Pre-Workout Supplements: A Breakdown of All the Popular Ingredients

Pre-Workout Supplements: A Breakdown of All the Popular Ingredients

Pre-workout supplements or complexes are popular. What are they made of? What are they doing? Are they helpful? What is the proof? Are they safe? What amazes me is the most frequently asked question: which is the best? And the not often asked question: do they work? Or are they required?

Magic Blend

Pre-workout supplements often contain a mysterious mixture of ingredients, from caffeine to BCAAs, creatine, and more exotic substances. These supplements are claimed to put your body in a “ready” state for training! Although hundreds of these supplements are on the market, and they are all different, most of these products have the same few ingredients. A recent study found that 44.3% of the supplements examined contained a proprietary blend of ingredients. 

This means that exact amounts are not disclosed; therefore, it is impossible to associate potential effects with any ingredients. To evaluate the effects of these pre-workout supplements, we must look at the evidence behind each ingredient. We will start with the most common because if they are present in all products, they should be the most efficient. The infographic lists the most common ingredients according to a recent post. (1).


Taking beta-alanine for several weeks may increase the buffering capacity of the muscles, as the concentration of muscle carnosine may increase. One of the side effects of taking beta-alanine is paresthesia (tingling in the fingertips and nose). The higher the dose, the more severe the side effects. But some people like it because the supplement seems to do something… so it should work. The amount of beta-alanine found in most supplements is too low to produce these effects. Also, it takes about 4-6 weeks for carnosine levels to build up, so taking a small dose right before a workout won’t have any effect.


Caffeine is indeed a little invigorating and can improve stamina. The evidence that it improves performance during high-intensity and strength training sessions is much less conclusive, but it’s also possible. Caffeine in any form should be taken approximately 1 hour before exercise. The source of the caffeine doesn’t matter. For example, drinking coffee will have the same effect as synthetic caffeine in most pre-workouts so you can get by with a cup of espresso.


Branched Chain Amino Acids, or BCAAs, are a group of three essential amino acids: isoleucine, leucine, and valine. BCAAs are the building blocks for protein, and leucine also plays a role in triggering protein synthesis. Studies have shown that protein-free BCAAs are ineffective at improving protein synthesis and will need to be supplied with protein. 

One way to do this is through a supplement, but chicken, for example, contains more essential amino acids and more BCAAs than most supplements. So why not just eat protein? In addition, BCAAs do not have any reactive effect, and there is no need to take them before training. Research shows that post-workout protein is just as effective as BCAAs, or even more effective. So why not just have a protein snack after your workout? Also, the evidence does not support other BCAA claims (more details here ).

citrulline malate

Citrulline malate is another amino acid produced in the body through other consumed amino acids. Some studies have used citrulline as a precursor to arginine to improve blood flow. The effects were very small, and several studies failed to find any worthwhile effects.


Creatine is a popular supplement. And one of the few that has evidence of its effectiveness in some situations for some people. If body stores of creatine are less than optimal, creatine supplementation for 5 days (high doses of 20g per day) has been shown to restore creatine stores. Studies have shown that higher muscle concentrations of creatine are associated with high-intensity repetitive exercise. Taking creatine at 3g/day for 30 days will produce the same result. However, taking 1-3 grams of creatine just before a workout will not improve one particular workout.


Electrolytes like magnesium, potassium, and sodium are buzzwords. If we call them “salt,” it is seen as a “bad” ingredient in the context of salt being harmful. If we call them “electrolytes,” they become “good,” and we need them before training. The reality is that they won’t do anything before a workout, and you don’t need them. This is marketing fluff.


Protein ingested through pre-workout drinks and meals will help your body increase protein synthesis by supplying more amino acid building blocks. The result is muscle growth. But most protein sources will do this anyway, and there is no need for a protein supplement.


The amino acid taurine is used in energy drinks. It’s not entirely clear what taurine is supposed to do, and research has yet to determine the role of this amino acid in exercise performance.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 plays an important role in metabolism and erythropoiesis. However, no studies show that vitamin B12 affects exercise in any way, especially if the body is not deficient.

You’ve almost got the full picture. We have discussed the list of ingredients that are popular in pre-workouts, and we must conclude that caffeine is one of the ingredients that can affect subsequent performance. The rest of the products are mostly fillers and marketing gimmicks. Some products may contain illegal ingredients that may lead to unknown health effects or even known negative effects. It’s time to talk about DMAA.


DMAA is sometimes added to pre-workout supplements. DMAA (1,3-dimethylamylamine) is an amphetamine derivative commercially available in fitness and weight loss products, many of which are sold as dietary supplements. Several deaths are associated with using DMAA as a dietary supplement – the cause was cerebral hemorrhages. DMAA is a drug, not a sports nutrition product. DMAA-containing products sold as sports supplements are illegal and violate the law in many countries (including the US, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, Australia, Finland, the UK, and Brazil). ). Despite numerous warning letters from the FDA since 2018, the stimulant remains available in sports and weight loss supplements. For some consumers, the fact that they are banned means they must be very effective! 

Some manufacturers proudly display on their websites that additives are banned. A quick Google search brought me to a website that showed all the “banned” products and said, “this is actually legal meth”… There seems to be some confusion between legal and illegal. 

DMAA is also found in various products under various names, including the following:

  • 1,3-DMAA
  • 1,3-Dimethylamylamine
  • 1,3-Dimethylpentylamine
  • 2-amino-4-methyl hexane
  • 2-hexamine, 4-methyl-(9Cl)
  • 4-Methyl-2-hexamine
  • 4-Methyl-2-hexylamine
  • Dimethylamylamine
  • Galantamine
  • Methylhexanamine
  • Methylhexanenamine

DMAA may have received a lot of attention, but many other ingredients are used in pre-workouts with unknown health effects. Sometimes, these ingredients should be listed on the label.


So, abe pre workout supplements are required to prepare you for your workout. They contain a mixture of ingredients. The consumer is deceived into thinking that the more ingredients it contains, the better it should work. However, if you have 10 ingredients that don’t work or 20, it doesn’t matter. Of course, these supplements can work to some extent (especially if they have caffeine in them). They may act like a placebo. They are part of the ritual. But the ritual could be a cup of tea, a stretch, a scream, or maybe a pep in the face… But (except caffeine), the supplements don’t seem to help a follow-up workout due to the largely useless ingredients they contain.