When your feet are dragging, pre-workout promises to put the pep back into your step that you need to crush whatever exercise you have planned, whether it’s an interval session on the treadmill or a date with some dumbbells. There are loads of different pre-workout supplements out there, and though they’ve all got their differences, they share one common goal: to enhance physical performance while reducing fatigue and lethargy so that you can have a leg up when it comes to reaching your fitness goals, explains The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N.
Many pre-workouts get their oomph from ingredients known as stimulants—two big ones are caffeine and guarana (an Amazonian plant)—but these formulas don’t always work for everyone. Some people are more sensitive to stimulants than others and may experience symptoms such as shakiness, dizziness, headaches, and even insomnia alongside that desired burst of energy.
Luckily, more and more “stim-free” pre-workout supplements, which don’t contain stimulants and instead rely on a variety of other interesting ingredients to support the body’s ability to perform at its best, are hitting the market these days. And they’re not just for slow caffeine metabolizers, either.
A stim-free pre-workout can come in handy if you work out in the late afternoon or evening (certain stimulates can stay in your system for several hours and prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep), says Jerry Bailey, D.C., LA.c., a certified nutritionist, acupuncturist, chiropractor, and functional medicine physician with Lakeside Holistic Health. Stim-free options can also work for people with blood pressure issues, who may want to avoid stimulants, which may increase blood pressure.
Interested in incorporating a stim-free pre-workout into your fitness regimen? A formula that gets the job done will contain at least a few of these all-star ingredients.
Creatine has been used as an ingredient in pre-workout supplements for decades, after gaining popularity after the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. It’s made from three amino acids—methionine, glycine, and arginine—and helps bump up muscle performance by promoting a faster regeneration of ATP (or energy) within the cells of the body, explains The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist, Brittany Michels, R.D.N., L.D.N. C.P.T. Today, it’s one of the most popular sports nutrition supplements for supporting muscle growth and strength gains. “Most non-stim pre-workout formulas containing creatine provide between one and 1.5 grams per serving,” says Michels.
BCAAs, or branched-chain amino acids, help improve endurance during a workout by supporting cellular energy production and also help to increase strength by supporting protein synthesis, which is the process in which the cells in our body create protein, explains Bailey. Given these functions, it’s no wonder they’re included in many a stim-free pre-workout. “Taking BCAAs prior to, or just after, a workout increases the muscle repair from the workout by providing your body with the building blocks it needs already broken down, meaning you do not have to break them down through digestion post-workout,” he says. “They are quick to absorb and be used to repair your muscle tissue.”
To maximize the muscle-boosting benefits of BCAAs, Michels recommends seeking out a formula that contains somewhere between five and 6.5 grams of the unique aminos per serving.
Our pick: BodyTech Elite Ultimate BCAA
3. Nitric oxide-boosters
Nitric oxide-boosters—most notably the amino acids arginine and citrulline, as well as beet powder—expand your veins and arteries, making it easier for blood to flow around your body and deliver nutrients more quickly and more efficiently, explains Bailey. This boost in circulation and nutrient transport can mean two things: more energy during your workout and speedier recovery after the fact.
Arginine and citrulline have long been popular for their ability to pump up a training session. About a gram of each seems to be the sweet spot for maximum workout benefits.
And while beet powder has become trendy more recently, it’s legit. In fact, research published in the journal Nutrients shows that beetroot supplementation can improve athletes’ endurance and time to exhaustion. “When used in a combination product, it’s common to find a dose of 500 to 1,000 milligrams of beetroot,” Blakely says.
4. Betaine anhydrous
A chemical found naturally in the body, as well as in beets, spinach, and other foods, betaine anhydrous has been shown to increase work capacity, notes Michels. Another perk it offers: It works to decrease homocysteine levels in the body. “Unfortunately, stress (including the stress of exercise) increases homocysteine levels and elevated homocysteine levels negatively impact the interior lining of blood vessels,” she says. This makes betaine anhydrous a good move for supporting your ability to stay active and healthy over the years, in addition to helping you crush the workout in front of you.
According to Michels, most non-stim pre-workout formulas that contain betaine anhydrous provide between one and 2.5 grams per serving.
Our pick: BodyTech Betaine Anhydrous Powder
5. Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR)
“A form of l-carnitine, a compound the body naturally produces from amino acids, acetyl-l-carnitine, or ALCAR, plays a major role in fat metabolism (turning fats into fuel) by helping to shuttle fats into our cells’ mitochondria in order to be used as energy,” explains Blakely. Because of this function, research suggests ALCAR has lots of promise when used before exercise. In fact, one study published in the journal Nutrients shows that ALCAR has positive effects on exercise performance and muscle strength, all while reducing post-exercise oxidative stress.
When it’s incorporated into a stim-free pre-workout that combines a few different ingredients, you’ll likely find between one and three grams of ALCAR, according to Blakely.