You walk into the gym, throw your bag in your locker, prowl the floor like a lion, look down at your already bulging veins, and attack the dumbbell rack with ferocity.
Yep, your pre-workout just kicked in!
Despite the extreme effectiveness of pre-workout supplements, in the early days of my training I thought they were kind of an unnecessary luxury.
But over the years, I've learned just how valuable drinking a pre-workout can be and I often use one as part of my routine.
I've used all the big name pre-workouts from Cellucor, BSN, MusclePharm, and many more. And they're great.
But I'm also a tinkerer at heart and I always like to see what I can do better on my own.
Why make your own pre-workout?
While you can certainly buy a commercial all-in-one powder, here are a few reasons to consider “brewing” your own.
Be a mad scientist
There's something extremely satisfying about blending multiple powders into one all-mighty elixir of the gods.
If 4g of this was good, then 6g must be even better, right?
With mixing your own pre-workout, you have the freedom to experiment and to nail down the perfect formula for you.
Many supplement companies sport mile-long ingredients list so their products look impressive, but they often contain sub-clinical doses of those ingredients.
For example, some products may only have 1g of creatine monohydrate, when the effective dose is 5g.
So they get to put the ingredient on the label, but it doesn't do you much good.
I like the control aspect of mixing my own.
It's cost effective
The average pre-workout will cost around $30 for 30 servings. That's a dollar a day just for your pre-workout buzz.
And with many of the ingredients being under-dosed as I noted, you may actually need 2 or 3 scoops to really get the most out of it.
On the other hand, creatine monohydrate, caffeine, and beta-alanine can all be purchased for around $0.10 per (effective) serving.
You can use as many or as few ingredients as you'd like – it's completely up to you.
With the extremely long list of ingredients on many pre-workout supplements, things can get confusing pretty fast.
But really, only a few provide the effects you really need. Those are, of course:
- A wicked pump
- Muscle preservation
While there are so many ingredients out there that may or may not increase your performance, I prefer to stick to the basics.
Here are the ingredients that I feel have helped me most over the years.
What it does
This is what gets you up and moving.
Caffeine gives you that mental alertness and intense focus that I'm sure everyone is familiar with, but it also offers some lesser known perks in the gym.
The first of these major benefits is caffeine's ability to decrease your rate of perceived exertion.
Simply put, you don't feel like you're working as hard when you're working hard.
No wonder it's a pre-workout staple.
Another great perk is its ability to mobilize fatty acids from your body fat stores and into the blood stream where they can be used for energy.
I never do cardio without a hefty dose of caffeine.
Obviously if you aren't accustomed to caffeine, start small.
A cup of coffee has roughly 150mg, so you can use that to gauge your tolerance.
If you're completely unaccustomed to caffeine, 100mg would be a good starting point.
What to use
But if you need something for the gym bag, you'll be better off with the tablets.
What it does
Citrulline malate is used to increase blood concentrations of arginine, which leads to increased nitric oxide (NO) production, which results in vasodilatation.
It's this vasodilatation that allows extra blood flow, and thus nutrients to feed your working muscles.
But since the blood can't leave the muscle when it's contracted, you end up with what is, essentially, a traffic jam – and your pump has arrived!
Citrulline malate is the ingredient in most pre-workouts that's responsible for those mind-blowing, skin tearing pumps.
And it's usually under dosed. Imagine what will happen when you double or triple that.
A secondary benefit is that it is also thought to help the body fight fatigue by clearing lactic acid.
Citrulline malate is a powerful vasodilator so start with 2g and work your way up to 6g.
It does have a sour taste so it's best mixed with a flavored powder and lots of water.
What to choose
Citrulline malate is best purchased in bulk powder. I use this one.
What it does
First, let me bore you with a little chemistry for a moment to illustrate exactly how creatine helps you build muscle.
During short bursts of exercise (i.e., lifting weights) your body relies heavily on a compound called Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) for energy.
To produce energy for muscular contractions, one of the phosphate molecules is removed, leaving you with Adenosine Diphosphate (ADP).
Creatine, being the good guy that he is, donates a phosphate molecule so that ATP can be re-formed and used for energy again.
In this way, creatine helps you lift a little heavier and to get an extra rep or two.
Creatine is also a great muscle hydrator (or cell volumizer) and acts by drawing water along with it as it's stored within the muscle cells, making them more efficient and anabolic.
And this isn't “fake” muscle mass as some say and it isn't the subcutaneous water retention associated with high sodium intake or estrogen issues.
It's legitimate, functional lean body mass.
You can either start with 5g per day to reach maximum creatine saturation in the muscles within about 6 weeks, or you can take 5g, 4 times per day for the first 5 days to get there sooner.
