A few years ago, we set out to make the perfect pre-workout. Here's how we did it.
By Dr. Adam M. Gonzalez
SHIFTED’s Chief Scientific Officer
A Quick Note: Since originally formulating our Maximum formula, we've upgraded the formula to include 3.2g of Beta-Alanine, 600mg of Alpha-GPC and 325mg of total caffeine.
Dietary supplements continue to grow in popularity among fitness enthusiasts. Over the past decade, multi-ingredient pre workout supplements containing a blend of ergogenic ingredients have gained widespread attention among recreational gym-goers and high-level athletes to boost performance, enhance mental focus, and accelerate recovery.
A well-formulated pre workout supplement should provide a multi-functional drink with ingredients that work synergistically to improve exercise performance.
While the supplement industry has been extremely effective in marketing pre workout powders as mind-blowing miracle products, the truth is that most products on the market are hyped-up and ultimately ineffective.
An Industry Problem: Overhyped Supplements
The industry is filled with underdosed proprietary blends, unsubstantiated claims, and untested ingredients. Other products are simply cheap combinations of stimulants that lead to more headaches and jitters than performance boosts.
So how should one navigate an industry wrought with misinformation and misleading marketing?
To discern the best pre workout supplements from the pretenders, you need to know the fundamentals of ingredients and formulation.
By understanding the purpose of each ingredient and the proper clinical doseage of it, you can decide for yourself which ingredients are most important and whether a formula delivers effective doses of the ingredients that you value most.
So let's dive in to the most effective pre-workout ingredients and what they do.
Caffeine – The King of Energy and Alertness
Note: Our latest batches of Maximum contain 325mg of caffeine
When it comes to boosting energy and alertness, there are currently several stimulants that can be added to pre workout powders. However, caffeine remains king.
Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant that primarily functions as an antagonist of adenosine.
In other words, caffeine competes for the same receptors as adenosine – a compound that depresses action potentials and blunts the release of acetylcholine and dopamine.
Caffeine, on the other hand, blocks the binding of adenosine and promotes the release of excitatory neurotransmitters.
How does Caffeine Work?
Shortly after consumption, caffeine promotes feelings of energy and mental alertness along with enhancing cognitive function. There is also evidence that caffeine can promote fatty acid oxidation along with stimulating the release of intramuscular calcium to enhance muscle recruitment and forceful contractions.
Presently, caffeine is clearly the most common ingredient in pre workout energy blends because of its well-documented performance-enhancing effects.
What the Research Says about Caffeine
Evidence indicates that acute caffeine intake can improve several components of fitness including aerobic endurance, muscular strength, muscle endurance, power, jumping performance, and speed.
Regarding resistance training, caffeine can boost strength expression, muscle endurance, and power output.
Interestingly, caffeine also lowers pain perception and perceived exertion during exercise, making those hard training sessions seem easier.
Again, there are several stimulants that can be added to your pre workout, but none that have been as extensively researched as caffeine for safety and effectiveness.
Plus, a mixture of stimulants is more likely to cause unwanted side effects.
Clinically Effective Doses of Caffeine
Research has consistently shown that moderate amounts of caffeine (3-6 grams per kilogram of body weight) can effectively improve sports performance and resistance training when consumed within 60 minutes prior to exercise.
For a 160-pound (73 kg) person, this equates to a recommendation of approximately 220 to 440 mg of pre-exercise caffeine – similar to the amount of caffeine contained in approximately two to four cups of brewed coffee.
However, at higher doses, side effects such as insomnia, headaches, and the dreaded “crash” may be more pronounced.
Supplemental Caffeine Vs. Coffee
Currently, there is limited evidence to suggest that caffeinated coffee offers the same performance-enhancing effects in comparison to the highly studied supplemental form, caffeine anhydrous.
In addition, a proper pre workout supplement would be more efficacious and inexpensive than a trip to the coffeehouse drive-thru.
Lastly, in effort to sustain the feelings of energy and alleviate the “crash”, the use of time-release caffeine has grown in popularity.
These novel forms of caffeine have shown to lengthen the bioavailability of plasma caffeine concentrations and extend feelings of alertness.
Focus & Drive (With a Feel Good, Positive Vibe)
Caffeine is undoubtably the go-to stimulant for a pre workout blend.
Some ingredients however, offer a synergistic effect to boost focus and cognition, blunt fatigue, and improve performance.
