Coffee & Deadlifts: How Caffeine Can Boost Performance in the Gym

Black metal + black coffee + deadlifts; are there three finer things in life?

Okay, black metal might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but caffeine, I think we can agree, is one of the most widely used and socially acceptable stimulants in the world.

It is used by many athletes (both recreational and professional) as an energy booster and performance enhancer – but why exactly does it boost performance? Can it really help with lifting as well as endurance training? And what is the best time to fit that Caffe Americano around your workout? Read on to find out…

Why is coffee so great at boosting performance?

Caffeine is not only a mental stimulant but produces physiological changes too, including changes to heart rate, blood pressure, stomach acid levels and fat stores. But while the vast majority of studies into the effect of caffeine on exercise agree that it has a performance enhancing effect[i] (improving performance by an average of 12%), they have been less helpful when it comes to pinpointing exactly what it is that creates this ergogenic effect.

The classic “metabolic” theory puts caffeine’s performance enhancing properties down to its ability to mobilise fat stores, thereby promoting the use of fat as a fuel source and sparing precious glycogen stores that are needed for endurance exercise, allowing athletes to go faster for longer before fatigue kicks in.

Other theories refer to caffeine’s effect on the central nervous system (affecting perceived levels of exertion), and alternatively, its direct effect on skeletal muscle performance[ii].

But isn’t caffeine just for cardio?

Studies have long supported caffeine’s ergogenic effect on endurance training. One of the most recent studies reported by the ACSM[iii] revealed that 3-9mg of caffeine per kilogram of bodyweight consumed by well-trained individuals an hour before exercise increased running and cycling endurance in the laboratory.

But what about when it comes to lifting?

Personally, a nice strong coffee always puts me in the right zone for a good deadlift session. But a number of studies into caffeine’s effect on 1RM[iv] did not show any significant improvement, with the exception of one study by Goldstein[v], in which 15 resistance-trained females significantly (although only slightly) improved their bench press 1RM by consuming 6mg of caffeine per kg of bodyweight an hour before lifting.

However, although caffeine can’t promise to get you that new PB, it may well help to improve your performance to failure, as one study[vi] into the effects of caffeine on resistance training showed. That study found that ingesting a 179mg energy drink an hour before performing bench presses, deadlifts, prone rows and back squats could increase performance to failure, with caffeine induced exercisers being able to last longer and complete more reps than they did without caffeine.

Interestingly, caffeine may also be the perfect leg day antidote, as it can help in post-exercise recovery, too.

Research conducted by the University of Georgia reported that consuming the equivalent of two cups of coffee an hour before training reduced post-workout muscle soreness by up to 48 percent[vii].

When to drink coffee around your workout

Caffeine reaches its highest levels in the blood 45 to 60 minutes after consumption and, as you might have noticed, all of the above studies which produced positive training results involved ingesting caffeine an hour prior to training (even for recovery boosting).

But, to give those “mgs” of caffeine some coffee cup perspective, one large coffee or 2 regular coffees (of drip-percolated coffee) is the equivalent to about 3mg of caffeine. 9mg equates to about 3 large coffees or 5-6 regular coffees!

It is also very difficult to judge exactly how much caffeine is in a “cup”, as coffee strength varies widely depending how it is made, what beans are used and, of course, the size of the cup! Which is why many athletes choose to take caffeine-containing supplements, so they can then ensure a consistent and measured dose of caffeine to maximise the performance boosting outcomes. Oh, hello pre-workout!

caffeine and workouts

Please drink (coffee) responsibly!

Although it may have its uses for performance and recovery, on the flip side, caffeine can also cause sleep problems, headaches, dehydration and anxiety.

My suggestion would be to experiment and find out what caffeine levels work best for you.

A cup too many (or the wrong kind of pre-workout) is enough to tip anyone over the edge. There is a fine line between super productive Tasmanian devil of energy and jittery, wide-eyed Brad Pitt ranting about the Army of the 12 Monkeys and the impending apocalypse.

 

[i] Graham & Spriet, 1991, 1995; Pasman et al., 1995

[ii] http://www.gssiweb.org/Article/sse-60-caffeine-and-exercise-performance

[iii] https://www.acsm.org/docs/current-comments/caffeineandexercise.pdf

[iv] http://www.strengthandconditioningresearch.com/2013/08/19/caffeine/

[v] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20205813

[vi] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22124354

[vii] http://www.jpain.org/article/S1526-5900(06)01023-6/abstract

Neola Wilby

Neo is a personal trainer and freelance fitness writer from Yorkshire, England. A qualified solicitor, she ditched the pinstripe and her legal career to pursue her passion for fitness. She’s now much happier in trainers and trackies, pushing tyres around and writing about all things fitness.