Is Pre Workout Cheating? Are You Still Natty?

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Some people say that taking any compounds providing a performance or recovery boost is a form of cheating. But, does that really apply to pre-workouts?

Key Takeaways

  • Pre-workout supplements are not cheating because the ingredients occur naturally in foods, are legal to take, and are not prohibited by sports or doping organizations. Their positive effects are not nearly as significant as those of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).
  • Some brands of pre-workout have been known to contain trace amounts of banned substances. The best way to protect yourself is to purchase from reputable companies whose products undergo third-party lab testing.

Why People Think Pre-Workout MIGHT Be Cheating

Plenty of people online think that taking pre-workout offers an unfair advantage.

Some even go as far as to compare it to taking a performance-enhancing substance like steroids.

So, if you’re wondering whether taking a pre-workout is cheating, understand that you’re not alone.

From my research (there are a ton of Reddit threads), people outright claim pre-workout is cheating because:

  • They saw sudden improvements in their cardio or weight training performance
  • They consider caffeine a legal performance-enhancing drug (PED)
  • Older pre-workout formulas may have had ingredients banned in certain athletic associations
  • They provide benefits that food alone cannot bring
  • They consider any supplement cheating and claim that a true natural only focuses on training and eating well
  • They think pre-workouts lead to an artificial increase in muscle mass
  • They have been found to contain trace amounts of banned substances (more on that below)

As I made my way through these discussions, a few themes became apparent:

  • People don’t understand how big of an impact actual banned substances have
  • People struggle to distinguish between workout supplements and steroids
  • People exaggerate the actual benefits of pre-workouts

Next, I’ll discuss these points and explain why taking pre-workouts isn’t cheating.  

Pre-Workout Is NOT Cheating, Here’s Why

1. Most Pre-Workout Ingredients Occur Naturally In Food And Other Natural Sources

Most pre-workout ingredients can also be found in whole foods in smaller quantities than in your pre-workout.

For example, citrulline is an amino acid often added to pre-workout formulas because it improves athletic performance and delays fatigue. This amino acid is also abundant in watermelon.

The same goes for arginine, an amino acid found in turkey, chicken, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, and soybeans that enhances blood flow to the working muscles.

But what about BCAAs? That sounds like an artificial chemical, right?

BCAA stands for branched-chain amino acids and combines three essential amino acids your body needs (leucine, isoleucine, and valine), which occur naturally in many high-protein foods.

The same applies to beta-alanine, creatine, betaine, carnitine, caffeine, and almost any other ingredient on a pre-workout label.

2. The Ingredients Are Legal And Permissible By Sports Organizations

Unlike performance-enhancing drugs and their many sub-categories that are on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances, the standard pre-workout ingredients (like those mentioned above) are safe and allowed in competition.

WADA and similar organizations maintain lists of banned substances that offer an unfair advantage for athletes or are harmful to their health.

It is worth noting that some companies have been caught lacing their pre-workout products with performance-enhancing drugs.

That’s why it’s always important to look for third-party tested and certified products to ensure label accuracy and ingredient purity (more on this later).

3. The Impact Is Not Nearly As Profound As PEDs

Marketing hype aside, pre-workout supplements don’t provide that big of an advantage for people who take them. 

You can read my article on my 400-day journey of taking pre-workout and the sorts of benefits I got, both short-term and long-term.

For instance, combining citrulline, beta-alanine, and caffeine can boost athletic performance, mental focus, and motivation while promoting a slightly better muscle pump.

These benefits are noticeable, especially when you feel lethargic, but do not produce drastic results.

In contrast, the literature suggests that steroid use can enhance muscle growth, strength, overall work capacity, and recovery, allowing trainees to work harder and more often, progress quicker, and perform much better during competition. 

However, PEDs are also linked to various health problems and are banned from competitive sports.

Before We Move On, Let’s Get One Thing Straight About The “Cheating” Label

People sometimes label things as ‘cheating’ because they offer a seemingly unfair advantage, but is that the case?

Typically, no. 

If pre-workouts are cheating because they offer a slight performance boost, then running shoes must also fall in that category, right?

After all, they reduce discomfort, lower the risk of chronic aches, and improve performance to some degree.

Or what about lifting belts?

You wrap one around your midsection and expand your stomach against it to improve intra-abdominal pressure. As a result, you feel more stable and can lift more weight––as much as 10%, some expert powerlifters suggest.

But what if we go even deeper?

Carbs are well-documented to provide a performance boost and support muscle recovery, so having them before or after training must also be ‘cheating,’ right? 

My point is that if we go down that rabbit hole, we can end up labeling many things as forms of cheating.

The bottom line is pre-workouts are supplements designed to supplement the effort you already put into your diet, training, and recovery. 

Unreasonable marketing promises aside, your average pre-workout will not make that huge of a difference, get you to crush new PRs every week, or put pounds of muscle on your frame.

How Much Can You Benefit From Pre-Workout?

The effects of pre-workouts will vary across brands and types (i.e., with caffeine or stim-free).

