Need a Boost? Crush Your Next Sweat Session With These Pre-Workout Powders
Let’s be honest: Sometimes, the idea of a workout alone isn’t enough to get up and moving. Thankfully, pre-workout supplements exist to offer an energy boost. While there are certainly great foods to eat before a workout, the best pre-workout powders make for a less filling and often faster-acting alternative.
The performance-enhancing benefits of pre-workout supplements aren’t new news, but their increased popularity in recent years has lead to a boom in options. And, because many brands have hopped on the pre-workout bandwagon, it can be difficult to know which formulas are any good (not to mention which are less likely to cause a jittery case of gym-xiety). To learn more about what pre-workout powders do—and who should try them—we spoke with Chelsea Phillips, CPT, a nutritionist and the lead trainer at MADabolic Brooklyn. Read on for her take, as well as a few pre-workout powders that are actually worth trying.
The Best Pre-Workout Powders, at a Glance:
Best trainer-approved: SFH, Push Pre-Workout, $50
Best NSF-certified: Cellucor, C4 Sport Pre-Workout, $21
Best plant-based: Garden of Life, Sport Organic Plant-Based Energy+Focus, $29
Best with simple ingredients: Promix, Pre-Workout, $33
Best hydrating: Liquid I.V., Energy Multiplier, $25
Writer’s pick: Ghost, Legend Pre-Workout, $45
Best highly-caffeinated: 1st Phorm, Project-1 Pre-Workout, $55
Best multi-purpose: BetterDays, BetterGreens (Caffeinated), $53
Best flavor options: Bloom, Pre-Workout, $40
Best for energy and endurance: 1UP Nutrition, 1UP Pre-Women, $56
What is a Pre-Workout Powder?
Pre-workout powders are multi-ingredient formulas that aim to enhance your workout performance. Common ingredients are creatine, caffeine, and branched-chain amino acids (or BCAAs), although the formula will vary from brand to brand.
Fans of pre-workout supplements say that taking it 30-60 minutes before a sweat session has its perks. “The biggest benefits I see, and the reason why I use them, are boosted energy, quicker recovery, and assistance in muscular growth,” explains Phillips.
Additionally, several small studies (like this one and this one) have found that taking a pre-workout supplement before strength training can help improve energy and power outputs. And research around BCAAs suggests that supplementing with amino acids before a workout helps boost muscle growth and reduces soreness.
What to Look for In a Pre-Workout Powder
As we mentioned above, each brand’s pre-workout formula is a little different. “I’d pay attention to the caffeine amount, this is what helps with the boost of energy and is also useful to know if you’re planning to use late at night or after already drinking a cup of coffee,” says Phillips. “I’d also look for the BCAA’s or amino acids in the product. These will help aid recovery and assist with muscular growth. A lot of pre workouts also contain creatine which is super helpful in this process as well.”
It’s also important to note that, like all dietary supplements in the U.S., pre-workout powders aren’t regulated by the FDA. That means it’s extra important to read the full ingredient list and, when possible, look for proof of third-party testing from reputable organizations like NSF.
Shop 10 Great Pre-Workout Powders
This formula from SFH is Phillips’ go-to. It includes a combination of B vitamins (B6, B12, and B3, also known as niacin), various amino acids, and glycine, which works with BCAAs to prevent soreness. It’s also gluten-free, vegan, free of artificial flavoring, and comes two flavors: fruit punch or lemonade.
Review from our expert: “The fruit punch is my favorite flavor. It has quality ingredients, not an insane amount of caffeine, and has electrolytes to aid in hydration.”
Key ingredients: B6, B12, B3 (niacin), BCAAs, beta-alanine, glycine
Caffeine: 115mg per serving
Gluten-free, vegan, and no artificial flavors
Contains several B vitamins
Includes glycine to support BCAAs
Only two flavors
C4 Sport Pre-Workout is a widely popular pick. It features 135 milligrams of caffeine, so it’s on the moderate side compared to other pre-workout brand offerings. It’s another option that contains electrolytes, plus magnesium which research suggests helps aid exercise performance and recovery. We also appreciate that it’s NSF-certified for sport, meaning it’s been third-party tested and is free of banned substances.
