The best pre-workout supplements can be game-changing, but with so many pre-workout powders and drinks on the market, it can seem impossible to filter the effective from the fails. That’s where we come in…
WH called on various nutrition and fitness experts to weigh in on the merits of the best pre-workout supplements and whether you should be factoring them into your routine. We also put a number of leading pre-workouts through some vigorous tests for our Women’s Health Sports Nutrition Awards to see which came out on top. Here are the crème de la crème:
What is a pre-workout?
A pre-workout supplement can come in various forms: a powder, shake, pill or processed snack like a bar, that you take around 30-45 minutes before you exercise. Sarah Lindsay, three-time Olympian, nutritionist and trainer at Roar Fitness tells us: ‘Ideally, it should stimulate you sufficiently enough to improve performance without any negative side effects.’
- To increase performance
- To increase energy
- To delay fatigue
‘They can be helpful for both anaerobic training such as weightlifting and resistance training and aerobic training like running, HIIT or cycling,’ she adds.
The best pre-workout supplements could also give you extra energy before a class that you really want to go the extra mile in.
Some studies have shown that certain ingredients in pre-workouts, most notably caffeine, can help boost both aerobic (think endurance cardio) and anaerobic (weightlifting or high intensity) power. They also contain ingredients like amino acids and vitamins which could help with muscle growth and aid metabolism function and energy.
Despite the many benefits, registered nutritionist Katherine Kimber says there are caveats that may make even the best pre-workout less appealing.
‘Although they may play a role in enhancing the performance of well-trained athletes, for most people, a well-balanced diet – especially one which is timed appropriately – should be enough. At the end of the day, a deficient eating pattern cannot be out trained – or out supplemented.’
This kind of philosophy is one that applies to all exercise and wellness routines: focus on nutrient-dense foods first, then fill the gaps (with the best pre-workout supplements, for example) where needs be.
Women’s Health Lab-approved pre-workouts
As part of the 2022 Women’s Health Sports Nutrition Awards, we asked a panel of testers – made up of over 200 fitness fanatics and experts – to try a range of pre-workouts for four weeks, before rating them on their nutritional make-up, the impact they had on athletic performance, ease of use and overall flavour.
Our winning pre-workout supps are stamped with the WH Lab Approved logo. All remaining products have been hand-picked by our editors, so there’s something for every need and budget.
It is important to remember that everyone’s body is unique and may react in different ways to certain ingredients, especially if taken in high quantities. For precise guidance tailored to you, we’d recommend chatting to a nutritionist.
1. Best overall pre-workout
Bulk Elevate Pre-Workout
Easy to mix, light and refreshing, this pre-workout was a big hit among our testers, providing a serious energy boost to help them power through that last rep. Aside from 200mg caffeine, there’s 10 other active ingredients, including slow-release carbs and amino acids to support muscle repair and recovery. With a sweet berry flavour that was likened to bubblegum or candy floss, this is a great-value pre-workout for those with a sweet tooth.
2. Best value pre-workout
Myprotein The Pre-Workout
Not only did our testers report an energy boost (per serving, there’s 175mg of natural caffeine from guarana and green tea extracts), but – thanks to the addition of creatine and vitamin B6 – they felt this budget-friendly powder assisted in muscle growth and recovery, too.
We were similarly impressed with the ingredients list, which includes amino acids (a building block for protein), making it a great all-rounder. WH opted for the blue raspberry flavour, which was electric blue and pleasantly sweet and fruity, but grape is also a popular choice.
3. Best pre-workout for texture
Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Pre-Workout
Optimum Nutrition’s tropical pre-workout is a hassle-free energy boost. With hints of mango and pineapple, it’s deliciously sweet without tasting artificial or sickly. Our testers enjoyed the smooth, water-like texture and appreciated with how quick it was to mix – just give it a quick shake and you’re good to go.
4. Best pre-workout for endurance
The Protein Works Raze Extreme High Performance Pre-Workout
If it’s a serious hit of energy you’re after, this pre-workout from The Protein Works delivers. With 200mg of caffeine per serving, plus EnXtra® (which heightens the effects of caffeine) creatine, and a whole host of vitamins, it’s ideal for endurance athletes who want to run, swim or cycle long and strong. Plus, it tastes good. Our testers enjoyed the fruity watermelon flavour, but there’s also blue raspberry and fruit punch to choose from.
