I Took Pre-Workout For 400 Days: Was It Worth It?

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I’ve spent the past 400 days testing and reviewing pre-workouts for FeastGood.com. 

All told, I used 28 different brands.   

Some pre-workouts I absolutely loved! 

Others, I got pretty sick…more on that below

I’ve learned much about what makes a high-quality pre-workout and what to watch out for.  

So, I thought I’d share my experience to help you on your own pre-workout journey. 

If you want a quick verdict on which pre-workout was my favorite, check out my review of Transparent Labs Bulk.  

Otherwise, this article doesn’t talk about any specific recommendation.  

Rather, I want to highlight my results and experience, share some key lessons if you’re new to pre-workout, and explain whether taking pre-workout long-term was worth it (for me).  

Let’s start with that last point: was it worth it? 

Was It Worth It? My Takehome Lessons

Pre-Workout Supplements

My biggest takeaway along my pre-workout journey was that even the best products don’t compensate for a lack of training and nutrition focus. 

I made the most significant progress when I had a clear training goal and a proper program and plan to get me there, regardless of which pre-workout I was taking.

During the 400 days, I trained for a half marathon, did a fat loss phase in preparation for my wedding, and did a bulking strength-focused program. 

While each supplement company promises that their products are the best, most innovative, and will be the most effective at helping you reach your goals, consistency really is the key. 

That being said, pre-workout supplements definitely helped me stay consistent.

There were days when I didn’t feel like going to the gym, especially when I was getting up at 5:30 am in the dead of winter when it was cold and pitch black outside. 

The energizing and mood-boosting effects of pre-workout were enough to get me up and going, and by the time I got to the gym I was in a much better place and ready and excited to workout. 

There were also many instances while testing pre-workout where I felt so strong that I had to go and double-check the notes from my workout program, because the workout felt so easy that I was sure I must have been using the wrong weights. 

While it’s true that the most important factors are having a clear goal and being consistent, I have no doubt that pre-workout helped me be consistent and provided notable improvements in strength, energy, and endurance. 

I believe that pre-workout not only helped me reach my goals but also helped me surpass them in ways that wouldn’t have been possible without it. 

The Main Reasons To Take Pre-Workout: Energy, Mental Focus, & Pump: 

reasons to take pre-workout

If you have taken pre-workout before, you might already be familiar with some of the experiences I will describe below. 

If you are a complete newbie, let me break down some of the main effects I felt right after taking pre-workout that you might too. 

Energy

This shouldn’t be a surprise since most people looking for a pre-workout supplement are doing so to increase energy and athletic performance. 

What you may not know is that there are different kinds of “energy” that you can experience from a pre-workout. 

The first is what I will call “mental” energy, which is feelings of alertness, i.e., going from being tired to awake. 

This usually comes from caffeine but may also include other stimulants like synephrine or theobromine

Almost all pre-workouts contain caffeine, anywhere from 100mg to 400mg per serving. 

For reference, one cup of coffee brewed at home contains just shy of 100mg of caffeine. 

Personally, I have been a coffee and energy drink consumer for far longer than a pre-workout user, so I don’t notice the energizing effects of caffeine much anymore. 

I’m almost ashamed to admit that I didn’t really notice a difference in mental energy between products with 100mg of caffeine and products with 300mg of caffeine. 

(I did notice differences in focus and mood, however. More on that below).

Because I am “caffeine-adapted” (i.e. I am used to taking high daily doses of caffeine), I also don’t tend to notice negative side effects of caffeine consumption like jitteriness, anxiety, or insomnia.

Each person will have their unique caffeine tolerance and reaction based on their day-to-day caffeine consumption habits. 

Suppose you normally feel jittery and anxious after one cup of coffee. In that case, you might want to find a caffeine-free (AKA stim-free) pre-workout to avoid any potential side effects like jitteriness or anxiety. 

If, like me, you can consume a pot of coffee and still fall asleep fairly easily, then you might have more flexibility to try higher doses. 

