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Pre-Workout Primer

Do you need a pick-me-up before your next workout? Find the supplement for you.

By Jenevieve Roper, PhD, CSCS


Some days you just don’t have it. Between early mornings, getting kids ready for school (for some of you), work, lunch, more work, dinner, homework, and studying, the list never seems to end, yet the day does. When it comes to gym time, your energy is drained and your motivation starts disappearing in the face of that HIIT workout. This is where a pre-workout supplement (PWO) comes in handy.

Like the name implies, PWOs are taken before going to the gym. And with increasing popular demand, there are even more ingredients that can be used to get the desired effect. PWOs all work to deliver a physical and mental boost, but they actually have varying mechanisms of actions and can cause you to feel drastically differently when taking them. Here we breakdown and profile a few different types of PWO ingredients according to their classifications, so you know when to choose the right one.




Our true friend and best workout partner. While you may have used caffeine as part of a fat-burner, it is almost always a mainstay in a PWO formula. Caffeine is a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant, so we use it to reduce physical fatigue. It works by blocking adenosine, which induces drowsiness. It also stimulates certain parts of the autonomic nervous system, which leads to an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolic rate. It will help delay the onset of muscular and mental fatigue, and improve reaction time and concentration.

If you are a caffeine junkie, you may not see the same effects from caffeine as someone who consumes very little caffeine. Also, try to avoid co-ingestion of caffeine and creatine, as it renders creatine ineffective.


Beta-alanine, a modified version of alanine, is a precursor for carnosine, a molecule that helps buffer acid in muscle. When the pH of the muscle drops, carnosine is released to buffer the muscles and keep them from becoming too acidic. If your muscles become too acidic, it can interfere with various metabolic processes and disrupt phosphocreatine synthesis, resulting in fatigue. Therefore, beta-alanine supplementation, even more so than carnosine supplementation, helps delay the onset of fatigue while exercising.

Beta-alanine demands a little bit of self-experimentation. Some people experience paraesthesia when taking high doses of beta-alanine. This pins-and-needles feeling is harmless and subsides after some time, but some people find it maddeningly distracting.


Theacrine is an alkaloid molecule that is similar to caffeine with a mechanism of action very much like caffeine. It blocks adenosine to cause delayed muscle and central fatigue. However, this is dose dependent. Too little can actually have a sedative effect, which is exactly the opposite of what you want. Unlike caffeine, however, the body doesn’t seem to build up a tolerance to theacrine. More research is needed to determine the exact effects of theacrine as a CNS stimulator, but few studies have found positive results.

One special thing about theacrine is that it has been found to work as an analgesic and reduce pain. While research is still needed to elucidate this property of theacrine, it is promising for those who engage in very intensive or competitive exercise.


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Tyrosine is a naturally produced amino acid that is used to synthesize norepinephrine and dopamine. Norepinephrine is a known CNS stimulant that attaches to certain receptors in the body and increases heart rate, blood pressure, and causes vasoconstriction. However, tyrosine also produces dopamine, which helps increase cognition during acute stressors and reduced perceptions of stress.

Research is still out on the verdict of its ability to reduce fatigue, but the current research appears to indicate that due to its impact on norepinephrine release, it can help delay the onset of fatigue.


Dimethylaminoethanol, or better known as DMAE, is structurally similar to choline, except it has one less methyl group. It is most known for its ability to reduce what is called “age pigment,” which impairs cognitive function. It is typically involved in a series of reactions that form acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter in the brain. This helps improve cell function and communication.

DMAE has been used to treat ADHD, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, and other neurological disorders. But more recently, it has been used to increase physical energy, oxygen efficiency, athletic performance, and muscle reflexes. We’re still awaiting more research on it, but it looks very promising.


Choline is a naturally occurring water-soluble nutrient that is usually grouped with B vitamins. It is an essential nutrient for humans, as we do not synthesize it naturally. It is necessary for three main purposes: 1) structural integrity and signaling in cell membranes, 2) neurotransmission, and 3) as a source of methyl groups for betaine synthesis, which is another substance that has been shown to improve sports performance, especially under heat stress.

Choline has been referred to as a “smart drug” because it is a substrate in acetylcholine, which has a role in various cognition systems within the brain. Research has also shown that it mediates mood, memory, and intelligence.


Iron Man Magazine preworkout_muscletech_01MUSCLE PUMP/VASODILATORS


Citrulline is an amino acid that gets converted into L-arginine in the kidneys after supplementation. It has long been used to support cardiovascular health and in recent years for sports performance. It’s been shown to reduce fatigue and improve endurance during prolonged exercise.

A main perk of citrulline is that it improves nitric oxide metabolism. Nitric oxide release from the blood vessels leads to vasodilation and improved oxygen delivery to the working muscles. Sometimes during workouts, due to acidity or reduced blood flow during repeated contractions, oxygen delivery gets compromised. This can lead to muscle failure. The vasodilation induced by citrulline helps keep the pump going so you can go beyond failure.

Beetroot Extract

Beetroot extract usually comes in the form of a drink, but it can be purchased as a powder if you’re trying to spare yourself some calories. Beets are high in nitrate, which is known to convert to nitric oxide after consumption and absorption. As described above, the nitric oxide increases muscle oxygen delivery by inducing vasodilation.

A lot of research has been conducted on beetroot lately and most has been relatively positive. The consensus appears to be that supplementation leads to reduced oxygen cost during exercise, limited breakdown of phosphocreatine, higher power output, and improved overall performance. Sodium nitrate is actually a drug and considered illegal during competition, which is why the recommendation is to use beetroot juice since it’s a natural food.


Agmatine is a metabolite of L-arginine and has shown multiple benefits, including alleviating pain and improving cognitive health. It’s produced by removing a carboxylic acid group from L-arginine. From there it is stored in neurons and released during neuronal activation.

Supplementation of agmatine can help modulate nitric oxide synthesis. Because it does this in various ways, what we know is that it helps upregulate some nitric oxide synthases, while inhibiting others. Therefore, supplementation can lead to vasodilation and improved muscle oxygen delivery, ultimately improving performance. It also acts on catecholamines to boost the metabolism, similar to caffeine.


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Choosing The Right PWO

So how can you tell which type of PWO you need? Well, there’s actually no hard and fast rule on this. It may take some trial and error, or hearing about one that works from your gym buddy. Here are some guidelines that I like to follow when choosing a pre-workout:

  • The simpler, the better. Many pre-workouts have a laundry list of ingredients, but there isn’t that much research to determine the effects of those combinations of ingredients. A strong cup of coffee is still the PWO of choice for a lot of people. Do you know why? Because it works.
  • If you’re tired from the late-night gym session the night before, or late night in general, go for a CNS booster, as those are more likely to elevate your metabolism. Some examples are caffeine, synephrine, yohimbe, guarana, yerba mate, theacrine, and green tea extract.
  • If you’re riding the low-carb train, try a cognitive enhancer. The cloudiness from the lack of carbs can make it difficult for you to concentrate on proper technique. Examples include DMAE, GABA, huperzine-A, and Bacopa monnieri.
  • If you want to see the veins bulge from every muscle in your body, take a vasodilator. While yes, they do enhance oxygen delivery and performance, who doesn’t like to take selfies in the mirror when you can tell they have a massive pump going? Examples include arginine, citrulline malate, and agmatine.
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