Do Pre Workout Drinks Work? Plus, the Best Ingredients.

Posted on March 31st, 2020 By in Product Science Read Time: 35 mins.

Pre workout energizers have slowly become a staple of gym culture. From the notorious ‘pre workout tingles’ on the ears, face, and neck, to the overwhelming waves of energy that accompany them- these high performance energy drinks have been a hot topic in the fitness industry for almost 2 decades now.

Pre-workouts have become a staple of gym culture.

In this in-depth pre workout article, we’ll dive into the science of these popular energy products – separating myth vs. reality to help you understand a little bit more about what is really going on behind those shiny labels.

In this post on pre workout facts, we’ll start with a brief overview of what a pre workout actually is, and how it came to be, before diving deeper into the nuts and bolts of their ingredients, and responsible usage.

What is a Pre Workout?

To understand what a pre workout is, let’s set the scene. This may sound familiar:

You open the doors to your gym reluctantly. It was a hard day at work. You just don’t want to do anything but get in bed and hide from the world.

Alas, here you are at the gym.

You move sluggishly to the locker room, putting on your workout outfit, and proceeding to procrastinating on your phone.

Your body feels heavy as your eyelids droop, and your mind starts anxiously focusing on the workout ahead.

“If only there were something that would make me actually want to workout,” you moan to yourself.

Back in 1970’s, you were just out of luck. Aside from some loud music and coffee, you were going to have to stop procrastinating and motivate yourself for your workout using your own mental strength alone.

But in the modern-era, you now have the magic of pre workout in your gym bag at all times…

But what is pre workout?

Pre workout is a class of powdered drink mixes containing ingredients that increase exercise performance.

Pre workouts are usually flavored with fruity, (often creative) flavors, and are mixed into cold water, and consumed 20-30 minutes prior to the beginning of a rigorous workout.

Pre workouts are usually flavored with fruity, (often creative) flavors, and are mixed into cold water, and consumed 20-30 minutes prior to the beginning of a rigorous workout.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of HOW pre workouts actually work, let’s take a trip back in time, to explore the history of pre workout supplements.

The History of Pre Workout Drinks

Believe it or not- bodybuilders and competitive athletes have been experimenting with performance-enhancing potions for the better part of 4 decades now.

While we are all familiar with the infamous stories of Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, Lance Armstrong, and other ‘sports heroes’ who have since been exposed for taking illegal steroids, most folks are less familiar with the origin of pre workout supplementation.

The year is 1982, Venice Beach, California.

Bodybuilding is having it’s hay-day, as Austrian phenom Arnold Schwarzenegger has officially captured the imagination of fitness enthusiasts world-wide, along with an unprecedented 7 ‘Mr. Olympia’ bodybuilding titles.

And in the legendary Gold’s Gym, in Venice beach, a strange orange drink is being passed around.

The local bodybuilders whisper in hushed tones about how the drink is helping them lose fat and gain muscle – the holy grail for anyone training for aesthetics.

The ‘Orange Drink’.

That drink was called ‘Ultimate Orange’, and it would ultimately change the face of recreational fitness, forever.

Ultimate Orange – often considered the very first commercialized ‘pre workout’ (though it was not mass distributed at the time), was not the healthiest pre workout.

It was created by a fellow named Dan Duchaine– a two-time felon who experimented with, produced, and sold steroids on the black market.

The drink contained a combination of caffeine, simple carbohydrates, and ephedrine – a stimulant that was used in over-the-counter decongestants at the time, but which has since been banned in dietary supplements due to it’s negative effects on cardiovascular health.

While Ultimate Orange sparked the beginning of a movement, it was really only adopted by hardcore bodybuilders and ‘gym rats’.

It wasn’t until the emergence of creatine in the early 90’s that pre workout began to seriously emerge.

Hello Creatine.

Creatine, a compound found in red meat (and gets it’s name from the greek word kreas, or ‘flesh’)2 began showing up in nutritional supplements in the early 1980’s.

By 1996, it was reported that over 80% of the athletes in the Olympic Games in Atlanta were taking creatine-containing supplements.

Already supported by numerous studies, creatine was one of the first staple ‘pre workout ingredients’.

Creatine increases strength and muscular work capacity by re-synthesizing adenosine triphosphate, or ‘ATP’, which is your muscle’s ultimate fuel source.

While creatine does come along with some mild side effects, it had forever changed the face of sports supplementation. Especially once pre workout manufacturers began combining it with a new breed of designer stimulants.

Over-Stimulated in the Early 2000’s.

The new millennium brought with it two products that brought pre workout from the shadows of hardcore gyms to the center of pop culture.

No-Explode, and Jack3d.

The first, clad in neon orange dress with loud, holographic label elements was one of the first to combine creatine with stimulants like caffeine, and other amino acids to give a combination of energy and strength benefits.

The second, was downright scary.

Jack3d, the most notorious of the pre workout supplements, contained a compound called 1,3 Dimethylamylamine, or DMAA.

