The market is flooded with thousands of options when it comes to the “best pre-workout supplements”. Some of these options have been studied and vetted for efficacy (including Onnit’s Pre-Workout Formula), while others make wild claims with no real basis in fact.
This is exactly why it’s so important to understand what you’re taking and why you’re taking it.
You see, there’s no doubt that the food and supplements you consume before, during and after your workout are the most likely to affect your energy during exercise as well as your potential for long-term gains.
Nutrition plays a key role in exercise performance, and the very act of exercising creates conditions in your body that make it possible to achieve positive nitrogen balance and muscle anabolism.
Put simply, what you consume and when you consume it really does matter.
But with all the options, how do you boil it down to the “best”? It’s a tricky question, because we’re still in the early days of supplement research.
While many compounds and nutrients show promise for maximizing performance, most of them haven’t been studied sufficiently to know exactly how much to consume or in what combinations with other nutrients.
That’s why I like to use the KISS method (keep it simple, stupid), and focus on the supplements that have been tested and re-tested for maximum results. If you need a place to start, start with these four ergogenic aids.
The Top 4 Best Pre-Workout Supplements
Caffeine is pretty much the best legal drug ever discovered. As a thermogenic, it boosts metabolism, helping you burn more calories while exercising, and even more importantly, it acts as a stimulant.
You see, working out is hard. It’s supposed to be hard. And if it’s not, you’re doing it wrong. As such, any (legal) supplement you can take to enhance your mental acuity and focus while exercising is a good thing.
Stimulants like coffee help you stay on track and push through the last few reps. It does this by basically making exercise feel easier, making it possible to undertake greater workloads while staving off fatigue. The end result? Enhanced performance that leads to ongoing improvements.
While the reasons for performance enhancement aren’t entirely clear, in the early stages of exercise, it appears that muscle glycogen is spared, freeing up fat to be used as an energy source.
Aim to consume between 3 to 9 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram body weight about an hour before exercise for maximum results.
We could talk all day about whether creatine should be supplemented before or after a workout, or at any other time of the day, but if your goals are to lean out, gain muscle and improve performance, particularly during short, high intensity bursts of exercise, it actually doesn’t hurt to use creatine as a pre- and post-workout supplement.
Creatine, like caffeine, has been studied for years and has been proven effective as an ergogenic aid. Your body actually manufactures creatine on its own, and it’s also available through animal sources of protein.
That said, supplementation is considered beneficial for anaerobic exercise because with sufficient stores of creatine in the body, it may “bathe” your energy pathways with the creatine needed to quickly produce ATP (energy) during high-intensity effort.
In the end, creatine supplementation can help lead to increased muscle hypertrophy and lean muscle mass, as well as improved performance during high intensity exercise.
The reason you may want to use the supplement pre- and post-workout is that there’s no solid evidence that one protocol is better than the other (despite a 2013 article published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition that’s been used to push the post-workout argument), and there’s some evidence that when consumed in combination with proteins and carbohydrates, a pre- and post-exercise supplementation may further improve adaptations to resistance training while decreasing exercise-induced muscle damage.
In fact, the JISSN nutrient timing position stand points to the benefits of consuming a combination of creatine with carbohydrates and proteins both before and after a workout.
Given that standard recommendations for creatine consumption range from two to five grams a day (not accounting for the “loading” period where intake may increase to 20 grams a day for about a week), you could add a couple grams of creatine to a pre- and post-workout shake as an easy way to achieve the suggested level of intake.
Cordyceps Sinensis is a well documented mushroom which has been tested in multiple clinical studies, some of which demonstrated increased endurance, resistance to fatigue and improvement in oxygen utilization by as much as 50%.
It is believed that one way the cordyceps mushroom achieves this is by affecting the ATP cycle. By providing raw Adenosine, ADP is converted to ATP more readily, allowing the body more bioavailable cellular energy.
Well-studied antioxidants like Green Tea Extract further eliminate fatigue causing free radicals, and enhance fast recovery for athletes on any level. This Tibetan fungus helps boost immediate strength by contributing to your ATP (adenosine tri-phosphate) cycle.
Combine creatine and Cordyceps for greater immediate strength.
Beta-alanine may not be as well-known as caffeine and creatine, but it certainly deserves a spot at your pre-workout table. This non-essential amino acid, like creatine, can be produced naturally by your body, but supplementation appears to improve athletic performance.
The role beta-alanine plays in improving performance comes from its ability to increase the availability of muscle carnosine. This is important because muscle carnosine works to buffer away the buildup of hydrogen atoms in working muscle, essentially preventing your muscles from becoming fatigued.
The more muscle carnosine you have available to buffer away hydrogen, the longer it will take you to grow tired, particularly during short-duration, high-intensity bouts of exercise.
A 2012 meta-analysis on the benefits of beta-alanine found that supplementation was effective at improving exercise capacity, and the median effect of the improvement across all studies was 2.85-percent.
In a world where athletes are looking for the tiniest edge, a 2.85-percent improvement in exercise performance or capacity is certainly beneficial.
Just keep in mind that while beta-alanine is effective at improving exercise capacity during short bouts of high intensity effort, it doesn’t appear to improve performance during exercise lasting less than 60-seconds. So if you want an edge during a sprint or a one-rep max, it may not be your best bet.