supplement, just look carefully at the supplement facts label of pre-workout supplements in stores or online.
You can compare the ingredients and dosages to scientifically-based sources, including this article.
Summary If you want to take a pre-workout supplement, you can either purchase an existing one or buy a few individual ingredients to make your own. Making your own gives you more control over what you take, but it requires a little bit more work.
While the individual ingredients in pre-workout supplements have been studied extensively, most pre-packaged combinations of supplements have not been evaluated scientifically.
However, based on the information in this article, you now know some of the main ingredients to look for.
For long-lasting endurance exercise, you may be able to improve your performance with caffeine, nitrate and BCAAs.
For shorter, intense activities, such as those that give you the “muscle burn” sensation, beta-alanine, sodium bicarbonate, caffeine and citrulline may help.
To perform at your best during strength and power exercise, such as weight training, you can try creatine, caffeine and citrulline.
Of course, some types of exercise and certain sports will use a combination of the categories above.
In those cases, you may want to experiment with ingredients in different categories to see what works best for you.
You can choose to make your own pre-workout supplement using a few of the ingredients from this article or buy one off the shelf.
Either way, knowing which ingredients are best for your type of exercise gives you a head start towards feeling and performing your best.