Nutrition Training

Homemade Pre-Workout: The Essentials, No Filler

homemade pre workout ingredients

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.

Optimal doses

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.

Components

homemade pre workout ingredients

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:

  • Energy
  • Endurance
  • 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.

Caffeine

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.

Dose

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

You can buy tablets or just drink some good ol' fashioned black coffee like I tend to do.

But if you need something for the gym bag, you'll be better off with the tablets.

Citrulline Malate

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.

Dose

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.

Creatine

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.

Dose

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.

Carbs

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.

Dose

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).

Dose

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.

Beta-alanine

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.

Dose

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.

Fasted pre-workout

(1) In a shaker bottle, combine the following powders:

(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.

Non-fasted pre-workout

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,

Nate

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46 Comments

  • Reply
    Neil M White
    February 22, 2016 at 1:03 pm

    This is useful information. I’m a fan of pre workouts too but the cost puts me off. I’m keen to try your suggestions and make my own. All killer and no filler.

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 22, 2016 at 2:38 pm

      Give it a shot! The ultimate minimalist pre workout would be citrulline malate for a pump and caffeine tabs for energy. That’s about as simple and cost effective as it gets.

  • Reply
    Dwayne
    February 22, 2016 at 3:27 pm

    Thanks for the useful information! I typically work out in the evenings at around 7 pm and feel a lack of energy in some of my workouts. What do you recommend I do then? I feel like if I use caffeine I will be up all night. I am a poor sleeper already!

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 22, 2016 at 6:29 pm

      I know that feeling of lying in bed for 45 minutes without even getting a little sleepy, haha. I would use everything listed except for the caffeine. None of the other ingredients will keep you up but they’ll help you get a great pump and will help with muscular endurance.

  • Reply
    Will
    February 22, 2016 at 5:11 pm

    Great article, Nate. Proprietary blends bother the hell out of me and this a great way to kick that notion and know exactly what you’re putting into your body. By the way, I’m loving the Sam’s Natural products. The deodorant, despite its lack of strong chemicals, is nearly as effective an anti-perspirant as the Old Spice I used to use. Keep up the good work.

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 22, 2016 at 6:31 pm

      I know what you mean, those proprietary blends can be annoying. I’m glad you’re enjoying the Sam’s Natural products, they are really awesome!

  • Reply
    BorjaTSR
    February 22, 2016 at 6:05 pm

    This is almost exactly what my pre-workout looks like.

    I have recently been adding some L-dopa (Mucuna Pruriens) and L-Theanine (for focus and calm, plus stop jitters if I overdo the caffeine).

    I’d recommend buying as many things as you can in bulk powder – it’s super cost effective. I get all of my stuff from Powder City and it costs me peanuts even taking into account the robbery that is shipping to Europe.

    Nate, good to see you vouching for simple DIY stuff in the age of all those ‘SuperPrepMeteorAlpha 3.0’ stuff.

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 22, 2016 at 6:38 pm

      That’s great. I’m going to try L-Theanine to see if it’ll help me work a little more effectively. And yeah, that over marketed, flashy packaging kind of products usually don’t appeal to me.

      • Reply
        Mike Harrington
        February 6, 2017 at 1:38 pm

        I’ve been using L-Theanine for years with coffee. I gave up coffee a while back but still use L-Theanine with my caffeine in my stack I am sensitive to caffeine and a good dose or two works well. Takes that jittery edge off from the caffeine. You can buy it from Bulk Supplements. I get most of my supplements from them and Piping Rock.

  • Reply
    Aaron
    February 22, 2016 at 7:39 pm

    Try doing cardio after 2000 mg of Niacin. That will get your attention.

  • Reply
    Shobhit Choudhary
    February 23, 2016 at 2:12 am

    Hey Nate, I am not in favor of Citrulline malate for temporary pumps and vascularity. I prefer L-Carnitine Tartrate (1gm) with black coffee 35-40mins before I train. For the BCAA’s I take 2 scoops right before I hit the gym with some dates(for an insulin spike). Result- I turn into a beast in the gym. This is my second year of training but I think I am armored with enough wisdom and doing great.
    I don’t wish to take many supplements. Do you recommend Beta-alanine/Arginine/Citrulline over BCAA and Carnitine ?

  • Reply
    Shobhit Choudhary
    February 23, 2016 at 7:16 am

    L-Carnitine is a marvel supplement. It’s an amino with numerous benefits and there’s no need to cycle it. Also take a dose with your post-workout meal for quicker recovery. Glad I could be of any help.

  • Reply
    John Tyndall
    February 23, 2016 at 10:05 am

    Hey Nate,
    I’ve tried some pre-workout supplements along with coffee here and there without much consistency. The citrulline malate sounds pretty interesting, and I’ve never used that. Going to have to try it!
    Do you think there are additional benefits for timing your creatine pre-workout?
    When I’ve used it, I tend to just stir it into my first coffee of the day.
    Thanks!