The second type of energy is “physical energy,” which I notice the most when taking caffeine (plus other ingredients)

On days when I took pre-workout, my rating of perceived exertion (how hard the workout felt) was always lower than on days when I didn’t take any pre-workout. 

With some pre-workouts (notably Transparent Labs Bulk and Alpha Lion Pre) I had such great stamina that I had to go back and double-check my pre-workout notes to ensure I was lifting the correct weight. 

Transparent Labs Bulk
Alpha Lion Pre

My workouts felt nearly effortless, and I wanted to do extra sets at the end because I felt like I hadn’t challenged myself enough.

Some key ingredients that you might want to look for to boost this sort of energy include cordyceps, peakATP® , betaine, or carnitine. 

Mental Focus

Mental focus is one side effect I like to evaluate more than energy. 

As I mentioned above, due to decades-long caffeine consumption, I don’t necessarily notice the effects of caffeine alone anymore. 

What I do notice, however, is when a product delivers dialed in mental focus. 

I tried some pre-workouts that really stood out for providing a euphoric, mood-boosting mental focus that had me wanting to stay in the gym long after I had completed my prescribed workout. 

The very first time I noticed this effect was when I was testing Legion Pulse

Legion Pulse pre

The first time I tried it, I finished an intense weight lifting and HIIT workout and then started rearranging boxes and building shelves in my basement before realizing that I had been down there so long I was going to be late for work. 

To this day, it remains one of my most memorable experiences with pre-workout. 

I felt very similar experiences with both Bucked Up and Woke AF. While they didn’t quite deliver the strength and power benefits that I felt with Legion, I have never been happier to be in the gym than when I was taking the Bucked Up products. 

Woke AF

Not every product will have ingredients to boost mental focus, but some common ones include alpha-GPC, dendrobium, agmatine, and DMAE

Pump

“Muscle Pump” is where the muscles appear to be bigger within minutes of starting your workout. 

Many pre-workouts will include ingredients called nitric oxide boosters, like Citrulline, which enhance blood flow to the muscles. 

Many factors can affect muscle pumps, like natural lean mass, body fat percentage, and dietary facts. 

I have no problem admitting that I am not quite as lean or athletic as I want to be.

 For this reason, the muscle pump that I experience as a recreational athlete is not going to be the same experience that someone who is leaner and has greater muscle mass, like a competitive bodybuilder. 

I didn’t really notice a massive difference in muscle pump between most of the pre-workouts. 

A few products fell flat for me overall, like C4, Mr Hyde, and Alani Nu pre-workout. 

C4 pre-workout
Mr Hyde Pre Workout
Alani Pre-workout

There were also a few products that stood out for me in terms of pump, like Gorilla Mode Nitric, Legion Pulse, and Wrecked pre-workout. 

Gorilla Mode Nitric
Legion Pulse
Wrecked Pre-workout

Aside from these outliers, I found most pre-workouts to be fairly similar. 

Most pre-workouts now have almost identical doses of nitric oxide boosters, so some of the biggest factors affecting pumps will be lifestyle or dietary-related (read an article I wrote talking about the best pre-workout foods for pumps)

The most common pump ingredient is citrulline, but you may also find arginine, beetroot powder, or some patented ingredients like Nitrosigine® or S7®

Did I Experience Any Negative Side Effects From Taking Pre-Workout? 

pre-workout supplements

There might be different reasons that you experience side effects from your pre-workouts. 

There are variations from person to person in how they will react to the same ingredients. 

One person might be especially sensitive to caffeine and feel anxious or jittery after ingestion, while another person remains largely unaffected. 

There are also variations from product to product regarding the quality of ingredients they use or where they source their ingredients that might impact whether you experience side effects. 

This is why one product with one ingredient might make you feel a certain way, but another product with the same amount of the same ingredient doesn’t make you feel anything.

Skin Tingling

The very first time I tried pre-workout I wasn’t familiar with the skin tingling effect that is caused by an ingredient called beta-alanine

As an ego flex for the people I was going to the gym with, I took the highest recommended serving of a particular pre-workout. 

