Any gym regular will know that feeling of a day when you just don’t feel like working out. We all know you feel better after a workout once you get the endorphin rush and dopamine release but that doesn’t help before a workout when you have zero motivation!
For this reason, people will turn to stimulants.
This is usually in the form of supplementation like a pre-workout and they are used with the sole intention of getting you psyched up for the gym.
These stimulants can provide a temporary energy boost or give the feeling of mental focus and clarity (this one is more important for those attempting personal bests).
Are these pre-workouts really necessary though or just a clever marketing tool? In this article, I’ll cover the debate of coffee vs pre-workout to see if you can get a similar result just from drinking a much cheaper cup of coffee before a workout.
Why Compare Coffee and Pre-Workout
If you’re looking to improve your workout performance and get an extra boost of energy to get you through those tough workouts then deciding what product to take is crucial!
Most of us will be familiar with coffee (the caffeine in coffee to be precise) and pre-workout supplements, both of which promise a pre-workout boost, but how do you know which one is best to use?
Here I’m going to discuss both of these products as well as their pros and cons as a pre-workout to help you decide which is the right product for you to use.
The reason for this comparison is very simple in my opinion, to see if a pre-workout is worth the money or if you can get a similar energy boost and mental focus from just consuming some coffee at a fraction of the price.
To begin with, let’s take a quick look at both of these products.
So, on the one hand, there is coffee. Coffee is a popular drink made from roasted beans. Although it’s common to add milk, artificial sweeteners, and sugar to coffee, as a pre-workout it’s best consumed black, with just hot water added.
On the other hand, there are pre-workout supplements.
The ingredients within pre-workout supplements vary across the different products but typically they contain a stimulant like caffeine and/or beta-alanine, as well as amino acids, and vitamins.
These products come in different forms including powders, tablets, and pills but it’s always the ingredients you should consider when looking at a pre-workout rather than the type.
Is coffee a good pre-workout?
Coffee is a good pre-workout because it’s high in caffeine which will give a boost of energy helping you through a workout. Coffee is also low in cost compared to other pre-workout options. Although using coffee as a pre-workout can have potential side effects like insomnia and heart palpitations.
So, to explain this in some more detail, coffee contains high levels of caffeine with the average cup having 100 mg of caffeine.
Although caffeine isn’t necessary for a workout, a lot of people want caffeine before a workout to help them get motivated for the gym by providing an extra boost of energy.
Caffeine has benefits like helping to improve focus and concentration, increased muscular strength and endurance, increased aerobic endurance, as well as many others.
There is lots of research to suggest coffee has positive effects on workout performance across different types of activities like weight lifting and cardio.
Coffee also contains antioxidants. Antioxidants fight against what is called ‘free radicals’ in your body. A buildup of free radicals in your body can be harmful and has been linked to illnesses like heart disease. So the antioxidants in coffee can have additional health benefits.
As well as workout benefits, using coffee as a pre-workout has also been shown to have post-workout benefits, including reducing muscle soreness following exercise.
Check out this video which explains some of the benefits of using coffee as a pre-workout:
However, there are some downsides to using coffee as a pre-workout which you should consider.
The caffeine contained in coffee, while great for boosting workout performance, can impact your digestive system. Essentially, caffeine can act like a laxative making you need the toilet, which isn’t ideal when you’re going to be working out.
Coffee can also have other negative impacts, like sleep disruption, heart palpitations, and increased anxiety. Again, these side effects are linked with coffee’s high caffeine content.
Tolerance to caffeine varies from person to person, but higher levels are likely to give serious side effects. Therefore, it’s important not to overdo it with caffeine.
How to use coffee as a pre-workout
In order to use coffee as a pre-workout, you need to time it correctly. You should drink coffee around 40 minutes to an hour before your workout. Although you might feel a buzz or energized not long after drinking coffee, leaving it for 40 minutes to an hour gives it time to fully absorb into your body and reach full effect.
The other things to consider are what to drink and how much to drink.
