These multi-ingredient powders are so popular because they boost energy levels, mental focus, and even "muscle pumpitude" during a workout, says Rehan Jalali, certified sports nutritionist and President of the Supplement Research Foundation. In fact, a recent study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that guys who took a pre-workout supplement were able to churn out more reps before failure and sprint with more power compared to guys who went into the workout au natural. A single capsule is typically packed with the most beneficial minerals and molecules for both energy and muscle building, including many of the individual ingredients on this list. Jalali suggests looking for key ingredients like L-tyrosine, caffeine, L-Arginine, and BCAAs (one good option is Pre JYM), then take one serving 30 minutes before hitting the weight room.
“Both of these vitamins tend to be under-consumed in our diets, and part of their benefits may be that the supplement is replacing a relative deficiency in some people,” explains Lonnie Lowery, Ph.D., R.D., associate professor of exercise physiology and nutrition at the University of Mount Union in Ohio and co-host of the Iron Radio podcast. But his lab has found preliminary evidence that a form of vitamin E called tocotrienols helps with muscle recovery, which makes sense considering the vitamin helps promote muscle growth and inhibit muscle breakdown. Vitamin D may also help with bouncing back from a workout faster, Lowery adds, while other studies have found that the sunshine vitamin can help boost the weight loss effect of strength training.
There’s nothing new about creatine’s popularity, but, like whey protein, the superstar supplement has yet to be dethroned. “The reason it's popular is because it works—and in a major way,” says Jalali. Study after study shows that, when combined with a strength routine, creatine can enhance lean body mass, increase strength, and increase muscle size because it helps produce extra energy that your muscle tissue then uses to rack up the reps. Creatine is to power athletes what carb-loading is to endurance athlete, Lowery adds.
Elite athletes have been using this for years, but weekend warriors are finally catching on to the trend, says Jalali. Beetroot’s secret is in its high nitrate content, which your body converts to nitric oxide, a molecule that helps your blood vessels dilate, increasing blood flow capacity and lowering the amount of oxygen your muscles need. That translates to minutes cut off your run time, improved tolerance against high-intensity exercise and improved blood and oxygen flow in your muscles. Shoot for 500 mg before endurance activity, Jalali suggests.
A cup of Joe can give you more than just a boost in the morning: The same peak in energy and focus that caffeine delivers to help you get your work done can also drive your muscles to work for longer with less perceived effort. Lowery, whose lab studies caffeine on athletic performance, points out that the 10 percent boost in muscular explosiveness that you can get from the pick-me-up adds up over time for serious gains—what he calls a “super-training” effect. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests shooting for 3 to 9 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight (that’s between 235 and 735 mg for a 180-pound guy, depending on your caffeine sensitivity) before a workout to see the perks in performance.