While I was driving to the gym, I began feeling a tingling sensation in my ears that intensified into itchiness and skin tingling that radiated down to my hands and thighs. 

I remember aggressively rubbing my hands on my car seat and steering wheel to try to get the itching to subside, and I called my friends in a panic, thinking I was having an allergic reaction and should go to the hospital. 

Fortunately, I was fine, albeit embarrassed, and I was experiencing a phenomenon called paresthesia, or skin tingling. 

This effect is harmless and varies from a light tingling sensation to a more intense itching. Its effects normally wear off within 10-15 minutes and should become less noticeable over time.

Even now, as an experienced pre-workout user, I noticed some massive differences between brands regarding how strong this tingling effect is. 

Two products with identical doses of beta-alanine ranged from a barely noticeable tingle to itching so uncomfortable that I wanted to tear my clothes off in the middle of the gym. 

Unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing how strongly you will feel this effect until you try the product. I hated this sensation at first but grew to appreciate it as a way of knowing that the ingredients in my pre-workout have “kicked in,” and I was feeling its effects

Others I know absolutely HATE this feeling and find it distracting. 

If you think that might be you, don’t worry. Many products don’t have beta-alanine in them (like Gorilla Mode, Gorilla Mode Nitric, or 4Gauge). 

Gorilla Mode
Gorilla Mode Nitric
4Gauge

Post-Workout Crashes

The bigger they are, the harder they fall. 

One of the biggest issues with pre-workout, especially the hard-hitters with 300-400mg of caffeine, is the risk of a post-workout energy crash

There is a specific type of caffeine that is found in almost every single pre-workout called caffeine anhydrous. It hits the system incredibly fast but tends to wear off really fast as well. 

For most of my 400-day journey, I was doing my workouts around 6 am. 

I would wake up and take my pre-workout at 5:30 am, go to the gym from 6:00 am until 7:15 am, and then jump right into my 9-5 job before going home and switching into parent mode with two busy pre-schoolers. 

No rest for the wicked. 

As such, one factor that was important for me to pay attention to was whether or not I experienced a crash effect from my pre-workout. 

I simply couldn’t afford to be suffering mental fog or fatigue at 8:00 am when my day was technically just getting started, as far as the rest of the world was concerned. 

I was surprised that I didn’t experience a crash with almost every pre-workout supplement I tried. I think supplement companies deserve a lot of credit here. Most brands now design their formulas to prevent post-workout crashes. 

They do this in one of two ways. 

One method they use is to have multiple types of caffeine in their formula, one that hits the system quickly and one that has a slower absorption rate and tapers off more slowly. 

The second way they might try to prevent a crash is by adding ingredients known to prolong the energizing effects of caffeine, like theanine

Remember that during my journey, I was already caffeine-adjusted, meaning I was used to taking high doses of caffeine, and I was used to the types of caffeine found in pre-workout, which could be why I didn’t feel the crashes as much. 

If you are not used to taking concentrated doses of caffeine, you might be more susceptible to a crash. 

It’s also worth noting that you never know how you will react to a product. 

One of the most significant crashes I experienced was when I was testing Redcon1 Total War

Redcon1 Total War

I remember having to open my windows while driving to work because I could feel my eyes trying to close. 

On a few weekday mornings after taking Total War, I napped at my work desk for the 10 minutes; I was THAT tired. 

This level of crash wasn’t isolated to just my experience. Even one of our YouTube subscribers said, “I got drowsy and had to nap afterward.”

That said, other people commented on the same video and said they “swear by this pre-workout” and it has “lasting energy, with no crash!”.  

So, it just goes to show you how much personal experience matters when it comes to pre-workouts.

Upset Stomach

The most common negative side effect I experienced from pre-workout was an upset stomach. 

There were varying degrees of this side effect, depending on the product. 

Some pre-workouts, I experienced a slight cramping or bloating effect, which usually wore off fairly quickly. 

Other pre-workouts immediately made me feel uneasy and lasted for a few hours. 