L-theanine is an amino acid found in green tea. Otherwise, L-theanine is not found in meaningful amounts in other foods.
Supplementation has shown to assist in reducing stress and anxiety when exposed to stressful conditions.
L-Theanine in Pre-Workouts
Most importantly, L-theanine is a great pre workout ingredient because it promotes relaxation without drowsiness and works synergistically with caffeine by “taking the edge off” the stimulant effects and improving cognition and attention.
Following ingestion, L-theanine reaches the brain, improves mood and cognition, and reduces stress and anxiety.
Tyrosine is an amino acid that is used to produce dopamine and norepinephrine and may alleviate decrements in neurotransmitter function and cognitive performance under stressful situations.
Tyrosine is naturally found in protein-rich foods such as dairy, meat, eggs, and nuts.
Promising findings have been reported for enhancing working memory, mood, and cognition following supplementation.
Tyrosine in Pre-Workouts
Physical exercise and cognitively demanding tasks create stressful stimuli that challenge brain function and deplete neurotransmitter concentrations.
As a precursor dopamine and norepinephrine, tyrosine supplementation helps replete neurotransmitter levels preventing stress-induced deficits in memory, mood, attention, and cognition.
Note: Our latest batches of Maximum contain 600mg of Alpha-GPC
Alpha glycerylphosphorylcholine (alpha-GPC) serves as a source of choline for synthesis of acetylcholine.
Acetylcholine is the neurotransmitter in the brain and is also responsible for stimulating muscle contractions.
As an acetylcholine precursor, alpha-GPC supplementation has shown to enhance alertness, attention, learning, and memory, along with boosting high-intensity physical performance, power, and strength (study 1, 2, 3).
Rhodiola rosea has been used for centuries in different parts of the world and has received much attention for its role as an adaptogen.
This natural ingredient will make hard training sessions more tolerable and enjoyable by reducing symptoms of fatigue and boosting performance.
Muscle Pump & Stamina Ingredients
“The most satisfying feeling you can get in the gym is the pump” has been famously quoted by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Now, here we are over 40 years later, and according to the research, it turns out Arnold was on to something. The pump not only feels great, but it also promotes muscle growth.
So, What is “The Pump”?
The sensation known as “the pump” is created by an increased hydration of muscle fibers which induces cellular swelling.
This phenomenon whereby the muscles become engorged is a result of increased blood flow and enhanced reperfusion of plasma into the muscle.
Aside from the euphoric feeling associated with the pump, increasing blood flow to the working muscles also boosts oxygen and nutrient delivery along with facilitating clearance of metabolic byproducts that interfere with muscle contraction.
Additionally, cellular swelling may be an important stimulus for muscle growth by initiating anabolic intramuscular signaling pathways.
Consequently, lifters often “chase the pump” with pre workout supplements marketed to enhance blood flow.
Pre-Workout Ingredients for Better Pump
To date, the most effective dietary ingredients have been the nitric oxide (NO) precursors, citrulline and nitrates.
These ingredients have shown to boost NO bioavailability, which favorably influences exercise performance through its effects on skeletal muscle and blood vessels.
Nitric oxide has various performance-enhancing functions in the body including enhancing blood flow via a vasodilatory effect, reducing the oxygen and energy cost of exercise, improving the interworking of the mitochondria, and enhancing muscle contractions by improving intramuscular calcium handling.
Let’s dive into citrulline and nitrates separately since they function as ergogenic aids via discrete pathways.
Citrulline (a.k.a. L-citrulline) is a nonessential amino acid found primarily in watermelon. It serves as an endogenous precursor to arginine to promote NO synthesis.
In other words, citrulline is effectively converted to arginine for subsequent NO production through the arginine-nitric oxide pathway.
The enhanced NO bioavailability induces vascular smooth muscle relaxation leading to vasodilation (i.e., opening of the blood vessels) and improved blood flow.
You may be wondering - why not supplement directly with arginine?
Citrulline Vs. Arginine
Orally supplemented arginine has poor bioavailability and is a less efficient means of elevating blood arginine levels and subsequent NO production in comparison to supplementing with citrulline.
Citrulline may also improve muscle function and decrease muscle fatigue by enhancing ammonia-buffering, improving aerobic utilization of pyruvate, and decreasing lactate production.
It is currently among the most common ingredients found in multi-ingredient pre workout supplements.
Over the past decade, there has been a growing number of research studies investigating the effects of citrulline supplementation on exercise performance.
What Does the Research Say about Citrulline?
