A pre-workout is a great way to maximize a gym session or any kind of workout. Mixed with a wide array of ingredients, a pre-workout aims to increase endurance, energy, and focus which induces the body to be more receptive to the exercise.
While there are a great number of commercially available pre-workouts in the market, some individuals prefer to make their own pre-workout. Making homemade pre-workouts can save money and provide people with the peace of mind as they know the exact ingredients they are putting in their body.
There are numerous ingredients that people can put into a pre-workout. However, a list of the most common ingredients include beta-alanine, caffeine, citrulline, tyrosine, taurine, creatine, niacin, and arginine.
What is a Pre-Workout?
A pre-workout is a supplement aimed to enhance physical performance. As the name suggests, it is a supplement that is consumed before a workout.
Usually, the recommended time is 20-30 minutes before a workout. The time allotted is to make sure that all the necessary ingredients that are supposed to confer specific benefits have been appropriately distributed around the body.
Pre-workouts are generally regarded as safe, especially if all ingredients listed have been extensively studied – which most usually are. A 2018 brief review published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition discusses the safety implications of pre-workout supplements. While most studies investigating the safety of pre-workouts take place in shorter time periods, most studies unanimously agree that pre-workouts are generally safe.
Pre-Workout Ingredients to Use
There are hundreds of commercially available pre-workouts, each having different formulations and ingredients. For the purpose of practicality, this article will list the most common ingredients used.
A 2019 study published in Nutrients analyzed the top 100 commercially available pre-workout products and analyzed their lists of ingredients. Despite most of these products refusing to disclose their list of ingredients as a part of their proprietary blend, these are the most common: beta-alanine, caffeine, citrulline, tyrosine, taurine, creatine, niacin, and arginine.
Note: This article does not provide dosages, nor does it address allergen information or individual sensitives. It simply outlines common ingredients found in pre-workout supplements.
Beta-alanine is a non-essential acid which means that the body naturally produces it – unlike essential amino acids that are needed by the body but only accessible through certain food sources.
While amino acids are functional building blocks to create the wide array of proteins that the body needs, beta-alanine is specifically used to combine with histidine. The combination produces carnosine which is stored in the body’s skeletal muscles.
During strenuous exercise, the muscles use up glycogen stores (in a process called glycolysis) which produces lactic acid as a by-product. While glycolysis provides the muscles with extra glucose for energy production, the lactic acid buildup increases the acidity in the muscles. Enough acidity stops glycolysis and begins to induce muscle fatigue.
Carnosine acts as an excellent physiochemical buffer. The body naturally contains a high amount of histidine. Consuming beta-alanine supplements can increase an individual’s carnosine levels which can then help neutralize the acidity that lactic acid induces.
Caffeine is a stimulant naturally found in several plants like coffee and tea. Caffeine has several modes of action in the body, but it notably acts as an antagonist to adenosine – effectively blocking the neurotransmitter responsible for making people feel tired and relaxed. Statistically, it is the most consumed psychoactive compound.
A 2016 review published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews elaborates on the numerous benefits that caffeine consumption can provide. From 40-400 milligrams, caffeine has been observed to improve cognitive performance – especially in alertness, vigilance, attention, and reaction time.
Doses greater than 200 milligrams have been observed to improve physical performance. Numerous studies have investigated the improvement in time-to-exhaustion, time-trial, muscle strength, and endurance through caffeine consumption.
Similar to beta-alanine, citrulline is another non-essential amino acid that is not primarily used by the body for protein assembly. However, while beta-alanine has one primary function (i.e., serve as a pre-cursor to carnosine), citrulline has been studied to confer several benefits toward physical performance.
Essentially, citrulline has one major effect on the body – it acts as a natural vasodilator which means that it helps widen the blood vessels. Vasodilation has numerous benefits for physical performance because wider blood vessels equates to better circulation in the body – better circulation also means better distribution of nutrients around the body (e.g., vitamins, minerals, oxygen, etc.).
Produced from phenylalanine, tyrosine is a non-essential amino acid that is frequently used in pre-workouts. Tyrosine is an efficient molecule as it serves as precursors to several other molecules in the body that can improve both cognitive and physical performance.
Namely, tyrosine serves as precursors to dopamine (the neurotransmitter that regulates the brain’s reward centers, memory, and motor skills.), adrenaline and noradrenaline (fight-or-flight hormones), thyroid hormones (responsible for regulating metabolism), and melanin (pigmentation).
Serving as precursors to several neurotransmitters and hormones, tyrosine supplementation has been thoroughly investigated. A 1999 study published in the Brain Research Bulletin looked into the effects of tyrosine supplementation in military cadets. Observing a group of 21 cadets, the study found that tyrosine supplementation improved cognitive performance and reduced blood pressure after a week of a combat training course.
Taurine is another non-essential amino acid and is a popular ingredient not only in pre-workouts but in a wide array of health supplements. Concentrated in certain body parts such as the brain, heart, eyes, and muscles, the reason why taurine is so popular in health supplements is that it provides a number of benefits.
Taurine plays several roles in the body: maintains hydration and electrolyte balance, forms bile salts, regulates minerals, supports the central nervous system, and regulates the immune system.
A 2004 study published in Amino Acids investigated the effects of taurine supplementation in exercise-induced oxidative stress. Observing 11 healthy young men, the study found that seven-day taurine supplementation increased several physical parameters (e.g., VO2 max, exercise time to exhaustion, maximal workload, etc.).
Among gym-goers and athletes, creatine is one of the most popular supplements. An organic compound with a chemical structure similar to that of an amino acid, creatine is a naturally occurring substance that is typically concentrated in the muscles.
When muscles use energy to work, they convert ATP (adenosine triphosphate) to ADP (adenosine diphosphate). This means that muscles are limited by the amount of ATP they can utilize. Creatine functions by recycling ADP back into ATP, thus replenishing the ATP pool in the muscles.
Creatine is one of the most studied health supplements, hundreds of studies have been conducted to prove the safety and efficacy of creatine. Not only does creatine enhance physical performance, but it has also been studied to increase muscle mass and strength.
Niacin, also known as vitamin B3, is another common ingredient in several different health supplements. As a vitamin, niacin has several health benefits such as the improvement of the blood lipid profile (i.e., increase “good” HDL cholesterol, decrease “bad” LDL cholesterol, lower triglycerides), prevention of heart disease, treatment of type 1 diabetes, improvement of skin function, reduction of symptoms of arthritis, and the enhancement of cognitive function.
As an appropriate ingredient in pre-workouts, niacin also serves as a sufficient vasodilator. A 2016 study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science investigated the effects of niacin on resting heart rate and blood pressure of college-aged males. With a total of 30 participants and 1000 milligrams of niacin supplementation, the study found that niacin was able to significantly lower resting heart rate and blood pressure in the participants.
Unlike the other amino acids listed in this article, arginine is an essential amino acid which means the body can only acquire arginine through certain food sources.
Found in a wide variety of food such as red meat, poultry, fish, dairy, leafy vegetables, and fruits, arginine is an important compound for cardiovascular health. Particularly, arginine serves as a precursor to nitric oxide which is a natural vasodilator produced by the body.