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What to Look for in a Pre-Workout Supplement: Key Ingredients to Boost Your Performance

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

Are you looking for the ultimate muscle pump? Are you trying to take your gym sessions to the next level and achieve a new PR? If so, it may be time to supplement with a pre-workout. Quality pre-workout supplements can improve muscle endurance, recovery, focus, and strength.

But one trip to your local supplement shop will fill your mind with countless options and ingredients. 

An Athlete looking for a pre-workout at the store
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Fortunately, we cover what to look for in a pre workout so you can get the most out of your training and avoid harmful ingredients. 

How to Choose a Pre – Workout

Pre – workout supplements are top-rated among fitness enthusiasts, powerlifters, bodybuilders, and cross-fitters alike. They’re designed to help boost energy levels, focus, and muscular endurance so you can get the most out of your strength training. 

The countless options on the market can make it challenging to know the right pre-workout that suits your needs. Let’s break down some essential factors to consider when looking for a pre-workout supplement. 

Consider Your Individual Goals

The first point to consider when selecting a pre-workout is your individual fitness goals and needs. Do you want to build muscle, improve endurance, or shed calories? Different pre-workout supplements are suited for different purposes. 

For example, you might select pre-workout capsules that contain creatine if you’re trying to build muscle, as it’s been proven to improve strength and muscle mass. On the flip side, products with beta-alanine may be more effective for enhancing endurance. 

Inspect the Active Ingredients

Now that you understand your fitness goals, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty. It’s crucial to inspect the ingredient list when selecting pre-workout capsules. The ingredients list should be safe, effective, and legal. Common ingredients found in pre-workout products include caffeine, creatine, beta-alanine, and nitric oxide boosters

Think About the Dosage

The recommended dosage of a pre-workout mix will vary depending on the ingredients and your body. Following the instructions on the label and not exceeding the recommended dosage is a must, as you can experience adverse side effects like jitters, anxiety, and insomnia. 

Look for Quality

Pre-workout supplements aren’t all created equal, so it’s vital to find quality products that will provide the results you’re seeking. Find trusted brands that use high-quality ingredients and are transparent about the contents of their product. Reputable brands will provide information on the safety and effectiveness of their pre-workout mix. 

Read reviews and check what other lifters have to say about a brand to get a better idea. Finding reviews from individuals with similar workout goals and experience levels may provide you with a better idea of what to expect from a supplement. 

Find Third-Party Tested Products

Unfortunately, not all pre-workout mixes are created equally. Unlike pharmaceutical, supplement companies don’t have set safety or testing criteria in the United States. This means companies don’t have to show the safety or effectiveness of an ingredient before putting it on the shelf. 

That’s why it’s crucial to look for third-party tested pre-workout supplements to avoid harmful, ineffective, and banned ingredients.

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Some trusted third-party testing and label verification companies include the following:

You can use any one of these sites to find pre-workout blends that are made by responsible manufacturers. If you aren’t sure where to start, head over to NSF Certified for Sport to see a complete list of pre-workout blends that do not include dangerous levels of contaminants, prohibited ingredients, or masking agents. 

Ingredients to Look For

Looking at the ingredient list of a pre – workout supplement can be similar to looking at the periodic table if you aren’t sure what to look for. Each product has different ingredients, quantities, best-use cases, and dosage guidelines—so how do you know what to look for?


Caffeine is a central nervous stimulant commonly found in pre-workout supplements. It’s been proven to enhance focus, energy levels, and muscle endurance during training. Caffeine blocks the neurotransmitter adenosine, which tells your brain that it’s time to rest. By blocking adenosine, caffeine may help you feel more alert and focused. 

Caffeine is generally considered safe for adults in doses under 400mg per day. Most pre-workouts include 150-200mg of caffeine per serving. That said, be cautious when using products that contain caffeine, as high doses can lead to anxiety, jitters, and insomnia. 


Have you ever hit the gym after taking a pre – workout mix and felt a tingly sensation all over your body?

That feeling is known as paresthesia and comes from the amino acid beta-alanine. The sensation is harmless and typically subsides within a few minutes.

Beta-alanine is commonly found in pre-workout powders and works to increase the levels of carnosine in your muscles. Carnosine can help reduce muscle fatigue and improve muscle endurance during training sessions. 

Essentially, beta-alanine will help you pump out those last few reps, making it ideal for building strength or muscle size. It’s generally considered safe and effective, with most products containing effective doses between 1.5-5 grams per serving

Creatine Monohydrate

Creatine is one of the most popular workout supplements and is found in several products. It can help improve strength, explosive muscle power, muscle mass, and athletic performance

Creatine works by increasing the amount of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) in your muscles, which is the primary source of energy for muscle contractions. It’s considered safe and effective, with many products containing optimal doses of 2-5g per serving

That said, some lifters experience bloating and gastrointestinal distress when supplementing with creatine. 

