The Best Nootropics As Pre-Workouts
Few fitness supplements have more hype and misinformation surrounding them than nootropics.
Nootropics, sometimes called smart drugs, are substances that may improve cognitive abilities. The best ones can make you more focused, getting you through workouts efficiently and giving you an extra boost on tired days.
Nootropics will not make you stronger or faster, but you may gain in these areas with the enhanced motivation and task completion that nootropics lend you.
For this reason, we looked into nootropics that are ideal pre-workout supplements. With a ready market, many manufacturers have added nearly endless lists of extra ingredients. Not all these ingredients are proven by science. To save you time, we have reviewed ten products by ingredient, using only four basic and proven ingredients. They are:
- Gingko Biloba,
- Rhodiola Rosea,
Learn more about each ingredient in our FAQ section at the end of this article.
In a Hurry? The test winner after 20 hrs of research
Caffeine boost without nervousness or later crash
No sugar or calorie content
Vegan, gluten free, nut allergy friendly
Zhou gets good reviews for honesty and professionalism
Best 10 Nootropics as Pre-Workouts
1. Zhou Energy And Focus
Caffeine boost without nervousness or later crash
No sugar or calorie content
Vegan, gluten free, nut allergy friendly
Zhou gets good reviews for honesty and professionalism
Use of L-Theatine not fully supported by research
Our first three reviews offer you caffeine-based nootropics. Caffeine has been known for centuries as a way to boost energy and improve focus, at least temporarily.Read more
Zhou Energy and Focus, offered by Zhou Nutrition, aims to increase your energy without the nervous or irritable feeling that can come from brewed coffee. These low priced capsules each deliver 100 mg of caffeine, about what you'd find in an 8-ounce cup of brewed coffee. The Zhou capsules contain no calories or sugar, either.
The other ingredient in the supplement is L-Theanine. This is an amino acid, one of the building blocks your body needs to build muscle and regulate your immune system. L-Theanine is not produced naturally in your body. Zhou and other manufacturers say that L-Theanine will reduce stress and enhance executive functioning. There is some scientific evidence of the stress relief component.
Zhou Nutrition prides itself on its clean manufacturing process. Energy + Focus, and Zhou's other supplements contain no soy or gluten. They are also lacking peanut and tree nut ingredients, with no preservatives.
2. Grinds Coffee Sampler Pack
Unique product not offered many other places
Convenient caffeine source, not brewing or prep needed
Low calorie, sodium free
Comes in a mix of flavors
Contains additional energy boosters like taurine
Not made to be eaten--having a lump of coffee grounds in your mouth may not be for everyone
It doesn't get much simpler than this package of flavored coffees that lets you try a mouthful of each of several coffees offered by Grinds.Read more
Grinds is a medium-sized company that makes coffee pouches. The pouches are designed to be placed in the mouth and chewed. You do not use this product to make coffee. Many reviewers praise it as a tool to help oral tobacco users quit the habit.
The sample pack offers mocha, cinnamon roll, wintergreen, cherry, vanilla, and caramel flavors. It is a pretty good blend of sweet and more traditional flavors. You don't need to add water, creamer, or sugar to the pouches. You could stash a few of them in your glove compartment or gym bag for easy pre-workout access.
In addition to the caffeine from coffee, a Grinds pouch includes water, B vitamins, taurine, and a flavorant. Though the taste and experience are like coffee, the Grinds product has the makings of an energy drink, with just ten calories per serving. Best of all, Grinds pouches contain no sodium, fat, cholesterol, or sugar. However, the stripped-down formula also means there is no protein for muscle building in the pouches.
Grinds pouches contain no tobacco or nicotine.
3. SmarterVitamins Caffeine Pills
200 mg caffeine per serving, with almost no calories and no added preservatives or fillers
Contains MCT oil, which has proven benefits for energy increase
Easy to swallow liquid softgel
Free of artificial dyes
Promoting maca root as a "vitality booster" is a bit misleading
Potential for side effects-read label carefully
This last of our three caffeine supplements offers twice as much caffeine per dose as the Zhou Nutrition capsules, in a gelatinized capsule with a couple of other ingredients.Read more
One of those ingredients, maca root powder, comes from a plant native to Peru that has ginseng-like properties. Some preliminary research indicates the roots can increase both energy and endurance. However, we did some math and the amount of maca root in each capsule may not do much for you. More on that in our expert articles.