5. Best pre-workout for smoothies
33Fuel Elite Meal Replacement Cacao
Chocoholics, this is the best pre-workout supplement for you. 33Fuel’s Elite Meal Replacement, which is designed for pre- and post-workout consumption, is rich, decadent and uber chocolatey. When blended with plant milk, it tastes like an epic chocolate milkshake!
It’s packed with high-quality, plant-based ingredients to fuel your workouts. These include chia seeds and flax seeds for fat-burning efficiency, plant proteins for muscle-building, chlorella for immune support, green coffee to beat soreness, and much more. It is on the heavier side for a pre-workout but impressed our testers nonetheless.
6. Best pre-workout for vegans
Innermost’s The Energy Booster
Innermost’s The Energy Booster does literally everything you could ask for in a pre-workout: it’s GMO-free, low-sugar, lactose-free, gluten-free, soy-free, creatine-free and vegan, plus it contains 7g protein and 71g caffeine per serving.
7. Best pre-workout for tropical taste
Alani Nu Pre-Workout
Alani Nu’s pre-workout – especially the Hawaiian Shaved Ice flavour – tastes like a virgin cocktail you’d drink from a coconut on a beach somewhere. For real. It also packs a 200mg-caffeine punch per serving, so you’ll be almost as hyped for your workout as you would be at that beach party. Sun is not included, sadly.
8. Best pre-workout if you’re caffeine-sensitive
PE+ Nutrition Performance Pre Workout
Caffeine can do crazy things for some people (think the jitters x100), but we found PE+ Nutrition Performance Pre Workout is best for just the right boost – it contains a reasonable 80mg per serving which means you’ll still feel nicely energised without needing to sit in a dark room and take some deep breaths, plus vitamin C, B6 and B12.
9. Best beginner pre-workout
Optimum Nutrition Amino Energy
Optimum Nutrition’s Amino Energy doesn’t pack quite as much of a caffeine punch as the Pre Workout product from the brand (it has 100mg of caffeine, which FYI is plenty for most – a standard Pret espresso contains 65mg, according to a report by Caffeine Informer), but it still works wonders as an energy-boosting pre-workout.
10. Best pre-workout for going hard
Grenade .50 Calibre Pre-workout
Already accustomed to a pre-workout or two and looking to up the ante? The Grenade .50 calibre pre-workout is guaranteed to give you a boost pre-heavy lifting sessions. Be warned though, this one is intense, with a whopping 200mg caffeine per serving.
11. Best caffeine-free pre-workout
Bulk Complete Pre-Workout
Bulk’s Caffeine-Free Pre-Workout is ideal for anyone not keen on the idea of caffeine, or those who can’t tolerate it, since it contains zilch. It does feature all the usual suspects, though: BCAAs, arginine alpha-ketoglutarate, creatine and citrulline malate, so you’ll still reap the rewards.
Should you use pre-workout supplements?
While the best pre-workout supplements certainly have their place, Kimber isn’t the only nutrition expert sceptical of pre-workout powders and drinks. ‘For most people, even the high-performance athletes I work with, I’ve never recommended a pre-workout,’ explains Renee McGregor, sports and eating disorder specialist dietitian and author of Orthorexia, Training Food and Fast Fuel. ‘Instead, we look at the timing of caffeine, protein and carbs consumed before a workout.’
In fact, many pre-workout supplements are a combination of protein and carbs, with some added caffeine for a boost of energy – all of which can be obtained through diet. If you do opt for a pre-workout drink (their practicality can sometimes come in handy), remember to keep the caffeine content in mind: ‘Caffeine can interfere with sleep if consumed after around 4 to 5 pm,’ says Blow.
But despite the fact that they are essentially formed of things we get from our diet, they’re not necessarily a good replacement if your diet isn’t in a good place. ‘Pre-workout supplements are for someone who already has their daily nutrition intake sorted and they are now striving to seek those small extra gains where they can,’ says Rebecca Dent, high-performance dietitian.
We caught up with Liam Holmes, founder of pH Nutrition, who adds: ‘As it says in the name, the best pre-workout supplements should supplement a well balanced diet. So anyone who is eating consistently well and needs help with the extra 5-10% may benefit from taking them.’
Alan Kenny, performance nutritionist and head of science and education for Optimum Nutrition, concurs. ‘We always promote a food first policy at Optimum Nutrition. Our starting point for any body composition or training goal is to assess overall nutrition, exercise and lifestyle behaviours. These factors will all play a much larger role than a pre-workout supplement will.’
