The Betterment Project

What To Look For (and Avoid) In Pre-Workout Supplements

Are you looking to improve strength, speed, and endurance? Well, there aren’t any shortcuts. You’ll need to devote time and effort to your workouts to achieve the goals you’ve set for yourself. But, smart nutrition and smart supplements can play a major role in helping you reach those goals faster.


Athletes have known for generations the importance of eating right, both before and after their workouts. And for nearly as long, they’ve looked to supplements to give them an edge in their training, both to boost themselves up before workouts and to help recover after. And the right supplements will help your body build muscle and strength faster, too.


Pre-workout pills are a staple of many who commit to working out to improve their bodies and their lives, but not all pre-workout ingredients were created equal.


Why Pre-Workout?


Even when you’re well-rested and your motivations are high, sometimes your athletic performance just falls a little short of what you were hoping for, especially when it comes to muscular endurance and bodybuilding. That’s where pre-workout comes into the picture. Pre-workout products can take many forms. It can be a specific meal with just the optimum nutrition, a pill, a pre-workout powder, a pre-workout drink, or a shake blended with pre-workout formula. 


Whatever the form it takes, pre-workout is designed to give you the energy boost and focus you need to get the most out of your workout.


Why Choose Pre-Workout Pills?


A healthy meal or drink may be a common choice for pre-workout, but nothing beats the convenience and ease of a pre-workout pill. A well-designed pre-workout supplement in pill form is easy to keep in your gym bag, and eliminates the hassle of mixing powders and downing a large drink before you start hitting the weights.


The best pre-workout pill has the right ingredients to provide a boost both to your workout and your post-workout performance. But, a poorly-designed pre-workout supplement can work against you, with added ingredients you don’t really need that may even be dangerous. We’ll examine some of the ingredients you should look for in a pre-workout pill, and also the ones you should steer clear of.


The Good


Read the label carefully when you’re shopping for a pre-workout pill. If you find these ingredients, you’re on the right track.  



Human Dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate 7, also known as DHEA-S7, are two ingredients clinically proven to improve performance, endurance,  and maintain healthy hormone levels. 



This amino acid is a common ingredient in pre-workout supplements.  Beta-alanine produces carnosine, which, when stored in your muscles, reduces lactic acid. Excess lactic acid build up produces fatigue in your muscles, so with beta-alanine, you can work harder for longer.  



Betaine is one of the active ingredients in beets and has been taken for health reasons for many years. Recently it has gotten fresh attention as a workout supplement. When active in the body, betaine helps cells create additional creatine, a building block for muscles. A study conducted on experienced strength-trained men showed improvements in many strength tests and muscle growth from a 6-week regimen that included betaine.



When coffee burst onto the scene in Europe after the discovery of the New World, it was treated as a wonder drug that improved concentration and energy. Although it’s old to us now, the sentiment still rings true. A moderate dose of caffeine added to your pre-workout pill may provide just the boost you need to get started and keep going. Taurine is another common ingredient touted for boosting energy, and is often paired with caffeine to provide a mind-body energy boost during your workout. 


Citrulline Malate (L-Citrulline)

This amino acid and malic acid combo can enhance workouts and improve anaerobic performance, according to a study conducted on a group of advanced weightlifters. Compared to the control group, the individuals taking L-citrulline were able to maintain power output longer and perform more reps than the lifters who took a placebo. 



Getting in a good workout requires more than muscle. It takes a focused mind as well. Theanine has demonstrated the ability to alleviate stress and improve feelings of alertness and attention. It pairs  well with caffeine to give you the mental edge you need to keep focused during your workout.  


Honorable Mentions

There are also a few other common, beneficial ingredients to look for that play roles in blood flow, muscle mass, fat burning, and recovery, which include L-arginine, creatine monohydrate, nitric oxide, and branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), respectively.


The Bad


The other side of the coin are ingredients that are best to avoid when you’re looking for an effective pre-workout pill. These ingredients are ineffective, unproven, or at worst, potentially dangerous.


Artificial colors, dyes, and artificial sweeteners 

You’re buying a pre-workout pill to boost your workout, not to look good in an Instagram post. Artificial colors and dyes are completely unnecessary. In some cases, there are doubts about the long-term health effects of some artificial colors. It’s best to steer clear of them.

Artificial sweeteners are another unnecessary addition, and some people report adverse reactions to sweeteners like stevia. While extreme energy fruit punch sounds appealing, unflavored or naturally flavored are your best bets when it comes to sports nutrition. 


Too much caffeine

There’s nothing wrong with a little caffeine for a pick-up and focus boost. But, some pre-workout pills go way overboard with caffeine, providing the equivalent of numerous cups of espresso in one little pill. As a rule of thumb, 150 mg of caffeine is equal to one cup of coffee, so read the label carefully. Too much caffeine can be unpleasant to some, causing jitters and general discomfort, especially in a scenario where you're already boosting your heart rate. In extreme cases, too much caffeine can even trigger arrhythmias in the heart. 



Scan the ingredients for methylhexanamine or dimethylamylamine, other names for DMAA. DMAA is an amphetamine derivative that’s illegal to market as a dietary supplement. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous supplement makers skirt the law and include it anyway. Using DMAA can raise your blood pressure, and in extreme cases, even raise the risk of a heart attack. Avoid any pre-workout pill that includes it. 



Made from the bark of an African tree, this supplement is touted for treating erectile dysfunction, but some bodybuilders have adopted it to aid in burning fat and helping with weight loss. Studies haven’t shown any clear connection to weight loss when using yohimbe, and the potential for side effects like increased heart rate, kidney damage, and seizures is so serious that it has been banned in many countries, including Australia and Canada. It’s just not worth the risk.



Also known as bitter orange, this supplement is derived from the fruit, leaves, and juice of some citrus plants. While there are some therapeutic uses of the plant’s oils for treating topical funguses, its use as an oral supplement is banned by the United States Food and Drug Administration for its heart failure risks, as well as organizations like the NCAA. Classified as a stimulant, some take it for alleged weight loss effects, although there’s no evidence that it functions as a fat burner.  



We tend to think that antioxidants are all good. After all, oxidation is implicated as a factor in aging, and antioxidants are commonly marketed for their health benefits.

But, sometimes, oxidation is good. When your muscles undergo the stress of workouts, they suffer minor damage that needs to be repaired by your muscle cells. Oxidation is a key element in this repair process, and the inclusion of too many antioxidants can stop your body from doing what it needs to do. So, skip the antioxidants as part of your pre-workout routine. 


Be Sure to Look at the Big Picture


By checking your ingredient lists carefully you’ll be able to find pre-workout pills that offer an excellent blend of useful ingredients. But, be sure to look beyond just popping a pill or two before you hit the gym. A well-balanced daily dose of vitamins and supplements like those in the Superhuman Supplements by ASYSTEM can also increase your overall energy level and provide the nutritional support you need to build a strong body and mind. 


Get the Most Out of Your Workout


Making the commitment to workout is a great thing to do. Regular exercise sharpens your brain, keeps you feeling young, and can boost your self-esteem. So if you’re serious about getting the most out of your time at the gym, make sure to eat right, get enough sleep, and consider choosing a quality pre-workout pill for that extra edge. 




Meet our Experts

This article has been reviewed by members of our Scientific Advisory Board.

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