Disclaimer: None of the information in this article constitutes medical advice, and is just the opinion of the writer(s) and published for informational purposes only. We recommend that patients get pre-workout use cleared by a doctor, because there may be medical conditions which preclude use of this type of supplement.
Pre-workout is becoming one of the most popular supplement categories, because it can provide the motivation to exercise at maximum capacity in the gym. Sometimes it can be a challenge to motivate yourself to work out after a long day, and pre-workout can provide the stimulation that gets you through that slump.
In this article we’ll review some medical research on pre-workouts generally, explain how we qualify the healthiest and most effective pre-workout products, and then provide recommendations for pre-workout products across a wide variety of categories.
Does Pre-Workout Work?
Before purchasing any product and potentially wasting money, it’s useful to look at medical research to determine if a supplement or supplement category is likely to be effective.
A medical review published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition examined the performance outcomes of multi-ingredient pre-workout supplements (which most popular products are).
The researchers concluded that pre-workouts “may positively influence muscular endurance and subjective mood,” and that taking pre-workout regularly before lifting weights may “augment beneficial changes in body composition through increased lean mass accretion.” Put simply, this means that pre-workouts may cause favorable changes in body composition when combined with a hard workout regiment.
A separate medical trial analyzed whether acute (one-time) pre-workout supplementation could increase power and strength performance. The study authors found that pre-workout intake caused “significant improvements” in power values. The study participants taking pre-workout were able to lift more weight on average than those taking a placebo.
We can conclude that pre-workout is effective for improving athletic performance on average. This is likely due to one of the main active ingredients being caffeine, which has been proven for decades to enhance sports performance at both a physical and mental level.
What Makes a Good Pre-Workout Brand?
The most important factor when evaluating a pre-workout brand is a clean product formulation. We’re looking for products with effective doses of active ingredients like caffeine, and a relative lack of questionable filler ingredients like added sugars and flavoring agents.
Unfortunately many pre-workout products are laden with questionable additive ingredients because so many consumers care more about taste than health, so this makes qualifying products from this category even more important if you’re a health-conscious consumer.
We’re of course going to examine the price as a criteria, and will recommend lower-priced products if other criteria are equal. Some consumers may be unable to afford top-line products, so recommending the cheapest product which meets our quality standards provides value to those consumers.
We compare the price in price-per-serving to standardize differences in product size (e.g. some products may contain 90 servings vs. others containing 30, so comparing on price alone wouldn’t provide value).
Product test results or certifications are the third criteria. Ideally brands would publish independent data proving that the ingredients they list on their website actually exist in their products, and that their products have low or no contamination from sources like heavy metals and pesticides.
In the absence of test results, we can look to third-party certifications like NSF Certified for Sport. This certification program ensures that workout supplements are free of harmful contaminants and are accurately labeled.
Best Overall Pre-Workout – Naked Energy
Naked Nutrition is the manufacturer of a pre-workout supplement called Naked Energy which is our top overall pick. This brand is known for its clean and effective formulations and we’ve recommended them before.
Naked Energy passes the clean formulation test because it’s the only pre-workout supplement we reviewed which contains zero questionable additive ingredients like sweeteners or other flavoring agents. The product is sold with flavored options, so be sure to choose the unflavored version, titled “Pre Workout Supplement” on their site.
This pre-workout contains 200 milligrams (mg) of caffeine, which is an effective dose for resistance training based on published medical research. It’s also a relatively moderate dose, which makes it less likely to cause anxiety than higher doses. This dose is equivalent to the caffeine content in around two cups of coffee.
Naked Energy also contains an amino acid called beta-alanine which is a proven ergogenic compound. This is a medical term meaning it improves physical performance during exercise.
The recommended daily dose of beta-alanine used to be higher, but recent studies have suggested an effective dose of barely over 1 gram (g) per day. A clinical trial on the dose necessary to maintain elevated muscle carnosine levels (which is what gives beta-alanine its ergogenic properties) concluded that a maintenance dose of 1.2 g beta-alanine kept muscle carnosine at 30-50% above baseline.
A separate medical trial on beta-alanine for sprinters found that a daily 1.2 g dose prevented fatigue, loss of power, and optimized performance compared to baseline.
Naked Energy contains 2 g beta-alanine, which we will conclude is an effective dose.
The remaining ingredients we don’t find likely to provide any athletic benefit, as we believe the creatine and l-arginine doses are too low to provide any substantial benefit. Same goes for the seemingly random blend of vitamins.
We generally don’t recommend taking products with random blends of vitamins. In this case, we believe it’s better than the alternative of taking a product with artificial sweeteners and/or added sugar.
The price of Naked Energy is $44.99, and the supplement contains 50 servings, which equates to a per-serving price of $0.90.
Naked Nutrition does not publish any testing data for this product, and this product has no relevant certifications. Unfortunately this is the norm for the performance supplement industry.
Best Caffeine-Free Pre-Workout - Legion Pulse
Legion’s Pulse pre-workout powder is the best caffeine-free product we could find, though we wouldn’t necessarily recommend it due to the inclusion of some filler ingredients.