This stimulant, claimed by it’s makers to be similar enough to ‘geranium’ to be considered a dietary supplement, was not a natural ingredient but a synthetic stimulant with a chemical composition similar to amphetamines.

It was developed in the 1940’s and used as a nasal decongestant before another former steroid researcher named Patrick Arnold re-introduced it to the sports nutrition world in the Jack3d product.3

A slew of pre workout products followed suit, using 1,3 DMAA in various combinations with other pre workout stimulants like caffeine, yohimbine, synephrine, and others, until a series of pre-workout-related deaths4 revealed the dangerous, potentially fatal influence of DMAA on the cardiovascular system.

Years of legal battles between the FDA and supplement industry superpowers ensued, contributing even more mysticism and controversy over pre workout supplements.

As of today, the FDA has officially banned 1,3 dimethylamylamine, calling it an ‘amphetamine derivative’ which could have a harmful, possibly fatal impact on those who ingest it.5

The Present Day Pre Workout Scene.

Now that you know a little bit about the past of these performance-boosters, you can understand why even the most responsible supplement makers (like UNICO, of course) go to extremes to earn the trust of their customers.

Because the regulatory climate, and barriers to enter the supplement market are low, the current pre workout marketplace is saturated with all kinds of different pre workouts, suited for different use-cases.

Let’s explore the various types of pre workout that have emerged.

Types of Pre Workout:

Most modern pre workouts fall into one of these nine categories:

High-Stimulant/Extreme Pre Workouts: Tailored to gym-rats and ‘stimulant-junkies’, these contain the highest amounts of caffeine and other stimulants.

‘Big Blend’ Pre Workouts: Efficacious dosages and large, ‘protein-powder-esque’-sized scoops.

‘Proprietary Blend’ Pre Workouts: Still the most common type- these products are usually high in caffeine, and then list all other ingredients in a single proprietary blend, making it hard to know how much of each ingredient is included.

Natural Pre Workouts: Completely natural botanicals and no artificial sweeteners, colors, or flavors.

Pre Workouts for Women: Usually omit creatine, while reducing stimulant levels for smaller individuals.

Pump Pre Workouts: Formulated to increase blood-flow with ingredients like citrulline, arginine, agmatine, and more.

Vegan Pre Workouts: Contain amino acids from vegan sources, usually omit artificial sweeteners.

Ready-to-Drink Pre Workouts: Referred to within the industry as ‘RTD’, these pre workouts come in a can, like a standard energy drink for convenience.

As more specialized products come available, and as you begin to evaluate which type of pre workout is best for you, it’s important to know how pre workout drinks work.

How Does Pre Workout Work?

Do pre workout drinks work? Pre workout drinks work in several ways. The most common ways are by providing the following 5 benefits:

Function:Description:Common Ingredients:
Increase EnergyOne of the most important way that pre workouts work, is by increasing energy. Not only does does this provide the energy to get to the gym and begin a workout, but also toStimulants: Caffeine, Taurine, Guarana, Yohimbine, Ginseng, Synephrine
Increase StrengthMost pre workouts are designed to increase strength, and/or explosivity, making them popular among weightlifters, bodybuilders, and athletes. Creatine (all forms), Betaine, BCAA, Glutamine
Increase EnduranceOften times, pre workouts will contain ingredients that increase the stamina and endurance of the athlete- allowing them to train for longer bouts.Beta-Alanine, Complex Carbohydrates, Electrolytes, EAA (Essential Amino Acids)
Increase Blood Flow/’Pump’Muscle ‘pump’ refers to the muscle filling with extra blood, which in theory, delivers more nutrients to the muscle, allowing for increased performance. Research is mixed on whether or not the ‘pump’ actually gives a physiological advantage.Vasodilators:
L-Citrulline, Citrulline-Malate, Arginine, Agmatine Sulfate, Glycerol, Quercetin
Increase Mental FocusAlong with stimulants, most pre workouts include a combination of ‘nootropic‘ ingredients that increase the mental focus, and often the mood of the user.L-Alpha glyceryl-phosphorylcholine (Alpha GPC), B-Vitamins, L-Tyrosine, L-Dopa, Mucuna Pruriens, Huperzine-A (toothed club moss), Choline Bitartrate, Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD), Pterostilbene

All five of the different mechanisms by which pre workout ‘works’ lead to one single thing, which is allowing the user to perform a greater amount of ‘work’ during their workout.

Do Pre Workout Drinks Work?

Yes, pre workouts do actually work. As long as the product is formulated properly, a pre workout will allow you to do more work during your chosen workout than you would be able to do without it.

Think of it this way- if you can do 5 sets of squats at 135 lbs. without a pre workout, but the pre workout allows you to crank out a 6th set, by whatever combination of increased energy or focus, or enhanced physiological strength & endurance, than your pre workout has in fact ‘worked’ – you have performed more ‘work’, and broken down your body to a greater degree than you would have, had you not had a pre workout drink.

But don’t forget the key- formulated properly.

