Pre-workouts are a type of dietary supplement that helps gymgoers and athletes increase performance when exercising.
Pre-workouts, also known as “pre’s”, are used for everything from increasing energy during cardio workouts to enhancing muscle strength (and muscle growth) during strength training sessions.
In this in-depth guide, we will explore the different types of pre-workout supplements.
We will examine each category of pre-workout supplements and highlight key active ingredients so that you can better inform your decision-making when picking up a new pre-workout.
What are pre-workouts?
Pre-workouts are multi-ingredient sports nutrition supplements that help people workout longer and with more intensity. Pre-workouts come in different formulations and can be tailored to the sensitivities, tastes, and exercise goals of each user.
The key benefits of pre-workouts include boosting energy, increasing strength and muscle endurance, suppressing appetite, and even reducing post-exercise soreness.
That said, there are many different types of pre-workouts on the market. Not every form of pre-workout is right for every individual.
Next, we will look at the most popular types of pre-workouts, which can broadly fall into the two categories of stim or non-stim.
Types of pre-workouts
Let’s take a closer look at the most common types of pre-workout supplements:
Standard pre-workouts contain a formulation that enhances energy, mental focus, and muscle protein synthesis. Ingredients often include caffeine, citrulline, beta-alanine, creatine, and BCAAs.
Standard pre-workouts include the following core ingredients:
- 150–200mg of caffeine
- 6–8g of citrulline
- 3–6g of beta-alanine
- 3–5g of creatine
Standard pre-workouts may also include branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) and/or another essential amino acid complex. Other ingredients include vitamin B12, vitamin C, vitamin B6, L-theanine, glucose, and L-citrulline.
The standard pre-workout is the go-to choice for most fitness enthusiasts and you will find the largest selection at your local supplement shop or online.
It provides a well-rounded boost to energy, focus, and muscle performance, making it suitable for various workout types and most users who don’t have sensitivities to caffeine, beta alanine, or creatine.
Non-stim pre-workouts (stimulant-free)
Non-stimulated and low-caffeine pre-workouts offer the benefits of a standard pre-workout without caffeine or other stimulants.
For people who don’t like the jitters, crashes, and anxiety that can come with caffeinated drinks, a non-stim or low-caffeine pre-workout is a great option.
Key performance-boosting ingredients in non-stim pre-workouts may include betaine, glycerol, taurine, nootropics, and L-tyrosine for energy and focus.
The good news is that you don’t need caffeine to get the added energy, focus, and increased pump of a properly formulated non-stim pre-workout.
On the other end of the stimulant spectrum are high-stim pre-workouts, which crank up the caffeine content for an intense and long-lasting boost of energy.
High-stim pre-workouts are the perfect option for athletes and gymgoers who exercise for longer, require added focus under fatigue, or simply have a higher caffeine tolerance compared to the rest of us.
High-stim pre-workouts tend to have a caffeine content of 275mg or higher per serving for maximum energy and focus when exercising.
Natural pre-workouts, also known as clean pre-workouts, help to increase workout performance and energy without worrying about added fillers and artificial sweeteners.
Artificial sugars like sucrose can have an adverse reaction with some users. A study published in Nature showed that artificial sweeteners impair and change the gut microbiota and have negative effects on overall gut health.
Artificial sweeteners are also 200 to 1,000 times sweeter than sucrose and have been linked to depression, insomnia, migraines, and anxiety.
Natural pre-workouts not only don’t have artificial sweeteners, but they also don’t have proprietary blends or other sneaky ingredients that users don’t want
A clean pre-workout is a great option for those who have dietary restrictions or who simply don’t want to mess around with supplements that are loaded with additives and artificial sweeteners.
Pre-workouts for muscle gain
For the gymgoer who is more focused on building mass and muscle, a pre-workout that contains creatine monohydrate is an excellent option for muscle gain.
Creatine is one of the most studied supplements on the planet, with one study published in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition showing that supplementing with 2.5g of creatine per day significantly increases lean muscle mass and overall strength.
Pre-workouts with creatine help to give your muscles a little bit of a pump by increasing blood flow to target muscles and increasing muscle protein synthesis, helping lifters build more muscle.
While pre-workouts shouldn’t be used as the only muscle-building supplement in your stack (add a whey protein and supplement with creatine after your workouts, too), it can play a pivotal role in your journey to bigger and stronger muscles.
Pre-workout for pumps
There is no better feeling than when blood is pulsing through working muscles, creating that elusive yet highly satisfying shirt-ripping pump.
Pre-workouts that help to solicit this pump effect include nitric oxide agents like beetroot extract, L-citrulline, or citrulline malate.
These compounds help deliver lots of blood to the muscles that are being exercised and also deliver more oxygen, helping you exercise harder and lift more.
Pre-workouts that have nitric oxide facilitate muscle pumps and vascularity, so look for NO or nitric oxide, on the label if this is a priority during weight training.
Pre-workouts for endurance
Pre-workout supplements aren’t just for short-term, high-intensity efforts in the gym. They can also be used by endurance athletes.
For those who want an added jolt during longer workouts, whether that’s hitting the road bike or doing a 2.5-hour workout, look for pre-workouts that promote endurance.
The key ingredients to look for are higher levels of caffeine and a slow-release formula. Other endurance-minded ingredients that increase stamina include beta-alanine, betaine, and L-carnitine.
Finally, a pre-workout for endurance isn’t complete without electrolytes. These minerals help keep you hydrated so that you can perform at your best for longer.
Pre-workout for weight loss
One of the main reasons for going to the gym and exercising is weight loss. Pre-workouts designed to help people burn fat and lose weight include ingredients like caffeine, green tea extract, L-carnitine, and thermogenic compounds.
Caffeine, for example, has been shown to help people lose weight, reduce fat mass, and lower waist circumference (Kovacs et al., 2005).
The 1-2 punch of pre-workouts loaded with proven fat-loss ingredients combined with regular exercise can set people on a path of lower fat body mass, reduced cravings, and suppressed appetite.
Pre-workouts for weight loss can also increase metabolism and provide the energy to help beginners and untrained gymgoers complete those calorie-burning workouts.
What are the most common ingredients in pre-workouts?
Selecting the most suitable pre-workout supplement depends on your fitness goals, sensitivity to stimulants, and workout preferences.
Choosing the perfect pre-workout also requires an understanding of the most common ingredients found in pre-workouts.
Here are the main performance-boosting ingredients found in most pre-workouts:
- Caffeine. A potent stimulant that increases alertness and reduces fatigue.
- Creatine. An amino acid that aids in energy production, enhancing muscle strength and size.
- L-citrulline. An amino acid that boosts nitric oxide production, improving blood flow.
- Citrulline malate. A combination of citrulline and malate enhances oxygen delivery to muscles and delays fatigue.
- Beta-alanine. A non-essential amino acid that improves performance during high-intensity exercise.
- Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). Essential amino acids that promote muscle protein synthesis and delay perceived exertion.
- Electrolytes. Various minerals help to reduce the effects of dehydration when exercising for long periods of time.
Wrapping things up
Ultimately, whichever type of pre-workout supplement you choose will come down to what your body prefers, your individual taste, and your exercise goals.
Use the above guidelines and information to figure out which kind of pre-workout aligns with your goals and get to work at the gym.
Adam Mulligan, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.