Overall, the evidence suggests that citrulline has great potential for favorably effecting both endurance and resistance training performance.
The most recent reviews of the literature have suggested that citrulline supplementation can improve measures of endurance performance (i.e., time-to-exhaustion or time-to-completion), benefit high‐intensity strength and power performance, reduce perceived exertion and markers of muscle soreness, and improve resistance training performance by enhancing repetitions-to-failure.
Clinically Effective Doses of Citrulline
How much citrulline should you look for in your pre workout?
The minimum effective dose appears to be approximately 3 grams, while the maximum effective dose remains unclear, but may be as high as 10-15 grams. Watermelon is the most naturally rich dietary source of citrulline; however, you would need to eat several pounds of fresh watermelon per day to provide a 3 gram dose of citrulline. Therefore, it is more sensible to supplement with citrulline.
Studies reporting benefits on exercise performance typically provide 6-8 grams of citrulline malate (in a 2:1 or 1:1 ratio).
However, there is currently no evidence that malate offers any added benefit to citrulline.
Be aware that a label claim of ‘8 grams of citrulline malate’ (offering ~4-5.5 g of citrulline) is different than a product that contains ‘8 grams of L-citrulline’.
While most products on the market use citrulline malate, current recommendation would be to supplement with higher dose L-citrulline 60-90 minutes prior to exercise.
Nitric oxide can also be produced via a separate process – the nitrate pathway. Therefore, dietary nitrates serve as an alternative NO booster.
After consumption, nitrates are converted to nitrite, which is subsequently converted to NO – exerting the previously mentioned physiological effects including increased blood flow.
Nitrates are found naturally in foods such as beets and leafy greens (e.g., spinach, kale, arugula).
Since these foods are not typically consumed in high quantities, nitrate supplementation has become a popular pre workout supplement for its potential to improve overall health and exercise performance.
What Does the Research Say about Nitrates?
Dietary nitrate supplementation, in the form of beet root juice, has been extensively studied showing to improve cardiorespiratory endurance performance by increasing exercise efficiency.
While there is compelling evidence for nitrate supplements to delay fatigue during endurance activities at a variety of intensities, nitrates have also recently gained the attention of those engaging in high-intensity training and resistance exercise.
First, the current evidence does suggest that beet root juice supplementation improves fatigue resistance during activities requiring multiple sprints.
Furthermore, there are several reasons to speculate that NO production via dietary nitrate supplementation is an even more effective approach for lifters, as compared to L-citrulline.
Nitrates for Better Strength, Endurance, and Pump
Since NO synthesis via the nitrate pathway is NO synthase independent, it does not require the presence of oxygen, and is stimulated by hypoxia and acidosis – all of which are natural states induced by high-intensity exercise such as resistance training.
Additionally, nitrate has been shown to preferentially increase blood flow to the stronger Type II muscle fibers and increase muscular contraction speed and power output.
Lastly, daily nitrate supplementation may increase intramuscular storage over time making regular use even more ergogenic.
In multi-ingredient pre workout supplements, beet root extract has gained popularity to offer the benefits of beet root juice.
Additionally, a novel, nitrate-rich ingredient known as red spinach extract has also shown to elevate plasma nitrate concentrations similar to beet root juice, improve lower-body blood flow, and improve markers of exercise performance including ventilatory threshold, and cycling completion times, power, and speed.
Lastly, it is likely that nitrates and citrulline work synergistically when consumed together in a pre workout supplement.
Fatigue Fighting Ingredients
Now that we have covered the best pre-workout ingredients for pump and stamina, let's take a look at another group of equally impactful ingredients.
Ultimately, you get out of your workouts what you put into them. And these next pre-workout ingredients are those that help you bring peak energy and focus to your workouts.
Note: Our latest batches of Maximum have 3.2g of Beta-Alanine.
Beta-alanine is a naturally occurring, non-essential amino acid that is synthesized in the liver and found in meats such as beef, fish, chicken, and turkey.
The mechanism of action for beta-alanine is to serve as the rate-limiting precursor to the endogenous intracellular buffer, carnosine.
In other words, when beta-alanine is consumed, some of it is taken up by muscle where it binds to another amino acid (histidine) to produce a dipeptide known as carnosine.
Beta-alanine is the rate-limiting step for carnosine synthesis and is therefore the most efficient dietary supplement for increasing the muscle’s carnosine concentrations. That is, it would be futile to supplement with histidine or directly with carnosine.
