Looking to supercharge your training session? Pre-workout supplements are a great place to start! The trouble is, most of them are filled with so much rubbish you don’t want to risk taking them for fear of damage to your health or testing positive to banned stimulants and ruining your reputation.
A few natural pre-workout supplements have recently come onto the market, but if you are like me, you have been disappointed with their ability to actually give you that extra boost you are after.
When building my own pre-workout, I use 7 key powerful ingredients that are science backed and time tested.
My background is in strength training and I am a multiple record breaking Powerlifting Champion, so these ingredients have been specifically selected for strength and power gains, and the laser focus required during very intense training on very heavy weights.
Each ingredient produces great results on it's own, and when combined they produce an incredibly powerful Pre-Workout supplement.
The first thing you notice is your super sharp mental speed, clarity, motivation, and the rush of energy.
The combination of herbal extracts in this list produce a very powerful nootropic effect. Maybe I should have called it Limitless, after the movie.
After taking it for 4 to 6 weeks you should also see the strength boosting results as the weights you lift get bigger faster.
Primary purpose: Focus & Concentration, Improved Endurance & Strength
Optimal dose: 1 g
Benefits: Ginseng is a powerful "adaptogen" and has been used for centuries in traditional medicine as a health tonic. Ginseng extracts are thought to help the body deal with mental or physical stress, promote health, increase stamina and strength, and also as a stimulant and aphrodisiac.
There has been a large amount of research documenting the positive effects of ginseng on both physical and mental performance. One well designed study showed that 1000 mg ginseng supplementation over six weeks increased pectoral and quadriceps strength of subjects by 27% and 18% respectively (McNaughton et al, 1989).
Numerous studies have shown that ginseng resulted in improvements in endurance, heart rate, lactate production, oxygen uptake, and breathing capacity (Forgo & Kirchdorfer, 1982; Forgo & Schimert, 1985; McNaughton et al, 1989; Pieralisi et al, 1999). Some studies have also suggested that ginseng is capable of improving focus and concentration (Revers et al 1976; Carr 1986).
On top of all these properties, Bubbi, 2000, showed that ginseng may also prevent the loss of physical fitness after a 10 week break from training. Thus, ginseng may not only show performance enhancing properties when commencing supplementation before training, but should you be unable to train for a period of time, it may also help prevent un-training.
What is Ginseng?
Ginseng is the collective name given to a group of plants found in North America, Korea, China, and Siberia, which have been used for centuries as herbal health tonics in those parts of the world. Because ginseng can be found in various parts of the world, they can be classified according to origin. Korean and Chinese ginseng can sometimes be referred to as Asian ginseng, these along with American ginseng, are considered "true" ginseng, as characterised by the presence of fleshy roots and the active ingredients ginsenosides. The Siberian ginseng, despite its name is actually only a distant relative of the previously mentioned ginsengs. It has a woody root, and instead of ginsenosides, contains eleutherosides. Where things get tricky is the fact that there are multiple types of ginsenosides and eleutherosides present in ginseng, and each of these have multiple functions within the body. Extraction method, handling, and season of picking all affect the amount and type of these active ingredients that end up being consumed. So needless to say, not all products are the same.
Out of all the varieties of ginseng, Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is the most studied. The above mentioned effects are all related to Asian ginseng. Investigations into Siberian ginseng show more variability in results. Even though any form of ginseng can be found for sale, it is my opinion to aim for Asian ginseng when considering supplementation. Furthermore, the root of the plant is the most sort after, so look for products containing this, as opposed to leaves.
My Experience With Ginseng
I first started taking ginseng as an adaptegen during a 9 year break from powerlifting training.
When I made my come back in 2007, I continued taking ginseng and was surprised at how quickly my strength returned. Within four months of resuming full training I lifted personal bests in Squat, Benchpress and Deadlift at the National Championships.
I continued to use Ginseng as part of my supplement regime as I went on to win the national title for 2 years in a row and break the National Total record by 25 kg (55 lbs), becoming pound for pound Australia's strongest man.
2. Rhodiola Rosea
Primary purpose: Increase physical endurance & mental performance
Optimal dose: 100 - 500 mg
Benefits: Rhodiola Rosea is a well-known adaptogen (able to relieve/increase resistance to stress). There are many active ingredients present in Rhodiola Rosea which may affect the levels and activity of neurotransmitters and hormones responsible for emotions and feelings of wellness (Kelly, 2001). Scientific studies have shown that supplementation with Rhodiola Rosea can increase endurance exercise performance and boost mental performance when fatigued. One study showed that taking a 200 mg Rhodiola Rosea extract, one hour before exercise, was able to significantly increase running time to exhaustion when compared to a placebo (De Bock et al, 2004). It was also observed that subjects showed significant improvements in mental performance after a night shift when supplemented with Rhodiola Rosea compared to a placebo (Darbinyan et al, 2000).
