“Pre-workout” supplements are a class of premixed herbal and chemical ingredient blends designed to spike your energy, enhance your alertness, reduce your fatigue, and boost blood flow to your muscles. The claim of this broad category of pills and powders is that they’ll help you work out longer and harder, with better results.

Some of the promises are pretty much bull, some turn out to hold up. What’s actually true is that pre-workout supplements can fire you up. They often contain ingredients including caffeine, taurine, and B vitamins, all of which may help you feel motivated. That doesn’t mean it’s crash-proof energy, but the chemical compounds in a pre-workout may offer enough oomph to help you push through your session, says exercise-science researcher Jordan Moon, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.*D, a professor at Concordia University.

But here’s what’s bogus: There’s not much science to the more esoteric ingredients in some of these supplements, such as Panax ginseng and deer-antler velvet. Worse yet, in a 2019 study, scientists assessed 100 pre-workout products and found that the amounts of nearly half of the ingredients were not disclosed on the label. And certain herbal extracts mix poorly with meds or other supplements, says Moon.

What’s also bogus: Some pre-workouts advertise that they contain creatine yet don’t have enough of the compound to matter, Moon says. Science has shown that taking creatine can, in fact, help you increase your strength and power (find out more about all that here), but you need to take about five grams a day for two to four weeks for the nutrient to build up in your muscles. Many of the pre-workout products you’ll find on the market have only three grams of creatine per serving.

Should you take pre-workout boosters?

If you’re taking pre-workout supplements, take them with caution. Experts suggest starting with a lower dose than the one on the label. Nancy Clark, R.D., a Boston-based sports-nutrition counselor, advises buying a brand with third-party certification by NSF International for quality assurance. (We like X2 Performance Pre + Intra Workout.) Or just consume real food: A banana, oatmeal, a granola bar, or a latte are all good pre-workout fuel.

A version of this story originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Men’s Health.

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