– Pre-workout supplements have been shown to be safe and effective for cognition, mood, and muscle and aerobic endurance.
– Most research on pre-workouts has been done on men, but some studies show clear benefits for women.
– Caffeine, citrulline malate, rhodiola rosea, EAAs, and L-theanine may all be beneficial.
– Pre-workouts generally contain caffeine, but don’t have to. Those that don’t are still not necessarily “stimulant-free.”
The Best Pre-Workout Supplements for Women in 2020
When you Google a pre-workout supplement, you typically come up with images like these: a bottle with a flaming skull on the label, bolts of electricity, or a big, sweaty, bodybuilder guy flexing, with a look on his face that’s so intense, you have to wonder if the product he’s advertising drove him insane.
The fact is, most “pre-workouts” aren’t for women. They’re studied in men. They’re marketed toward men. They’re recommended by and for men—and usually men who want to run through the gym wall and count it as their warmup.
Yikes. That’s not what you’re looking for at all.
Women can be just as passionate about training hard as men are, and just as serious about getting results, but we don’t necessarily want to take something that’s going to make us aggressive, get our hearts racing, or keep us up all night.
Contrary to popular belief, there are pre-workout supplements that have been shown to work specifically in women. There are also ingredients that many women may not be aware of that can have a potent effect and promote killer workouts, without making you foam at the mouth.
Here’s a look at the best pre-workout supplements for women who want an edge in the gym right away—but don’t want to risk health and safety to do it.
What Are The Benefits of Pre-Workout Supplements?
People usually seek out pre-workout supplements to help them get in the zone before training, promoting focus and alertness. They may also want something that promises an immediate effect on performance, potentially supporting strength and/or endurance in the upcoming workout.
A 2018 review in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition analyzed the results of 80 different studies to determine the effect of what it calls “multi-ingredient pre-workout supplements (MIPS)”—the popular and widely available pre-workout drinks, powders, and capsules that contain numerous alleged ergogenic aids. The researchers determined that, though it’s difficult to pick out which compounds are truly effective given the blends they usually appear in, a substantial body of evidence suggests that consuming pre-workout supps may benefit muscular endurance and subjective mood.
They went on to say that “The chronic consumption of MIPS in conjunction with a periodized [planned out] resistance training program appears to augment beneficial changes in body composition through increased lean mass accretion.”
However, the scientists explained that more research on pre-workout supplements is needed before strong conclusions can be drawn—especially for female athletes, and untrained adults over 40 years of age.
Indeed, most of the research on pre-workout supplements has been done on men, and the studies that use subjects of both genders typically don’t examine how the ingredient(s) in question may affect men and women differently. They also don’t account for a woman’s menstrual cycle, and how it could influence a supplement’s effects, and vice versa. The International Society of Sports Nutrition’s review found that both men and women taking pre-workout supplements had similar results in most measures, most of the time, so there’s little reason to think that a product or ingredient wouldn’t work as well for a woman as it does for a man, provided that the dosage is appropriate. However, some differences between the sexes have been noted.
A 2018 study on recreationally active women found that MIPS supported muscle endurance in the upper body, but had no impact on lower-body muscle endurance or power. Another study from the same year revealed that MIPS had no appreciable effect on fat burning in female aerobic athletes. But never fear, we’ll show you the products that do have strong evidence supporting their efficacy in women further down.
Pre-workout supplements are generally considered safe, at least in the short term (less than eight weeks of regular use). There are no studies yet that show what happens with long-term use, but there is a way to put time on your side: use supplements that have been tested by a third party, which provides some assurance of quality and safety. Look for a seal on the product label from an organization such as Informed Sport. This kind of distinction ensures that what’s on the product label is in the bottle, and the ingredients should be free of contaminants.
Our Reviews of the Top Pre-Workouts on the Market in 2020
As mentioned above, it can be difficult to say which pre-workout formulations are really winners when they have multiple ingredients. Some of the compounds could account for the majority of the benefits while the others are filler, or may even detract from the positive effects. For that reason, we’ll break down the specific ingredients that are popular in pre-workout supps and that we believe are efficacious, based on the most reliable scientific findings. They can all be purchased on their own, as well as in blends with other ingredients.