What Does the Research Say about Beta-alanine?
Studies show that regular supplementation with beta-alanine for at least 4 weeks can increase muscle carnosine concentrations by 20-80%.
This becomes meaningful for athletes because carnosine plays several important roles during exercise including fighting free radicals along with aiding in enzyme and intramuscular calcium regulation.
However, the primary role of carnosine for enhancing exercise performance is via its function as an intracellular pH regulator. Carnosine has been proposed to contribute up to 40% of the capacity of skeletal muscle to buffer hydrogen ions produced during high-intensity exercise.
Without regulation of these hydrogen ions and low intramuscular pH, muscle contraction is negatively impacted by the acidic environment causing muscle fatigue and decreased performance.
Furthermore, beta-alanine supplementation has shown to augment carnosine concentrations in the brain which potentially offers therapeutic applications such as neuroprotection.
Several studies have reported that beta-alanine supplementation can increase high-intensity intermittent exercise performance along with training adaptations, with the greatest benefits observed for high-intensity efforts lasting between 30 seconds to 10 minutes.
Overall, beta-alanine supplementation clearly increases muscle carnosine concentrations and improves exercise capacity and performance.
The next question is how much should you take?
Clinically Effective Doses of Beta-alanine
There is strong evidence to show that a higher dose and/or longer supplementation period leads to greater elevations of muscle carnosine.
Current recommendations for daily beta-alanine supplementation are to take 0.8 to 1.6 g every 3-4 hours throughout the day, with most studies using doses of 3.2 to 6.4 grams per day, for periods ranging from 4 to 24 weeks.
It is generally not advised to take a single high dose of beta-alanine to avoid the severity of the uncomfortable tingling sensation on the skin (known as paresthesia) that occurs following beta-alanine intake.
Although the exact cause of paresthesia is unknown, this side effect has shown to be harmless. Also, experiencing the tingling sensation does not mean “it’s working”, as studies have failed to show an acute effect of paresthesia on performance.
In other words, when you feel the tingle it does not necessarily mean that you have taken an effective dose.
elevATP®, a proprietary blend of ancient peat and apple extracts, has raised some eyebrows over the past few years with overwhelmingly positive research study outcomes.
What Does the Research Say about elevATP®?
This natural blend contains several plant bio-inorganic trace minerals and polyphenol-rich apple extracts. Supplementation with 150 mg of elevATP® has shown to significantly increase the levels of blood ATP – the body’s energy currency.
During the 2 hours following elevATP® intake, blood ATP levels significantly increased by 64% when compared to a placebo. Follow up analysis confirmed these results and showed the potential for elevATP® to increase intramuscular ATP levels.
The ingredient’s role as an antioxidant may enhance the functioning of mitochondria and blunt production of reactive oxygen species.
Based on these promising findings, researchers then began to investigate the effects of this novel ingredient on exercise performance, along with changes in body composition and strength.
First, a single dose of elevATP® showed to improve performance and calorie burn during a 20-minute stepping protocol in previously untrained individuals.
Next, compared to a placebo, daily supplementation with elevATP® showed to enhance muscle growth and strength and power when combined with a resistance training program. Importantly, these studies also indicated no adverse changes to health markers including blood chemistry profiles.
In summary, elevATP® has shown to safely boost concentrations of our body’s currency of energy (i.e., ATP), improve exercise output, and improve body composition and strength performance.
Taurine is an amino acid that plays a role in a variety of biological processes that can support exercise performance. Taurine supplementation (1-2 grams) has shown to improve exercise efficiency and enhance endurance performance.
Some evidence also suggests that taurine can improve high-intensity training by improving force generation or attenuating fatigue-induced strength losses.
For good reason, taurine is a staple ingredient in energy drinks.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is a fat-soluble vitamin-like compound that plays a role in delaying fatigue. CoQ10, otherwise known as ubiquinone, is a versatile molecule because of its participation in many cellular functions – including supporting antioxidant capacity, cell signaling, and mitochondria function.
Physical exercise and demanding tasks require an increase in oxygen uptake which, in turn, ramps up the production of free radicals and reactive oxygen species that promote muscular damage, muscle soreness, and physical fatigue.
CoQ10’s antioxidant properties alleviate the production of reactive oxygen species produced during exercise diminishing muscle damage and feelings of fatigue.
CoQ10 also plays an important role in energy production in the mitochondria aiding in the conversion of fatty acids and carbohydrates to ATP.