One thing Smarter Vitamins is very adamant on is the lack of filler ingredients in their supplements. On the site, you can find a list of things the caffeine capsules do not contain. They include soy, milk, food dyes, gluten, wheat, and corn oil. Other than the gelatin capsule components, caffeine, maca root powder, and coconut triglycerides, each capsule just has beeswax and sunflower lecithin as bonding agents.
Those coconut ingredients are part of MCT oil, the final active ingredient in the capsules. We're happy to report that MCT (medium train triglycerides) have medical use as a fat source for people whose bodies cannot tolerate natural fats well. Here, Smarter Vitamins is promoting MCT oil as a mental clarifier and energy booster. There is decent scientific evidence that this is the case.
4. Life Extension Gingko Biloba Extract
Gingko Biloba has proven effectiveness
Capsules are vegetarian, no animal products
Company is ethical and honest
No filler ingredients or empty claims
Not specifically designed as a pre workout supplement, so no side benefits
The main ingredient in this product is Gingko Biloba. In addition to improving mental function, gingko may also help with heart function as well as decreasing inflammation for those with joint problems. It is harvested from the leaves of the gingko tree, a hardy plant now found in most parts of the world.Read more
The first thing we noticed about this product is its simplicity. The only active ingredient is the gingko Biloba. Inert ingredients are used to construct and adhere to the capsule container. These agents are all vegetarian, with the capsule walls being made of cellulose from plant fibers.
It may sound like the bar is pretty low, if all we expect from a gingko Biloba supplement is that it's mostly made of Gingko Biloba. But you might be surprised at how some companies will make supplements with a bewildering list of ingredients, bill the product as containing Gingko Biloba, and cut the dosage in half or less while using the other ingredients to convince you of added value. It is a deceptive practice, though not strictly illegal; those companies depend on customers not taking the time to research and verify the benefits of each ingredient on the long list.
Anyway, Life Extension does not play the ingredient game, and that is why we like them. For around forty dollars, you get a year supply of 120 mg Gingko Biloba capsules. While there is no recommended dose of Gingko Biloba, the 120 matches up with typically used therapeutic doses. There are few side effects associated with Gingko Biloba, so it is a safe supplement for everyday use. We appreciate the simple and straightforward presentation used by Life Extension, and we are sure you will, too.
5. Moon Juice Brain Dust Sachets
Product line developed by a professional chef
Herbal additives may provide some benefits
Vegan, GMO free, allergen free, no fillers
Powder is sweetened and mixes easily into drinks
No information on Gingko Biloba dosage, even on Moon Juice website
As the name suggests, this is a supplement powder that you can add to your favorite drink as a brain strengthening supplement to get you through your workouts or your workday.Read more
In addition to the Ginko Biloba, you get several herbal extracts that are mostly made from leaves and roots. These include lion's mane, maca root, astragalus, Rhodiola, and Stevia, which acts as a sugar and calorie-free sweetener. Moon Juice products contain no GMOs. They are also gluten-free and vegan. Brain Dust contains no caffeine.
The claim here is that Brain Dust will reduce stress. This, in turn, will give you mental endurance and make you more alert, so you are able to focus better. That added endurance and focus are what can help you have a more effective, productive workout.
We would have given Brain Dust a higher rating if we could have. However, the additional root and leaf additives are mostly not based on science, so their benefits are unclear. It doesn't mean we advise against the product, because Brain Dust doesn't show signs of playing the ingredient game we talked about. Rather, the company is appealing to users who have heard about lion's mane and the other additions and would like to try them out. Reviews indicate the product acts quickly, giving you a feeling of alertness without making you feel buzzed. Moon Juice provides several tasty-looking recipes for mixing their product into coffee and more.
