Caffeine – Useful or Useless?

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Caffeine – Useful or Useless?

By Warren Germishuizen, The Mad Scientist

Let’s turn back the clock to an era without pre-workouts. It was a time when lifters didn’t race to their tog bags, or the locker room to get their hands on ‘the good stuff’. Back then, a great gym session didn’t depend entirely on the consumption of a pre-workout consumed from the ever-present shaker bottle. Instead it was a time when bodybuilders used the world’s most widely available drug – caffeine.

Strength, power and endurance

One subject that has been hotly debated over the decades is whether or not coffee can boost performance during exercise. Can caffeine pack a huge punch in the weights room, or is it just another scam by marketers looking to profit from the distribution of false information?

Let’s resort to science to answer the question. Research has shown that using a small quantity, such as 3mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight (that’s 255mg of caffeine for a lifter who weighs 85kg), is sufficient to deliver a performance-enhancing effect with very little in terms of metabolic changes.

In this regard, caffeine has the ability to boost strength, power and endurance. If you are an experienced lifter you could even consume as high as 6mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight (that’s 510mg of caffeine if you weigh 85kg). To put this equation in practical terms, the 3mg dose is equal to 2 cups of coffee and the 6mg dose is the same as 4-5 cups of coffee.

Within limits

However, exceeding this quantity may cause you to feel jittery and nervous, and may interfere with your sleeping patterns. it can also even lead to anxiety or nausea.

So, the way coffee is consumed matters. These side effects could actually counter whatever benefit you might get from caffeine. For example, a lack of sleep brought on by too much caffeine may increase your appetite and make you gain weight.

When endurance athletes consume caffeine, it enhances the mobilisation of stored fat, thereby providing more fuel for muscles to burn. It has also been proven that at a higher dose of 6mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight, caffeine provides a muscle-sparing effect, which is definitely an attribute bodybuilders and physique athletes look for.

Powerful stimulant

On a physiological level, caffeine is a powerful stimulant that increases the ability of the muscle to perform more work, and produce more force and power. It is suggested that caffeine’s effect on the central nervous system plays a key role in the arousal effect, in addition to its ability to blunt pain perception, albeit slightly, which explains the ability of athletes to push harder during exercise after ingesting caffeine.

One study, which was published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, found that drinking a cup of coffee before a workout could actually make the training session more enjoyable. The participants in the study also burnt 60 calorie more than those who did not drink coffee.

In another study, published by researchers in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, also found that athletes who drank coffee before running 1,500m on a treadmill finished their run over 4 seconds faster than those who did not have coffee beforehand. A third study showed that lifters saw almost a 50% drop in delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) when they drank coffee.

Liquids or pills?

So, we know it works, but what is the best time for a lifter to use caffeine? Caffeine in the form of coffee or other beverages seems to get absorbed by the body quicker than from pill form. When consumed in liquid form, a peak at 40 minutes is usually observed, compared to a peak at 60 minutes when consumed in pill form. Interestingly, though, the effect of 5mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight lasted up to 6 hours in non-regular consumers, versus only 1-3 hours in regular caffeine drinkers.

Whichever form you choose to ingest, health concerns have been raised over the prolonged use of caffeine, particularly with higher dosages. So, is it safe? Well, studies have shown that there is no risk of cardiovascular disease, even when you drink up to 6 cups of coffee a day.

Bodybuilders also use coffee for its diuretic effect as it increases urine output within an hour of consumption. When you up your coffee intake, it is advised that you drink a glass of water in addition to the caffeine to aid hydration. A caffeine dose of between 100-600mg falls within the normal range for general use. Any dose exceeding 600mg will lead to the undesirable side effects already mentioned. You can also split that 600mg dose into 3 servings throughout the day.

Take-home message

Caffeine can be a very useful supplement as part of your training protocol, especially on the days when you feel too tired to exercise. When you drink caffeine before gym it can increase your performance, and also helps to accelerate your recovery afterwards.

When I’m prepping athletes in the lead-up to a bodybuilding competition, I usually add caffeine to their regimen because it helps to boost their energy levels when they are on a calorie-restricted diet and, understandably, are not the most motivated people in the world. So, if you are training long, hard and often, a cup of coffee is the way to go!


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