The SHOCKING Secrets Behind Pre-Workout Supplements

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I have been a supplement store manager for more than a decade. 

I thought I knew pretty much all there was to know about pre-workout supplements. 

Then I went on a journey of taking pre-workout consistently for 400 days.

When I started, my plan was simply to test out the most popular pre-workouts to determine which products stood up to their claims and which fell short. 

Many of these reviews can be found on our YouTube Channel.

However, this experience taught me some shocking secrets about the pre-workout supplement industry. That’s what I’ll be covering today.

pre-workout supplements

Here are ten things they don’t tell you about taking pre-workout…

1. Most Of The Research Is Inconclusive At Best

Many of the bold claims made by pre-workout supplements have little if any, solid research backing them up. 

There are a few notable supplements that do have a proven track record for increasing athletic performance, like caffeine, creatine, and beta-alanine.

However, for the vast majority of pre-workout ingredients, much of the research is theoretical and based on many assumptions. 

For example, let’s examine l-citrulline, one of the most common pre-workout nitric oxide boosters. 

Muscles require oxygen to make ATP (aka energy). 

The assumption is that a product that increases blood flow and delivers more oxygen to the muscles, should help the muscles create more energy, thereby increasing athletic performance. 

So far, however, research on humans has failed to demonstrate consistently that citrulline supplementation boosts athletic performance. 

In some cases, the research methods used are inconsistent, using unreliable sample sizes or not controlling training variables, which can make it hard to draw conclusions. 

It can also be hard to secure funding for supplement research, so some ingredients aren’t studied because researchers can’t afford to. 

In other instances, the research results may be biased and untrustworthy because a supplement company has paid the researchers to fund the research. 

To be clear, I am not saying that the products in pre-workout are largely ineffective. I am just saying that the research is a lot less definitive than the companies would have us believe.

2. There Are Massive Variabilities In Product Quality

bulk ingredients
ON Pre-workout ingredients

It can be incredibly difficult to really determine the quality of a pre-workout. 

As a consumer, you have no way of knowing where a company sources its raw ingredients or which phases of the pre-workout manufacturing process are tested. 

For example, a company that advertises as third-party tested may test the individual ingredients once they arrive in the facility to ensure they are free of contaminants such as heavy metals, pesticides, or microbial contaminants. 

Once those ingredients are tested and mixed, no additional testing may be done to ensure that the ingredients inside the bottle actually meet the label claims. 

Inversely, a company may not test raw ingredients for any impurities but might test the completed product to make sure that if their product says it contains 6g of citrulline, it actually contains 6g of citrulline. 

Some companies don’t third-party test at all, and in countries that have lower supplement regulations there can be massive differences in product quality overall. 

As per this analysis published in 2021, Canada had the most strict regulations while the United States had the most relaxed ones. Other countries like Japan and Australia fell somewhere in the middle. 

Another key regulatory difference is how a product can end up on store shelves. In the United States, companies are allowed to manufacture and sell products and it is up to the governing agencies to assess these products and remove them from the shelves if necessary. 

In countries like Canada, this is done in the opposite order. Companies must first pass inspections and obtain a specific license before they can be sold on shelves. 

This is why some products might give you negative side effects like nausea, or some products may seem ineffective. 

The best way to safeguard yourself is to look for certifications like Informed-Sport Certified or NSF Certified. 

These are two organizations for athletes that have more rigorous and frequent testing protocols.

NSF Certified and Informed-Sport Certified

You can also search out companies like Transparent Labs, which not only has the Informed-Sport certification but also publicly discloses its testing results. 

Transparent Labs shows both the Certificates of Composition (like this one for Bulk Grape), which shows the exact doses of all ingredients found in the product, and the Certificates of Analysis (like this one for Bulk Peach Mango), which tests for impurities and heavy metals.

3. Most Products On The Market Are Incredibly Similar

If you try to browse your local brick-and-mortar supplement store, you might become incredibly overwhelmed by the massive selection. 

Despite this apparent selection, pre-workout supplements are honestly all quite similar. 

For instance, let’s consider these two ingredient labels. 

While small differences exist between the doses used, the overall formula is incredibly similar, with 7 out of 9 key ingredients matching.

medicinal ingredients

Across the board, you will generally find the following combination in a pre-workout supplement: 

  • One or more sources of caffeine
  • A nitric oxide booster or blend (usually citrulline)
  • A stamina enhancer, usually beta-alanine
  • An ingredient to boost mental focus (like alpha GPC or huperzine)

As a product tester for FeastGood.com, I tested 34 pre-workout supplements. The total number of different ingredients found in all of the pre-workouts was 47. 

Of these 34 products, 31 contained citrulline, 29 contained beta-alanine, and 24 contained caffeine. 

Other common ingredients included:

  • Betaine: found in 20 products
  • Tyrosine: found in 19 products
  • Taurine: found in 14 products
  • Creatine: found in 13 products

Very few ingredients were unique to just one brand or company. 

The majority of them were patented forms of stimulants like SantEnergy™ Nu or AmaTea®, found in Alpha-Lion Pre-Workout and Pre-Kaged Elite, respectively.