It’s popular to consume coffee with milk, sugar, or artificial sweeteners. However, these products can increase blood sugar levels. Whilst this might be beneficial and increase energy temporarily, it quickly crashes after. So if you’re using coffee as a pre-workout then I’d recommend having black coffee.
In terms of quantity, the recommended amount depends on your tolerance and size. According to most research, caffeine is effective in workouts when it’s consumed in dosages of 0.9 to 2.7 mg per pound or 2 to 6 mg per kg. The average cup of coffee contains 100 mg of caffeine, so one to two cups before a workout should be more than enough to be effective.
Coffee vs Pre-workout
So there are definite advantages to taking coffee as a pre-workout. But how does this compare with pre-workout supplements?
In considering whether it’s best to have coffee or pre-workout supplements before a workout, there are different factors to consider. Some of these points will depend on what you’re wanting to achieve when using these products, which I’ll now explain.
The main thing to consider is caffeine. Caffeine is a popular stimulant and it’s where most of the effect of any form of pre-workout comes from, with proven benefits of enhancing performance when working out. Like I mentioned before, coffee contains caffeine which makes it a good pre-workout option.
Pre-workout supplements also often (although not always) contain some form of stimulant like caffeine. The amount of caffeine in pre-workout supplements varies depending on the product. Some contain doses that are similar to that found in coffee at around 100 mg.
Some pre-workout supplements contain much higher doses of caffeine at around 400 mg. This is the maximum daily recommended caffeine intake, so if you are taking higher doses you need to be careful with other sources of caffeine throughout the day.
It’s also worth mentioning that some people don’t actually consider the caffeine content in their pre-workout and will often take higher doses than recommended. This is because some people have high expectations for a pre-workout and can often feel it’s not working properly if they don’t feel intense effects after taking it.
So you can get higher doses of caffeine using pre-workout supplements. Although you could also just drink another cup of coffee and achieve the same result. As such, there isn’t much of a difference between the products in terms of caffeine quantity.
A benefit of using pre-workout supplements though is that you know exactly how much caffeine you’re consuming because the caffeine content is usually provided on the product.
In comparison, the amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee is usually just an estimate, based on averages. But it can vary depending on the type of grounds and brand of coffee you’re using.
In terms of accuracy then, there is an advantage to using pre-workout supplements, especially if you carefully want to track your caffeine intake.
Another point to consider is the actual type of caffeine. Some argue that because the caffeine from coffee is natural, it is better than the synthetic forms that you’ll find in pre-workout supplements. Whilst synthetic forms of caffeine shouldn’t be less effective, they aren’t released as gradually into your body as natural types so for some it can cause more side effects.
In terms of caffeine then, coffee is an overall better option. Although pre-workout supplements allow for more accurate doses, coffee contains natural caffeine which is likely to have fewer side effects.
Many of us invest in products that promise to boost workout performance and enhance gains, so considering the cost of these products is an important factor.
Overall, coffee is a much cheaper option when compared to pre-workout supplements, especially if you’re just buying the coffee grounds and adding hot water at home as opposed to buying Espressos or Americanos from coffee shops.
Coffee is also readily available in most shops, so it’s easier to buy than pre-workout supplements. So if you’re concerned about costs and want something easily available, then coffee is a much better pre-workout option.
Beyond caffeine, both coffee and pre-workout supplements have other benefits. I covered the benefits of coffee in the last section, including the advantages of antioxidants and reduced muscle soreness.
For pre-workout supplements, these benefits really depend on what other ingredients the products contain. Usually, pre-workout supplements contain ingredients to increase blood flow, amino acids which help to build muscle, and ingredients that reduce soreness.
Ultimately, using a product with a combination of ingredients is likely to have more benefits and result in more desired effects when working out like vascularity and better muscle contractions.
So the additional ingredients in pre-workout supplements have advantages when working out. I’ll expand on some of these in the following section on the pros of pre-workout supplements.
Both coffee and pre-workout supplements contain caffeine which comes with potential side effects, especially in higher doses. But because the caffeine in pre-workout supplements is artificial, this can increase the likelihood of side effects.