Review from the author: “I used to take C4 before switching to Ghost (below)—it’s ultra-energizing and it tastes great.”
Key ingredients: Beta-alanine, caffeine, creatine, magnesium chloride, B vitamins
Caffeine: 135mg per serving
Contains magnesium, creatine, and electrolytes
Includes some artificial flavors and coloring
If you’re looking for a plant-based option, check out this USDA Organic-certified, gluten-free, and NSF-certified pick from Garden of Life. In addition to caffeine and vitamin B12, this formula relies on an organic nitric oxide blend that includes veggies like spinach, kale, and beets. However, this is one formula that does contain organic cane sugar for sweetness, and 11 grams is a decent amount for a supplement—something to consider!
Key ingredients: Vitamin B12, organic coffee fruit extract (caffeine), organic nitric oxide blend
Caffeine: 85mg per serving
Certified by NSF and USDA Organic
Includes a blend of organic veggies
Slightly less caffeine (may be a con for some)
Higher sugar content than other picks on this list (although blackberry cherry flavor is sugar-free)
Want a super simple formula with ingredients you can pronounce? Promix’s vegan pre-workout focuses on natural ingredients like lemon extract, berries, and caffeine from green coffee beans. And, of course, it includes amino acids like beta-alanine, taurine, and l-tyrosine to help promote healthy muscle growth and recovery. It’s available in a variety of flavors, like Raspberry Lemon, Cherry Lime, and Florida Orange—there’s even a caffeine-free version of the Raspberry Lemon flavor.
Key ingredients: Taurine, beta-alanine, l-tyrosine, vitamin B12, vitamin C, caffeine
Caffeine: 200mg per serving
Short ingredient list
Caffeine-free option available
No creatine, which may be a turnoff for some
Whether you’re looking to workout, tackle a challenging work project, or simply enhance your focus overall, the Liquid I.V.’s Energy Multiplier is a great option. The lemon ginger flavor uses matcha tea, while other flavors (like Yuzu Pineapple) use coffee fruit extract. The caffeine-enhanced, single-serve packets contain L-theanine to calm nerves, effectively balancing out any potential for jitters. But that’s not all: It’s also chock-full of electrolytes, so it will hydrate you, too.
Our review: When we tested this product, we felt energized but not anxious, no longer plagued by dehydration headaches, capable of making it through an entire workout without feeling fatigued, and focused throughout.
Key ingredients: Matcha tea, guayusa (another plant-based source of caffeine), vitamin B3, B5, B6 and B12
Caffeine: 100mg per serving
Easy stick packs for on-the-go use
Pricier per serving than some other picks on this list
No amino acids
Between the brightly-colored packaging, delicious flavors, and nostalgic collabs, Ghost has made a name for itself in the world of supplements. The brand’s Legend Pre-Workout’s sugar-free formula is a favorite of writer Rebecca Norris. She says, “As someone who has tried a number of classic pre-workout powders, I find Ghost Legend Pre-Workout to be the most energizing without any jittery side effects. That’s likely because the brand uses natural caffeine from coffee extract (albeit in large doses—250 milligrams per scoop). The Blue Raspberry flavor is my favorite and even if I only use half or ⅔ of a scoop, I still feel adequately energized to absolutely crush a Whitney Simmons Alive Lift Workout.”
Key ingredients: Choline, amino acids l-citrulline and beta-alanine, caffeine
Caffeine: 250mg per serving
Higher caffeine for those who want it
Fun, nostalgic flavor options
Contains artificial flavoring
1st Phorm is another well-known supplement brand, and the Project-1 Ultimate Full Spectrum Performance Pre-Workout is one of their best sellers. It’s is formulated with several sources of caffeine to increase energy and focus, as well as creatine and amino acids to enhance muscle pump and improve overall performance. That said, it has a whopping 300 milligrams of caffeine per serving, so you may want to start off with only a fraction of a scoop.