Note: drinking my pre-workout supplements on an empty stomach at 6 am is also a likely contributor to an upset stomach. 

In some cases, this side effect was easily remedied by having a small snack like a piece of toast or a protein bar before drinking the pre-workout. 

In other instances, however, the side effects were bad enough for me to pause or stop my workouts altogether. 

A few products I tested made me feel incredibly nauseous, especially during cardio sessions (most notably, Pre-Kaged and Kaged Elite). 

Pre-Kaged pre-workout
Kaged Elite

At one point, I had to stop on the side of the road during a marathon training run because I thought I might lose it all right there. 

Other pre-workouts left me running to the bathroom, where I’d have to spend several minutes in a stall waiting for the effects to run their course.

Not only was this side effect uncomfortable, but it was frustrating to be losing anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes of my short workout window while at the same time losing any elevated heart rate or muscle pump I had gained from the beginning of my workout and cooling down altogether. 

Jitteriness/Anxiety

It’s easy to look at an ingredient label and pick out basic caffeine, which is always clearly labeled. 

It’s more difficult to look at a label and pick out other ingredients that might also be stimulants but are less well-known. 

Examples of stimulants include synephrine or bitter orange extract, theobromine, Yohimbe, theacrine, guarana, and eria jarensis. 

These types of stimulants can have potent energizing and fat-burning properties. 

Still, I found that pre-workouts that contained one or more of these additional stimulants were more likely to leave me feeling jittery or anxious. 

If you consider yourself in the population that is sensitive to caffeine, then I would make sure to double-check how many of the additional stimulants mentioned above are included in your pre-workout since they might put you at an increased risk for jitteriness as well. 

A Quick Note On How To Reduce The Likelihood Of These Side Effects

It’s important to note that not everyone will experience these side effects, and not all pre-workout supplements cause them. 

The best strategy is to take ½ of a serving to assess your tolerance.                   

It is also important to pay close attention to the ingredient labels on your products. 

Some products describe “one serving” as being one scoop. Other brands describe one serving as being a half scoop. 

Make sure that you know which serving size you are taking 

Yikes, Building Up A Tolerance & Addiction To Pre-Workout: My Experience

The side effects I mentioned above are “acute,” meaning you experience them right away, and they’re relatively short-lived. 

However, there’s a darker side to pre-workout that has more “chronic” effects, which include building up a tolerance and addiction.  

Building up a tolerance means you no longer experience the energizing and/or performance-enhancing benefits that you did when you first started taking this product. 

When you build up a tolerance to pre-workout, you might start shopping for products that are more intense and contain higher doses of stimulants and ingredients. 

After building up a tolerance to the most intense products, some people will start increasing their serving sizes, for example, taking 2 scoops of pre-workout instead of 1. 

This can result in someone taking unsafe levels of stimulants and taking doses of pre-workout ingredients that have not been proven safe or effective.  

I only realized the kind of tolerance I had built up to pre-workout when I was reviewing my notes between different pre-workout products. 

Near the end of my 400-day journey, I was testing some of the highest-dosed pre-workouts containing ingredients banned in multiple countries, including Eria Jarensis, yohimbine, and DMAA

The energy that I described getting from these intense pre-workouts was the same experience I had when I started the experiment and was testing products that only had 200mg of caffeine or lower and none of the banned stimulants. 

One of the most eye-opening experiences happened when I was around 300 days into this experiment. I am a ritualistic person by nature, and I make myself a morning coffee and have a 2 pm energy drink during my workday, mostly out of habit.

At one phase of my pre-workout testing, I was inattentive and careless and was testing products containing 300mg of caffeine or more, and didn’t adjust my daily caffeine intake to reflect that. 

As a result, there were days when I was consuming upwards of 600-700mg of caffeine per day, well above the FDA’s recommended safe upper limit of 400mg

While I am grateful that I didn’t experience any significant side effects from this, a few days of irritability and poor sleep were a good reminder that I needed to remain diligent about what I was consuming daily.