Pre-workout supplements also come with other potential side effects.
This is because of the other ingredients in pre-workout supplements. I’m going to explain some of these side effects in the section on the cons of using pre-workouts next, but the bottom line is that if you’re worried about potential side effects then coffee is a safer bet, because there are fewer potential side effects.
Is Coffee Better Than Pre-Workout
In comparing coffee and pre-workout supplements, coffee often comes up better and has the following advantages.
- It contains caffeine which has key advantages as a pre-workout.
- As this caffeine is natural it has fewer side effects compared with the synthetic forms found in pre-workout supplements.
- It’s also a cheaper alternative.
So overall I’d recommend using coffee as a pre-workout. With this being said though, pre-workout supplements can be very effective. Although they are more expensive they contain other ingredients which can be really effective in enhancing workout performance and progress.
In choosing between coffee or pre-workout supplements you need to think about your own goals when working out. If you’re interested in what pre-workout supplements can offer and the pros and cons of these products then check out the next section.
Pros and Cons of Pre-workout
Pre-workout supplements have various pros and cons which you should consider before taking them. Some of these will vary depending on the product and its ingredients, but here I’ll explain some of the main ones.
Pros of using pre-workout
Pre-workout supplements have many advantages, including increased energy and stamina resulting in enhanced gains when working out. The combination of ingredients in pre-workout supplements is likely to give more benefits than using individual ingredients alone.
One of the main pros with using pre-workout supplements is that it provides an extra boost of energy before a workout. This is due to the high caffeine content, which like I’ve mentioned already can increase focus, strength, and endurance all of which will help when working out.
As well as caffeine, a popular ingredient in pre-workout supplements is creatine monohydrate. This is one of the most popular and effective supplements on the market, with proven benefits for building muscle and improving strength. It’s also been shown to improve performance during high-intensity workouts.
Pre-workout supplements also often contain a form of vasodilator. This widens blood vessels, increasing blood flow and oxygen flow. As a result, workout stamina is increased meaning you can work out for longer without feeling as tired.
Beta-alanine, a popular ingredient in pre-workout supplements, can also help with stamina as it has also been shown to improve energy, especially in endurance-related workouts.
As well as improving stamina, pre-workout supplements containing compounds like branched-chain amino acids (also called BCAAs) can help to prevent muscle damage and improve muscle strength when working out.
Cons of using pre-workout
The cons of using pre-workout supplements will depend on the ingredients but can include potential side effects like insomnia and heart palpitations related to the caffeine content. Taking pre-workout supplements long-term can also lead to desensitization, meaning they’re no longer as effective.
There are drawbacks when using pre-workouts. I’ve already mentioned the side effects which come with caffeine, involving insomnia, heart palpitations, and anxiety. Because of the high doses and synthetic nature of the caffeine in pre-workout supplements, these side effects are often more likely and worse.
Another issue with using pre-workout supplements frequently is tolerance. Essentially, your body can become desensitized to the ingredients within these products, often the stimulants, and as a result, they become less effective over time. This often happens if you don’t take the necessary breaks from pre-workout supplements.
Also, pre-workout supplements containing beta-alanine can overstimulate nerve cells and cause a tingling sensation after consumption. This side effect does vary by individual, as well as depending on the dose. Again though it’s not ideal when you’re looking to do a workout.
Choice, or use of supplements, will always depend on individual goals and motivations. Most supplements are shown to be effective when used in certain situations and when it comes to an energy boost before the gym, pre-workout certainly ticks that box.
Are pre-workouts essential though? Not really…
The main benefit you see from a pre-workout usually comes down to the caffeine that is present in these supplements. While there are other benefits depending on the active ingredients used, caffeine is the main ingredient.
With that in mind, you can get a similar benefit, at a fraction of the cost, by using coffee instead of a pre-workout.
When looking at all factors together, coffee can be used as an effective pre-workout and in most cases will provide the boost you need with any additional side effects or cost that can come with a dedicated pre-workout supplement.
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