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Best Pre-Workout Supplements of 2021, According to a Dietitian

Written by Melissa Mitri, MS, RD

Published on October 12, 2021

A pre-workout supplement may provide an energy boost and enhance your performance. But, how do you know which supplement is the best for you?

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Best Pre-Workout Supplements of 2021, According to a Dietitian
Photo credit: iStock.com/AleksandarNakic

Pre-workout supplements are products intended to enhance fitness performance and are otherwise known as ergogenic aids.

They are becoming increasingly popular in the fitness industry, with many local gyms and fitness centers packing them on their shelves.

Whether it be a pre-workout drink, powder, or bar, there are hundreds to choose from on the market.

Many people seek a pre-workout supplement to boost their energy, increase stamina and performance, and enhance post-workout recovery.

Before a workout, it is essential to fuel yourself properly for optimal energy and performance. Doing this will help you get the most out of your workouts and feel much better during them.

But with so many pre-workout supplements to choose from, how do you know which one is best for your needs?

It’s first helpful to know the possible benefits and reasons for taking them.

Summary of Our Picks

What Are Pre-Workout Supplements

Pre-workout supplements, otherwise known as “pre-workouts,” are products intended to increase the level of endurance and power during workouts.

Proponents of pre-workout supplements claim that taking them before exercise can improve your fitness ability and power you through more challenging workouts.

Pre-workout supplements can contain various ingredients, including stimulants such as caffeine, amino acids (protein-building blocks), creatine, beta-alanine, and nitric oxide agents.

According to a 2018 research review, taking certain pre-workout supplements may positively influence muscular endurance and subjective mood during workouts.

Another small 2016 study of 13 men found that those taking pre-workout dietary supplements containing coffee had seen improvements in anaerobic power.

Anaerobic means the “absence of oxygen,” which typically refers to resistance and strength-training exercises, not cardio.

However, most studies done on pre-workout supplements were short-term studies of less than eight weeks.

With the numerous amounts of pre-workout supplements on the market, you may be wondering which is best for you.

Here we break down the most important criteria to look for and our top picks for pre-workout supplements.

What to Look for in a Pre-Workout Supplement

When looking for a pre-workout supplement, or “pre-workout,” it is essential to know your primary reason for taking it.

It can also help to understand how your body typically responds to certain ingredients, such as caffeine.

The number of ingredients can vary, and not all contain precisely what they say they do.

When you look at a pre-workout supplement label, you’ll see a few different ingredients on the bottle.

These ingredients have been researched to some extent, but most warrant further research regarding the optimal dose for effectiveness and safety.

The following are the most common ingredients found in pre-workouts:

  • Caffeine: A stimulant intended to enhance performance and speed. A 2021 research review found that consuming caffeine 60 minutes before a workout may improve exercise performance in some individuals. The optimal dose range studied is between 150–450 milligrams per day, depending on body weight.

  • Creatine: A substance found naturally in muscle cells that helps produce energy during high-intensity exercise. Creatine is also found in animal products such as dairy, meat, and fish. The supplement dose that is most clinically effective for maintenance is 1.2 grams per day.

  • Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs): Leucine, isoleucine, and valine are amino acids said to enhance recovery and promote muscle growth. According to a 2006 clinical trial, leucine supplementation may enhance muscle protein synthesis after exercise.

  • Taurine: An amino acid that may boost muscle strength during workouts and reduce exercise-related fatigue. It is also naturally found in meat, fish, and dairy. The safest, most effective doses in studies range from 500–2000 milligrams per day.

  • Beta-alanine: An amino acid that can provide a quick energy boost for shorter workouts. According to a 2012 meta-analysis, beta-alanine has the potential to increase exercise capacity. A dose of 4–6 grams per day is most commonly studied in the research. However, a dose of 1–2 grams appears to also provide benefits with less risk for side effects, such as tingling.

  • L-Tyrosine: A precursor to dopamine that has the potential to increase exercise capacity, specifically in the heat. The most common doses studied in the research range from 500–2000 mg per day.

  • B-Vitamins: Vitamins such as B1, B6, and B12 are claimed to boost energy and metabolism. While studies have shown that a deficiency in these B-vitamins can cause physical fatigue, the research is not clear whether taking B-vitamins will provide additional energy if you are not deficient.

  • Nitric Oxide Boosters: Ingredients such as L-arginine, L-citrulline, and beetroot juice increase blood flow and improve athletic performance. For L-arginine, doses of 1–6 grams and up to 9 grams per day have shown to be the most effective with minimal risk for side effects. For L-citrulline, clinical doses of 3–6 grams have been studied. For beetroot juice, at least a 1 gram dose is often seen in supplements and studied in research.