There is also the possibility that you can develop a psychological dependency with long-term pre-workout use. 

A psychological dependency to pre-workout happens when you feel like you can’t work out without it or you start to crave the feeling of being on pre-workout.

For example, if you take pre-workouts with a lot of nitric oxide boosters, you might get used to how inflated your muscles look when taking this product. 

As a result, you might start to crave how “big” you look after taking nitric oxide boosters, which could lead to you taking higher doses, or taking the product more frequently, or feeling inadequate when you aren’t taking pre-workout. 

I can’t stress enough how important it is to be mindful of your physical tolerance and mental state when consuming pre-workout. 

3 Strategies I Used To Overcome These Challenges

To overcome some of these tolerance and addiction issues with long-term pre-workout use, here’s my best advice: 

1.  Don’t Use Pre-Workout For Every Workout

Don’t use pre-workout supplements every day or for every workout. 

Save your pre-workouts for days when you feel especially tired, are competing, or are pushing for a new personal best. 

2. Pair Stimulant-Based Products With Stimulant Free Products

Since caffeine and stimulants are some of the ingredients most associated with negative side effects, I like having both a caffeinated and noncaffeinated pre-workout on hand.  

For days when I need a push, I take a full scoop of my caffeinated pre-workout. 

For days when I want a slight energy boost and more muscle support, I take a half serving of my caffeinated pre and I take a half serving of my caffeine-free product. 

This gives me a full serving of nitric oxide and strength-boosting ingredients but cuts my caffeine in half. 

For days when I work out in the evening or am trying to limit my caffeine intake all around, I take a full serving of my caffeine-free pre-workout. 

3.  Try Cycling Off Pre-Workout 

If you have already been taking pre-workout consistently for a while and you are starting to notice that its effects are wearing off, or you are worried that you are developing an addiction or dependency, take a period to cycle off of pre-workout. 

You can do this by taking no pre-workout for a few weeks or switching to a stimulant-free formula to reset your caffeine tolerance. 

To reduce the likelihood of negative side effects from caffeine withdrawal, like headaches, fatigue, and irritability, you can do this gradually. 

Instead of cutting out your pre-workout cold turkey, reduce your serving size gradually until you go caffeine-free.

My favorite strategy is when I do de-load weeks or periods of lower training volume, I use that period to cycle off of pre-workout. 

When I increase training volume and intensity again, I resume pre-workout using either strategy one or two outlined above. 

Pick A Pre-Workout Based On These 5 Criteria 

Finally, for those wondering how to pick a pre-workout, I’ve developed a list of basic criteria that you can use to assess which product may work best for you.  

  • Decide on your goal: fat loss, muscle gain, aerobic performance, strength/power, etc.
  • Identify the key ingredients backed by science to help you get there (you can use my ultimate pre-workout ingredients guide as a starting point). Ensure that the doses of these ingredients are “clinically effective,” meaning they are dosed high enough to have a positive effect.
  • Decide on your caffeine level. This ranges from completely stimulant-free to moderate (100-200mg) to high (300mg or higher). When deciding your caffeine level, assess other aspects of your day and what you are or aren’t willing to cut out. For example, I am unwilling to cut out my ritualistic morning coffee. This factors into my pre-workout selection. 
  • Identify certifications you may want to exclude/include for personal reasons. This could mean finding an NSF or Informed-Sport Certified product, a Certified Vegan product, etc.
  • Don’t be afraid of making your own pre-workout, which you can learn more about in my DIY Pre-Workout Guide

Other Pre-Workout Resources

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About The Author

Jennifer Vibert

Jennifer Vibert is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Nutrition Coach, and supplement store manager. She has a Bachelor of Kinesiology with a major in Fitness and Lifestyle and a minor in Psychology from the University of Regina. She is a Certified Nutrition Coach through Precision Nutrition, with a passion for helping clients learn the fundamentals of nutrition and supplementation in order to build healthy, sustainable habits.

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

TRANSPARENT LABS BULK

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

TRANSPARENT LABS BULK

  • 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