Because of this, CoQ10 is an excellent ingredient for fighting fatigue and pushing yourself further in the gym.
Strength & Body Composition Ingredients
Several ingredients already included in this article have shown to have great potential for improving strength and body composition.
However, there are still two key players that you would not want to go without in your pre workout – creatine monohydrate and betaine.
These two ingredients are king when it comes to boosting strength in the gym.
Creatine monohydrate is the most highly studied dietary supplement ever.
Not only is it extremely well-researched, but it is also exceptionally effective for both men and women.
The latest review from the International Society of Sports Nutrition stated that, “Creatine monohydrate is the most effective ergogenic nutritional supplement currently available to athletes in terms of increasing high-intensity exercise capacity and lean body mass during training.”
How Does Creatine Work?
Creatine is a compound made up of three amino acids – arginine, glycine, and methionine.
It is predominantly stored as creatine and phosphocreatine in our skeletal muscles, but small amounts are also present in cardiac and smooth muscle, brain, bone, and testes (in males).
Among several other potential mechanisms of action, phosphocreatine acts as a reserve of high-energy phosphate that is used to rapidly convert ADP back to ATP.
In other words, creatine facilitates rapid energy regeneration during exercise, particularly during bursts of high-intensity performance.
However, there is naturally a limited supply of phosphocreatine in the muscle which limits exercise capacity during intense workouts.
The ability of creatine to boost performance is dependent upon its concentration within the muscles.
Therefore, the original question long ago was: can creatine supplementation increase muscle creatine stores?
Indeed, the research clearly supports that regular supplementation of creatine can increase muscle creatine stores by 20-40% in most individuals.
Clinically Effective Doses of Creatine
While many pre workouts will sprinkle in some creatine, a 2-5 grams dose is needed to reap the benefits.
You might be overwhelmed by all the different types of creatine on the market. Nevertheless, to date, there has not been (and most likely never will be) a form of creatine shown to be superior to creatine monohydrate.
Therefore, there is absolutely no reason to suggest the use of any form of creatine other than creatine monohydrate. Plus, the old-school loading phase of 20-25 grams per day for a week is not necessary – unless there is an urgent need to achieve full muscle creatine saturation very rapidly.
Otherwise, within about a month, daily supplementation with 2-5 grams of creatine monohydrate per day will saturate muscle creatine stores to the same degree.
What Does the Research Say about Creatine?
Now, on to the well-researched benefits of creatine monohydrate supplementation.
Creatine has consistently shown to improve exercise performance across several different types of activities without any adverse side effects noted in the research.
It appears to be most effective for improving high-intensity training and sports involving repeated sprints. Also, when combined with a resistance training program, it elicits further gains in muscle size and strength.
Betaine (otherwise known as trimethylglycine) is naturally found in the diet in foods such as beets, wheat bran, spinach, & shrimp, but most people tend to intake small amounts from the diet.
This ingredient first caught the attention of sports nutritionists because supplemental betaine has been shown to increase muscle mass and decrease fat mass in pigs, cattle, & chickens.
How Does Betaine Work?
The primary potential mechanisms of action include serving as a methyl donor (which may increasing growth factor sensitivity and intramuscular anabolic signaling), acting as an osmolyte to maintain fluid balance and increase muscular hydration, enhance the body’s synthesis of creatine and carnitine, and promoting fat breakdown.
Overall, betaine supplementation research in humans has been promising. For example, when combined with a resistance training program, betaine supplementation has shown to reduce body fat percentage and fat mass while increasing markers of strength and power (study 1, 2).
Shifted Pre Workout
Shifted has relentlessly worked to take the guesswork out of choosing the right pre workout formula and assure you don’t miss out on a high-powered, optimally-dosed pre workout formula to achieve your fitness goals in and out of the gym.
Shifted Premium Pre Workout was built to provide all the science-backed ingredients at optimal dosages to better your performance, while eliminating the ingredients that have proven ineffective.
Shifted Maximum Pre Workout raises the bar with the addition of even more science-backed ingredients including Red Spinach Leaf Extract (as Oxystorm ® ), ElevATP ®, Co-Enzyme Q10, ZumXR ® Delayed Release Caffeine, and B-vitamins, along with providing maximal clinically effective doses of all its performance-enhancing ingredients.
Get the most out of every workout by enhancing feelings of energy, pump, focus, strength, endurance, and overall mood with SHIFTED.