What is Rhodiola Rosea?
Rhodiola Rosea, also known as Golden Root, Roseroot, or Aaron's Rod is a flowering plant known for its potential as a mood elevating herb. It has been used for centuries by the Russians and Scandinavians to cope with extremely cold weather. Rhodiola Rosea is found in many colder regions including the mountains of Central Asia, America, and Europe. It can even be found in the Arctic.
My Experience With Rhodiola Rosea
I take Rhodiola Rosea as an adaptogen to help with the immense stress of training with very heavy weights and in combination with Ginkgo Biloba to help get in the zone for heavy lifts.
3. Natural Caffeine
Primary purpose: Energy
Optimal dose: 150-500 mg, or 2.5 - 7 mg/kg of body weight
Benefits: Caffeine is a natural stimulant and it has repeatedly been shown to be an effective physical performance enhancing aid in both endurance exercise and short bouts of maximal exercise (e.g. weight training & sprints). A detailed review performed by Astorino et al (2010) of several studies showed that caffeine ingestion is able to positively affect strength and power production. Results ranged from increased number of repetitions performed, increased force production and increased amount of weight lifted. Warren et al (2010) was also able to show improved muscular strength in terms of maximal voluntary contraction through 27 separate experimental studies.
Most pre-workout formulas contain some type of stimulant, but be wary of pre-workouts with stimulants other than caffeine. The WADA World Anti-Doping Code 2018, states “All stimulants, including all optical isomers, e.g. d- and l- where relevant, are prohibited”. However, Caffeine is included in the 2018 Monitoring Program, and as such is not considered a Prohibited Substance.
Best Natural Sources of Caffeine
Caffeine is a white alkaloid compound which was first isolated from coffee beans in 1820. As well as coffee beans, it is naturally found in tea leaves, guarana berry, kola nut and various other plant leaves, fruit, nuts and seeds.
Of these natural sources, my preference is for a mix of both Green Tea leaf extract and Guarana seed extract, due to the other benefits they both offer on top of their caffeine content.
What is Guarana?
The Guarana plant is a climbing plant in the maple family. It is native to the Amazon basin and especially common in Brazil. Native tribes have harvested guarana for centuries and have used the seeds to make a tea. Guarana seeds have a high concentration of guaranine, which is chemically identical to caffeine.
On average, guarana seeds contain double the caffeine of coffee beans (Bempong, 1993). Caffeine from guarana typically has a slower rate of release, compared to pure caffeine, providing stimulation for longer. This is possibly due to guarana being insoluble and containing compounds such as tannins and saponins (Edwards et al, 2005).
Guarana also contains a mix of other compounds that act together to stimulate you over and above its caffeine content. One study comparing the effects of coffee, guaraná and yerba mate showed that guarana produced the greatest alertness and improvement in the performance of mental tasks. Coffee produced a peak in alertness after about 30-45 minutes then rapidly fell away, while the effects of guarana were still continuing, and increasing, after 150 minutes.
Due to the presence of flavonoids and other non-caffeine compounds in guarana, there is evidence that guarana may be able to improve cognitive performance, reduce mental fatigue, and improve mood (Scholey & Haskell, 2008).
My Experience With Guarana
I first came across Guarana when I was on holiday in Brazil back in 1998. It was very popular in soft drinks and out sold Cola based drinks in Brazil. I loved it as a drink and also started using it as a natural stimulant for training when I got back home. My training sessions typically last 2 hours, so for me the longer stimulation period of guarana is essential and I find it helps me all the way through my workouts.
What is Green Tea?
Green tea originated from China and then spread to many other parts of Asia such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand. In those countries, green tea was used as both a beverage and a traditional medicine. Green tea is a tea made from the leaves of the plant Camellia sinensis. Although many other teas are made from this same plant, the green tea manufacturing process allows minimal oxidation, and may be the discriminatory factor that gives green tea its many potentially beneficial properties.
