DIY Pre-Workout Supplementation

Most popular pre-workout supplements leave quite a bit to be desired.  Sometimes the ingredients are disguised in a “proprietary” blend. They can be pricey, are often underdosed, and usually contain artificial colors and flavors, binders, and fillers.  These products are unnecessary if you’re willing to do a little research and put together your own science-based, cost-effective stack.

To do so, you must first understand what exactly is happening during exercise. There are many steps involved in the movement of bone and muscle but the process begins when a signal is sent from the central nervous system to the muscle cells. This results in several chemical reactions, which cause the muscle fibers to reorient themselves in a way that contracts, or shortens, the muscle.

So the trigger for a muscle contraction is an electrical impulse and since all movement is initiated by the central nervous system, a well-formulated pre-workout  supplement should factor in the activity of neurotransmitters.  Among other functions, these brain chemicals are involved in muscle motor unit recruitment.  In short, muscle contraction is dependent upon proper neurotransmitter signaling.

Some better-known supplements like creatine and beta alanine act directly in the muscle cells to improve muscular energy and endurance. Others, such as caffeine, provide a more pronounced energy “rush,” though the stimulant effects might be undesirable to some. While these categories of supplements are certainly effective, the neurotransmitter enhancers listed below can improve workout performance through different mechanisms and should therefore be considered if you haven’t responded to traditional pre-workouts the way you may have hoped.

Acetyl-l-carnitine (ALCAR)

You brain requires energy to function properly and ALCAR helps supply that fuel.  In fact, research has demonstrated that individuals who suffer from chronic fatigue have consistently low levels of ALCAR.

Not only does ALCAR have an energizing effect on brain cells, but it also protects them and helps them regenerate.  By improving brain plasticity, ALCAR can help you learn new skills and adapt to changing environments.

ALCAR helps maintain brain energy levels during periods of stress, allowing nerves to more efficiently tolerate higher levels of stress.  It’s even been shown to increase the output of serotonin and dopamine, which can improve mood and motivation.

There are several forms of carnitine available as supplements.  For cognitive enhancement, make sure you choose acetyl-l-carnitine.  A dose of less than two or three grams (2,000 – 3,000 mg) will NOT produce a noticeable effect. ALCAR should be taken on an empty stomach.

Products I like: NOW Foods Acetyl L-Carnitine 500mgBulkSupplements Pure Acetyl L-Carnitine (ALCAR) Powder.



L-tyrosine is an amino acid that increases norepinephrine and dopamine levels in the brain, both of which are depleted in the face of an acute stressor, like exercise.  Supplementation can increase energy and focus, as well as improve mood.

Research has shown that tyrosine can improve cognitive performance  and reduce fatigue under stressful conditions, including sleep deprivation.

Tyrosine can help with information processing in demanding scenarios and is thought to improve cognitive “flexibility,” or the ability to switch between tasks, as would be required during circuit training, for example.

L-tyrosine should be taken on an empty stomach.  500-2000mg approximately 30-60 minutes.

Products I like: Now Foods L-tyrosineBulkSupplements Pure L-Tyrosine Powder.


Alpha Glycerylphosphorylcholine (GPC)

Alpha glycerylphosphorylcholine is a form of choline, a precursor to acetylcholine.  And acetylcholine allows for communication between brain cells and is the primary chemical messenger involved in muscle contraction.  In contrast to ordinary choline supplements, alpha-GPC does a better job of increasing acetylcholine levels.

Research on alpha-GPC has demonstrated increases in recall and attention.  Other benefits have been shown related to memory and learning ability.  The effects have been so impressive that alpha-GPC is not being studied for use with Alzheimer’s patients.

Beyond its cognitive benefits, alpha-GPC enhances growth hormone production and is increasingly popular with athletes for its ability to increase power output.

The beneficial dose used in studies is 600 – 1,200 mg.

Products I like: Now Foods Alpha GpcJarrow Formulas Alpha GPC 300Powder City Alpha GPC 50% Powder.


Gingko Biloba

Gingko is a plant extract that has been used around the world for thousands of years to treat a variety of ailments. Of interest to us is its ability to protect the mitochondria, i.e., the “powerhouses” of our cells and where energy production occurs.

Gingko increases blood flow and oxygen delivery to brain cells and protect neurons, enhancing mental functioning and fighting the effects of fatigue and poor concentration.  In fact, a standardized ginkgo extract is one of the most widely-used dementia treatments in Germany. Additional research has shown that the supplement can significantly improve symptoms in patients with attention-deficit disorder.

The recommended dose is 40-80 milligrams up to three times a day.

Products I like: Extra Strength Ginkgo, 120c by Doctors Best, NOW Foods Ginkgo BilobaBulkSupplements Pure Ginkgo Biloba Leaf Extract Powder


There’s no need to give up proven supplements like good ol’ fashioned creatine and caffeine but if you’re not currently including a brain booster in your pre-workout stack, you’re probably missing out on some gains.