Is your pre-workout supplement a waste of money?

Is your pre-workout supplement a waste of money?

Pre-workout supplements are very popular with regular gym goers these days but are they worth it? Or are they just an expensive placebo?

There aren’t many supplements that research has consistently shown to have a positive performance enhancing effect. There are a few that have shown to be beneficial though, but the key is in the dosage. Most pre workout supplements boast containing such compounds, but lack sufficient amounts per serving to really have a meaningful effect.

Let’s look at a few common ingredients of pre workouts and what the research says about them.


Citrulline malate is a promising ingredient with studies showing it helps increase work capacity, reduce fatigue and improve endurance. So far so good.

However, the recommended dosage to get these benefits is 6,000 – 8,000 mg of citrulline malate about an hour before exercise. (1)

Have a look on the tub of your pre workout and check how much is in a serving. I’d put money on it falling short of the 6-8g recommended dosage. Most I’ve seen contain between 1.5-3g per serving.

This is partly down to the fact that citrulline malate is pretty expensive. So the supplement companies, not wanting to inflate the price of their product, keep the dosage fairly low. They include some of it so that can advertise that their product does contain it.



This is the ingredient that can sometimes cause that tingling feeling you experience after taking a pre-workout. Personally, I can’t stand it.

Beta-alanine has been shown to improve muscular endurance both with weight training and moderate to high intensity cardio exercise like rowing and sprinting. So it can be beneficial to take. However, it doesn’t need to be taken pre-workout. It doesn’t have an immediate affect, like caffeine does for example.

The recommended dosage is 2-5g/day (2). The bigger the dose, the more likely you’ll experience that tingling feeling. This can be avoided by splitting it into smaller doses throughout the day.

Again, check the back of your pre-workout supplement and see if the dose/serving reaches this level. It might do, it might not.

Not that the dosage pre workout matters that much per se, due to the fact it doesn’t have an immediate affect. But, if your pre-workout is your only source of beta-alanine, then you might not be reaching the 2-5g daily dose.


Caffeine is very well researched. And as any coffee lover knows, the stimulatory, anti-sleep effects can be quite potent. It can also be used to improve physical strength and endurance. However, regular consumption reduces it’s effectiveness due to a tolerance being built up.

Caffeine is the probably the one ingredient in your pre-workout you ‘feel’ working the most.

Dosages should be tailored to the individual, depending on their tolerance and habitual intake. Recommended doses range from 100mg-500mg, with 200mg being a quite common dosage.(3) For reference, a standard coffee contains 70–140 mg of caffeine.



Creatine is arguably the most effective and well researched supplement for gains in strength & muscle mass. So I would definitely recommended looking into taking it if gaining muscle & strength are among your goals.

However, it does not need to be taken pre-workout. It doesn’t have an instant effect. It works by saturating the muscle and increasing your natural creatine stores. Which then lead to the muscle & strength gains. You can take it pre-workout if you like but you don’t need to.

The thing you need to pay attention to however, is the amount of creatine in your pre-workout of choice. A fairly standard recommended dose is 5g/day of creatine monohydrate*. (4) Most pre-workouts I’ve looked at don’t seem to reach this dosage, so you could be missing out on the beneficial effects if your pre-workout is the only source of creatine you’re getting.

*Other forms of creatine haven’t been shown to be more effective & tend to be more expensive.


All proteins are made of amino acids, with BCAA’s, (branch chained amino acids), being 3 of them. They’re the 3 amino acids most associated with promoting muscle protein synthesis (MPS), the growth of new muscle. However, supplementing with them is unnecessary for people with an adequate protein intake, (5), because they’ll be getting  enough BCAA’s from their food.

Although it’s quite popular to do so, taking BCAA’s before or during your workout is probably giving no benefit in the majority of cases. You could make an argument to supplement with BCAA’s if you’re training first thing in the morning before eating anything. But, the recommended dosage being somewhere in the 10-20g range. Again, check the dosage per serving of your pre-workout. I’d bet that most don’t contain anywhere near that amount.

Note: I used to take BCAA’s during my workout but stopped after reading up more on them. Just for completeness, I do take them during long bike rides as protein potentially contributes towards energy production during prolonged exercise bouts. And I don’t want to risk my body delving into my muscle tissue to meet that requirement. But that’s only rides lasting 2-4 hours at a decent intensity. Hardly comparable to the average 1 hour gym session, where 90% of the time you’re resting between sets.


L-Arginine is often included in pre-workout supplements for it’s supposed benefits on blood flow, resulting in a better ‘pump’. However, the effects of supplementation appear to be unreliable in healthy adults. (6)

Some studies have shown a slight benefit in blood flow, but some studies haven’t.

A supplement mentioned above, L-citrulline, actually increases levels of arginine in the body than more so than arginine itself. So L-citrulline is probably a better supplement to take anyway.

‘To maintain elevated arginine levels throughout the day, arginine can be taken up to three times a day, with a combined dose total of 15-18g’ (6) However, as mentioned above, L-citrulline is a better supplement to take. Making supplementing with L-arginine not really worth it.

Why am I telling you this?

To help you save money while getting better results!

My aim, as always, is to help people, as corny as that sounds, by educating them about diet & fitness related stuff. In this case, it might help their bank balance as well as their results in the gym.

If you really wanted to take a pre-workout supplement I would suggest buying individual ingredients and creating your own, only with appropriate doses, as laid out above. However, this could prove somewhat expensive. So it’s your call if you believe the benefits are worth the financial cost.

If you want a boost pre-workout, I’d just recommend having a strong coffee. Or take a caffeine pill. You can get 100 from My Protein for £4.99 here. I’d bet you’d get as much of a boost from just taking caffeine before your workout than any fancy, expensive pre-workout.

Take Home Points

  • Most pre-workouts don’t contain enough of each ingredient to really have a beneficial affect
  • Most ingredients don’t even have a decent amount of research showing any performance enhancing affect
  • The recommended serving for citrulline malate is 6-8g/day. Are you getting that from your pre-workout?
  • The recommended serving for beta-alanine is 2.5g/day and doesn’t need to be taken pre-workout. Are you getting 2.5g from your pre-workout?
  • Caffeine is the single ingredient you ‘feel’ the most effect from. 200mg being a quite common dosage.
  • The recommended serving for creatine is 5g/day and doesn’t need to be taken pre-workout. Creatine monohydrate is as effective as any other form of creatine and is the cheapest. Are you getting 5g from your pre-workout?
  • Supplementing with BCAA’s is unnecessary for people with an adequate protein intake in most situations. They might be useful if you’re training first thing in the morning before eating anything. With the recommended serving around 10-20g. Are you getting that much from your pre-workout?
  • L-citrulline, actually increases levels of arginine in the body than arginine itself. So L-citrulline is probably a better supplement to take. Making supplementing with L-arginine not really worth it.
  • I’d recommend saving your money and just taking some caffeine before your workout. You’ll probably get just as much a benefit as your expensive pre-workout.

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