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 23, 2016 at 2:52 pm

      Yeah, I love citrulline malate. Not only do you get the temporary benefit of watching your muscles blow up but there can also be some long term anabolic activity due to the intracellular swelling. Creatine can be taken anytime. I usually do it pre workout and/or post workout. I just time it with whenever I break out the rest of my powders for simplicity.

  • Reply
    Thomas Lewis
    February 24, 2016 at 12:51 pm

    In lieu of the bet- alinine, give baking soda a try. Examine.com did a great article on it, and I’ve found it makes for a much more dramatic difference in my volume work. Placebo effect or not, I find that with a normal break in between sets i feel almost as fresh for my second, third, fourth and fifth sets as i do starting my first. Definite help with delaying fatigue and the burn.

    Fair warning though, it tastes absolutely vile and can give you the shits if you take too much so I’d ramp up slowly to start. Easiest way to take it imho is to mix it with creatine monohydrate in water by itself. For some reason the creatine almost completely nullifies the taste.

    I just use the same stuff that you can get in the big orange bag from Costco.

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 24, 2016 at 2:06 pm

      I’m going to give that a try. I’ve used baking soda to brush my teeth before and you’re right, it isn’t the most pleasant tasting.

  • Reply
    Garrett Connolly
    February 25, 2016 at 10:08 pm

    Great post! Ton of good information that I’ve been curious about for awhile now. Definitely going to give this a shot in the future.

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 26, 2016 at 5:59 am

      Gor for it, Garrett. Pre mixed pre workouts are nice and convenient, but making your own is a lot of fun and very effective.

  • Reply
    Phil
    February 26, 2016 at 11:14 pm

    Great article! Just recently started working out (6 months ago). Looking at your doses for the fasted pre-workout. What do you recommend for a first timer on these supplements? Just purchased all of them just wondering where to start. I also don’t drink any coffee, so maybe split caffeine in half?

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 27, 2016 at 6:22 am

      There are only three ingredients you need to work up on. Try 100mg of caffeine, 800mg of beta alanine, and 2g of citrulline malate. The rest you can keep the same. And really, the BCAAs and Gatorade powder can be dosed as high as you’d like. Stick to 5g for creatine. Keep up the good work!

  • Reply
    Frank
    February 27, 2016 at 9:48 am

    Thank you for this post! I’ve often been blown away and put off by the prices of the premixed stuff that it prevents me from even trying a pre-workout mix. I am on the opposite end of the spectrum than you (and i’m sure a large number of your readers) in that i have absolutely no trouble putting on weight…to my detriment. Would you mind to speak to any of the thermogenic/fat loss inducing qualities these supplements might have or recommend some? I am in the “need to lose fat but keep/gain muscle” camp and would love any additional advice you could provide. Thanks again for this post. I have been reading your blog for the past couple of months and enjoy it very much.

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 27, 2016 at 9:59 am

      I’ll be reviewing some fat loss products very soon, so stay tuned! But until then, this is the perfect mix for your situation. The number one component to losing fat is to eat at a deficit. Absolutely nothing else will produce the same results as having your diet in line. But the problem is, that when eating low calorie, your body will tend to sacrifice muscle along with the fat. Just about everything in this mix will help combat that. BCAAs and help preserve muscle mass while eating low calorie. Creating and beta alanine help maintain strength and cell volume when energy levels are low. Caffeine helps mobilize fat stores so they can more easily be used for energy. And citrulline malate supports monster pumps, which create a localized anabolic effect. If fat loss is your number one goal, you may want to skip the carbs pre-workout, especially if you’ve already eaten that day. Other than that, this pre-workout is exactly what you need!

  • Reply
    Traut
    February 28, 2016 at 11:51 am

    Another article that moves I&T up another notch closer to being my favorite blog. Keep up the great work, my man.

  • Reply
    Silo
    March 4, 2016 at 10:31 pm

    Would this help achieve better results when combined with a hormone sarm or test cycle? And is it safe to do so?

    • Reply
      Nate
      March 5, 2016 at 6:06 am

      Yeah, it would. The only thing you really have to watch out for is taking too much caffeine. If you aren’t accustomed to it, start at 100 mg and work up from there. For reference, the highest caffeine dose I’ve ever seen in a commercial pre workout is 400 mg and those make most people freak out.

      • Reply
        Silo
        March 10, 2016 at 7:43 pm

        I really don’t need to much or any caffeine. But I’ll watch for it. And if you have any experience with my following question:
        Would this be safe as well to take and hour or so before taking cialis or should I wait longer? (Cialis recommends not to take any (NO) product at the same time. (Not sure if it just refers to NO products for chest pain or any in general)
        Thanks in advance.

  • Reply
    Chris
    May 10, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    Hey Nate,

    This is a great DIY post. Looking forward to saving money. How do you weight/measure the doses? Do they come with a little scooper?