Key ingredients: Creatine, caffeine, beta-alanine, l-theanine, beta-anhydrous (which aids hydration)
Caffeine: 300mg per serving
While this particular formula isn’t NSF certified, other 1st Phorm products are
Beta-anhydrous aids hydration
Caffeine may be too intense for some
Manufactured in the same facility as wheat, soy, and dairy (if you’re severely allergic)
This caffeinated version of Better Days’ BetterGreens supplement isn’t technically a pre-workout powder—but it works wonderfully as such. The single-serving sticks feature half of your daily serving of fruits and veggies, plus a modest 120 milligrams of caffeine. It also features an enzyme blend that aims to help digestion. When building your order you can select three different flavors to create a variety pack. There are lots to choose from, but the peach-limeade flavor is by far the best, IMHO.
Key ingredients: Digestive enzyme blend, fruit and greens blends, caffeine, apple cider vinegar
Caffeine: 120mg per serving
Includes half your day’s servings of fruits and veggies
No artificial flavors or colorings
Customizable with a variety of flavors to choose from
Lacking amino acids and creatine
Bloom Nutrition is specifically designed to boost energy without causing anxiety or jitters. It’s formulated with ginseng and green tea leaf to offer a natural energy burst sans a sluggish crash down the line. Where the Original Pre-Workout (which features 80 milligrams of caffeine) is meant for low-intensity workouts and beginners, the High-Energy version (which features 225 milligrams of caffeine) is designed for HIIT workouts and intermediate to advanced gym-goers. Clean energy aside, the flavors are stellar, too—particularly the raspberry lemonade option.
Key ingredients: Vitamin C, vitamins B6 and B12, beta-alanine, l-theanine, green tea extract, ginseng
Caffeine: 80mg per serving
Large variety of fun flavors
No added sugars or artificial coloring
High energy option available if 80mg caffeine per serving isn’t enough
No options with creatine
1Up Nutrition 1UP Pre-Women is beloved by many gym-goers for its all-in-one formula. It’s designed to boost energy, focus, pump, and endurance, and openly showcases every ingredient in the mix (which isn’t always the normal with traditional pre-workout brands). 1UP also lab tests all of their blends to ensure quality and accuracy. This powder features 250 milligrams of caffeine from green coffee beans, plus an energy boost from guarana and vitamin B9. For a strong pre-workout boost, the brand recommends taking half a scoop; for an intense boost, they recommend one.
Key ingredients: Vitamins B3 (niacin) and B9 (folate), calcium, guarana seed extract, citrulline (an amino acid)
Servings: 20-40 depending on your scoop preference
Caffeine: 250mg per serving (for a full scoop)
Priciest on this list
Contains some artificial flavors
Who Should (and Who Shouldn’t) Try a Pre-Workout Powder?
“I think anyone who’s looking for an extra boost, either during or in recovery, could benefit from a pre-workout,” says Phillips. However, she does note that those with a sensitivity to caffeine should be cautious. “While I haven’t tried them, I do believe there are a few caffeine-free options to explore.”
Phillips also warns that large doses of the amino acid beta alanine has been known to cause a feeling of itchiness for some people. “Some love this sensation when it kicks in and some don’t,” she says. “So if the product you’re choosing has a high amount of this amino acid, I’d start with a smaller serving and go from there.”
If you have a medical condition, it’s important to speak to your doctor before trying a pre-workout. People who are pregnant or nursing should also hold off on using pre-workout supplements. And, regardless of whether you opt for a pre-workout powder or not, it’s always important to fuel (and hydrate!) before exercise. Try eating a pre-workout snack like a banana or whole wheat toast with nut butter an hour or two before your next workout to see how you feel.
Other things to consider before buying a pre-workout powder
Your specific goals
Whether you’re hoping to feel more energized in the gym or are aiming to build muscle, your specific goals should inform the pre-workout you choose. Not sure what those are? Speaking with a dietician or personal trainer can help.
Our list features a wide range of prices, from $20 to $56 for 30 servings (at the time of publish). Take your budget into consideration and look at the full ingredient list to make sure you’re not paying more for ingredients that might not match your goals.
Your workout schedule
Because almost every pre-workout option contains caffeine, you’ll want to consider the time of day you tend to work out. If you like an early morning workout, kicking your day off with caffeinated pre-workout might be just what you need. If you’re an evening gym-goer, taking 200mg of caffeine mere hours before bedtime might take a toll on your sleep schedule.