Green Tea Benefits
Over the recent years, green tea has been one of the most well studied herbal remedies. However, science is only really starting to scratch the surface of the potential of this super food. As well as containing natural caffeine, Green tea contains a type of polyphenol known as catechins. Out of the many catechins found in green tea, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) is the most abundant. These are antioxidants and one of the “active ingredients” of green tea, so to speak. However, Green tea also contains a variety of other important nutrients such as vitamins C and E, chromium, zinc and selenium.
One of the most interesting properties of green tea is its potentially beneficial use for burning excess body fat. Studies have found that after consuming a green tea extract, subjects experienced a 17% increase in lipid oxidation, fat burning, (Venables et al, 2008) compared to those receiving a placebo.
My Experience With Green Tea
I first started taking Green Tea extracts as an energy booster when I made my comeback to powerlifting in 2007. I use Green Tea due to it's addition health benefits and to help me stay lean to make weight for competitions.
4. Ginkgo Biloba
Primary purpose: Focus & Concentration
Optimal dose: 150 - 1000 mg
Benefits: Ginkgo Biloba extract is another powerful "adaptogen". It has been shown to increase nitric oxide levels which can increase blood flow to muscles and the brain. According to current research, ginkgo biloba benefits include improved mental focus, concentration, memory, mood, and increased energy. All of these can assist with the vitally important mind body connection required to have all your muscles firing at the right time for maximal strength in high weight low rep training and 1 rep max competition attempts.
What is Ginkgo Biloba?
Gingko Biloba has existed for over 250 million years and may grow to 40 m, and live for over 1,000 years. The extracts of the gingko biloba leaves have been used for hundreds of years to treat various disorders. These extracts consist mainly of a class of chemicals called flavonoids and terpenoids. Gingko biloba is indigenous to Korea, Japan, and China, but can be found worldwide.
My Experience With Ginkgo Biloba
I take Ginkgo Biloba to help boost mental Focus & Concentration.
During my years of strength training, I learnt that mental focus and getting in the zone could make the difference between me not even being able to even get a deadlift off the ground, and being able to rip it up at speed.
For pure strength based lifts, it is not just the size of your muscles that makes the difference. It is the amount of energy you can put through those muscles in a very short period of time. It is my ability to focus all my energy in a single moment to perform a lift, then totally relax to conserve energy for the next lift, that helps me lift more than men much bigger than me.
For me, Ginkgo Biloba is the perfect natural supplement to help get in the zone for very heavy lifts.
5. Sour Cherry
Primary purpose: Improve strength recovery and reduce muscle soreness and damage following resistance exercise
Optimal dose: 400 - 600 mg
Benefits: Sour cherry extract has been shown to lessen exercise-induced muscle damage, inflammation and oxidative stress. The high concentration of phenolic antioxidants in sour cherry extract is thought to underpin its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, which have been demonstrated successfully in various studies.
There are a number of studies which support sour cherry extracts ability to improve strength recovery and reduce muscle damage and soreness following weight training (Connolly DA, et al, 2006 & Bowtell JL, et al, 2011).
In one trial, subjects who had a history of resistance training supplemented with 480 mg of sour cherry extracts for ten days prior to a heavy session of squats designed to elicit a serious case of the DOMS. The session entailed ten sets of ten repetitions of the barbell back squat at 70% 1RM. Measures that included blood markers of muscle damage, strength test and perceived muscle soreness were taken for each subject pre-exercise, 60-min, 24-hr, and 48-hr post-lift to help gauge the effectiveness of the cherry supplement.
Each subject receiving the sour cherry supplement experienced significantly less muscle soreness, less pronounced drop in strength and lower levels of muscle damage markers (Levers et al, 2015).
A number of studies have also shown that supplementation with a sour cherry extract can help reduce muscle soreness associated with long distance running such as marathons (Howatson G, et al, 2010 & Kuehl KS, et al, 2010).
What is Sour Cherry?
Sour cherry, as its name suggests, has a more 'sour' taste then the traditional sweet cherry. It’s also often referred to as tart cherry or pie cherry because it’s the variety of cherry that’s commonly used to make cherry pie.
All cherries provide substantial quantities of antioxidants and other nutrients. But sour cherries deliver a much greater content of various anthocyanins, as well as higher amounts of other phenolic compounds and nutrients.
My Experience With Sour Cherry
I continually push my body to its limits in training and competition, because that is where the magic occurs.
Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone, everything else is just the warm up.
I also know I need to give my body a chance to recover from such intense training so I can get stronger. I take Sour Cherry to help my body recover.
