Is coffee a good pre-workout? Cup of power

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Drinking a strong cup of coffee before training: does it have a similar effect to taking a pre-workout supplement?

Key points:

1.   Consumption of caffeine (3 mg/kg) about an hour before training can have a positive effect on your training performance. However, the possible ergogenic effects of caffeine quickly disappear with habituation.

2.   The main benefit of caffeine for strength athletes seems to be increasing alertness and motivation, especially when you train in the morning.

3.   Caffeine in coffee probably has the same effect as caffeine from a supplement, such as a caffeine pill or a pre-workout supplement. You will have to drink at least two cups of coffee before your training to get an adequate dose. In addition, you do not know exactly how much caffeine you are getting with coffee. On average, this is 85 mg of caffeine per 125 ml cup.

4.   Pre-workout supplements also contain substances other than caffeine, but it is often questionable how effective they are, or whether they are underdosed. In this regard, coffee is a proven alternative to pre-workouts, which is also much cheaper.

COFFEE VS. PRE-WORKOUTS

You can’t quite compare coffee and pre-workouts, because pre-workouts also contain other ingredients that may boost your training. But closer inspection shows that these are often substances without an acute effect, such as creatine. Or that substances that do have an acute effect, such as citrulline malate, are too low dosed to be effective. Or that the substances probably don’t work at all.

Pre-workouts often have to rely on a large dose of caffeine. Most popular pre-workout supplements contain between 150 and 250 mg of caffeine per serving. A 125 ml cup of coffee contains on average 85 mg of caffeine. So you will definitely have to tap down two cups to get an amount of caffeine that is comparable to that in pre-workout supplements.

Are you more into energy drinks? A 250 ml can of Red Bull Energy Drink contains 80 mg of caffeine, which is comparable to one cup of coffee.

WHAT DOES CAFFEINE DO?

Does caffeine have such a big effect on exercise performance? That depends on how you look at it. The potential benefit of caffeine for strength athletes is twofold: on the one hand, the substance increases alertness and motivation, and on the other, it can have a direct positive effect on strength performance, namely on muscle endurance, maximum strength and explosive strength – see this article. Effects that promote strength performance are also called ergogenic effects.

To take advantage of the ergogenic effects of caffeine, take a dose of caffeine of 3-9 mg/kg of body weight approximately 60 minutes before your workout. For someone who weighs 75 kilos, that means at least 225 mg of caffeine.

In practice, the ergogenic properties of caffeine will unfortunately not make the difference. Caffeine only works as a strength sports supplement if your body is not used to it. This is due to the so-called insurmountable tolerance: once your body is used to a certain dose, for example 200 milligrams per day, caffeine will no longer offer you benefits in terms of strength, even if you take a (much) higher dose. In fact, according to supplement expert Kurtis Frank, you can only benefit from caffeine’s ergogenic properties if you only consume caffeine once every two weeks.

But even then, it remains to be seen whether caffeine really does anything for your gains. See, for example, a recent study conducted among experienced strength athletes who do not normally consume caffeine very often. Caffeine supplementation at 3 mg/kg immediately before training was found to have a positive effect on movement speed, but no significant effects were measured on strength performance compared to placebo users.

According to coach Menno Henselmans, we should therefore not put too much weight on the possible ergogenic effects of caffeine:

(…) Caffeine is mostly a motivational aid and doesn’t do much for your physique or strength gains in the long term.

Henselmans believes that you benefit most from caffeine when you are tired, for example when you train in the early morning. This is confirmed by another recent study, conducted among basketball players: caffeine supplementation was found to improve physical performance such as jumping and sprinting only in players who trained in the morning.

IS CAFFEINE IN COFFEE LESS EFFECTIVE?

Well, caffeine may give you a small workout boost, especially in the morning, although the ergogenic effect seems limited. Can you suffice with two cups of coffee for that boost or is it better to take a supplement? Supplements such as pre-workouts are of course much more expensive than coffee.

Caffeine is caffeine, you might say. However, a 1998 study seems to indicate otherwise. It measured the effect of caffeine on endurance performance when administered by means of coffee, decaffeinated coffee with added caffeine, or capsules. And it actually turned out that only the caffeine from capsules led to improved performance. The researchers therefore suspected that there is something in coffee that reduces or cancels out the performance-enhancing effect of caffeine. For a long time, this study was seen as an argument for using caffeine supplements instead of coffee.

It was not until 2013 that new studies were conducted to see whether the 1998 findings were correct. Because one study conducted on only nine people does not say much. Indeed, these studies showed that caffeine from coffee is just as effective as a caffeine supplement. This was confirmed in 2019 in a review of the literature available to date.

That review did mention some disadvantages of using coffee compared to a supplement. For example, you never know exactly how much caffeine you are getting with coffee (this can vary greatly per type) and you have to drink quite a lot of coffee at once to get an effective caffeine dose (at least two cups, as we already saw).

On the other hand, a cup of coffee is a great pleasure for many and yes, even that can benefit your training performance. For example, a recent study suggests that just the smell and sight of a cup of coffee increases alertness – at least among coffee lovers.

CONCLUSION AND ADVICE

Consumption of caffeine (3 mg/kg) about an hour before training can have a positive effect on your training performance. However, the possible ergogenic effects of caffeine quickly disappear with habituation; you should be periodizing your caffeine intake to take advantage of those effects every now and then.

The main benefit of caffeine for strength athletes seems to be increasing alertness and motivation, especially when you train in the morning.

Caffeine in coffee probably has the same effect as caffeine from a supplement, such as a caffeine pill or a pre-workout supplement. You will have to drink at least two cups of coffee before your training to get an adequate dose. In addition, you do not know exactly how much caffeine you are getting with coffee. On average, this is 85 mg of caffeine per 125 ml cup.

Pre-workout supplements also contain substances other than caffeine, but it is often questionable how effective they are or they are underdosed. In this way, coffee is a proven alternative to pre-workouts, which is also much cheaper.

Enjoy your coffee, but don’t overdo with strength supplements. Success in bodybuilding lies in a combination of a well thought-out training program, sufficient rest and good nutrition. Supplements hardly make any difference, neither does the use of caffeine.

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