  • Proprietary “Blends”: These are formulated blends of various ingredients present in many pre-workout supplements. The label lists the total dose of all ingredients combined but not the dose of each ingredient. I often recommend shying away from these blends when possible because it is difficult to determine how much of a particular ingredient you are consuming.

Before you decide on a pre-workout supplement, it’s essential to know your main reason for taking it.

For example, if you’re trying to boost muscle strength and size, you may want to look for a supplement containing BCAA’s.

Doing a bit of research before heading to the store can help you make the best decision that fits your goals.

How We Made Our Selections

For this review, I selected the best pre-workout recommendations based on the following criteria:

  • Third-party testing for purity, accuracy, and potency: This assures the ingredients are of high quality and are accurately listed on the nutrition label, with precise dosing of each ingredient.
  • Made with high-quality ingredients: The supplement is made with high-quality ingredients that are backed by research.
  • Good safety profile: Some pre-workouts contain unhealthy amounts of caffeine or other ingredients that many athletic organizations may ban. Our picks are free of these potential dangers.

It’s important to note that pre-workout supplements, and the supplement industry in general, are not regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).

Because of this, there is sometimes no way to prove if the product actually includes exactly what is written on a product label.

A third-party testing seal on the label helps to verify the actual ingredients present.

Unfortunately, there are not many pre-workout supplements on the market with this official seal of approval.

Based on these criteria, I selected some of the best pre-workout supplements currently out there that you may want to consider.

Best Overall: Naked Energy

Best Overall
Rating Breakdown
  • Support for Claims:4.0
  • Ingredient Safety:4.0
  • Value for the Price:4.0
  • Brand Transparency:3.0

Overall Rating:

3.8

Pros

  • Many ingredients are research-backed
  • Produced in a GMP-certified facility
  • No artificial sweeteners or flavors

Cons

  • Some users report poor taste
  • Strict return policy

Naked Energy is highly rated and considered one of the best pre-workout supplements for men and women.

It is certified gluten-free, vegan, and free of dairy, soy, artificial sweeteners, and preservatives.

It comes in powder form that is recommended to be mixed in with a smoothie or energy drink. It is available in both unflavored and flavored versions.

The manufacturer states it is third-party tested by an independent lab, but I could not find any official seal of approval to confirm this.

It is produced in a GMP-certified facility under good manufacturing practices.

Naked Energy contains 200 milligrams of caffeine per serving and beta-alanine, creatine, and l-arginine.

The manufacturer claims that this product improves exercise performance, enhances mental focus, and promotes faster recovery.

Price: $39.99 for 50 servings (Serving size: 2 scoops per day)

The Bottom Line: Naked Energy is a good, safe choice if you’re looking for a bit of pre-workout energy boost. It’s important to note that more research is needed into the optimal dose of some of the ingredients present in pre-workouts.

Always consult with your doctor before starting a new supplement to determine your individual needs.

Best Pre-Workout for Women: Alani Nu Pre-Workout

Best Pre-Workout for Women
Rating Breakdown
  • Support for Claims:4.0
  • Ingredient Safety:3.0
  • Value for the Price:4.0
  • Brand Transparency:4.0

Overall Rating:

3.8

Pros

  • Great taste
  • Low in calories
  • Produced in a GMP-certified facility

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Contains artificial sweeteners

Alani Nu is a popular brand that sells powder supplements as well as health food products. They are considered one of the best-tasting pre-workouts and contain simple ingredient blends.

Alani Nu Pre-Workout comes in powder form and is available in multiple flavors such as Hawaiian shaved ice, pineapple, and carnival candy grape.

It is rated as one of the best pre-workout powders for women on Amazon.

The manufacturers state that they are banned-substance tested and produced in a GMP-certified facility for good manufacturing practices.

This product contains minimal ingredients, including 200 mg of caffeine, l-citrulline, and beta-alanine.

It also contains 500 mg of l-tyrosine, which may improve exercise performance, particularly in the heat.

The company claims that this product can help maximize your workouts.

Price: $39.99 for a 1-month supply (Serving size: 2 scoops per day)

The Bottom Line: Alani Nu is a good-tasting pre-workout for women looking to enhance their workouts.

Always consult with your medical provider before starting a new supplement regimen.

