By Stepfanie Romine
There’s no worse feeling than getting halfway through your workout and hitting a wall (except maybe struggling from the start). Bonking happens, and so do crummy workouts. Even the most conditioned athletes have an off day now and again. If you’re looking for ways to help boost your energy, reduce fatigue, and perform at your peak, consider taking pre-workout supplements.* But which supplements work — and which ones are a waste of money?
Before you suffer through another so-so workout or shell out for the first supplement you see, learn what the experts and the research have to say. Here’s a rundown of five common ingredients in top pre-workout supplements.
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Some pre-workout supplements, like Ladder Pre-Workout, contain beta-alanine, an amino acid that plays a role in helping support muscle endurance during tough workouts.* According to research, beta-alanine can help:
It especially helps during intense bouts of exercise that last one to four minutes (but may also help beyond that).
Beta-alanine can cause an interesting side effect. “For some people, beta-alanine excites sensory neurons in the skin, causing a slight tingling sensation that is harmless and temporary,” says Thieme.
Take those tingles as a cue — it’s time to work out!
“Many times, caffeine can improve focus,”* she says. But overdo it and “it could have the complete opposite effect.” If you’re usually sensitive to it, take it easy with the caffeine before exercise.
Supplements can vary wildly — a 2019 study found caffeine levels can sometimes be as high as 176 percent of what's claimed on the label! (That’s why choosing a supplement you can trust matters so much.)
“The caffeine in Ladder Pre-Workout is low-dose compared to other pre-workout supplements,” says Thieme. “It contains about as much as you’d find in an eight-ounce cup of coffee, which is all you need to reap its performance-enhancing benefits, including helping delay fatigue and improved endurance.”*
Creatine (methyl guanidinoacetic acid) is produced by the body when three amino acids — arginine, glycine, and methionine — are combined.
“It is meant to help build and maintain muscle mass by resynthesizing our main energy source (ATP) at a rapid rate, to be used for muscle contraction,”* Coogan explains.
And creatine may have other benefits, too.
Coogan says creatine is safe to take before or after a workout, but make sure to choose a manufacturer with high purity standards. “Your body needs time to creatine-load,” she adds. It can take up to a month for your body to build up sufficient creatine levels to result in noticeable performance improvements.*
Ever wonder why some athletes chug beet juice before a race? It’s because beets contain nitrates. These compounds stimulate nitric oxide, which can increase blood flow to working muscles to improve performance and endurance, explains Natalie Allen, MS, RD, an instructor of biomedical sciences at Missouri State University.
Consuming nitrates in the form of beetroot is common among endurance athletes and can be effective in improving cardiorespiratory performance, she says.
Allen recommends food sources over supplements.
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. BCAAs are branched-chain amino acids, and this trio gets its name from the chemical structure. Leucine, isoleucine, and valine have distinct roles, but most research looks at how they work together. While your liver must break down other amino acids before you can use them, BCAAs can skip that step — so your muscles can use them as fuel!
If you struggle to consume enough protein in your diet, a BCAA supplement might be beneficial to help preserve lean muscle mass, says Samantha Coogan, MS, RD, the director of the didactic program in nutrition and dietetics at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.*
BCAAs aren’t just for the pros. “‘Untrained’ athletes would experience the most benefit from BCAA supplements,” she explains. That could mean someone new to working out entirely or, for example, an endurance athlete who’s starting to train in strength and power sports.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.