All that said, Holmes of pH Nutrition adds that some fitness-specific nutrients (more on those to come) are harder to obtain through diet, which is where pre-workout supplements come in. ‘Specific fitness supplements are hard to derive from food,’ he explains. ‘So if you are training regularly and either looking to really push your performance or struggling to break through a plateau then supplementing may help.’
Are the best pre-workout supplements safe?
What constitutes as the ‘best’ pre-workout supplement for you, may not be for someone else, so the answer to this is very much dependent on the individual. Here are both sides to the story. First, research published in The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that ‘pre-workout supplementation for an extended period of time in combination with exercise is safe and can lead to beneficial changes in strength and body composition.’
On the other hand, a pre-workout could bring about adverse reactions or side effects. It’s always a good idea to take a deep dive into the ingredients list (scroll down for a look at the most common ones) and consult a nutritionist if you have any concerns.
Holmes recommends ‘sticking to recommended dosages and steering clear of products that have a huge list of ingredients and blends’. ‘Quality matters and you can use sites such as examine.com or labdoor.com to check out the best pre-workout supplements and whether they will be useful for you,’ he explains.
You’ll also want to make sure you don’t overdo it. If it’s your first time taking a pre-workout, it’s probably not wise to take one every single day for a 5-day workout streak. Instead, take one and give yourself a few days to see how your body reacts. If all is well, you can consider taking another the next time you work out.
Is a pre-workout a good idea for fasted training?
The best pre-workout supplements can give you more energy, sure, but to interpret this as a means to smash fasted cardio when you would otherwise find yourself struggling without food could have repercussions, says McGregor.
‘Some people might say training first thing without fuel will help cut into more fat, but you’re actually preventing the hormonal cascades that you need to occur in order to get lean muscle mass gains. It’s a real area of misconception—too many fasted sessions can actually put your body under stress and you can actually end up holding onto fat.’
McGregor suggests that for everyday runners and gym workout lovers, a good combination of carbs, protein and caffeine, such as porridge with nuts or eggs on toast will do the trick, but concedes ‘it’s your choice’.
If you do, however, punt for a pre-workout (with or without food), Lindsay adds that you should ‘avoid any with artificial sweeteners. Always think about optimal health first!’
What is in a pre-workout supplement?
The best pre-workout supplements are typically formulated with very specific ingredients. Blow says these include: B vitamins such as niacin and vitamin B12 – both of which are used in the body during energy production. Other pre-workout blends may also contain beta-alanine and L-citrulline, which Blow adds ‘have both been shown to improve energy during endurance exercise’. Here’s a closer look at some of the most common pre-workout ingredients.
BCAAs: Branched Chain Amino Acids
Benefits of a BCAA pre-workout supplement according to Blow:
- Prevent fatigue
- Prevent muscle damage
EAAs: Essential Amino Acids
Benefits of an EAA pre-workout supplement:
- Kickstart muscle protein synthesis (muscle building)
- Provide amino acids to build and repair muscle
BCAA vs. EAA pre-workout supplements – what is the difference?
‘The biggest difference between BCAA and EAA is that BCAA contains a 4:1:1 ratio of three essential amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine), whereas EAAs deliver a blend of all nine Essential Amino Acids (leucine, lysine, isoleucine, valine, threonine, phenylalanine, tryptophan, methionine and histidine) that your body can’t make itself,’ Blow tells us.
Supplementing with BCAA and EAA supplements could be worthwhile if you’re lifting heavy in the gym or doing endurance sports, but McGregor only recommends this for her athlete clients, specifically in the case of BCAA pre-workouts. ‘If they are injured and can’t workout out to the potential that they need to during a build phase,’ she explains. ‘And a BCAA pre-workout could preserve muscle mass if you need to reduce training.’
Benefits of carbs in a pre-workout:
Blow explains: ‘Your body relies on its carbohydrate stores (glycogen) for fuel during a workout so, along with a regular eating pattern and balanced diet, consuming carbohydrates pre-workout would be a good way to ensure energy levels remain topped up.’ She recommends consuming 15g carbohydrate at least 30 minutes before you work out.
Benefits of caffeine in a pre-workout:
- Prevent fatigue
- Energy boost
- Increases muscular endurance
- Increases power output
Caffeine is in almost all pre-workout supplements, and there’s a reason. ‘Caffeine is a stimulant that has been shown in research to support maintaining high-intensity exercise of 20-60 minutes for longer, with reduced feelings of fatigue,’ Blow explains. ‘Doses as low as 1.5mg/kg (around an 85-100mg cup) have been shown to be effective.’
