It’s the middle of the year and you’re beasting your way through the gym for that summer shred. You need to keep your A-game on, focus on point, and diet in check. What you also need is a little something to boost your endurance and strength so that you can squeeze in that last, muscle ripping rep.
You’ve probably been consuming an array of pre-workout (PWO, hereafter) supplements that are just downright garbage and deserve to be in the bin, interested in switching product, or itching to get a brand new a tub for the first time. Whatever it may be, this article is for you.
[su_label type=”success”]Part 1[/su_label] of this article will cover what ingredients are COMMONLY found in PWOs, and why you should care. This guide is suitable for beginners who want to learn about what they’re getting into in a simplified manner.
If you’re not into that boring mumbo-jumbo, click here to skip to [su_label type=”info”]Part 2[/su_label], which is where I list out my hand-picked, best pre workouts of the year and review them!
PART 1: Get to Know Your Ingredients!
If you’re new to PWOs (or supplements in general), it’s important that you get the gist of the ingredients that are commonly found in these products.
No, you don’t need to memorize all the ingredients and chemicals, but it’s good if you’re familiar with some of the uses and benefits these main ingredients provide so that you can make your own product analysis in the future, and also experiment with different ingredient dosages that work for you so that you can slowly progress in the PWO supplementation ranks, because not all are created alike, as we will learn later.
This is crucial because a lot of companies, even the popular ones that have a huge marketing game going on have no problem in hiding or bundling all ingredients in their label, or what we call ‘proprietary blends’.
They get the added advantage in cutting costs by reducing the more expensive ingredients that work and replace them with cheap fillers that don’t do much, without you knowing the quantity of each ingredient. Ultimately, they get the big bucks and you walk out the store with a product that doesn’t even work. Pre workout powders can be expensive, but not all the time honest!!
Some of the products I recommend in Part 2 do contain proprietary blends, as most products on the market do. But worry not, the product’s I’ve hand-picked have listed their main and important ingredients and their respective dosage, except for one (Super Freak – I still think it’s worth mentioning) so you’re not missing out on anything!
Let’s get started!
I can’t think of a stimulating PWO (yes, there are non-stimulant PWOs) that doesn’t have any caffeine. This ingredient is the world’s most popular drug because it downright works. An interesting fact about caffeine is that caffeine doesn’t “give you” the energy rush you get, it merely paves the way for other hormones such as dopamine to work. Well, I’m not here for the nitty gritty, you can learn more about it in this cool article.
The levels of caffeine in pre-workout powders vary, I’ve seen some dosed at 125mg, to some dosed at 400mg. Obviously, the ones with higher doses aren’t meant for beginners. This is because caffeine can give a lot of adverse effects if you’re not tolerant, such as;
- Stomach irritation
- Excess sweating
BUT, under tolerable doses, caffeine will improve your workout performance. Caffeine has many awesome benefits besides keeping you from drooling at the office. The benefits include:
- Improves mood
- Accelerates fat loss
- Improves mental focus
- May decrease muscle pain
Because caffeine helps in accelerating fat loss by increasing your metabolism, caffeine is usually found in fat-burner supplements as well.
Beta-Alanine is a form of non-essential amino acid. That doesn’t mean it’s useless, it just means that our body produces enough of it and we don’t need to supplement it with our normal, day-to-day diet.
Why is beta-alanine important? Well, we’re all familiar with the fatigued feeling we get after in intense workout. A lot of this has to do with the acid build up in our muscles. Beta- alanine works with l-histidine to synthesize carnosine, which regulates the acidity of our muscle tissue.
Simply put, with beta-alanine supplementation, our body can synthesize more carnosine, therefore allowing us to surpass that fatigue threshold and improve our workout endurance and performance. The research behind this claim can be found here.
Other benefits of beta-alanine:
- Delays fatigue
- Has antioxidant properties
Too much beta-alanine can cause side effects, though. It’s common for athletes alike to experience tingling sensations around the skin, called paresthesia which usually occurs at the hands, face and behind the neck.