6. Viridian Rhodiola Rosea
Traditional supplement backed by lived experience
Contains no fillers or inert ingredients
Free of soy, gluten, and artificial colors/sweeteners
400 mg is an effective dose
Science behind Rhodiola Rosea is not completely clear
This and our next supplements contain an herb called Rhodiola Rosea as their primary ingredient. The Viridian supplement is pure Rhodiola Rosea, with no other ingredients besides the gelatin and bonding agent for the capsule.Read more
Rhodiola Rosea has some effectiveness in stress management, mood improvement, and freedom from fatigue. Taking it before a workout, even a few hours before, can give you increased focus and help you get through the workout with effective and concentrated results. The plant grows in very cold mountainous regions of Europe and Asia, as well as in the Arctic; another name for Rhodiola Rosea is Arctic Root. People living in these regions have used the plant for centuries to treat depression and other psychological conditions and as a vitality increaser.
There is decent evidence surrounding these claims, but the two best-known studies were small, limited in scope, and have not been replicated yet in other studies.
These capsules contain no soy, GMOs, dyes or flavors, lactose, wheat, or gluten. Each of the 150 capsules contains 400 mg of the active ingredient. Reviewers noted that the supplement helped them with long days and late nights, so this is definitely a good fit for those of us who work a regular job and go to the gym after hours.
7. Bulk Supplements Rhodiola Extract
Pure and additive free Rhodiola Rosea
Comes in several sizes to suit different needs
Bulk Supplements has a good reputation, customer service
Can increase energy and focus while it alleviates stress
Possible to get nauseous from eating too much of the powder
Does not have a pleasant taste
Bulk Supplements is known for the simplicity and unadulterated quality of their supplement powders.Read more
This one comes in bags weighing 100 grams, 1 kilogram, or 5 kilograms. 5 kilograms is 11 pounds, enough powder to share with everyone at the gym more than once. You'd have a hard time making everyone a smoothie, though, because Bulk Supplement powders are designed to be swallowed and don't dissolve in liquid. They do not contain any flavors or fillers, either.
The Spartan approach is hard to get past for many users, but it results in a consistently low-cost product with an easily verified supply chain. You don't have to worry about vetting every entry on a long ingredient list. Reviewers state that the supplement is good at controlling stress and providing energy.
One way to overcome the need to swallow in bulk is to buy a capsule machine, which lets you make your own water-soluble capsules. It is possible to dissolve small amounts in hot coffee, with decent all day results.
8. Onnit Micronized Creatine
Nsf certified for safety, potency
Five grams of creatine per serving
No fillers or additives
Website does not make unrealistic claims
Does not appear to come in flavors
Creatine was a nootropic before "nootropic" came into common use for consumers. We're big fans of creatine because there is a body of scientific research supporting its effectiveness at delivering intense short term energy.Read more
Creatine improves and promotes greater muscle and strength gains by giving you the energy to push harder in your workouts. Its benefit is largely anaerobic, suiting it to sports or activities that rely on bursts of strength rather than sustained cardiovascular efforts. Sprinters, powerlifters, and baseball players are examples of people who can benefit from creatine.
You can benefit from creatine, too, and you can be confident in Onnit's product because it is NSF certified. The NSF, or National Sanitation Foundation, is a nongovernmental organization that helps develop standards for safety and health. The NSF also uses its various groups to evaluate products and give them the NSF mark of approval. The certification status means that Onnit creatine is safe when used effectively and that Onnit meets high standards for safe manufacturing and honest advertising.
A serving of Onnit creatine is 5 grams, or two scoops, mixed with an 8-ounce drink of your choice. It is unflavored, or at least there are no flavors on the Onnit website at the time of this writing.
9. Klean Creatine
Klean Athlete offers a line of complimentary products
Dissolves easily in your drink of choice
Not available in flavors
Klean Athlete, who makes Klean Creatine. also earned NSF certification for the purity of this and other supplements products.Read more
Klean Creatine does not contain artificial coloring or preservatives, GMOs, gluten, dairy ingredients or soy. It comes in 5-gram servings, with a scoop, and is not flavored. In addition to the strength benefits during your workout, creatine may also make recovery time shorter and easier.