    Thanks!

  • Reply
    Frank
    May 24, 2016 at 11:02 am

    Anything to pay attention to while loading with the creatine at 5g 4 times per day for the first 5 days versus the longer method? And would you be willing to give us the major pros and cons of each method of loading?

    Thanks!

    • Reply
      Nate
      May 25, 2016 at 9:04 am

      A small percentage of guys get some GI upset/bloating from going from 0 straight to 20g per day. You could taper the dose up increasing it 5g every day to make sure this doesn’t happen to you. As for the benefits, creatine is only effective when your muscles reach a certain saturation point. So for example, taking 5g of creatine pre-workout on the first day is going to have almost no effect. But over time, your levels build up and you experience the benefits.
      You’ll reach the saturation point whether you load or just stick with 5g per day, it’ll just take a lot longer. Some say that loading is unnecessary, wasteful and old fashioned, pointing out that you’ll reach saturation within several weeks without loading. But at only about $0.05 per serving I don’t see the point in waiting several weeks to notice the effects when you could get there in a week.

  • Reply
    Jason
    September 17, 2016 at 11:30 am

    Hey Nate,
    Never used a pre-workout before besides coffee but I’m giving these a shot. Just wanted to say thanks for the info. I dig your site.

  • Reply
    Alicia
    October 4, 2016 at 9:01 pm

    Is there a different starting point you would recommend for women vs. men? I’ve been actively training since April (down 45 lbs.) and need the extra boost to drop the last 15-20lbs while still building muscle. I tried a double serving of a pre-workout this morning and was able to workout for 2 hours, feeling like I actually got a great workout in. DOMS usually takes two days to kick in for me, but by the afternoon I was feeling the “good” pain. Definitely need some pre-workout in my life but I’m allergic to almost everything and this one I used won’t fit the budget (and it has crap fillers, yuck).

    • Reply
      Nate
      October 6, 2016 at 10:25 am

      You’ll be fine with my conservative recommendations. After that, you can scale each ingredient up from there to your liking.

  • Reply
    Aneudi
    January 19, 2017 at 3:37 pm

    When supplementing with Beta-Alanine do I need to take it multiple times the same way we load up on Creatine or should I only take it as a preworkout before going to the gym?

    • Reply
      Nate
      January 23, 2017 at 7:37 pm

      Take it pre-workout for sure but there is a benefit to increasing muscle saturation levels so another couple doses spread throughout the day is a good idea.

  • Reply
    Roger
    January 27, 2017 at 2:48 pm

    While beta-alanine is a popular ingredient in pre-workout stacks, supplementation is actually not timing-dependent. So there’s really no benefit in taking it pre-workout. Beta-alanine works similar to creatine, as the positive effects are only noticeable once your cells have reached the saturation point over several weeks.

    “When beta-alanine is ingested, it turns into the molecule carnosine, which acts as an acid buffer in the body. Carnosine is stored in cells and released in response to drops in pH. Increased stores of carnosine can protect against diet-induced drops in pH (which might occur from ketone production in ketosis, for example), as well as offer protection from exercise-induced lactic acid production.” (www.examine.com)

    • Reply
      Nate
      January 28, 2017 at 10:18 am

      Great info Roger. I do dose beta-alanine throughout the day but since I’m breaking out all of my powders and making a shake, there’s no reason not to include a dose pre-workout.

  • Reply
    Timothy Lund
    March 26, 2017 at 1:12 pm

    I’m an athlete, Biology Major/Kins Minor, aspiring M.D., etc. My point is I have been training and studying these systems for three years, and have been a gym junkie for 5. THIS ARTICLE IS LEGIT! Seriously some great stuff. You hit all of the base elements that should be in a pre-workout. I’m sure you considered the fact that pre-workouts are tailored to individual needs etc. I might suggest people consider adding vitamin B6 and B12, these would help the rate of absorption for the supplements, and assist in increasing drive/energy.

  • Reply
    Scott
    April 19, 2017 at 8:04 pm

    Nate awesome stuff! I know we can go forever adding to the list of pre workout supps to add but i think 1-2 grams of taurine would help and i know glutamine is kind of post workout but why not add that also as these both are real cheap in bulk. my homemade pre workout is:
    green tea powder
    bcaa
    taurine
    citrulline
    glutimine
    and to sweeten it i use true lemon the watermelon aqua fresca one all natural no artificial nothing. its amazing

  • Reply
    nick
    July 20, 2017 at 7:31 pm

    hey im just interested in your take on l-gutamine for recovery and or any possible benifits?

    • Reply
      Nate
      August 3, 2017 at 3:45 pm

      It used to be all the rage about 15 years ago but I haven’t looked into it recently. If I remember correctly, you need around 30g per day which is around 6 servings. That turned me off from it so I don’t have any first hand experience.

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