2022 Update: I’ve reviewed the science literature and found that the information in this article remains accurate. If anything, some trendy ingredients that I’ve excluded from this article even though they’d been getting some hype over the last 5-10 years are being shown to be fairly useless. Sometimes less is more.
Any given pre-workout usually tries to accomplish several different things in a single product. So what’s most important will depend on what you’re looking to accomplish.
New: I’ve ranked the best pre-workouts of 2022.
There are lots of so-called pre-workout ingredients. But which are the most important?
For some people, the most important ingredients will provide energy. For others, the most important ingredients will create focus. Or drive. Or strength. Or pump. Or endurance (anti-fatigue).
Some people absolutely must have caffeine in their pre-workout for the energy and focus it provides. Others want a stimulant free pre-workout. Below, I’m going to list the most important ingredients for common pre-workout functions and from there you can choose what are the most important ingredients for your specific needs.
Energy ingredients are stimulants. The most famous stimulant is caffeine but there are plenty of others, all of which have different effects.
- Caffeine (strong stimulant)
- Theobromine (mild stimulant)
- Rhodiola Rosea (light stimulant)
- Eleuthero root / Siberian Ginseng
The default stimulant in pre-workouts is definitely caffeine. If you’re looking for something less intense, you can go for something like Theobromine which is found in chocolate, or the ever more popular Rhodiola Rosea which also has properties for endurance and mood enhancement.
Focus ingredients help the brain keep from being distracted and focus like a laser on the task at hand.
- Choline precursors like Alpha GPC or Citicholine
- Caffeine (primarily a stimulant but also helps focus the mind)
These are pre-workout ingredients that lessen your perception of fatigue (I call them anti-fatigue ingredients) and increase your endurance and overall stamina. These ingredients also tend to reduce stress.
- Creatine (reduces fatigue)
- Beta-Alanine (reduces fatigue)
- Betaine Anhydrous
- Agmatine (dulls pain)
- Tyrosine (reduces stress)
- Rhodiola Rosea (reduces stress, improves mood)
- L-Citrulline (decreases fatigue)
- Electrolytes (e.g. Magnesium, Potassium, Sodium)
Some pre-workout ingredients are included primarily to increase overall strength gains and power output. As you’ll notice, most of these ingredients have multiple functions.
For those looking to maximize their pump, the key is facilitating Nitric Oxide and increasing blood flow. While this creates a nice aesthetic result in vascularity, it also helps maximize hypertrophy as muscle growth.
These are the most important ingredients for increasing your pump:
- Agmatine Sulfate
- Beetroot (powder, juice or extract)
- Betaine Anhydrous
- Red Spinach
The 5 Most Important Pre-Workout Ingredients
If I had to choose only five ingredients to include in my pre-workout, they would be:
- L-Citrulline (9 grams)
- Caffeine (300 mg)
- Creatine (5g)
- Beta Alanine (3g)
- Electrolytes (300mg sodium, 100mg magnesium, 100mg potassium)
If you want to do your own homemade pre-workout, these are the ingredients that should form your base. Caffeine gives you your energy and focus. L-Citrulline increases blood flow (more oxygen to muscles) and helps with endurance. Creatine helps with strength, recovery and body composition. Beta Alanine helps primarily with muscle endurance to help you get that extra rep. It also helps with strength gains and building lean muscle And finally, I find that topping off my electrolytes before a workout goes a long way towards reducing fatigue and pushing through.