Klean Athlete provides a chart, on its website, where it suggests when to take each of its supplements. Other supplements include multivitamins, electrolytes, and supplements for endurance as well as others. Klean Creatine is meant to be taken between 15 and 30 minutes before a workout, making it a true pre-workout supplement. You can also take a serving after activity, which is what gives you the enhanced recovery.
Both Klean Creatine and Onnit Creatine are made from Creapure. Creapure is synthesized by AlzChem Trostberg Gmbh, a German lab company. It is recognized in the industry as the best and most potent creatine available for purchase.
10. Onnit Alpha Brain
Company has a decent reputation, endorsements. NSF ranking
No stimulants in product
No fillers or extra additive
Herbal remedies typically have mild or no side effects
Some ingredients have unproven benefits
Our final pick is an all herbal supplement that introduces ingredients we have not examined yet and aims to improve your cognitive function throughout the day as well as giving you an edge when you work out or play a sport.Read more
Ingredients, according to the Onnit website, include:
Bacopa-a plant that grows wild in India, where people use it to boost their memory and live longer lives.
Cat's Claw-a plant native to the Amazon rainforest, it is supposed to strengthen the immune system.
Huperzia Serrata- this extract comes from the northern firmoss plant. It makes more of a chemical called acetylcholine available for your brain to use. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter responsible for muscle contractions, pain response, REM sleep, and the proper running of your endocrine system. The idea behind giving your brain more acetylcholine is to help you build strength through more efficient muscle contraction.
Oat straw-improves cognitive functioning in healthy users demonstrated in some lab tests.
We found writeups of several small studies that partially validate the use of Bacopa for decreasing memory loss. there is no evidence that cat's claw can improve performance or immunity, according to the NIH. Huperzia is actually used to treat Alzheimer's in China, but not in the U.S. Clinical trials are sparse and use small sample groups, so conclusions are unclear.
Finally, we are happy to report that there are clinical studies, more than just one, linking oat straw or Avena sativa to healthy cognitive functioning.
So. Is Alpha Brain a good supplement? Yeah, we think so. At least some of the ingredients will improve your focus and performance, while others have not been proven in lab tests. If it seems like we gave you a lot of information for a product with just four plant-based ingredients, it's because we were making a point. Stacking ingredients, the way some makers do, makes it more and more difficult to track down the validity of each one. It gets worse when you consider some of these ingredients may interact in ways the average person wouldn't know. So while we give every supplement and maker a chance, we also will always tell you to beware of the overpriced and overstuffed supplement trick.
Criteria Used for Evaluation
Nootropics that try to do anything can end up not doing anything.
So we looked for supplements that did not have an overabundance of ingredients or those that claim to do too many things. We wanted the focus to be on nootropics that you can take before a workout, to give yourself extra focus and energy. Many of the ones on this list have the side benefit that you can take them as part of your daily routine. Focus and task completion are important in every type of work or activity, not just at the gym.
We looked for manufacturers who had solid track records and good reputations.
To have a good reputation, a brand does not have to be established or have been around for many years. Grinds, the maker of the chewable coffee pouches, is a young company with an idea that nobody else thought of before. Our experience on their website, and reading over customer reviews, convinced us that the product was worthy of inclusion on our list. We also prioritized a couple of companies that are NSF certified, meaning they have taken extra steps to ensure the purity, potency, and safety of their supplements.
OK, it has 23 different plant roots in it, but does it do anything?
If a supplement isn't effective, if it isn't improving your mood, cognition, performance, or whatever other metrics you are looking for help with, then there isn't much reason to take it. Instead of looking for products with the latest and greatest ingredients, we kept it simple with a few proven ingredients. Bulk Supplements makes some of the most effective and useful nootropic supplements on the market, and for the most part, they only contain one ingredient.
Potency refers to how strong a product is.
In the case of nootropic supplements, potency is determined by a few factors, including
Purity (presence of inert or extra ingredients);
Sourcing (where the ingredients came from).
Creatine that comes from Creapure, the world-famous German lab, will naturally be the most potent and pure creatine you can buy. This is something you can rely on. You can also look at the ingredient list, which we think is one of the best things you can do with any supplement. A lot of ingredients does not ensure it is powerful or will deliver results.
