Disclaimer: None of the information in this article constitutes medical advice, and is just the opinion of the writer(s). We recommend that patients follow their doctor’s guidance in regard to pre-workout products.
Pre-workout is becoming one of the most popular supplement categories because it's a quick and tasty pick-me-up. 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.
But is pre-workout actually shown in research studies to work, or is it all mental? What makes a pre-workout supplement high-quality? What makes one low-quality? And are there natural alternatives to pre-workout?
In this article we'll answer all of these questions and more as we analyze medical studies on pre-workout supplements to give our take on whether they're likely to be effective for increasing strength and energy, or if they're a waste of money.
We'll explain the three criteria we recommend consumers look out for while choosing a pre-workout supplement, choose our top three pre-workouts across three distinct categories (Best Overall, Best Caffeine-Free, Best Organic), and provide natural alternatives to pre-workout as well.
Our goal is for this article to be the most comprehensive and informative guide to choosing a healthy and effective pre-workout on the internet.
Does Pre-Workout Even Work?
The effectiveness of pre-workout supplements has been studied in clinical trials.
A medical review published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition examined whether pre-workout supplements could improve athletic performance.
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 are clinically shown to cause favorable changes in body composition (like fat loss) when followed by intense exercise.
A 2016 clinical trial analyzed whether acute (one-time) pre-workout supplementation could increase power and strength at the gym.
The study authors found that pre-workout intake caused “significant improvements” in power. The study participants taking caffeinated pre-workout supplements were able to lift more weight than those taking a placebo.
Based on the available research, we consider pre-workout supplements likely to be effective for improving athletic performance and motivation if they're well-formulated.
But what makes a good pre-workout supplement? What ingredients should consumers look out for? We'll answer these questions in the next section.
What Makes a Good Pre-Workout?
There are three criteria we recommend consumers look out for when shopping for a pre-workout supplement: clean formulation, product testing and price.
Clean formulation means a supplement with an effective dose of research-backed active ingredients like caffeine and beta-alanine, and a relative lack of questionable filler ingredients like added sugars and artificial flavors.
Unfortunately, many pre-workout products are laden with questionable additive ingredients because so many consumers care more about taste than health, which makes it challenging to find truly "clean" pre-workout supplements.
Product test results or certifications are the second criteria. This information can prove that a supplement is accurately labeled and/or free of harmful contaminants like steroids or heavy metals.
NSF Certified for Sport, ConsumerLab Certified and Informed Sport are all supplement certifications that we trust.
Price is always an important criteria, and can be a deciding factor between two pre-workout supplements with equivalent formulations.
We always look at price-per-serving rather than overall price, to normalize differences in product size (because if one product provides 90 servings and another provides 30 servings, comparing overall price doesn't add much value).
So which pre-workout brands get the best marks in these categories? We'll feature our top pre-workout supplement picks in the next three sections of this article.
Best Overall – Naked Energy
Naked Energy is our top overall pre-workout pick, and is manufactured by a brand called Naked Nutrition.
Naked Energy passes the clean formulation test because the unflavored version is the only pre-workout supplement we reviewed that contains zero unhealthy inactive ingredients like sweeteners or flavoring agents.
Naked Energy provides 200 milligrams (mg) of caffeine, which is an effective dose for resistance training based on published medical research.
Beta-alanine is included at a dose of 2 grams (g), and a 2014 clinical trial suggests that this dose can increase muscle carnosine content by 30-50%, which can optimize athletic endurance.
A 2022 clinical trial reported that 1.2 g of beta-alanine per day prevented fatigue and loss of power, and enhanced athletic performance overall.
At the time of updating this article, Naked Energy does not have any product test results or purity certifications available, which is unfortunately somewhat the norm for the pre-workout category.
Naked Energy costs $44.99, and the supplement contains 50 servings, which equates to $0.90 per serving.
Interested consumers can check out Naked Energy at this link to the product page on the brand's official website.
Best Caffeine-Free – Legion Pulse
Legion Pulse Pre-Workout is our top caffeine-free pre-workout supplement.
This supplement contains 8 g of l-citrulline dl-malate 2:1, which is a nitric oxide precursor that widens blood vessels and improves athletic endurance.
A clinical trial published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research documented that study participants taking citrulline malate were able to perform over 50% more repetitions of flat barbell bench press than those taking a placebo.
Legion Pulse provides an effective beta-alanine dose, which we documented can improve power in the previous section.
Betaine was shown in a 2010 clinical trial to increase bench throw power, isometric bench press force, vertical jump power and isometric squat force significantly.
We don't typically recommend supplements containing natural flavors, but this is healthier than artificial flavors and we are unable to find any effectively-formulated, caffeine-free pre-workouts without any flavoring additives.
This product is Labdoor Tested for Purity, which is a third-party certification that ensures product purity.
The price of Legion Pulse Caffeine-Free is currently $30.59 for 20 servings, which equates to $1.53 per serving.
Interested consumers can check out Legion Pulse Caffeine-Free Pre-Workout at this link to the product's official Amazon listing.
Best Organic – Organic Muscle
Organic Muscle Organic Pre-Workout is our top supplement pick in the organic category.
This supplement provides 150 mg of caffeine, which we previously established to be an effective dose.
Beet root is rich in dietary nitrates which can support optimal blood flow, as we documented in our SuperBeets reviews article.
Green coffee bean extract is clinically shown to support weight loss, although it's included in a proprietary blend in this supplement so we don't know whether its dose is effective or not.
Organic rice syrup and organic coconut palm sugar are used as natural sweeteners.
The relevant certification for this product is USDA Organic, although we can't find any published test results or third-party certifications guaranteeing product purity and label accuracy.
Organic Muscle costs $44.99 for 20 servings, which equates to $2.25 per serving. Organic supplements tend to be more expensive.
Interested consumers can check out Organic Muscle Organic Pre-Workout at this link to the product's official Amazon listing.
Our Clean Energy Picks
There are natural compounds which have been shown in clinical trials to support energy and focus.
Ginkgo biloba extract is arguably the most well-studied nootropic supplement apart from caffeine, and was shown in a medical review published in the Psychopharmacology journal to improve attention and cognitive performance in healthy, young adults.
Illuminate Labs manufactures a Ginkgo Biloba Extract Supplement that's potent (standardized to minimum 24% flavone glycosides and 6% terpene lactones) and third-party tested to ensure purity and label accuracy.
Interested consumers can check out Illuminate Labs Ginkgo Biloba Extract at this link to the secure product page on our website, where it retails for only $15 at a subscription price.
Illuminate Labs manufactures a Panax Ginseng Extract Supplement that's potent (standardized to minimum 8% ginsenosides) and third-party tested to ensure purity and label accuracy.
Interested consumers can check out Illuminate Labs Panax Ginseng Extract at this link to the secure product page on our website, where it retails for only $15 at a subscription price.
VitaCup Organic Instant Coffee Sticks is our top pick for those who prefer food-based energy products to pill supplements. It's made from organic coffee which can increase focus and concentration, and no preparation or machinery is needed. The sticks can be mixed into hot or cold water (or other beverages) and consumed.
Interested consumers can check out VitaCup Organic Instant Coffee Sticks at this link to the product page on the brand's official website, where they retail for $1 per serving at a subscription rate.