Pre-workout (PWO) powders have become increasingly popular over the past decade.
Athletes, bodybuilders, and fitness and physique competitors religiously swig back pre-workouts to maximize their gains. The market has been flooded with a wide range of pre-workout formulas and ingredients.
To cut through the clutter and help you decide which product is best for you, here’s the low-down on 11 popular pre-workout ingredients!
Betaine is a trimethyl derivative of the amino acid glycine and is a component of many foods including wheat, spinach, beets, and shellfish. Betaine acts as an osmo-protectant, which means it can help protect cells against dehydration by acting as an osmolyte and increasing the water retention of cells.
Other studies suggest that betaine supplementation can lower plasma homocysteine concentrations and reduce inflammation. Betaine also acts as a methyl donor that can synthesize creatine in skeletal muscle. Due to these physiological effects, betaine has recently been studied for its ergogenic properties.
Multiple studies have shown that short-term supplementation with 2.5 grams of betaine daily can help improve endurance, reduce muscular fatigue, and support muscular strength. Research shows that betaine supplementation appears to reduce lactate accumulation in the blood and helps maintain cellular hydration. Research also suggests that enhanced muscle oxygen consumption occurs when supplementing with betaine.
One of the more recent studies on betaine examined its effects on circulating endocrine hormone levels and muscle signaling proteins after an acute exercise session. Twelve trained men underwent 2 weeks of supplementation with either betaine (2.5 grams per day) or placebo. Circulating growth hormone (GH), IGF-1, cortisol, and insulin were measured. Betaine versus placebo supplementation approached a significant increase in GH, significantly increased IGF-1, and significantly decreased cortisol.
Betaine supplementation also influenced muscle-signaling proteins after exercise. The results of this study suggest that betaine supplementation can support both the anabolic endocrine profile and the corresponding anabolic signaling environment, suggesting an increase in protein synthesis. A more recent study confirms that betaine can help improve body composition and help build muscle and burn fat at the same time.
With all this new research support, betaine is one of my personal favorite ingredients to use right now!
Beta-alanine has been a popular ingredient for the past few years. It’s a non-essential amino acid and when used as a supplement, it’s taken up by your muscles, and together with histidine is re-synthesized into carnosine by an enzyme called carnosine synthetase. An increase in intramuscular carnosine levels can increase the buffering capacity of a muscle by up to 20%.
Research shows that beta-alanine supplementation can significantly increase intramuscular carnosine levels. As a result, by increasing the buffering capacity of muscle, beta-alanine supplementation can result in a delay in muscle fatigue and failure, and considerable improvements in muscular strength and endurance.
The only downside to beta-alanine is the tingling effect that it has on the skin. Some people like this sensory effect, but I personally find it to be itchy and annoying, which is why I don’t like to use beta-alanine myself.
Caffeine is the most widely used ergogenic substance in the world. In addition to its ability to increase energy expenditure and fat oxidation, it’s also well known for improving mental alertness, cognition, physical endurance, and even strength. Although caffeine isn’t one of the newest or sexiest ingredients on the market, it certainly remains one of the most effective, especially in a PWO.
Tyrosine is a precursor for the synthesis of catecholamines, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine. Increasing the availability of tyrosine to the brain allows for increased catecholamine synthesis and can help keep adrenaline levels elevated throughout your workouts. This is the primary reason why tyrosine can be very beneficial in a PWO supplement, especially when combined with a stimulant like caffeine.
Adaptogens have become quite popular over the past few years. Essentially, an adaptogen is an ingredient that works to increase the body’s resistance to physical and mental stress. Much research is now being done in the world of sports science to use adaptogens to increase athletic performance. There are a large number of adaptogenic ingredients now being studied, but rhodiola and eleuthero (Siberian ginseng) stand out as being two of the best.
Eleuthero has been shown to increase the body’s ability to accommodate adverse physical conditions, improve mental performance, and enhance the quality of work under stress. In one study, endurance athletes that supplemented with eleuthero even experienced better regulation of the testosterone:cortisol ratio during exercise.
In the same study, the cyclists who supplemented with eleuthero were able to cycle longer and at a higher intensity without fatigue. In Asia, eleuthero is used as a substitute for anti-anxiety/stress medications and has an almost equal treatment success rate compared to other pharmaceutical drug options.