This usually occurs when beta-alanine levels in supplements exceed 800mg, which is very common even in the most basic of PWOs. The tingling sensations fade after a while. Most people tolerate it fine.
I have seen beta-alanine contents in PWOs ranging from 1.5-3.5g. I’m not surprised if there’s even higher doses of this stuff in a PWO. The beta- alanine dosages in our “Beginner/Intermediates” list don’t exceed 2g/serving.
Like beta-alanine, l-citrulline is a non-essential amino acid. Normally, the higher the citrulline content, the more vascular you become, and the better of a pump you get…you know, when your muscle swells up and you feel all that blood rushing into them.
This is because our kidneys convert l-citrulline into nitric oxide. Nitric oxide helps with vasodilation of your blood vessel, or layman’s terms, ‘relaxes’ your blood vessel walls, lowers the blood pressure and allows more blood to pass through. This is said to allow more nutrients into the muscles and expels unwanted waste products that can cause fatigue.
The benefit of citrulline malate over l-citrulline is that the addition of the malic acid, which allows better energy production as malate levels increase.
Benefits of l-citrulline/citrulline malate:
- Delays fatigue
- Reduces the chance of injury
- Gives good pumps – ego booster ?
- Provides more energy (Citrulline Malate)
Generally, taking supplements that increase nitric oxide count are regarded as safe and don’t have many side effects. However, some people do go through stomach discomfort when consuming too much of it. The PWOs I’ve listed in the “Beginners/Intermediates” should not give these side effects.
When speaking of creatine, people often get confused between creatine monohydrate, creatine HCL, micronized creatine, and so on … To be honest, I believe all of them are similar in terms of function and have very minimal differences between each other to make a difference. Yes, you can get creatine supplements on its own too. A lot of PWOs include creatine because it’s proven to be beneficial- at the right doses.
When our muscles are relaxed, normal aerobic respiration provides them with energy. Meaning, energy is formed involving oxygen. But when we go through intense workouts, this clearly is not enough.
The currency of energy in our cells is called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). When undergoing strenuous activity, aerobic respiration can’t produce enough of these to keep up with the energy demand and shifts to anaerobic respiration which produces lactic acid and causes fatigue. Your cells get energy quickly, but in an ineffective manner.
Supplementing with creatine helps in producing more ATP. This is beneficial because you can workout with higher intensity and longer, as your muscles have an abundant source of energy. It’s basically an energy bar for your muscles.
For creatine to REALLY work, I would recommend you to purchase a creatine supplementation and consume it for at least a week to “load” it. What you’re doing is saturating your muscles with creatine so that your muscles have a big, fat energy bank to rely on and you can reap the full benefits. The small creatine dosage in PWOs may give you a bit of an energy boost, but it’s not significant. There’s plenty of information you can get on creatine online, such as from this article.
Other benefits of creatine:
- Safe to use
- You look “fuller”- Creatine retains water in muscles
- Speeds up muscle growth
- Improves brain function- yes, our brain needs ATP too!
Agmatine sulfate acts as a nootropic, which are drugs, supplements or substances that enhance cognitive function. It’s a byproduct of L-Arginine, another type of amino acid that’s also found in many PWOs.
In bodybuilding, agmatine sulfate helps to increase nitric oxide production, hence allowing more blood to flow into the muscles, reduces fatigue, and you can workout longer and get better pumps.
If you’re looking for a PWO supplement in 2018, I understand that it can be very overwhelming. There are hundreds of products to choose from, each guaranteeing a bad-ass, muscle ripping gym session with laser like focus and gorilla strength packed in a dope looking bottle.
PWOs generally have the same ingredients, but no two PWOs are exactly alike. Some are targeted for more advanced lifters and stim-junkies, and many are targeted for beginner and intermediates. There’s no rule to saying you can’t buy one over the other, but for the sake of your own buying ease, convenience, and workout experience, I’ve decided to put these PWOs into two categories.