As you saw in our pre workout benefits table, pre workouts can contain any combination of literally thousands of dietary ingredients.

Let’s take a look at some of the best (what to look for), and worst (what to avoid) pre workout ingredients:

The Best Pre Workout Ingredients:

These pre workout ingredients have been scientifically proven in numerous studies to be effective at delivering exercise benefits:

Betaine: Commonly found in beets, Betaine is one of the most exciting pre workout ingredients to come along in years. Already proven to increase power output over a placebo6, increase overall bench-press strength over a placebo7, and improve performance in runners / sprinters over a placebo8, this is our number one best pre workout ingredient.

Creatine: Creatine is still the best-known, and most common pre workout ingredient, and for good reason. Creatine has been proven in numerous studies to show increases in strength and muscle mass9, and is the best ingredient for boosting performance in exercise requiring short-term, or explosive bouts of physical exertion.10

BCAA: The branch chain amino acids are generally considered some of the best pre workout ingredients, as they provide immediate, short-term energy to the body, without requiring the individual to break-down existing muscle to create energy. (see here for a comparison of EAA vs. BCAA)

Citrulline Malate: Citrulline Malate was first used in pre workout drinks as a ‘pump’-boosting ingredient. It has since been studied in numerous applications and is shown to improve not only blood flow, but also improves strength, endurance, and may improve recovery times.

Caffeine: Caffeine is the world’s most widely-used drug. Coffee, tea, soda, and of course pre workout provides significant amounts of the popular energy-boosting ingredient. The interesting thing is that caffeine provides a functional pick-me-up, and has been scientifically proven to improve reaction time while increasing strength.

L-Tyrosine: L-Tyrosine is one of the most unique, and misunderstood essential amino acids. Tyrosine acts as a precursor to several of the ‘feel good’ chemicals in the brain, and is also involved in the adrenal system, helping your body regulate the production of epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol (the stress hormone) in the body.

Alpha-GPC: Thank goodness we have an acronym for ‘alpha glycerylphosphorylcholine’ – a material that converts to choline in the brain and body. Choline, commonly found in eggs, is neither a vitamin nor mineral, but is essential (meaning your body needs it) and is responsible for a whole host of important functions in your brain and body – ranging from cell signaling to fat metabolism to neurotransmitter function.

🏆 These are the best pre workout ingredients. For a versatile pre workout with efficacious dosages of ALL of the best pre workout ingredients, check out our fully transparent ATHENA pre workouts.

These are our top pre workout ingredients, which you should look for when choosing a pre workout. Conversely, there are also some ingredients that are to be avoided at all costs.

The Worst Pre Workout Ingredients: What to Avoid

The following pre workout ingredients are not considered dietary ingredients, and are therefor not generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the United States FDA15

  • 1,3 Dimethylamylamine
  • 1,4 Dimethylamylamine
  • 5-Alpha-Hydroxy-Laxogenin
  • Andarine
  • Bismuth Nitrate
  • Higenamine
  • Hordenine
  • N-Methyltyramine
  • Octopamine
  • Sulbutiamine

The FDA maintains a list of ingredients to be avoided, which you should consult before choosing a pre workout. Also, any individual competing in any competitive sport should check with his/her league administration to ensure that they are aware of any banned substances that are not allowed by their organization.

Why Does Pre Workout Make My Face Tingly?

Most pre workouts contain in ingredient called ‘beta-alanine’, which is a non-essential amino acid that is used in sports nutrition products (usually pre workout boosters), that provides endurance benefits to the user.

Beta alanine itself is safe, as is the tingling feeling associated with it.

Most users will feel a tingling, or flushed feeling in their neck, ears, and sometimes lips/face.

In addition to beta-alanine, pre workout supplements also usually contain high levels of B-Vitamins such as ‘Niacin’ (vitamin B3), which can also cause flushing.

Depending on the individual, the ‘pre workout tingles’ or ‘flushing’ will vary in intensity – some find it quite mild, while to others, the sensation will be more prominent.

Sources:

2https://www.scq.ubc.ca/an-introduction-to-creatine/

3https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methylhexanamine

4https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23397688

5https://www.fda.gov/food/dietary-supplement-products-ingredients/dmaa-products-marketed-dietary-supplements

6https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2915951/

7https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/fulltext/2011/12000/The_Effects_of_Chronic_Betaine_Supplementation_on.31.aspx

8https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/fulltext/2008/05000/Influence_of_Betaine_Consumption_on_Strenuous.29.aspx

9https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Richard_Kreider/publication/10798699_Effects_of_creatine_supplementation_on_performance_training_adaptations/links/02bfe513e2c0581d2a000000/Effects-of-creatine-supplementation-on-performance-training-adaptations.pdf

10https://www.researchgate.net/profile/John_Branch3/publication/13656442_Creatine_Supplementation_and_Exercise_Performance_An_Update/links/545250b50cf26d5090a291fc.pdf

15https://www.fda.gov/food/dietary-supplement-products-ingredients/dietary-supplement-ingredient-advisory-list