Citrulline & Arginine

Citrulline and arginine are amino acids and work to increase the production of nitric oxide in your body. Nitric oxide can improve performance and enhance muscle growth, as it helps to increase blood flow and nutrient delivery to the muscles. 

These ingredients are commonly referred to as ‘vasodilators,’ as they expand your veins and arteries, making it easier for blood to move around your body and reach the muscles. 

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Citrulline and arginine are generally considered safe and effective. Look for products with effective doses of around 2-5g of either option. That said, citrulline may cause a slight decrease in blood pressure, so be cautious if you have relevant issues. 


Betaine is a naturally occurring compound found in beets, broccoli, and other foods. It helps with long-term strength, size, and recovery efforts. It can also regulate fat metabolism and prevent an increase in blood pressure. 

Betaine works by increasing the production of ATP in the body, which improves strength and power during training. It’s helpful in improving the volume load for compound movements, like the squat or deadlift. For effective dosages, look for products including optimal doses of around 1-2.5 grams


BCAAs, or branched-chain amino acids, are a group of three essential amino acids, including leucine, isoleucine, and valine

These ingredients help regulate protein metabolism, increasing muscle protein synthesis and pressing protein breakdown—which is necessary to build muscle. If you’re already supplementing with BCAAs, you don’t need to look for it in pre-workout drinks. 

Otherwise, find products with at least 5 grams and approximately 3 grams of leucine. 

What to Avoid in Pre – Workouts

While there are many safe and effective ingredients that can be found in supplements, there are also some pre-workout ingredients that you should avoid. Here are some things to look out for:

Proprietary Blends

Manufacturers often use proprietary blends to hide the exact amounts of ingredients in their pre-workout mix. Although most products use similar ingredients, proprietary blends will vary greatly. 

You might purchase a product that doesn’t have effective dosage ranges for the supplements you need. For example, a proprietary blend might only have one gram of BCAAs, while including high quantities of caffeine and beta-alanine—making you feel energized with none of the results. 

Proprietary blends are a red flag and are best left on the shelves. Instead, look for pre-workout supplements with clear ingredient lists and amounts. 

Too Much Caffeine

Caffeine can be an effective tool for enhancing cognitive performance, energy, and endurance. However, too much caffeine can cause issues, especially if you have a low tolerance. Too much caffeine can cause headaches, anxiety, insomnia, fast heart rates, and other adverse side effects. 

Most healthy adults can tolerate up to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day. Many pre-workout supplements contain 150 to 250 milligrams of caffeine per serving. This range can be suitable as long as you’re not consuming excessive amounts of caffeine throughout the day.

Be sure to manage your caffeine intake and avoid consuming pre-workout supplements too late in the day. 

Artificial Sweeteners

Look, we all want a delicious pre-workout mix that tastes like something from the candy aisle at your local gas station. 

Unfortunately, some individuals can be sensitive to artificial sweeteners like sucralose or aspartame. These ingredients can cause adverse side effects, including headaches, digestive problems, or allergic reactions. 

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Too many sweeteners can also increase blood sugar levels, which is dangerous for specific individuals. If you’re concerned about artificial sweeteners, purchase products with natural alternatives like stevia, monk fruit, or erythritol

Questionable or Unproven Ingredients

It’s crucial to avoid products that contain unproven, untested, or questionable ingredients. These may be dangerous products and are best to avoid. Some ingredients to be cautious of include higenamine, picamilon, and DMHA. Instead, look for effective products that have safe, effective, and tested ingredients. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is The Most Important Ingredient in a Pre-Workout?

The answer will depend on your goals. Overall, look for third-party tested products that have transparent ingredient lists and amounts. Caffeine, creatine, betaine, and BCAAs can be helpful for improving endurance, muscle strength, and post-workout recovery.

What Ingredients Give You a Pump?

Products that give you a ‘pump’ include a combination of ingredients to stimulate blood and oxygen flow to the muscles. Look for pre-workout blends with L-citrulline, arginine, and betaine in effective dosages between 6–8g, 3–6g, and 2.5g, respectively. 

What’s Better, Creatine or Pre-Workout?

Creatine can help improve strength, explosive power, and muscle mass. It’s commonly found in pre-workout blends and can be supplemented by itself. Pre-workouts can be equally effective in enhancing energy and endurance as long as they use proven ingredients at research-backed doses. 

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