Note that the supplements creatine monohydrate and beta-alanine are often considered pre-workouts and are usually included in pre-workout blends. However, we have not included them here as they don’t have an immediate effect on cognition or exercise performance. In other words, they have to build up in your system before you notice them working—they don’t work right away. You can read more about them in our complete guides for creatine and beta alanine.
Probably the most popular ingredient in pre-workouts, caffeine is a stimulant that has been proven to aid alertness and help manage feelings of fatigue. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), caffeine can promote athletic performance in a variety of sports. It’s been noted to be effective during exhaustive exercise, and when subjects have been deprived of sleep. Scientists recommend using low to moderate doses of caffeine: 3–6 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight (1.36–2.72 mg per pound).
Most research on caffeine hasn’t looked at the way it affects women versus men, but a 2019 meta-analysis did, finding that caffeine aided aerobic performance and helped with fatigue in both sexes to a similar degree. However, researchers concluded, men seem to get more benefit for strength and power exercise out of the same dosage.
Drinking coffee, of course, is one way to get caffeine, but research shows that the concentrated caffeine powder available in most pre-workouts—called caffeine anhydrous—has a greater effect on performance. It’s also easier to consume. According to the ISSN’s guidelines, a 140-pound woman (64 kg) taking 3–6 mg of caffeine per kilo of her bodyweight would need 192–384 mg of caffeine to get an ergogenic effect, and that equates to approximately 2–4 cups of coffee. (The caffeine content of coffees varies.) Most pre-workouts will offer the caffeine punch you get from three or more cups of coffee, so, if nothing else, they’re a more convenient option.
Caffeine is generally considered safe, but some people can be sensitive to it. The ISSN says that caffeine has not been shown to have a diuretic effect that could negatively impact performance. However, doses of 9 mg per kilo of bodyweight have been shown to cause dizziness, shaking, sweating, and vomiting in some. As a stimulant, caffeine can increase blood pressure, and it can make it difficult to fall asleep, so you should consider starting with small doses and avoiding it in the afternoon, so your body has ample time to process it before you go to bed.
Many pre-workouts are marketed for their ability to stimulate nitric oxide (NO) production in the body. NO is a naturally-occurring compound that’s already present in our circulatory system, and it serves to dilate the blood vessels, allowing greater blood flow. More blood flow means greater delivery of nutrition and oxygen to working muscles, as well as expedited removal of metabolic waste products. Citrulline malate is an amino acid that can be converted into L-arginine—another amino acid—which itself converts into nitric oxide.
A study in the European Journal of Nutrition tried to determine if women could get the same results from citrulline malate supplementation as men. Researchers used women with resistance-training experience, and measured their performance on a variety of weight-training exercises one hour after they consumed a citrulline malate supplement.
The results were in fact comparable: citrulline malate promoted significant gains in both upper- and lower-body muscle endurance. The women also rated their upper-body training as feeling easier when they were on citrulline malate versus a placebo, indicating that it may help with perceived exertion (how hard you think you’re working).
Furthermore, a 2016 study in the European Journal of Sport Science found that citrulline malate helped boost explosive power and grip strength in female tennis players.
As Shannon Ehrhardt, RD, CSSD, an EXOS Performance Dietitian, noted in our guide to nitric oxide supplements, “Taking any sort of supplement that is intended to increase nitric oxide should be taken prior to a training session, as most ingredients found in these types of products—for example, arginine and citrulline—have short half-lives… Arginine has a half-life of one-and-a-half to two hours, and citrulline has a half-life of about an hour.” In other words, the longer you wait, the less potent these compounds will be in your system.
Rhodiola is an herb that grows in cold climates. It is an adaptogen, meaning that it helps support the body’s management of stress. Several studies have shown that rhodiola can help with fatigue (as discussed in our guide to rhodiola), but it has also been shown to support athletic performance.