They are generally categorized according to their caffeine and beta-alanine dosages, as these two ingredients tend to cause side effects when taken in intolerable amounts. However, if you don’t agree with our top picks, feel free to check out other PWOs here.
Beginner / Intermediate
Beginner / Intermediate Pre-Workouts
The first of the Cellucor C4 series came out in 2011 and Cellucor has been coming out with newer versions ever since. The C4 veterans have noticed the latest version is under dosed, unfortunately. This one comes with 150mg caffeine per serving, suitable for those who are new to PWOs and don’t have a high caffeine tolerance. To compare, a European Red Bull energy drink (250ml) only packs 50mg of caffeine.
C4 pre workout is packed with 1.6g of beta-alanine. It isn’t the most, but enough to keep you going and pushing through your limits!
Generally, C4 has received a lot of positive reviews from the bodybuilding community. The common complaint I notice is the lack of pump athletes get, and this may be attributed due to the fact there’s no l-citrulline and l-arginine in the mix.
The flavors are great, however, with Strawberry Magenta rated the highest on Bodybuilding.com.
List of Flavors:
- Cherry, Limeade
- Frozen Bombsicle
- Fruit Punch
- Icy Blue Razz
- Orange Burst
- Strawberry Margarita
- Tart Candy Explosion
Pricing and Value
I would consider this product inexpensive. It’s not the cheapest you’ll get, but it’s not expensive, considering the quality of the ingredients. At $29.99 for 30 servings, you’ll be spending around $1.00 each workout, considering you only take one scoop. If you find yourself needing more, then you’re ready to switch to a much stronger product and save some money.
[su_button url=”https://www.amazon.com/Cellucor-Original-Workout-Creatine-Servings/dp/B01N272UAI?th=1″ target=”blank” background=”#2e5ec9″ size=”10″ center=”yes” radius=”20″]View product on Amazon[/su_button]
Pro’s and Con’s
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- Great PWO to start out with as a beginner
- Provides increased energy and focus
- Good range of flavors
- Trusted brand name
- Seems like Cellucor is cutting corners with dosage
- Pump is not as good as some other alternatives
- Some have reported artificial color sticking on their tongue
- Slightly more expensive than comparable brands
Optimum Nutrition (ON) has been around since the golden days of bodybuilding. World-renown for producing trustworthy products, it would be a shame if we didn’t have this on the list.
ON has guaranteed this product to be free of banned substances and ensuring that you have a safe and an enjoyable workout experience. It’s packed with 175mg of caffeine, 15mg more than the previous Cellucor C4. Another benefit of this product compared to the C4 is it contains 750mg of Micronized L-Citrulline, helping blood flow into the muscles and flushes toxins out, as well as giving you a so-so pump, but nothing significant.
I find ON’s decision to include the AstraGIN proprietary blend, a blend of two traditional herbs intriguing. Based on some searches, Panax notoginseng Extract MAY reduce muscle soreness after an exercise by relaxing blood vessels and improving blood flow. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough evidence to back this up.
Overall, I’ve noticed the bodybuilding community to be satisfied with this product. The mixability is amazing, and the flavors are great.
If you’re trying this product out, give strawberry lime a go. That’s highly rated! List of flavors:
- Blueberry Lemonade
- Fruit Punch
- Green Apple
- Strawberry Lime
Pricing and Value
This product comes in two sizes: 30 servings ($28.99) and 60 servings ($48.69). The former would cost you $0.97/serving, the latter at $0.87/serving.
If you can’t decide on which one to choose, thinking it might not work for you, you can ask for samples from your local supplement store to test its effectiveness on you.