How does it work? ‘Caffeine is one of the most proven ergogenic aids,’ Holmes tells us. ‘Caffeine pre-workout supplements work by slowing down absorption of adenoids. Adenosine causes drowsiness and slowing down of nerve cell activity so when caffeine blocks the absorption it lowers the feeling of fatigue making you feel more alert.’
Whether in a pre-workout or not, have caffeine 15 – 60 minutes before you start exercising for a boost, preferably before 4-5 pm. Caffeine later in the day could affect how solid your kip is that night.
Benefits of creatine in a pre-workout:
- Supports ATP production – the energy source used during high-intensity exercise
- Increase power output
- Increase time to fatigue
- Increase endurance
When it’s not in pre-workout form, Kenny says creatine is a substance that occurs naturally in our bodies and can be found in some food such as red meat and fish.
‘It can support energy production for repeated bouts of high-intensity exercise,’ Kenny adds. ‘It does so by supporting ATP production, which is the energy source used during explosive, high-intensity movements.’
Despite the pros that it promises, and the fact that it’s a common pre-workout ingredient, it often gets a bad rep for being ‘steroids’ or ‘only for bodybuilders’. In reality, after an analysis of the growing body of research into creatine, the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) declared that ‘creatine monohydrate is the most effective ergogenic nutritional supplement currently available to athletes with the intent of increasing high-intensity exercise capacity and lean body mass during training.’
That’s a big statement, we know. For it to come into fruition, Dent says that a pre-workout supplement containing creatine needs to be taken regularly, ‘and not as a one-off shake’. She suggests that it might be better to supplement creatine separately, rather than within a pre-workout blend. ‘Add supplements [like creatine and BCAAs] into your nutrition plan individually in order to determine if they are having a positive influence on your exercise performance.’
You can buy supplements like creatine and BCAAs individually in the same forms as most pre-workout blends: pills or powder.
Bonus: ‘Creatine supplementation has also been shown to act as a possible countermeasure to the menopausal related decrease in muscle, bone, and strength by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress,’ Holmes tells us. ‘It’s also been shown to improve cognitive function and short-term memory.’
3 pre-workout supplement ingredients to avoid
As we’ve mentioned, this is just general guidance, and while they may not work for most people, they could be A-OK for you. Take Kimber’s words of wisdom: ‘As the research into these is limited, they should only be taken under professional guidance.’
Beta-alanine is a naturally occurring non-essential amino acid that gets converted to the chemical called carnosine. ‘Carnosine plays an important role in maintaining your cells’ pH,’ says Kimber. ‘Too much acid accumulation by muscles is thought to contribute to fatigue. Clinical trials into its benefits as a pre-supplement, however, have produced conflicting results. It may also trigger feelings of pins and needles.’
If said tingling does affect you, Holmes says: ‘This is completely harmless but can be uncomfortable for some people. Consider splitting the recommended dose over the course of a day, or take a smaller dose for a longer period of time.’
Glutamine is a ‘conditionally essential amino acid’, which basically means it can be made by the body – except during times of stress or illness. When it comes to its benefits as a pre-workout, ‘Glutamine is necessary for building muscle,’ Kimber says. ‘It is therefore believed to enhance performance (although the current evidence is inconclusive).’
L-Citrulline and L-Arginine
These pre-workout supplement ingredients are said to maximise blood flow – and energy and oxygen flow – around your body and to your muscles during your workout. Do they really work? ‘Very little research has been conducted in humans,’ Kimber says. ‘At present, there is no evidence to support a performance-enhancing effect.
Group Testing Manager Fitness
Yanar is our Fitness Group Testing Manager. She manages health and fitness product testing across all the magazines, overseeing all testing processes and ensuring our lab and panel tests are conducted to the highest standards. Yanar has spent 15 years as a health and wellness content editor and writer for national titles such as Runner’s World, Men’s Health and Women’s Health. Yanar is a Level 3 qualified PT, trained yoga teacher and a registered yoga therapist. She has been into fitness and wellness her whole life. After many years running races and marathons, she now trains and competes in CrossFit and Olympic lifting. She passionately advocates strength training for women to build a stronger mind and body for life.
Health and Fitness Tester
Jodie is our Health and Fitness product tester. She runs tests on a wide variety of products, including gym leggings, walking boots, fitness trackers and more. Jodie has managed the testing for 577 products to date, including working with over 600 panellists.