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Bang For Your Buck

Pre-workout supplements are often overhyped, but a handful of ingredients are worth your hard-earned money.

By Mike Carlson


Pre-workout products can help us get more out of each training session, but not all products are created equally. It probably doesn’t surprise you that many ingredients in your “Super Advanced Monster Turbo Ninja Growth Pump Accelerator” fail to deliver on their bombastic claims. There’s a lot of hype out there, but there’s also some proven performers with long and strong records of improving pumps and jacking up intensity in the weight room.


Before I introduce my favorite best pre-workout ingredients I want to make it clear that this is by no means an exhaustive list. There are tons of other ingredients out there, and more being introduced all the time. However, while mileage may vary from person to person, the ingredients I’ve covering here have been extensively researched and shown to be effective for a wide range of users. And thanks to the research, we know exactly what dose (or at least know what range to work within) we need. Put simply, these ingredients are “no-brainers” because they’re proven to be safe and they’re going to give you bang for your buck.






What it is: A small alkaloid belonging to the methylxanthine class, a powerful central nervous system stimulant, and the most commonly used drug in the world.


What it does: Improves strength and endurance (leading to increased training volume), increases alertness and wakefulness, and improves mood. In short, it helps you do more in the gym.


Effective dose: Typical doses at which these improvements occur range from 1.36 to 2.27 milligrams per pound of bodyweight (which equates to a dose of about 250 to 400 milligrams for a 180-pound male). However, if you’re new to caffeine use, I suggest starting with around 0.91 milligrams per pound (about 160 milligrams in the previous example) to assess your tolerance and then increase the dose as necessary.


Keep in mind: Frequent use leads to tolerance and diminished effectiveness. In other words, the more often you use it, the less benefits you’ll experience. Daily use will likely result in rapid tolerance.


To continue reaping maximum benefits from caffeine, use it only on workout days, or perhaps just on your hardest workout days. If you notice diminishing benefits, taking a break from caffeine will help resensitize your body to its effects.



What it is: An amino acid analogue of L-glutamate and L-glutamine, found almost solely in tea plants.


What it does: Works synergistically with caffeine to minimize side effects (headaches and jitters) and boost benefits (alertness and reaction time).


Effective dose: Seems most effective when used at a one-to-two ratio with caffeine. Using 300 milligrams of caffeine as an example, that works out to 150 milligrams of l-theanine.




What it is: A molecule produced in the body that stores high-energy phosphate groups in the form of creatine phosphate, capable of rapidly producing ATP (energy).


What it does: Increases the amount of creatine in muscles, resulting in increased strength, power, and lean mass.


Effective dose: Start with a higher dose (0.14 grams per pound body weight, which works out to 25 grams per day) for the first five to seven days, then maintain with five grams daily.


Keep in mind: During the loading phase, doses should be spread out over the day to avoid the potential for gastrointestinal discomfort. The effective dose during the maintenance phase is somewhat less than five grams (specifically, one tenth of the loading dose), but given how inexpensive creatine is, coupled with the potential for greater benefits, five grams is the typical dose. While creatine is a popular ingredient in pre-workout stacks, efficacy is not dependent on timing. You can take it any time and get the same benefits.




What it is: A modified version of the amino acid alanine.


What it does: Enhances muscular endurance by increasing muscle carnosine levels; carnosine buffers lactic acid and this helps you get an extra rep or two when you’re training in the eight- to 15-repetition range. In short, beta-alanine reduces fatigue and increases training volume, which can lead to improvements in body composition.


Effective dose: About four grams (3.2 grams minimum) daily; must use for at least 30 days and daily thereafter to achieve benefits; maximum benefit is seen after 10 weeks of daily supplementation.


Keep in mind: While beta-alanine is a popular ingredient in pre-workout stacks, supplementation is actually not timing-dependent. You can take it any time and get the same benefits. However, many people enjoy the tingling sensation, known as paresthesia, that beta-alanine can elicit during their workout. Doses can be divided (e.g., two grams twice daily) for anyone who dislikes the sensation..




What it is: An amino acid (L-citrulline) bound to malic acid. This pairing provides stability to L-citrulline in the body.


What it does: Citrulline is converted to arginine, which increases nitric oxide levels and blood flow. Citrulline is actually more effective than arginine itself in increasing arginine levels. It is also known to delay fatigue, increase training volume, and reduce post-workout muscle soreness.


Effective dose: Six to eight grams. I suggest going with eight grams since it’s relatively inexpensive.





What it is: A stable, highly concentrated form of powdered glycerol (65 percent glycerol powder), an osmotic compound that draws and retains water within muscle cells.


What it does: Hydromax gives a great pump, and we know that cellular swelling can signal hypertrophy and lead to muscle growth. Furthermore, having a great pump in the gym is beneficial in and of itself because it makes you feel like a badass and helps give you confidence to dominate your workouts. After all, when was the last time you felt like a badass in the gym without a great pump?


Effective dose: Three grams. IM



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