We’re not about to tell anyone that the only way they’ll PR is with a pre-workout, but it’s also not true to say that pre-workouts are completely useless or full of fluff. Yes, there are a lot of phony products in the health and fitness space but that doesn’t mean there’s no research supporting pre-workouts. And we’re not just talking about the caffeine.
On top of the caffeine (or sometimes instead of it) the best pre-workouts include ingredients that are linked to better power, endurance, blood flow, and focus. Today we’re talking about that enigmatic quality of “focus” — can you really take a powder and be more driven to lift?
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems.
Probably the most common “focus” ingredient, tyrosine is an amino acid that appears to be the most useful during times of stress, be it from work or a workout. Studies suggest it could potentially help with working memory, well-being, and perceptions of stress, but the strongest evidence is on cognition(1)(2)(3). There’s evidence for beneficial cognitive effects on people who are fighting through a cold, have been awake for ages, or have spent days in an intense military training course. Again, stressful situations. People are pretty sure it’s good during workouts too because the same hormones can be involved.
A good dose is at least 500 milligrams (this is important because a lot of pre-workouts only have 100mg), but note that it may not be a good idea for people with hyperactive thyroids and it may block the uptake of some prescription drugs, so check with a doctor before getting started.
It would be weird if we just ignored the evidence that caffeine, while totally a stimulant, has plenty of links to focus as well. Studies have suggested it can improve reaction time, working memory (which is similar, but not exactly the same as short term memory), and perceptual memory (which involves interpreting and categorizing incoming stimuli).(4)(5)(6)(7)
Of course, too much caffeine — and “too much” depends on the individual’s body and history — can mess with your sleep and contribute to anxiety, sometimes folks with blood pressure issues are advised to limit it, plus it’s easy to develop a tolerance to its effects if you take it habitually. One answer is to just take more of it, but it’s also not a bad idea to cycle off every now and then.
A lot of people associate taurine with Red Bull because, well, that’s why Red Bull got its name. (It’s called taurine because it used to be synthesized from ox bile.) But taurine isn’t a stimulant, it’s just often paired with stimulants because it appears to help reduce the jitteriness and loss of focus associated with a big caffeine hit. Less of a jolt and crash, more of a gentle rise and fall, partly because a gram or two of taurine may help to blunt glucose spikes.
Because it appears to draw water into cells, it also looks like it might help to prevent muscle cramps following a workout (especially if you’re using fat burners) and there’s even a little evidence it could be useful for managing heart conditions and diabetes. But again, we’re not doctors and this isn’t medical advice.
Note that no one really thinks taurine is fantastic at focus, heart health, blood sugar, and so on, it’s more of a jack of all trades.
The “thea” part of the name “theanine” comes from tea because this amino acid is found almost exclusively in the tea plant. As we said in our guide to theanine, the idea is that it promotes relaxation without sedation — you’re calm but not drowsy.(8)
This is why it’s super common for folks to pair their morning coffee or their caffeinated pre-workout with about 50 to 200 milligrams of the stuff. (Yes, in this regard its usage is a little similar to taurine.) The most evidence is that theanine helps increase focus by promoting relaxation, but there’s a little data to suggest it might also help anxiety in some instances.
5) Acetyl L-Carnitine
This amino acid derivative is often taken as a weight loss product and l-carnitine l-tartrate is a common supplement for improving power output, but acetyl l-carnitine is known as a brain booster.
Though it’s not usually considered a stimulant, it’s primary purpose is decreasing fatigue, but that refers to both physical and mental fatigue.(9)(10) It’s so effective that it’s even shown promise as a method of treating inattention and aggression among children with ADHD.(11) It’s made from carnitine, which is found in meat, and the body makes acetyl l-carnitine naturally but we produce less of it as we age. Add that to the fact that it’s also linked to better muscular control and lower body fat, it was easy to include in our favorite supplements for the over 50 crowd.
A typical dose is 500mg twice a day but it’s smart to start off with doses of 250mg.
As you can see when it comes to exercise and physiology, “focus” can be a pretty tricky concept to define. It can include stimulation, relaxation, memory, attentiveness, and other areas of cognition. But hey, it’s not hard to find pre-workouts that contain every one of these ingredients if you want all your bases covered. On the other hand, if you prefer to go all natural, pre-workout tea or coffee are always great options as well!
1. Shurtleff D, et al. Tyrosine reverses a cold-induced working memory deficit in humans. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 1994 Apr;47(4):935-41.
2. Deijen JB, et al. Tyrosine improves cognitive performance and reduces blood pressure in cadets after one week of a combat training course. Brain Res Bull. 1999 Jan 15;48(2):203-9.
3. Banderet LE, et al. Treatment with tyrosine, a neurotransmitter precursor, reduces environmental stress in humans. Brain Res Bull. 1989 Apr;22(4):759-62.
4. Duvnjak-Zaknich DM, et al. Effect of caffeine on reactive agility time when fresh and fatigued. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Aug;43(8):1523-30.
5. Childs E, et al. Subjective, behavioral, and physiological effects of acute caffeine in light, nondependent caffeine users. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2006 May;185(4):514-23.
6. Smillie LD, et al. Caffeine enhances working memory for extraverts. Biol Psychol. 2010 Dec;85(3):496-8.
7. Mednick SC, et al. Comparing the benefits of caffeine, naps and placebo on verbal, motor and perceptual memory. Behav Brain Res. 2008 Nov 3;193(1):79-86.
8. Kimura K, et al. L-Theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses. Biol Psychol. 2007 Jan;74(1):39-45. Epub 2006 Aug 22.
9. Malaguarnera M, et al. Acetyl L-carnitine (ALC) treatment in elderly patients with fatigue. Arch Gerontol Geriatr. 2008 Mar-Apr;46(2):181-90.
10. Vermeulen RC, et al. Exploratory open label, randomized study of acetyl- and propionylcarnitine in chronic fatigue syndrome. Psychosom Med. 2004 Mar-Apr;66(2):276-82.
11. Van Oudheusden LJ, et al. Efficacy of carnitine in the treatment of children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2002 Jul;67(1):33-8.
Thanks to Examine.com for maintaining an excellent library of nutrition studies.