Pre-workout supplements are more prevalent today than ever before. Today’s versions of the pre-workout supplement are designed to ramp up your energy, lock in your focus, increase strength, crank up muscle growth, and burn off body fat production. This is possible because of an ever-evolving, synergistic mix of ingredients that gets the job done. To know what you need to take, however, you need to understand how pre-workout supplements were developed in the first place.


Before the early 1980s, the pre-workout supplement category didn’t even exist, but guys were still taking supplements before workouts. Back then, it was all about ephedra, a stimulant that offered a jolt of energy unlike anything available today.


“The first company to successfully launch a true pre-workout product was Twinlab in 1986 with their Fuel Line,” says Vince Andrich, president of Vandrich Performance Nutrition and author of Sports Supplement Review. Herba Fuel’s main ingredient was, of course, ephedra, which dominated the supplement industry until 2004, when the FDA banned it due to its alleged involvement in numerous deaths. 



With ephedra out of the picture, caffeine became the pre-workout stimulant of choice, but the market had a major hole that needed filling. Enter nitric oxide—a molecule that boosts muscle pumps and increases endurance.


Early adopters began stacking caffeine with NO, a concept that didn’t exist prior to 2004. With its flagship product, N.O. -Xplode, BSN became the first company to combine NO boosters with stimulants—as well as creatine—redefining the entire pre-workout supplement category. Research shows that caffeine boosts NO levels, increasing blood flow to muscles.



Today’s pre-workout supplements give you a shot of every ingredient you need for more energy, focus, drive, strength, and muscle growth. These are the most common ingredients you’ll find in popular pre-workout formulas.



The powerful central nervous system stimulant increases alertness by binding to receptors in the brain. This keeps nerve activity up, and mental and physical fatigue down. Studies confirm that taking caffeine before workouts increases muscle endurance and strength, and can even blunt muscle pain, leading to more intense workouts.



This herb is a rich source of caffeine and the potent bronchodilator and anti-inflammatory agent theophylline, which aids fat loss, enhances mental acuity and mood, improves lung function, and boosts physical performance. 



This popular stimulant is also known as methylhexanamine and geranamine, and is the active ingredient found in geranium oil. In addition to increasing alertness, geranamine can enhance mood, decrease hunger, and aid fat burning. 



Research has shown this amino acid to boost energy, mood, and mental focus by producing several important hormones and neurotransmitters like dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. This will make you more alert and focused and will give you higher adrenaline levels during your workouts.



Studies show this combo boosts arginine and NO levels better than arginine itself. Citrulline increases energy levels directly by removing ammonia from the body—a process that helps delay fatigue and increases your recovery rate.



Research has shown this amino acid helps increase muscle endurance by up to 50%, helping the heart pump more blood to the muscles. Taurine has also been shown to enhance muscle strength. It also draws more water into your muscles for long-term muscle growth.



This amino acid-like compound is produced naturally in the body from the amino acids arginine, glycine, and methionine. Supplementing with it before workouts ensures that your creatine levels are maximized for better energy, strength, and muscle gains. 



This amino acid combines with the amino acid histidine in muscle cells to form carnosine, which is critical for muscle strength and power. Research confirms that subjects taking beta-alanine experience significantly more muscle strength, power, and endurance gains than subjects taking a placebo. 



These amino acids are important to take before workouts to drive muscle growth, increase energy, and blunt fatigue. This combination of the three amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine has been shown to lower levels of the catabolic hormone cortisol during workouts—preventing muscle breakdown and allowing testosterone to fulfill its muscle-building functions.



Almost every pre-workout formula today contains some ingredient that boosts NO levels. The most popular of these are arginine, citrulline, pycnogenol, and glycine proponyl-L-carnitine (GPLC). For more on NO-boosting Ingredients, check out the first installment of this series in the September 2011 issue of M&F.



Although it’s difficult to predict what will be hot in the future, certain essential pre-workout supplement features will definitely stay the same. Nitric oxide boosters will remain a critical component, as will stimulants, creatine, beta-alanine, and taurine. Expect to see some new stimulant ingredients, especially if 1,3-dimethylamylamine is banned. 


A few forward-thinking companies have already begun including glycerine in their products, a trend that will likely pick up steam. Glycerol forms the backbone of triglycerides—the primary fats in our diet. It also has strong osmotic properties, attracting and binding large amounts of fluids like water. By attracting more fluid to blood vessels, glycerol enhances muscle pumps.


Another ingredient you can expect to see more of in future pre-workout blends is betaine. This modified amino acid from beets, also known as trimethylglycine, has been shown to be effective for boosting muscle strength and power by as much as 25%. This may be due to betaine’s ability to enhance the body’s production of creatine.


Whatever the future holds for the pre-workout supplement group, you can be certain that it will remain one of the most popular categories on the market. After all, there are few times other than before your workouts when getting in the proper nutrients can make the difference between progress and plateau.