Supplement manufacturers today are required to disclose any potential side effects.
Side effects from over the counter supplements will typically be mild. You can avoid most of them by following the label directions and never taking more than the maximum amount. Side effects get more serious when you overdo a supplement. Even coffee, something you can buy at any store, will make you nauseous and perhaps give you insomnia if you drink too much of it.
Even though side effects from supplements are not usually serious, you still have to educate yourself and look out for any signs of them.
Expert Interviews & Opinions
Every few years, a supplement ingredient comes along that claims to fix everything. It can make you stronger, give you more energy, help you run farther, improve your memory, and so on. Often these ingredients are full of inflated claims, but many times the magical ingredient will have at least some of the benefits it says it does. The latest example of this is maca root, which we found listed as an ingredient of several nootropic supplements we examined.
Most of the evidence for maca root is anecdotal, meaning passed by word of mouth from people who have used the root. Scientific evidence is limited and studies have not been large enough to state that maca can do all the things its proponents claim it will. Most studies, in fact, have focused on maca's use as an aphrodisiac and sex drive enhancer--not as a fitness tool. People in Peru, where the plant is plentiful, often rely on it for nutrition and sustenance. There's no disputing that maca root works as a food source.
We promised we'd do the math on maca root in SmarterVitamin caffeine pills, so here it is. SmarterVitamin got high rankings for its safe, therapeutic caffeine content and lack of filler ingredients. Each pill contains 250 mg of maca root powder. This calculates to 0.0088 ounces or not even a tenth of an ounce!
Since maca root is not approved by the FDA, there are no recommended dosages. However, we can't imagine such a tiny amount of maca powder will do anything except work its way through your body and come out as waste. It's another example of why research is important because every indication from SmarterVitamins is that the maca root will change your life.
Many of the herbal ingredients you find in nootropic supplements will be called "adaptogenic" by the manufacturer. The term was invented in 1947 as a way to describe stress-relieving substances. The promise of adaptogenic is that they will stabilize your body's metabolic processes and help you achieve physiological balance.
It is important to note that adaptogenic, as a class of drug, are not recognized by the FDA, the European Medicines Agency, or the larger scientific community. In fact, in 2013, the FDA warned a company that it was making false health claims by calling one of its products an adaptogen.
Most of the studies about adaptogens were conducted in the former Soviet Union, as well as Korea and China, more than forty years ago. The studies are not reliable because there is no way for modern researchers to verify the methods used in the old tests.
Our conclusion is that adaptogenic, as used today, is a marketing term and not a medical or scientific term. We encourage you to investigate all claims made by supplement manufacturers and understand that calling a substance an adaptogenic does not give it any special qualities above those backed by verifiable research.
Other Factors to Consider
We've said it quite a bit, and we can't promise it won't come up again, but huge ingredient lists do not equal value. Often, makers will inflate prices based on all the different perceived benefits of substances. They will also expect you to pay more because the product contains, say, 400 mg of Gingko Biloba instead of 250. In reality, there are no formal standard doses for most of these herbal and synthetic substances. Just like taking a megadose of vitamin C will not give you clearer skin, eating a lot of creatine will not make you hyperfocused and may actually make you sick. For us, a product with one or two proven benefits is more valuable than a super supplement, and the simpler blends are usually less expensive and come in greater quantities.
While we narrowed our reviews to nootropic supplements you can use prior to a workout, there is room for versatility in that category. Some of these supplements may improve your memory in addition to helping you focus. The coffee pouches can actually help you quit using tobacco if that is a goal of yours. Creatine, in measured doses, is good for both intensified workouts and post-workout recovery. And often, plant-based supplements can have an immune-boosting effect, which everyone can use.
Frequently Asked Questions
q: What are some other nootropic ingredients you chose not to cover?