[su_button url=”https://www.amazon.co.uk/Optimum-Nutrition-Pre-Workout-Supplement-Watermelon/dp/B00TFB0YX8″ target=”blank” background=”#2e5ec9″ size=”10″ center=”yes” radius=”20″]View product on Amazon[/su_button]
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- Reliable manufacturer
- Awesome list of flavors
- Improves workout performance
- Under dosing on L-Citrulline
- Slightly expensive for the 30 servings
This PWO keeps its ingredients list simple. If you’re looking for a good pump while not crashing on caffeine, this product is made for you. It has 3g of L-Citrulline to keep your blood rushing through your veins to give a good pump. Combined with 1.6g of Beta alanine, it will keep your working long and hard.
Jacked Factory keeps Nitrosurge interesting by combining L-Theanine with it’s 180mg of caffeine. L-Theanine works well with caffeine as it promotes relaxation and reduces anxiety, which are common side effects of caffeine. A study has shown that the combined affects of caffeine and L-Theanine is beneficial in improving performance on cognitively demanding tasks.
Another critical ingredient in this PWO is Betaine Anhydrous. Betaine is relatively new in the PWO game but it’s proven to be very beneficial. In fact, a study has concluded that after two weeks of betaine supplementation, college males were able to improve muscle endurance and improved the quality of their reps while doing squats, when compared to peers who had gone through a placebo. The study can be retrieved here.
I’ve been getting mixed reviews about this PWO, but most of it has been positive. Most people have experienced a good pump, mental focus, and an overall great experience. Betaine Anhydrous has been known to give a fishy odor, though. So you gotta keep that in mind the next time you want to train with a cutie you just met or you probably won’t see her around anytime soon.
Cherry limeade is the most popular and favoured flavor between the limited two choices.
- Cherry Limeade
Pricing and Value
This PWO is on the cheaper side, at $24.99 for 30 servings ($0.83/serving). Comparing this to the previously mentioned PWOs, this comes off as cheap.
[su_button url=”https://www.amazon.com/NITROSURGE-Pre-Workout-Supplement-Preworkout/dp/B01ATYWQXK” target=”blank” background=”#2e5ec9″ size=”10″ center=”yes” radius=”20″]View product on Amazon[/su_button]
Pros and Cons
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- The pump ain’t bad
- Improves focus and increases strength
- On the cheaper side compared to alternatives
- Can give a fishy odor
- Only comes in two flavors
I would consider this as the best all-rounder pre-workout. Jim Stoppani, PhD in Exercise Physiology has packed this product with no B.S. ingredients.
He takes pride in kicking out proprietary blends, listing out front all the 13 hand-picked ingredients and their respective quantities at the ingredients list. Jim claims that this pre-workout is backed by solid science and decades of professional experience.
Pre Jym-comes with 300mg of caffeine, giving you great mental focus and energy throughout your workout. I listed this later down the beginners/intermediates list because you could get a bit of a buzz if you’re not tolerant towards high caffeine consumption. On one end, you have PWOs with less than 200mg of caffeine, and on the other you have those with 500mg of caffeine. This sits right on the fence Furthermore, it’s packed with 2g of beta alanine which is the highest compared to previously mentioned pre-workouts. Note, this PWO comes with 6g of citrulline mallate!! You’ll be more vascular, get insane pumps, and get a better workout.
One thing I found unique about this product is Jim went further by including Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) in this mix. It’s uncommon seeing BCAAs in pre-workouts as they are relatively expensive. Studies have shown that BCAAs can reduce muscle soreness, and the research can be read here. You may give this article a read to learn more about BCAAs and some of the benefits they may provide you during your workouts.
I personally think this is the best all-rounder PWO due to it’s ingredients dosage alone… and having a certified and trusted persona in the field who has years of bodybuilding experience as the founder helps with consumer confidence.
This product gets a lot of hype, and based on consumer reviews alone, most of them had great results. Common complaints are the flavors are just too sweet and the scooper is too big (not a deal-breaker, I don’t think)
This PWO comes in a wide range of flavors. 8 to be exact, similar to Cellucor C4. Raspberry Lemonade seems to be the fans fav!