A trial in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise showed that, when taken one hour before activity, rhodiola aided work capacity in subjects doing endurance training—helping to extend their time to exhaustion by 24 seconds. Only half the subjects were female, but the way the study was set up, it was clear that rhodiola worked as well for the ladies as it did the fellas.
Essential Amino Acids (EAAs)
EAAs are the amino acids your body can’t make on its own, so you have to get them from food or supplements. There are nine of them: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Of these, isoleucine, leucine, and valine make up a subgroup called branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are thought to be particularly important for muscle strength and performance.
Many nutritionists argue that if your diet is already rich in meat, eggs, and poultry, and you’re supplementing with a protein source such as whey, you’re already getting enough EAAs/BCAAs, and don’t need to make an effort to get more. However, there is some evidence that supplementing with them specifically may offer advantages.
Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism reported that soccer players who took BCAAs one hour prior to running tests had better reaction times. OK, the subjects were dudes, but stay with us here…
The journal Nutrition published a study showing that women who took EAAs before and after training, as well as on off days, had significant increases in aerobic endurance. These findings are particularly interesting because the subjects were eating about 400 fewer calories daily than the ladies in the placebo group, suggesting that EAAs might help performance even during times of lower energy, such as when dieting.
Some research has shown that EAAs can be useful when consumed in the midst your workout. Scientists found that gulping aminos on the go can assist mental and physical performance during endurance training.
EAAs may also have a supportive effect for mood, which can lead to better workouts. A short-term study on older women found that taking a tryptophan supplement daily promoted feelings of happiness, as well as quicker reaction times.
Another mood-supporting supplement is the amino acid L-theanine, which comes from tea plants. When taken supplementally, L-theanine can act similarly to caffeine. A study in Biological Psychology that looked at the effects of caffeine and L-theanine both in isolation and in combination—and included nearly twice as many female subjects as males—discovered that the two compounds aided cognitive speed, memory, and alertness to a higher degree when taken together than when either nutrient was consumed on its own.
Although not a supplement, carbs are the body’s preferred energy source for fueling muscle contractions, and there’s plenty of research that shows that consuming some shortly before a workout can boost performance. The trick is not to eat too many in one shot, which can raise blood sugar sharply and cause an energy crash—the last thing you want when you’re about to walk into the gym.
Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to take much to get the job done. A study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism studied 16 runners—eight male, eight female—and found that taking in only 14 grams of carbs in a sucrose and fructose mixture resulted in faster 10K times than placebo. Taking different, and higher, amounts of carbs did not improve performance. Pre-workout carb powders are available, but if you don’t like the taste, about half a banana makes a great pre-workout snack on its own.
Are Stimulant-Free Pre-Workouts Better Than Ones With Stimulants?
It’s one thing to take something that makes you feel energized to train hard, but it’s another to get hopped up and jittery to the point where you almost feel sick or can’t sleep. Many pre-workouts contain several hundred milligrams of caffeine anhydrous, often equating to the caffeine content of three cups of coffee or more, and that can be too much for some women—especially since we’re usually smaller than men, and have slower metabolisms.
Determining whether a stimulant-free pre-workout is right for you really depends on your definition of what a stimulant is. The FDA defines it as a drug or substance that helps restore mental alertness or wakefulness during fatigue, but most people think of stimulants as things that rev up the heart rate and central nervous system. Caffeine is certainly a stimulant by any definition, but L-theanine seems to promote alertness while actually having a calming effect on the mind that helps manage stress, and may help attenuate the spikes in blood pressure that are associated with caffeine use (according to British research). Rhodiola may promote the effects of caffeine, but it also helps the body cope with stress.
Generally speaking, most of the pre-workout formulations that have been shown to be effective contain some caffeine, and the so-called “stimulant-free” options out there that don’t have caffeine may contain other ingredients that have a similarly exciting, stimulant-like effect. If you’re sensitive to caffeine, or you work out late at night and don’t want anything to interfere with your ability to sleep, you may do better to take citrulline malate and/or EAAs, and steer clear of multi-ingredient formulations that could have stimulant properties.