Depending on the formula, you may notice that you can squeeze out an extra rep, attack your sets more intensely, or do more work before fatigue sets in.

Pre-workout formulas with higher levels of caffeine (say 200mg or more) will significantly increase energy levels, focus, and motivation to train.

However, you may experience these symptoms with less caffeine if you have a lower tolerance.

In contrast, stimulant-free pre-workouts tend to offer subtler benefits.

You won’t feel the ‘kick’ associated with stimulants, but other ingredients (e.g., citrulline malate, beta-alanine, and taurine) can sustain energy levels and improve your performance.

Here’s what my colleague Jennifer Vibert wrote about the Transparent Labs Stim-Free pre-workout in her review:

“I already knew about the quality of the products that Transparent Labs puts out, but I was over the moon to find a caffeine-free formula that encompasses all aspects of what I am looking for in a pre-workout: pump, strength, endurance, recovery, and energy. I experimented in using this pre-workout for my late night workouts and found that I still had incredible performance, despite being exhausted from the demands of a full day’s work followed by a full evening of parenting two preschoolers.”

Ingredients like citrulline and arginine can promote vasodilation (widening of blood vessels), allowing more blood to travel to your muscles. This results in better pump and endurance, especially when doing higher-rep sets. 

Additionally, beta-alanine and creatine can support muscle function and energy production while delaying fatigue and helping you perform better. These ingredients take time to build up in your system (i.e., they don’t provide immediate benefits). 

According to research, beta-alanine takes two to four weeks to build up in your body, and creatine loading (20-25 grams daily) can boost muscle levels within five to seven days.

Be sure to choose a pre-workout formula that aligns with your goals.

If you need help with this, contact one of our nutrition coaches.

Should You Take A Pre-Workout or “Stay Natural”?

As discussed, pre-workouts are natural because their ingredients occur naturally in food. They also aren’t harmful to your health (unless you’re not using them as instructed) or sports organizations ban them.

So, if you want to take a pre-workout for the performance boost but don’t want to be labeled a cheater, by all means, go ahead––you’re not cheating yourself or anyone else. 

However, remember that supplements are optional, and it’s always best to focus first on your nutrition, training, and recovery for optimal results. 

If you’re consistent with your training and nutrition, you’ll achieve great results regardless of taking a pre-workout supplement.

Consider your pre-workout supplementary to your nutrition rather than the main focus.

Consuming a carb-focused pre-workout meal will be more effective for enhancing your performance than a pre-workout supplement and poor nutrition. 

Will Pre-Workout Make You Fail A Drug Test?

While popular, convenient, and beneficial, pre-workout supplements have been known to land competitors in trouble.

Some supplements have been known to contain trace amounts of illegal compounds that show up on drug tests. 

Aside from the potential health issues, products containing undisclosed chemicals have led to career setbacks for athletes. 

For example, NFL player Brandon Copeland failed a drug test while playing for the New York Jets.

He denied the allegations and claimed that the compound must have appeared in his system due to supplementation. 

Sure enough, following the four-game suspension, he sent all the supplements he was taking to a third-party testing lab, and the illegal compound showed up in one of them.

There’s also the notorious story from 2013 when third-party testers found methamphetamine-like compounds in Craze––one of the most popular pre-workout products at the time. 

These and other stories can put people on edge about supplements, and rightfully so.

Quality control isn’t as tight for supplements as it is for medication and food, which means some lower-quality products find their way on supplement store shelves.

As Brian Jordan, the Technical Manager at NSF International’s NSF Certified for Sport program, noted:

“Most supplement manufacturers are committed to ensuring quality and safety, but there are a few irresponsible and unscrupulous companies out there and their actions are putting consumers at risk.”

So, What Can You Do About It? Two Things.

First, purchase pre-workouts and other products from reputable companies like Transparent Labs (here’s my review of Transparent Labs Bulk, which is my favorite pre-workout). 

A history of transparent supplement manufacturing and testing inspires far more confidence than a company with a shady past that hides the ingredients of its products behind a proprietary blend.

Second, get products that undergo third-party testing and have a seal of approval. For instance, Transparent Labs goes the extra mile for its customers by having every batch tested. 

You can visit this page and find the corresponding serial number of your batch to see the test results.


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About The Author

Philip Stefanov

Philip Stefanov is a certified conditioning coach, personal trainer, and fitness instructor. With more than nine years of experience in the industry, he’s helped hundreds of clients improve their nutritional habits, become more consistent with exercise, lose weight in a sustainable way, and build muscle through strength training. He is passionate about writing and has published more than 500 articles on various topics related to healthy nutrition, dieting, calorie and macronutrient tracking, meal planning, fitness and health supplementation, best training practices, and muscle recovery.

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I’ve Tested 28+ Pre-Workouts, Here’s My #1 Pick


  • Proven Doses: Ingredients Dosed To Clinical Standards
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  • Proven Doses: Ingredients Dosed To Clinical Standards
  • Great Value: 17% Cheaper Than Other Simliar Formulas
  • Well-Rounded: Excellent for Pump, Energy, & Strength

Read my review