- Black Cherry
- Cherry Limeade
- Natural Island Punch
- Orange Mango
- Rainbow Sherbet
- Raspberry Lemonade
- Refreshing Melon
- Strawberry Kiwi
Pricing and Value
This product is expensive, at $37.99 for 20 servings ($1.90/serving) and $48.99 for 30 servings ($1.63/serving).
[su_button url=”https://www.amazon.com/JYM-Supplement-Science-Pre-Workout-Beta-alanine/dp/B01HGQZZWI?th=1″ target=”blank” background=”#2e5ec9″ size=”10″ center=”yes” radius=”20″]View product on Amazon[/su_button]
Pro’s and Con’s
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- All ingredients are backed by science
- Great for those looking for an upgrade
- Includes BCAAs!
- Flavors are quite artificial
- One of the more expensive PWO’s!
Product Comparison – Beginner PWO’s
The table below compares our 4 best beginner / intermediate PWO products. Each row highlights some important factors to take into consideration.
|C4||Gold Standard PWO||Nitrosurge||Pre-Jym|
|Price||$29.99||$28.99 - 30 servings|
$48.69 - 60 servings
|$24.99||$37.99 - 20 servings
$48.99 - 30 servings
|Price (per serving)||$1||$0.97|
Advanced Pre Workouts
Beginner lifters, if you are stubborn, be warned. You will be tempted to give these products a try, but keep in mind that the PWOs in this segment have at least 350mg of caffeine! Don’t take it if you think you won’t make it!
This is popular amongst the beasts in the gym. Not to be confused the original favorite Hyde, this one does not contain the banned DMAA. However, this product is still loved by the hardcore bodybuilders and stim junkies.
This PWO is PACKED with 420mg of caffeine matrix. If it doesn’t work for you, you need to get yourself checked out. The “Hyde” PWO name has been around for a long time and has a special home in the bodybuilding community. It’s gotten amazing reviews all over. Unfortunately, it won’t give you the insane pump Pre Jym (previously mentioned) will, as it’s Citrulline content is much lower. This is also since you’ll be getting L- Citrulline instead of Citrulline Mallate, which isn’t as effective with giving you the pumps!
So far I’ve never read about any complaints regarding mixability. You need to be careful with this product, though. If it’s your first time, start with half a dose. Someone mentioned getting hot flushes and developing red spots all over his body. This could be a rare occurrence, as we couldn’t find any similar complaints. Just proceed with caution!
Some of the positive reviews on Bodybuilding.com:
“I’ve hit so many PR’s with this supplement”- ShaunFletcher7
“This is the good old, 2018 versiod of Jack3d. Not for the feint of heart.”– Melfqw
Out of all the PWOs listed, this one comes with the most flavors. If it’s your first time, try out the Blue Razz Popsicle, they say it’s the best!
List of flavors:
- Blue Razz Popsicle
- Cherry Popsicle
- Cotton Candy
- Lollipop Punch
- Orange Slice
- Peach On!
- Pixie Dust
- Red Fish Candy
- Sour Green Apple
*For 30 servings bottle. The 15 servings don’t have these many flavors.
Pricing and Value
$17.99 will land you 15 servings ($1.20/serving). Slightly expensive, but good value if it’s you’re first time trying it out and might back off after a few tries.
$29.99 gives you 30 servings ($1.00/serving). For the intensity it brings, I’d say it’s a home run. Most likely (and hopefully) you’ll only be taking a serving.
[su_button url=”https://www.amazon.com/ProSupps-NitroX-Pre-Workout-Powder-Energy/dp/B074MBCRH8?th=1″ target=”blank” background=”#2e5ec9″ size=”10″ center=”yes” radius=”20″]View product on Amazon[/su_button]
Pro’s and Con’s
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- The intensity is off the walls
- Good range of flavors
- Good value for money
- Reports of some bad side effects
- Wouldn’t recommend this for beginners
Co-founded by popular Australian bodybuilder and social media influencer Calum Von Moger, I can tell you this PWO isn’t just hype.