Alpha-Lion Pre-Workout
Pre-Kaged Elite

Only one brand featured an ingredient that no other brands had used, and that’s the Bucked Up line (featuring the pre-workouts Bucked Up and Woke AF), which contained Deer Antler velvet. 

Bucked Up
Woke AF

So, as I said, despite the apparent selection, most pre-workouts are designed using the same core ingredients. As long as clinical doses are used (i.e., above a certain threshold), they will likely have similar results. 

4.  More Ingredients Does Not Equal Better

The current trend in the pre-workout industry is to go BIG

Many of the popular pre-workouts you see online, like Ryse Loaded Pre, are now offering newer, massively dosed products. 

Ryse Loaded Pre

For instance, Ryse has added Ryse Godzilla to their lineup, featuring a 38.6g serving size. That’s bigger than most protein powder scoops.  

Ryse Godzilla

As we discover, with most things in life, more does not equal better. 

Larger scoop sizes with massive doses of ingredients are more likely to cause negative side effects like nausea, jitteriness, or insomnia. 

Furthermore, some ingredients, like theobromine, have actually been proven to negatively impact performance when taken in higher serving sizes.

5. Loyalty Often Goes To The Highest Bidder

If you’ve been relying on your favorite athlete or influencer for honest product recommendations, I have some bad news. 

In this industry, there is a surprisingly low amount of loyalty. 

Many individuals who promote brands or products will jump ship to other companies. Sometimes, this is because individuals realize that their values or ideologies don’t match up. Other times, it’s simply because the money is better with another brand.

As a supplement store manager myself, I’ve lost brand ambassadors who switched to other companies that appeared to offer better benefits. 

I’ve also had other companies’ brand ambassadors come to me while still promoting the other company to see if I could offer them better perks and discounts. 

Many websites that review supplements haven’t tested their products; they just rank the products based on the financial kickback the supplement companies give them in return for writing about them. 

At FeastGood.com, we guarantee that we will not publish an in-depth review of a product without physically getting our hands on it and testing it ourselves before making any recommendations. 

6. Even Individuals High Up In Supplement Companies Jump To Where The Grass is Greener

There is a fair amount of turnover in supplement companies. 

At the highest levels, CEOs, Account and Sales Reps, Doctors, and Chief Formulators all dance around from company to company. 

I have been on product training webinars where one of the company’s lead scientists and educators was presenting on why their products are great and what makes them better than the competition, sometimes even calling other brands out by name. 

Then a few months later I saw that the aforementioned scientist was now working for one of the competitor brands they were dissing a few months back. 

The same reasons influencers or athletes might switch are the same reasons that the people running the companies might make some moves: they go where the money goes. 

Furthermore, consumers might not realize how many companies are under the same corporate umbrella. 

For example, a company called Fit Foods manufactures multiple brands including Mutant, PVL, Whey Gourmet, and North Coast Naturals, and distributes hundreds of products to more than 70 companies. 

Also, a company called Nutra Holdings owns multiple brands too, including Jacked Factory, Transparent Labs, and Cira. 

And, these are just a couple examples of what is common practice within the supplement industry.   

So why does this matter? 

It just further blurs the lines between brands

It’s the same few people at the top that have their hands in multiple different companies. 

As such, you can’t take it at face value when someone says one pre-workout is better than another without digging into the details. 

7. What You See Online May Not Be What Arrives 

One factor that proved to be really irritating during my pre-workout journey was the fact that the product I ordered was not always the product that arrived. 

Because of different laws that make some products legal in certain countries but not in others, there are different formulas available. 

As an international author, there were times when I would order pre-workouts and start researching ingredients based on the company website. 

Then, once the product arrived, I would discover that the dosages and ingredients in the product that I received were different from those shown on the website. 

This happened for me with Mr. Hyde’s Signature, where the product I received had lower doses of citrulline, beta-alanine, choline, and Nitrosigine ® than the formula I was anticipating. 

Mr. Hyde's Signature

As a result, the pre-workout I tested very likely delivered fewer pump and mental focus benefits than the product anybody in the United States got to try.

When you have the option to switch from the US version of a site to a different country and currency, the products will often update to reflect your country’s version, but not always. 

If you live in the US, this likely isn’t a problem, but if you live internationally, buyer beware.

8. Building Up A Tolerance Or Addiction Can Happen To Anyone

I went into my 400-day pre-workout journey pretty confident that I had my caffeine habits under control and had a good handle on my dietary intake. 

It wasn’t until I reviewed some of the notes from a few different products I tested that it became really obvious what kind of tolerance I had developed. 

Some of the very first products I tested were Swolverine and Transparent Labs Stim-Free, which are caffeine-free formulas. 

Swolverine
Transparent Labs Stim-Free

Despite not having any stimulants, I still felt like these products provided good stamina increases and boosts to mental focus and mood. 

One year later, I was writing reviews for products that contained more than 300mg of caffeine, as well as additional stimulants and nootropics. 