Noopept (a synthetic compound)
Piracetam (another synthetic with similar properties to Noopept)
Phenotropil (a synthetic with almost no research background)
To put things in perspective, Ritalin and Adderal are both true nootropics, with proven efficacy in treating both ADD and ADHD. Though they are life-changing and therapeutic for many patients, Ritalin and Adderal also have documented histories of being abused for non-medical purposes. Also, nicotine has nootropic properties. We, of course, would never recommend nicotine as a sports supplement because of its equally documented addictive properties. We advise you to always use caution, trust medical professionals and do research concerning any supplement you may wish to put in your body.
q: Can you tell me more about caffeine, Gingko Biloba, Rhodiola Rosea, and creatine?
Yes, here is the rundown on our focus ingredients:
Caffeine--a chemical derived from coffee beans, it is the psychoactive element found in coffee, many sodas, and some sports energy supplements. It is proven effective in increasing energy and concentration for short periods of time. Too much caffeine can cause headaches, nausea, irritability, and exhaustion once the caffeine leaves your system. Caffeine pills are one way to overcome these effects, because they contain caffeine in its purest form, with no added calories from sugar, creamer, or additional flavors.
Gingko Biloba--this is made from the leaves of the Gingko plant, native to Asia but now grown commercially throughout the world. There is some scientific evidence to support using Gingko Biloba as a memory enhancer and focus tool. There are very few side effects or negative outcomes associated with Gingko Biloba. It can be made into teas, with the benefits being just as potent as those gained by taking the Biloba in pill or capsule form.
Rhodiola Rosea--an ancient plant that grows mostly in very cold climates. People living in these harsh areas use the plant as a food source and cognition enhancer. There is some evidence that Rhodiola Rosea can do these things, and there is no disputing its nutritional value when taken in raw form. It is a part of many staple diets in cold areas.
Creatine--not quite as thoroughly vetted as caffeine, this popular nootropic energized your workouts by chemically reacting with your body's protein factory to give you enhanced strength for short anaerobic activity.
q: I saw where they did a study on X supplement, that means it's good, right?
Not necessarily. Studies that use very small sample groups are not reliable. Not every study uses scientific methodology, and sometimes studies are sponsored by corporations that have a vested interest in positive study outcomes. Also, studies on animals, showing the benefits or risk of a certain substance, do not automatically transfer over to human unless there are additional studies replicating the results on human volunteer subjects. We encourage you to look for proof of any claim. Google Scholar is an excellent free resource for finding both abstracts and whole study results on virtually any health topic. We have also included a number of study results we uncovered in the Sources section at the end of this Buying Guide.
q: Wasn't soy good for you a few years ago? Why do so many supplements say they don't use it?
Soy is a great natural source of protein, especially for people in parts of the world where animal proteins are not readily affordable for many people. The soybean is one of the most versatile plants on earth. It can be processed into milk, shaped into tofu, consumed raw, made into smoothies, and used in recipes, where it absorbs the flavor of foods and seasonings it contacts during cooking.
Soy also contains compounds called isoflavones, a naturally occurring chemical that can act as estrogen inside the body. For this reason, many consumers are worried that soy can increase breast cancer risk or cause unwanted feminization. Though there is no hard scientific evidence to support this, many manufacturers have decided to err on the side of caution, quit using soy in their supplements, and announce this to customers as a selling point.
We at Garage Gym Builder do not take an official stance on the dangers or benefits of using soy. Instead, we have provided soy-free products as we feel many of our readers want to curtail their use of soy for health reasons.
q: Isn't creatine banned from some sports?
No, Creatine is used, legally, by athletes in the NBA, NFL, WNBA, NWSL, and Olympic competitors. It is also not banned in the NCAA, though there are rules that prohibit coaches giving the substance to college athletes.
There is a copious body of research, replicated over time, showing that creatine is safe when taken in certain limits. It is not a miracle drug that will make athletes more competitive on their own. Athletes use it as part of an overall training regimen.
Creatine, like any consumable chemical, can have side effects. The side effects of creatine are well documented, and professional sports organizations have the ability to monitor their athletes for side effects. Creatine is not safe when combined with anabolic steroids, which have been banned from professional sports for many years.
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- International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: creatine supplementation and exercise, NIH Public Website ,
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- 9 Benefits of Maca Root (and Potential Side Effects), Consumer Health Site ,