The ingredients label is listed in such an organized manner, I actually love reading it. It comes with 360mg of caffeine, nothing impressive compared to Mr Hyde NitroX. But what makes it special is it’s packed with a whopping 6g of Citrulline Mallate, 750mg of Arginine AKG, 750mg of Agmantine Sulfate, and 100mg of L-Norvaline. You’ll be getting pumps so insane you’ll probably need to train with an oversized shirt!
I’ve been getting mixed comments about this. Many have complained that it tastes awful and mixes badly. But many don’t care about that and are willing to buy whatever works and this does the job. Down it and get ready for a sick workout! As for side effects, I’m surprised many haven’t experienced any jitters, considering the potency of the ingredients.
Compared to the previous PWOs, this one has received a lot of negative comments regarding flavor. However, Peach Mango has gotten decent reviews!
List of flavors:
- Pina Koala
- Peach Mango
- Aussie Apple
- Blue ‘Baz’berry
Pricing and Value
On Amazon, this retails at $49.00 for 30 servings ($1.63/serving). This is expensive, similar to Pre Jym. If your budget is tight, I would skip this one, but do consider the transparency of the ingredients and it’s potency. You don’t get quality for cheap!
Personally, I think this is good value for money if flavor and mixability is a very minor issue for you. Save up a little bit more for this and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed!
[su_button url=”https://www.amazon.com/Staunch-Pre-Workout-Koala-Aussie-Servings/dp/B07C2LMG7V?th=1″ target=”blank” background=”#2e5ec9″ size=”10″ center=”yes” radius=”20″]View product on Amazon[/su_button]
Pro’s and Con’s
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- Sick pumps
- High quality ingredients
- Not many reported side effects
- Bad mixability
- Flavors aren’t too extensive
- A more expensive product!
A serving of this is loaded with +/-400mg of caffeine. The manufacturers recommend you take half a serving. It is also boosted with an adequate amount of L-Tyrosine to improves focus as well as plenty of herbs and vitamins which act as vitamins as well as mood and performance enhancers.
Most of the reviews did mention 400mg of caffeine was too much for them, so ½ serving – ¾ serving was the sweet spot. Mind you, this product isn’t meant to give good pumps. It’s just for intense energy and focus.
Surprisingly, from the more reliable reviews I’ve studied, caffeine crashes are rare, and the energy was strong and relatively smooth. The biggest con to this product, I think, is the lack of transparency in the ingredient label. However, just based on caffeine content and positive feedback alone, I think this is worth mentioning.
Some of the side effects include itchiness, increase in heart rates and excess sweating. Do note that this product contains Betaine Anhydrous, so you may experience a fishy odor after consuming this.
Customers have mentioned that the flavors taste great! They mix easily after a few shakes.
List of flavors:
- Tropical Fruit Punch
Pricing and Value
This product sells for $49.99. If you take a half serving, it will land you $1.25 per serving. Slightly expensive, but for the good flavors and intensity you get, it’s good value to me. Experienced lifters recommend taking ½- ¾ of a full serving, so the price varies that way.
[su_button url=”http://pharmafreak.com/pf_products/super-freak/” target=”blank” background=”#2e5ec9″ size=”10″ center=”yes” radius=”20″]View product on site[/su_button]
Pro’s and Con’s
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- Good energy curve
- High intensity product
- Good flavor and mixability
- Can cause side-effects
- Pumps aren’t good
- Lack of transparency on the label
Product Comparison – Advanced PWO’s
The table below compares our 3 best advanced pre workouts. Each row highlights some important factors to take into consideration:
|Mr Hyde NitroX||Pre Koala Freak||Super Freak|
|Beta- Alanine||2.5g||3.2g||Not mentioned|
|Price||$17.99 - 15 servings|
$29.99 - 30 servings
|$49.00 - 30 servings||$49.99: 20-40 servings|
|Price (per serving)||$1.20|
- Acute effects of a commercially-available pre-workout supplement on markers of training: a double-blind study (click here.)