If you're looking for the best pre-workout ingredients, stick to supplements that primarily use caffeine (in lower doses) combined with theanine, beta-alanine, and creatine. These are the safest and most effective options.
On the surface, creating effective workout fuel seems like an easy equation. But, in the murky world of supplements, there are a surprising number of ingredients that might feel like they give you a buzz, but, actually, don't do anything to increase energy, boost strength, or help endurance.
In fact, the International Olympic Committee published a consensus statement on supplements, and out of the thousands of available products, they only identified 5 ingredients that directly benefit performance and have strong research.
To help you figure out what pre-workout ingredients are really buzzworthy, we interviewed world-class experts like Mike Mancias (LeBron James’s trainer) and Abby Smith-Ryan (director of Human Performance at the University of North Carolina) to help identify exactly what you should take before you exercise.
What Do Pre-workout Supplements Do?
The biggest problem is that most pre-workout supplements are nothing more than caffeine added to a bunch of other ingredients that sound fancy but won’t do much to help you level up. That quick jolt of caffeine might feel amazing, but it leads to a hard crash and tolerance, which ultimately limits the effectiveness of caffeine. That’s not what your body wants.
Caffeine is a great all-natural pre-workout ingredient, but it’s best to microdose in order to maintain its power. (Also, it works well when you combine it with a few other ingredients to enhance its effectiveness. More on that in a moment.)
Many of these “all-natural pre-workout ingredients” also have a lack of scientific support and would never be certified by NSF Certified for Sport, which is a third-party that helps verify what supplements can be used by pro athletes.
When done right, pre-workout supplements will help with:
Here are the 5 ingredients that are supported by science and real-world results.
Caffeine from Green Tea + Theanine
Green tea is one of the best supplements you can put into your body. Green tea is loaded with caffeine, which is one of the most reliable all-natural pre-workout ingredients that enhances performance. Caffeine has been shown to:
- Help you run with more power and recover quicker
- Increase power and strength
- Allow you to train at a higher level even when sleep-deprived
- Improve aerobic and endurance performance
- Boost the total number of reps you can perform in a workout
In other words, when you need to push harder and get more out of every workout it’s hard to beat caffeine. But, constant caffeine use leads to tolerance, which means the benefits of caffeine can be almost completely reduced over time, other than working as an anti-sleep aid.
That means you need to take more caffeine to get the same effects, and the larger doses mean harder energy crashes, headaches, jitters, and an upset stomach.
This is where green tea (and the addition of theanine) makes a big difference. If you’re taking caffeine without theanine, you’re missing one of the bigger breakthroughs in supplementation. Theanine enhances focus and energy, while also curbing caffeine’s negative effects and help reduce the likelihood of feeling jittery.
How to take caffeine + theanine: Combine about 100-200 mg of caffeine with, at least, 200 mg of theanine approximately 30 minutes before your workout (Ladder Energy uses the perfect 100:200 mg ratio.) By staying with lower amounts of caffeine, you can help limit tolerance and continue to boost your workouts and help increase muscle building. The more you take, the more likely you are to see fewer benefits from caffeine, or just need such a large dose that the side effects and addiction outweigh the positives.
Back in the 1990s, creatine was a supplement that almost seemed illegal. But, there's no reason anyone should not be taking it, for both safety and performance reasons. Creatine is one of the safest, most effective supplements ever created, has been studied extensively for 35 years (and counting), and there’s research on infants, adults, and the elderly to support its effectiveness.
Despite what many people believe, creatine is naturally produced by your body and naturally found in foods including beef, chicken, milk, and cheese. But, you'd have to eat 2-3 pounds of meat per day to experience the same impact of as about one teaspoon (5 grams) of creatine of the powder form.
More creatine equals more ATP, the primary source of energy in your body. More ATP means you can push harder during your workouts and fight off fatigue, and that ultimately helps you boost strength, endurance, power, and supports muscle growth and fat loss.
The energy boost will be most apparent in weight training, as well as short-burst activities like sprints or sports. If you’re doing quick burst activities (anything categorized as a “sprint”), then you can expect to see improvements to your speed, and you'll recover faster. This means you can perform multiple sprints at a higher intensity without seeing a decrease in performance. And it can speed the process by which you gain back lost muscle.
How to use creatine: If you’re going to use creatine, the only proven choice is creatine monohydrate. While there are many other options, nothing even comes close to monohydrate in terms of proven research. In general, aim for 5 grams per day, as that’s what’s been tested for effectiveness (if you have more muscle mass, you might see benefits from 10 gram per day).
You can mix creatine in hot or cold liquids, but the hotter the temperature, the quicker the creatine will degrade. Also, do not buy liquid creatine products. Creatine is only stable in liquid for a short period of time (24 hours), and, therefore, pre-mixed creatine products are a waste.
The enemy of performance is fatigue. When your muscles get tired, at some point, all the mental strength in the world won’t allow you to push through the physical breakdown. That’s where beta-alanine comes into play.
Your muscles are able to fight off muscle fatigue when it produces carnosine, which helps remove the chemicals that cause you to hit your wall. Beta-alanine is a naturally occurring amino acid that can help you increase your production of carnosine, meaning you can fight off the acid building in your muscles and maintain a higher intensity for a longer period of time during your workouts.
A meta-analysis of 15 different studies found that beta-alanine can boost muscular and aerobic endurance. What does that mean? If you’re training in the 8-20 rep range or doing higher intensity cardio (like rowing or sprints), you’re likely to see the biggest boost. And, if you perform long-distance cardio, you’re likely to feel some mild effects that help you fight off early fatigue.
When to take beta-alanine: To see the effects of beta-alanine, you need at least 3 grams per day. The amount will build up in your system, so it’s important to use it daily or consistently. You can safely take up to 6 grams per day, depending on your tolerance to “the tingles.”
For some people, beta-alanine can trigger a completely safe “tingle” effect that some people find annoying. The more you take, the more likely you are to tingle. To help overcome that effect, you can take a time-released beta-alanine, split your dose, or take with food and more water. (For instance, when taking Ladder Energy, if you don't like the tingling sensation, mix with 20 ounces of water and food.)
Betaine anhydrous is a chemical that is naturally produced in your body and is also found in beets, spinach, cereals, seafood, and wine. While more research is emerging, some early returns are very promising. Scientists found that when using 2.5 grams of betaine, subjects were able to increase power and muscle force in just 2 weeks and do more reps. As an added bonus, betaine also helps increase protein synthesize after a workout, meaning your body becomes more efficient at building muscle and helping your body recover.
How to take betaine: The key with betaine is making sure you get 2.5 grams per day. You can do that in one dose, or split it up into 2 doses. You can take either before or after your workouts.