If you choose to load like I do, then a maintenance dose of 5g per day is all that's needed after the first 5 days.
What to use
There are many forms of creatine out there, but creatine monohydrate is the most studied and proven.
I buy this one in bulk powder and it's an incredible value at $16 for 200 servings.
What they do
Having some liquid carbs prior to your workout gives you elevated blood sugar levels that can be used for immediate energy and will ward off that weak, shaky feeling.
This immediate energy supply also has a protein-sparing effect, meaning it will help prevent your body from tapping into muscle mass for energy.
Also, if you've ever felt like your muscles were flat and you were completely unable to get a good pump in the gym, that was most likely the result of depleted muscle glycogen.
Since every gram of glycogen stored within your muscle cell pulls in 3 grams of water with it, carbs are essential to having full muscles.
Having optimal glycogen stores is actually more about how you ate over the previous 24 hours, but pre-workout carbs will help preserve the stores that are already there.
This is really dependent on the individual dietary needs and whether or not you've had a meal before your workout.
If I'm working out early in the morning on an empty stomach, I like to get 20-40g of liquid carbs in me before I hit the gym.
If I'm lifting later in the day, I skip this component all together.
What to use
The best thing to use here is Gatorade powder. You can buy it in bulk and it tastes great.
BCAAs (Branched-chain amino acids)
What they do
What a lot of people don't realize is that you aren't building muscle in the gym – you're actually breaking it down.
This is especially true when you're dieting and/or working out on an empty stomach.
An empty stomach plus hard physical work equals muscle breakdown. Maybe not be to a detrimental degree, but it's happening.
To stop this protein breakdown immediately and without ingesting any additional calories, take some BCAAs right before you hit the gym.
Not only can BCAAs prevent protein breakdown, they also initiate protein synthesis, or the building of new tissue.
So we have a multi-pronged attack to fight muscle loss, without the issue of adding body fat as a result of ingesting extra calories.
BCAAs are also help to reduce DOMS (aka, muscle soreness following workouts).
To trigger protein synthesis, you need to consume between 3-4g of leucine (one of the BCAAs), so use that as a guiding factor.
If one serving of your chosen BCAAs contains 4g of leucine, use just a single serving.
If it's only 2.5g of leucine, use 1.5-2 servings.
What to use
This unflavored one is the cheapest and what I use when I'm including Gatorade Powder.
When I don't want the carbs, this one tastes divine and 1 scoop flavors up to 24 ounces of water.
What it does
If you've ever taken a pre-workout and suddenly felt like your face was wrapped in a wool military blanket, that's beta-alanine.
Besides this bizarre effect, beta-alanine helps increase endurance and delay fatigue when you work out.
During intense exercise, a build up of hydrogen ions causes a drastic drop in pH. In other words, your muscles become more acidic.
This is a limiting factor in your gym performance, but beta-alanine helps buffer the build up of these ions, making it the perfect supplement to help you push through those high volume/low rest workouts.
Like creatine, beta-alanine is about reaching a muscle saturation point, so multiple doses spread throughout the day are best to achieve around 3-4g total.
So a pre-workout dose of 800mg to about 2,000mg is best.
My best advice for beta-alanine – start small!
If you've never experienced the intense tingle/itching, it can make you want to tear your face off.
What to use
Just grab a bulk powder. It's cheap, tasteless, and mixes easily.
Quick Recipes and Shopping Lists
Here's what I use for fasted and non-fasted workouts, respectively.
I'm very accustomed to all of these ingredients and have built up a tolerance over time.
So keep that in mind when using these recipes, assess your own tolerances first, and adjust the quantities/servings of each ingredient as necessary.
(1) In a shaker bottle, combine the following powders:
- Citrulline malate (6g)
- Beta-alanine (2g)
- Creatine (5g)
- Gatorade powder (1 serving)
- BCAAs (1 serving)
(2) Fill your shaker with 16 to 20 oz of filtered water. Cap and shake thoroughly until dissolved and combined.
(3) Take your caffeine tablet(s) (200-300mg), using your pre-workout to wash it down.
As with the fasted pre-workout, combine the following powders in a shaker, fill with water, and shake until combined:
Optional: If you're working out in the morning/early afternoon, chase your caffeine tablet(s) (200-300mg) with your pre-workout mix. If you're scheduled for a late afternoon/evening workout, you'll likely want to skip the caffeine so it doesn't interfere with sleep.
There's no need to worry about preserving muscle if I've had a meal before my workout so I just drop the carbs and BCAAs with the non-fasted pre-workout.
So if you'd like to save some cash, ensure a full dose of the key ingredients, and add an element of control to your pre-workout ritual, try mixing your own concoction.
All the best,