The energizing effects that I felt from these products were not much different than those from the caffeine-free products a year prior. 

I also learned the hard way that I had developed a caffeine addiction, in that I experienced some pretty painful withdrawal symptoms when my experiment was over. 

Without realizing it, I had gotten to a point where I was consuming upwards of 600mg of caffeine per day. 

I would take a pre-workout (anywhere from 100-325 mg of caffeine), plus my morning coffee (~150mg of caffeine), and sometimes would also reach for an energy drink later in the day. 

When I was done testing my lineup of products and tried to go back to just having a coffee in the mornings, I experienced extreme headaches and some definite irritability. 

(These did subside after about 6 or 7 days, but it was a rough patch for me). 

The frequency with which I was using these products (almost daily, an average of 5 days per week) is likely the biggest factor contributing to my building up a tolerance. 

As a result, I recommend either only using pre-workout 2-3 times a week for your most intense workouts, or plan specific “deload” weeks in your program where you take 1-2 weeks off of pre-workout and stimulants entirely. 

Either of these strategies should help reduce the likelihood of developing a tolerance or addiction. 

9. You Can’t Out-Supplement Poor Habits

There’s no denying that using pre-workout did help me achieve my goals. 

The energizing and mood-boosting products helped motivate me through the dark winter mornings and periods when I really didn’t have the drive to get to the gym. 

Other products that gave me the perception of having superhuman-like stamina helped me get through my longest marathon training runs and made me excited to go to the gym and keep hitting new PRs. 

That being said, the most important factor in determining my success, whether I was bulking, cutting, or training for performance, was having a clear plan for training and nutrition and staying consistent with that program. 

When I was between training goals and didn’t have a clear focus, I struggled to make significant improvements even when taking some of the highest quality or most expensive pre-workouts available. 

Furthermore, it doesn’t matter how many muscle-building or fat-loss ingredients your pre-workout has if your nutrition isn’t dialed in. 

The people who see the best results are the people who are consistent with their training and nutrition, not the people who spend the most on popular supplement brands. 

10. There Is No Such Thing As “The Best” Pre-Workout

Here’s the big one: There is no such thing as “the best” pre-workout, despite what each supplement company will try to tell you. 

As discussed above, most formulas are very similar, and the most important factors for success will be consistency with training and nutrition. 

There will be products that are better for you based on your goals or preferences. 

Someone who describes themselves as a “stim junkie” will likely enjoy the experience of taking Ryse Loaded Pre, where somebody who wants to avoid any jitteriness or side effects might opt for Swolverine

Ryse Loaded Pre
Swolverine Pre

Athletes who are drug tested or under governing bodies like the NCAA or professional leagues may have specific certifications they need to look out for, like Informed-Sport or NSF. 

Individuals who prioritize a good-tasting product might opt for Alani Nu Pre-Workout, while individuals whose priority is high-quality, clinically dosed ingredients might look towards Transparent Labs Bulk (my personal favorite)

Alani Nu
Transparent Labs Bulk

Ultimately, each pre-workout supplement has its benefits, and each pre-workout supplement has its drawbacks. 

While testing these pre-workouts, I spent time digging into the review sections on different websites for each product. 

In every single case, individuals exclaimed, “This is the best product I have ever had in my life” or “I will literally never take any other pre-workout besides this one.” 

At the same time, individuals lamented that each of these products was the worst pre-workout they’ve ever had, that it was a waste of money, that it made them sick, that it was so bad they had to throw it into the garbage, and so on. 

When choosing the best pre-workout for you, find a company whose values align with yours, who has a product that gives you the benefits you are looking for, tastes good to you, and fits within your budget. 

And then I guarantee you will find someone who tells you it’s the worst product in the entire market. 

Other Pre-Workout Resources

Refernces

Guest, N.S., VanDusseldorp, T.A., Nelson, M.T. et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: caffeine and exercise performance. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 18, 1 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-020-00383-4

Kreider, R.B., Kalman, D.S., Antonio, J. et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 14, 18 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0173-z

Trexler, E.T., Smith-Ryan, A.E., Stout, J.R. et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: Beta-Alanine. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 12, 30 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-015-0090-y

Blaze J. A Comparison of Current Regulatory Frameworks for Nutraceuticals in Australia, Canada, Japan, and the United States. Innov Pharm. 2021 Apr 21;12(2):10.24926/iip.v12i2.3694. doi: 10.24926/iip.v12i2.3694. PMID: 34345505; PMCID: PMC8326690.

Baggott, M.J., Childs, E., Hart, A.B. et al. Psychopharmacology of theobromine in healthy volunteers. Psychopharmacology 228, 109–118 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-013-3021-0

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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On Staff at FeastGood.com, we have Registered Dietitians, coaches with PhDs in Human Nutrition, and internationally ranked athletes who contribute to our editorial process. This includes research, writing, editing, fact-checking, and product testing/reviews. At a bare minimum, all authors must be certified nutrition coaches by either the National Academy of Sports Medicine, International Sport Sciences Association, or Precision Nutrition. Learn more about our team here.

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

TRANSPARENT LABS BULK

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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