This product is well-formulated for efficacy. It contains 8 g of l-citrulline dl-malate 2:1, which equates to 5.33 g l-citrulline. This is an amino acid which is a precursor to nitric oxide; a compound produced by the body which widens blood vessels and improves athletic endurance.
A medical study from The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research published in 2010 was titled “Citrulline malate enhances athletic anaerobic performance and relieves muscle soreness.” In it, the researchers found that study participants taking citrulline malate were able to perform over 50% more repetitions of flat barbell bench press than those taking a placebo. This is an unbelievable result for such a simple and safe compound.
This supplement also contains beta-alanine at nearly double the dose of Naked Energy. We’ve already established this to be an effective ingredient and dose.
Betaine is another effective ingredient in this formulation. Its dose of 2.5 g is the exact same dose used in a clinical trial on betaine supplementation and strength and power performance. Those taking betaine had higher bench throw power, isometric bench press force, vertical jump power and isometric squat force than those taking a placebo.
Legion Pulse contains mostly harmless sweeteners like erythritol, but it also contains natural flavors which is a broad term for flavoring agent compounds which are undisclosed. We recommend avoiding this ingredient for the most part.
This product also contains 30% of the Daily Value (DV) of calcium, which seems like a strange choice given that medical research has already shown that there isn’t much benefit to taking calcium supplements in patients without a documented calcium deficiency.
The price of Legion Pulse is $39.37 for 21 servings, which equates to a per-serving cost of $1.88.
As far as product testing, Legion’s product page claims this product is lab tested, and they do publish a test result proving the product contains low levels of microbial contaminants, however it’s quite a strange document as it indicates the manufacture date and expiration date are only days apart. Some data is better than no data, but this isn’t a high standard of product test results.
Overall we think this product is the best-formulated of the caffeine-free pre-workouts we analyzed, and it definitely has some effective ingredients for improving athletic performance. However we wouldn’t recommend it overall due to the inclusion of natural flavors and calcium.
Best Organic Pre-Workout - Organic Muscle
There are surprisingly few organic pre-workout supplements. Since some consumers prefer organic products exclusively, we wanted to provide thoughts on the best product in this category. Organic Muscle sells an organic pre-workout which is USDA organic.
Organic Muscle’s Superfood Pre-Workout contains 150 mg of caffeine, which we already established previously is an effective dose.
This product also contains maca as the first ingredient in a proprietary Energy, Focus and Stamina blend. This botanical compound was proven in a medical trial to significantly improve cycling time performance. Maca extract was used in the trial, which is more concentrated than raw maca, so it’s not certain that raw maca would confer the same effects.
Beet root is included in the Circulation and Pump blend, and this plant is one of the richest in dietary nitrates, which is a nitric oxide precursor just like l-citrulline. Theoretically this should improve exercise endurance, but there isn’t as much research backing for beet root as there is for l-citrulline.
Most of the ingredients in this formulation are safe botanical compounds, although it does contain 3 g added sugar (from organic rice syrup primarily – which we believe is a healthier alternative to processed white sugar). It also contains flavoring agents, but the flavors in this product are organic, which means they conform to much stricter quality requirements. Natural flavors can contain industrial solvents and preservatives while organic flavors can’t, as we outlined in our review of flavored supplement GutConnect365 (which we didn’t recommend for this reason).
The price of Organic Muscle Pre-Workout is $40 for 20 servings, or $2 per serving, making it the most expensive pre-workout we reviewed. Organic products tend to be more expensive because the certification process is expensive.
This brand does not appear to publish any third-party testing results. It would be incredibly expensive for them to publish label accuracy tests due to the incredible number of ingredients in this product, but we believe they should publish purity tests.
Healthier Pre-Workout Alternative
Since we’ve established in this article that two of the most well-studied, safe and effective ergogenic compounds are caffeine and l-citrulline, we believe it’s a much cheaper and healthier pre-workout option to combine these two products rather than take an expensive flavored pre-workout powder with added sugar.
Medical research shows that 1 to 2 cups of coffee can significantly improve exercise performance. The linked review, published in the well-respected Nutrition journal, examined results from 12 individual trials and concluded that the amount of caffeine in 1 to 2 cups of coffee improved both muscular strength and muscular endurance during workouts.
Caffeine is also a proven nootropic compound, so it increases mental focus which can further improve workout results.
Buying coffee grounds is much more cost-effective than purchasing single-use coffee at coffee shops. Bulletproof coffee is high-quality coffee that costs $15.99 for 12 ounces, or around $0.50 per cup.
L-citrulline is cheapest when purchased in bulk. We recommend a dosage of 10 g daily which is described as the maximally effective dose in medical research.
Nutricost l-citrulline is the brand we recommend for citrulline because it’s incredibly cheap and contains zero questionable additive ingredients like flavoring or sugar. The only ingredient is l-citrulline. The product costs $27.95 and contains 600 g, which equates to $0.47 per 10 g serving.
You can mix the l-citrulline into coffee, it has essentially no flavor. The drink should be consumed with a straw because both l-citrulline and coffee are acidic and can damage tooth enamel over time.