Rhodiola rosea is one of the most well-researched and potent adaptogenic ingredients known to man. A study published in 2013 was designed to determine the effects of an acute oral dose of Rhodiola rosea on endurance exercise performance, perceived exertion, mood, and cognitive function. Subjects in the study ingested either 225 mg of Rhodiola rosea or a placebo one hour before testing in a double-blind, random crossover manner.
The researchers of this study discovered that acute rhodiola ingestion decreases heart rate response to submaximal exercise and appears to improve endurance exercise performance by decreasing the perception of effort. On top of all these amazing benefits, rhodiola has also been shown to reduce catabolic cortisol levels.
6. Citrulline Malate
Citrulline is an amino acid involved in nitric oxide (NO) synthesis. Citrulline is converted to arginine in the kidneys and feeds into the NOS pathway of NO production, converting L-arginine into NO. This is great news for those who are looking for greater muscle pumps, but citrulline, more specifically, citrulline malate (CM), provides great performance-enhancing benefits.
Research studies conducted on CM show that it reduces fatigue and improves anaerobic and aerobic endurance. Supplementing with citrulline can modulate enzymes involved in glycogen breakdown and shift muscle from aerobic to anaerobic metabolism, reducing ATP and phosphocreatine depletion and accelerating replenishment. Citrulline also delivers muscle-buffering effects, which contribute to its endurance-boosting properties.
Agmatine is a byproduct of the amino acid arginine and is produced through a process called decarboxylation. Essentially, agmatine is arginine with the carboxylic acid end removed.
Agmatine has been studied for a wide variety of different properties and effects. Agmatine can help modulate nitric oxide synthase and support muscle pumps and blood flow to working muscles. Research also suggests that agmatine may act on hormones such as luteinizing hormone (LH) and growth hormone (GH) and can also provide antioxidant and nootropic support.
Dendrobium is a member of the orchid plant family and is one of the 50 fundamental herbs used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), where it has the name Shihu. The plant is native to southern Asia, and Dendrobium nobile is by far the most widely used species because of its well-known medicinal properties. Dendrobium has been used in China for over 1000 years as a tonic and strengthening medicine. It contains a variety of chemical alkaloids that are thought to be responsible for its energizing effects.
Vitamins are essential co-factors in a variety of physiological functions, so it makes sense that they’re included in PWO products. B vitamins are essential for optimal energy production and even a minor deficiency can affect your performance in the gym. On top of that, the combination of vitamin B6, B9 (folic acid) and B12 has been shown to improve blood flow to muscles, which is also a benefit to athletes and bodybuilders.
Research shows that supplementation with vitamins B6, B9 and B12 can reduce the concentration of homocysteine in the bloodstream. Increased levels of homocysteine can impede nitric oxide (NO) production and thus reduce blood flow to muscle tissue. By supplementing with vitamins B6, B9 and B12 you can reduce homocysteine levels, increase NO production, and thus improve blood flow and nutrient delivery to working muscles.
Vitamin C is another useful vitamin in a PWO. Vitamin C is a water-soluble antioxidant that acts as a free radical scavenger and helps recycle vitamin E, which is a fat-soluble vitamin and the major chain-breaking antioxidant found in cell membranes.
Vitamin D provides the body with a long list of health benefits and new research shows that vitamin D receptors are found in skeletal muscle tissue. This emerging area of vitamin D research suggests that it can play a key role in supporting proper muscle structure and function.
10. Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
During exercise and other strenuous physical activity, branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) breakdown increases. The breakdown of BCAAs in muscle tissue, and the subsequent decline in plasma BCAA levels, can result in a rapid decline in strength, endurance, and overall physical performance! On top of that, if you don’t restore your BCAA muscle stores to optimum levels, then you can run the risk of breaking down and losing your hard-earned muscle.
The good news is that supplementation with BCAAs before, during and after exercise prevents the exercise-induced decline in plasma BCAAs, and can actually increase BCAA concentrations in muscle tissue. To improve performance, muscle growth, strength and recovery, the best time to take BCAAs is before, during and after exercise. Personally, I prefer to take my PWO 20 minutes before my workouts and then sip on my BCAAs (in water) during my workouts.
11. Pomegranate Extract
Pomegranate is another new ingredient in the PWO category and appears to support nitric oxide and exercise endurance in the same way that beetroot does. It has a high nitrate and polyphenol content, which can increase nitric oxide production and enhance exercise efficiency. Some research even shows that pomegranate can reduce muscle soreness attributed to intense exercise.