Best Pre-Workout for Men: Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Pre-Workout

Best Pre-Workout for Men
Rating Breakdown
  • Support for Claims:4.0
  • Ingredient Safety:4.0
  • Value for the Price:4.0
  • Brand Transparency:4.0

Overall Rating:

4.0

Pros

  • Affordable price
  • Excellent customer reviews
  • Some ingredients are research-backed

Cons

  • Not third-party tested
  • Contains artificial sweeteners

Optimum Nutrition is one of the most popular workout supplement brands found in gyms and fitness centers and one of the highest-rated on Amazon.

The Gold Standard Pre-Workout is available in powder form and comes in several different flavors. The nutritional content varies slightly based on the flavor.

For men, this pre-workout supplement contains many ingredients that may support exercise performance and recovery, such as caffeine, creatine, and b-alanine.

Several of these ingredients are present in clinically studied doses.

The manufacturer claims that this product enhances focus, energy, and performance.

Price: $17.25 for a 1-month supply (Serving size: 1 scoop per day)

The Bottom Line: Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Pre-Workout is a good choice for men seeking to enhance exercise performance and power during strength workouts.

Always consult with your medical provider before starting a new supplement regimen.

Best Pre-Workout for Weight Loss: Ladder Sport Pre-Workout Powder

Best Pre-Workout for Weight Loss
Rating Breakdown
  • Support for Claims:4.0
  • Ingredient Safety:4.0
  • Value for the Price:4.0
  • Brand Transparency:5.0

Overall Rating:

4.3

Pros

  • NSF-Certified for Sport
  • No artificial sweeteners
  • Green tea extract may support weight loss

Cons

  • Expensive
  • May contain allergens

If you’re looking for the best pre-workout supplement for weight loss, Ladder is a high-quality supplement brand.

Ladder was founded by LeBron James, who consulted with health and fitness professionals to create their products.

His motivation to create these products was because of the difficulty he had with finding a product that delivered results and had a solid safety profile.

Ladder Sport Pre-Workout comes in individual powder packs that you mix with 6–8 ounces of your favorite beverage. It is vegan and NSF-Certified for Sport.

The NSF-Certified for Sport seal of approval verifies supplement safety and label accuracy and ensures the product is free from athletic banned substances.

Fewer than 1% of supplements have this seal of approval, which assures the highest purity and safety standards.

Ladder also has multiple health experts listed on its website that are involved in creating their products, such as professional fitness trainers, nutritionists, and doctors.

Ladder Sport Pre-Workout also contains 100 mg of natural caffeine from green tea extract, shown in some studies to support weight loss.

This type of caffeine is also more natural and safe. This is opposed to caffeine anhydrous, a caffeine powder that is highly potent and more often present in pre-workout supplements.

The FDA has issued several warning letters to the public regarding caffeine anhydrous.

The claims are that this product boosts endurance, fights fatigue, increases focus, and builds muscle.

Price: $58.95 for a 45-day supply (Serving size: 1 pack)

The Bottom Line: Ladder Sport Pre-Workout Powder is a solid choice for someone looking to boost endurance, build muscle, and burn fat.

Always consult with your doctor before starting a new supplement to determine your individual needs.

Best Pre-Workout without Caffeine: Transparent Labs Stim-Free Pre-Workout

Best Pre-Workout Without Caffeine
Rating Breakdown
  • Support for Claims:4.0
  • Ingredient Safety:3.0
  • Value for the Price:4.0
  • Brand Transparency:5.0

Overall Rating:

4.0

Pros

  • Third-party tested
  • Most ingredients are in clinically studied doses
  • Priced well compared to competition

Cons

  • Potential side effects from one ingredient present
  • A few ingredients have mixed results in efficacy

If you are caffeine-sensitive, a caffeine-free workout drink may be the best choice for you.

Transparent Labs is a well-respected brand that prides itself on the full transparency of its products and ingredients.

All of their products are third-party tested and provide certificates outlining testing results on their website.

It is available in powder form with several flavor options.

It contains multiple ingredients, many of which are in clinically effective doses, such as beta-alanine, l-tyrosine, and taurine.

It does contain Betapure Betaine Anhydrous, which may cause side effects such as GI upset, and in rare cases, cerebral edema.

This product is non-GMO, gluten-free, and contains no artificial flavors, preservatives, or colors.

The manufacturer claims that this product increases nitric oxide to the muscles, enhances focus and endurance, and promotes lean muscle gains.

Price: $49.00 for a 30-day supply (Serving size: 1 scoop)

The Bottom Line: Transparent Labs Stim-Free Pre-Workout is a solid choice for a low stim pre-workout for caffeine-sensitive individuals.

