Don’t Bench Press ’til You French Press – A Guide to Caffeine for Performance Enhancement

Black, White, Coffee by Bitzcelt

The drug of choice for millions can give you better workouts.

Caffeine is the number one most consumed drug in the world. It’s in soda, chocolate, coffee, tea, energy drinks and even a lot of herbal supplements. Most people are extremely familiar with – if not dependent on – the energy boost it provides. I know I tend to be somewhat less than peppy if I miss my morning coffee. What most people don’t know is that caffeine is an extremely effective performance enhancer for training.

If you know how and when to supplement with caffeine you can not only improve your endurance, but improve your strength output and prime your body to burn more fat during exercise than it normally would. That means you get more out of every workout for the price of a cup of coffee. Sounds good to me.

The Benefits of Caffeine

Researchers and exercise physiologists have been studying the effects of caffeine as a performance enhancer since at least 1978 and study after study has confirmed the same conclusion – it works. In fact, with all the solid data on the clear benefits of caffeine supplementation it’s a wonder it hasn’t been banned in more sports. Here are just some of the benefits caffeine offers.

Improved Endurance

The most obvious benefit to caffeine supplementation is it’s ability to improve muscular endurance. That means that you can go harder for longer without having to take a rest. Formerly it was thought this was a result of caffeine’s ability to release fat stores into the bloodstream to be used as fuel saving your muscle’s glycogen stores and allowing them to last longer. Now though research has shown caffeine also stimulates the release of calcium stored in muscle – the release of this calcium increases both endurance and overall power output.

On top of all of that, caffeine has the neurological effect of distorting your perception of exhaustion, meaning that even when your energy stores are used up your brain thinks it can keep going allowing you to push past your normal point of failure.

Regardless of how it works, researchers agree that caffeine supplementation can improve an athlete’s endurance from 5% all the way up to 25% depending on the person. A five percent increase may not sound like much, but when you’re trying to push yourself to run just a little bit farther it can make all the difference.

Increased Strength Output

When it comes to maximal strength training the best way to get stronger is to move heavy weights. The heavier weights you can move the stronger you can become and the more muscle you can build. Caffeine can help you do that more quickly by increasing the total amount you can lift.

This effect may be due to the release of fat stores and calcium that we mentioned or it may be an effect of the widening of blood vessels and increased blood oxygenation that caffeine produces – either way the result ranges from a 3% increase in strength output all the way up to an 18% increase in some studies.

To put that in perspective, for someone with a non-caffeinated 1RM bench of 200 pounds that could mean an increase of 36 pounds. That’s an impressive return for doing something as easy as downing a cup of Starbucks.

Better Fat Metabolism

More concerned about losing weight than about running farther or getting stronger? No problem, caffeine still has you covered. Caffeine stimulates the release of stored fat into the bloodstream for energy and causes the body to place a preference on using fat as energy over carbohydrates.

Best of all, this effect lasts for at least a few hours on average. That means that the increase in free flowing fatty acids is there both during your workout to fuel your efforts, and after your workout to help replace muscle glycogen stores. This means caffeine before your workout makes you burn more fat during and after that workout and may also aid in recovery.

If you’re trying to lose those last few stubborn pounds caffeine supplementation can be the thing that finally gets you past the plateau.

Beyond all of these benefits there are tons of tertiary benefits to regular caffeine consumption including lowered risk of cardiac disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s – so even if you’re not using it directly as a performance enhancer it helps keep you healthy.

A Few Precautions

Caffeine is a drug.

That means that like with any other drug there are potential side effects and dosage control is very important. Thankfully, the list of potential detriments from caffeine is relatively minor and, unless you’re pouring an entire bottle of caffeine pills down your throat, it is relatively difficult to overdose.

Blood Pressure, Increased Heart Rate & Dehydration

The first potential problem we’ll address right away is dehydration. The diuretic effects of caffeine are way, way overblown. In people who are completely unconditioned to caffeine there’s a slight diuretic effect but even this is weak enough to be insignificant in terms of increasing risk for dehydration. Be intelligent – you know when you need fluids so get them.

When it comes to increasing blood pressure and heart rate caffeine does have a slightly stronger effect but only in people who have not had caffeine for 4 to 5 days. If you have a cup of coffee everyday anyway, and have been for more than a few days, than caffeine doesn’t have any effect on your blood pressure or heart rate and won’t unless you go cold turkey for a while then reintroduce it.

If you have heart problems and hypertension and have never had a coffee or a soda in a month or two than you should be a little careful, everyone else is fine.

The best part about this conditioning is studies have shown that while the detrimental effects follow a curve of diminishing returns the benefits do not. That means if you consume some caffeine everyday you still get the full performance enhancing benefit with none of the detrimental side effects.

How to Use Caffeine to Improve Performance

Ok, so you’re convinced now right? You know you should be supplementing with caffeine to improve your workouts and you want to know how.

The first step is choosing the right source for your caffeine. Caffeine is in a lot of things nowadays and you have a lot of options. Since we’re ingesting this caffeine with the goal of using it to improve exercise performance – and therefore I assume health is important to you – we can eliminate all sugary drinks first offhand. That means no sodas, energy drinks or chocolate.

So what’re we left with? Tea, coffee and caffeine pills are the main contenders remaining. Tea has a lot of general health benefits, but it has relatively low caffeine content so I would exclude it as well. That leaves coffee and caffeine pills.

The final decision between the two comes down a lot to personal preference. Some studies have shown a statistically stronger benefit to ingesting the pure caffeine pills over the coffee, and it is much easier to control the dosage. That being said, coffee is really good – so it’s your choice.

As far as the dosages go, the general recommendation is 3 to 6 mg per kg of bodyweight. Several studies have shown benefit from dosages as low as 1 mg per kg of bodyweight though, so you may need to do a little personal experimentation and see what works best for you. The best time to ingest the caffeine is between and hour and 30 minutes prior to exercise.

An average 20 oz cup of coffee (a Venti for you Starbucks patrons) has 400 mg of caffeine, which would be more than enough for most people. A standard caffeine pill is 200 mg, meaning it also would be more than enough for anyone weighing less than 200 kg (about 440 lbs.) – so you’re covered whichever way you go.

If you’re feeling non-scientific about it 12 to 16 oz of coffee should be enough. Getting more than you need doesn’t diminish the effects, so if you like coffee you might as well go for the large or have them drop a shot of espresso in there.

You can overdose on caffeine, but that usually requires between 150 to 200 mg per kg of bodyweight in humans which translates to 80 to 100 cups of coffee for most people. It’s a little easier with caffeine pills, and some people have had problems with as little as 2 grams so don’t go crazy. Normal usage won’t have any detriments though.

So there you have it – improved endurance, strength, fat loss and tons of other benefits and all you need is a single pill or a medium cup of coffee. With all the benefits, the ease of use and the almost complete lack of negative side effects why would you not want to boost your workouts with caffeine supplementation?

Do you use caffeine regularly for the performance enhancement effects and if not do you think you’ll give it a try? Have you noticed a direct effect from it? Share your experiences in the comments!

Photo Credit: Bitzcelt

Special thanks to my father-in-law Bill for the title.

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com