What Makes A Good Pre-workout?
There are two main things you should take away from reading this post:
- Know what makes an effective pre-workout supplement, and
- Become familiar with common ingredients used in pre-workout supplements.
What makes an effective pre-workout?
There are dozens of different ingredients used in pre-workout supplements. I’m going to break them down into 3 major categories:
- Agents which increase blood flow or “pump”.
- Agents which increase energy/endurance.
- Agents which increase focus.
Keep in mind that some agents (such as caffeine) may fall into one or more categories.
Let’s look at each category in more detail:
Agents which increase blood flow or “pump”
Contrary to popular belief, the “pump” isn’t just for vanity or feels. Increased blood flow causes your muscles to swell, and they stretch to accommodate the excess fluid. This enhances protein synthesis, promoting muscle growth and repair.
The most common mechanism to increase muscle pump and blood flow is through increased nitric oxide production. Nitric oxide is a vasodilator, meaning it relaxes blood vessels, increasing the flow of blood and oxygen. Nitric oxide occurs naturally within the body, but sometimes our bodies can’t keep up with demand during exercise. Certain ingredients work to increase natural production of nitric oxide, increasing blood flow.
L-citrulline and L-arginine are two amino acids which work in the body to increase production of nitric oxide. L-arginine becomes depleted during exercise, which is why so many pre-workout supplements used to contain L-arginine. However, L-citrulline is converted into L-arginine, and is better tolerated than pure L-arginine supplementation. Many products have switched or are switching to L-citrulline, although you’ll still find L-arginine (usually as arginine alpha-ketoglutarate, or AAKG) in some products.
Other “pump” agents acting through increased nitric oxide include L-ornithine and L-norvaline.
L-citrulline has the best evidence backing its use, which is why I chose L-citrulline to include in Focal Force.
Agents which increase energy/endurance
One of the top reasons people choose to take a pre-workout supplement is to get more energy. Let’s be honest, we’re not always super motivated going into a workout. Whether it’s due to poor sleep the night before or a long day at work, some days we feel less than 100% before hitting the gym. Using a pre-workout supplement helps us perform at the top of our game, every workout.
Pre-workout ingredients can give us more energy and endurance through numerous mechanisms.
The ingredient you are likely most familiar with is caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant which works to increase release of neurotransmitters (such as adrenaline, dopamine, acetylcholine, glutamate, and others), increases blood flow to the heart, and blocks the effects of adenosine, a compound in the body which makes us sleepy.
Other ingredients which work to increase release of neurotransmitters include L-tyrosine, theobromine (a close relative of a caffeine), yohimbine, and theacrine, along with many others.
Another ingredient you may be familiar with is beta alanine. Beta alanine is a building block for the compound carnosine, which helps improve performance in exercises lasting 60 - 240 seconds. Supplementing with beta alanine has been shown to enhance muscular endurance.
Almost every pre-workout supplement contains a variety of B vitamins. There are eight total B vitamins; vitamin B12, vitamin B6, and vitamin B3 are the most commonly used in pre-workout products.
There's no arguing that B vitamins play an essential role in metabolism and countless other biological processes. However, there is a lack of evidence for their role in acutely improving energy levels. I cannot see a reason to include them in a pre-workout supplement.
Betaine is an ingredient that has gained popularity in recent years, and is being included in more and more pre-workout products. There exists some evidence it can enhance muscular endurance and increase power output under stress, but other studies failed to replicate these effects. You can read a detailed breakdown here. Until better clarifying evidence comes out, I'm avoiding betaine as an ingredient in Focal Force. You can get similar effects by supplementing with creatine, which is much cheaper and has a long history of solid research backing its use.
Agents which increase focus
Now we’ll start seeing where pre-workout ingredients can have multiple effects. For example, ingredients like theobromine, caffeine, and L-tyrosine not only work to stimulate energy levels, but can also improve cognition, improving focus during exercise. L-tyrosine has been studied in reducing the effects of acute stress on both physical performance and cognition.
Agents that increase acetylcholine, such as Alpha-GPC, can also have double effects on both energy and cognition.
Other ingredients work to increase focus through different mechanisms. CoQ10/ubiquinol/idebenone are powerful antioxidants which provide fuel for your mitochondria, the “power generators” of body cells. L-theanine can reduce cortisol, which is secreted during stress, attenuating the effects stress can wreck on memory and cognition.
I wasn't happy with the pre-workout supplements available. So I made my own.
As a pharmacist, I'm very picky about the things I put in my body. I've done my research. I know what works, what doesn't, and what can be harmful when ingested.
I couldn't find a pre-workout that met my premium criteria. So I made my own:
What's so special about Focal Force?
- Clinically effective doses of 7 performance-enhancing ingredients, backed by science and research.
- Contains ingredients to hit all 3 major categories you want from a pre-workout:
- Increased "pump"/blood flow: L-citrulline, caffeine
- Increased energy/endurance: L-Tyrosine, Beta Alanine, Theobromine, Caffeine
- Increased focus: L-Tyrosine, Theobromine, Idebenone, Caffeine
- No artificial sweeteners, flavors, or food dyes.
- No bullshit ingredients.
- No proprietary blends.
A pre-workout supplement can't overcome bad training or a poor diet. Once you have those two dialed in, using a pre-workout can give you an edge in the gym - but ONLY if it meets the criteria we talked about here. Otherwise, you are wasting your money.
If you've decided a pre-workout supplement is right for you, I'd love for you to try out Focal Force.
Regardless of if you do or not, I hope this article helps you make a more informed choice about choosing a pre-workout supplement.