Always consult with your doctor before starting a new supplement to determine your individual needs.

Best Budget Pick: Cellucor C4 Sport Pre-Workout

Best Pre-Workout Budget Pick
Rating Breakdown
  • Support for Claims:3.5
  • Ingredient Safety:3.0
  • Value for the Price:3.5
  • Brand Transparency:5.0

Overall Rating:

3.8

Pros

  • NSF-Certified for Sport
  • Well-respected brand
  • Affordable price

Cons

  • Potential for side effects
  • Contains a proprietary blend

If you’re on a tight budget, Cellucor C4 Sport Pre-Workouts is one of the best-selling and respected pre-workout brands on Amazon and is sold at an affordable price.

It comes in powder form with several flavor options.

It contains many common ingredients found in pre-workouts, such as caffeine, creatine, arginine, beta-alanine, and B-vitamins.

It does contain 135 milligrams of caffeine anhydrous, so I would not recommend it for caffeine-sensitive people as it is equivalent to the amount of caffeine in one cup of strong coffee.

It is third-party tested and NSF-Certified for Sport, ensuring it is held to the highest safety and quality standards.

It contains only five calories per serving and no added sugar.

The manufacturer claims that this product can help build muscle mass and strength and increase your rep count.

Price: $15.93 for a 30-day supply (Serving size: 1 scoop)

The Bottom Line: Cellucor C4 Sport is an excellent pre-workout choice for someone watching their budget. It does contain a proprietary blend, which makes it more challenging to know how much of each ingredient you’re taking.

Always consult with your doctor before starting a new supplement to determine your individual needs.

Frequently Asked Questions About Pre-Workout Supplements

  • What are the benefits of taking a pre-workout supplement?

    Certain ingredients in pre-workout supplements may improve athletic performance, according to a 2018 research review.

    While not all ingredients are backed by science, some may provide a moderate boost in energy, endurance, and strength.

  • Are there any safety concerns from taking pre-workouts?

    Some pre-workout ingredients may cause side effects in certain people, such as caffeine, betaine, or beta-alanine in high doses.

    One particular ingredient of concern present in many pre-workouts is caffeine anhydrous, a more potent powder form of caffeine.

    The most common side effects reported from pre-workouts include the jitters or a tingling sensation, water retention (if it contains creatine), and GI upset.

    In one study involving 1000 people taking pre-workout supplements, about half reported side effects such as nausea, tingling, or heart abnormalities.

    This is a large percentage of people experiencing side effects and is concerning.

    Always consult with your medical doctor before starting any new supplement to weigh the pros and cons.

    If you are caffeine-sensitive, taking a stim-free pre-workout may reduce these potential side effects.

  • When should I consider a pre-workout supplement?

    You may want to consider a pre-workout if you are already eating a balanced diet but are hoping for an additional boost in your exercise performance.

    A pre-workout supplement will not replace a healthy diet, and so it will be most effective if you are fueling yourself properly and drinking plenty of water.

  • Who should avoid pre-workout supplements?

    Those who are pregnant, have any sensitivities or allergies to the ingredients present or have cardiovascular or kidney issues should avoid pre-workouts.

    Some pre-workouts contain creatine, which may cause water retention in some people, a problem already present in the case of heart or kidney problems.

    Regardless of these circumstances, we always recommend checking with your doctor prior to starting a pre-workout supplement.

  • When is the best time to take a pre-workout supplement?

    For best results, it is recommended to take your pre-workout supplement 30–60 minutes before your workout.

  • I don’t want to take supplements all the time. Are there certain foods that can boost my exercise performance?

    Absolutely! The right foods can be just as effective in providing the energy boost you’re looking for.

    Within an hour before your workout, having a combination of carbs and protein is most beneficial.

    Incorporating a carb such as whole grain bread or fruit for carbs and a protein such as peanut butter or greek yogurt are good choices.

The Bottom Line

Pre-workout supplements may provide a temporary, modest boost in energy before a workout. But, they are not a miracle cure.

There is research on some of their ingredients, but long-term studies on their effectiveness and safety are still evolving.

It’s also important to know that everyone responds differently to these supplements.

Eating a balanced diet that includes a healthy pre-workout snack, such as a banana with peanut butter, will also help fuel your workouts effectively.

It’s also equally as important to stay well hydrated and get enough sleep.

If you do choose to take a pre-workout supplement, it is best to opt for supplements that are third-party tested for peace of mind.

If you’re thinking about starting a pre-workout, check with your medical doctor to weigh the pros and cons.

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