Primary purpose: Supercharged Strength
Optimal dose: 5 g (hardly any pre-workout formulas have a high enough dose)
Benefits: Creatine is simply the best supplement I have found to boost strength and power. Basically it helps your muscles store more Creatine Phosphate which is critical in the production of anaerobic (without breathing) energy in the adenosine triphosphate and creatine phosphate energy system. It is this system which is the limiting factor in short bursts of strength and power, such as a resistance training set or a sprint. Creatine supplementation has also been shown to increase expression of anabolic growth factors and creatine supplementation along with resistance training has also been shown to increase muscle fibre size more so than resistance training alone.
What Is Creatine?
Creatine is a naturally occurring chemical compound in our body made up of three amino acids; L-arginine, glycine and L-methionine. It is normally found in skeletal muscle and acts as a substrate or fuel to provide a quick source of energy in the form of creatine phosphate. Many types of creatine supplements exist, but the most scientifically tested and validated is creatine monohydrate.
My Experience With Creatine
I first started taking Creatine Monohydrate as part of a double blind trial performed in 1996 while I was training for my second World Junior Championships. The trial used members of the University Powerlifting club to test Creatine’s ability to boost the performance of trained strength athletes. At the time I was already the number 1 ranked junior lifter, across all weight divisions, in the country and had broken the National Squat, Deadlift and Total records in my weight division. So it’s fair to say I was already highly trained and not a newbie.
The trial was double blind, so half of us were on Creatine and half were on a placebo, and we didn’t know who was on what. The trial lasted a number of weeks, but I could tell by my relatively rapid strength gains in the first few weeks, that I was one of the athletes given Creatine to take. This experience was universal amongst the other athletes in the trial and it convinced me that I had been introduced to the best legal supplement for strength and power athletes.
Based on this personal experience, I continued to supplement with Creatine Monohydrate leading up to the World Junior Championships.
As well as the significant strength gains, I also experienced a rapid increase in muscle mass during the trial. Most people would be delighted with that result, but I had qualified for a specific weight division and had to stop taking Creatine for a few weeks to make my weight division for the World Championships.
Primary purpose: Increased muscular endurance
Optimal dose / day: 2 - 6 g (optimal single dose 2 g)
Benefits: Beta-Alanine is the next best ingredient I have found to help boost muscular endurance. It's main benefit for strength training is buffering hydrogen ions (H+) which are released during physical activity, raising acidity levels in your muscles. Beta-Alanine supplementation has been shown to counteract the acid build up, giving you the ability to keep your training intensity up for longer periods of time. Scientific studies have typically shown that exercise intervals of between 1 and 4 minutes benefit the most from supplementation with beta-alanine.
What is Beta-Alanine?
Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid which does not naturally occur in proteins as a single amino acid. Beta-alanine normally occurs in protein as part of the dipeptide carnosine, which is made up of the two amino acids, beta-alanine and histidine.
My Experience with Beta-Alanine
I first started taking Beta-Alanine when I put together my own preworkout formula. I was impressed with the results of the many scientific studies using Beta-Alanine alone and in combination with Creatine and had to have it in my mix.
Beta-alanine supplementation can cause a slight tingling sensation under the skin called ‘paraesthesia’. This symptom typically occurs when a single dose corresponding to more than 10 mg/kg body weight is taken. The tingling typically starts between 10 and 20 minutes after supplementation and can last up to 2 hours. I personally like this sensation as it feels good to me and lets me know the preworkout has been absorbed into my system.
About the Author
Dr Ray Hope, multiple record breaking champion powerlifter & pound for pound Australia's Strongest Man.
Ray started Powerlifting while studying at University and become the best junior lifter over all weight divisions in Australia, and broke three different Australian junior records multiple times. Ray competed in two World Junior Championships while completing his PhD in Engineering, then retired from lifting to focus on his new Engineering career.
After nine years in retirement from Powerlifting, Ray was seeking to challenge himself again, and made a comeback to win the Australian Open Championship in 2009 and 2010, breaking the Australian total record by 2.5 kg, 5.5 lbs, in 2009 and breaking his own record by a massive 20 kg, 44 lbs, in 2010. His performance at the 2010 Australian Powerlifting Championships made him, pound for pound, Australia’s Strongest man.
At the 2010 Queensland titles Ray won the best lifter over all weight divisions and his deadlift of 250 kg, 550 lbs, at only 67.5 kg, 148 lbs, body weight was the biggest lift of the competition while remarkably, Ray was the lightest lifter on the day.
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