Tip: It's the Coffee, Not the Caffeine

Coffee isn't just a vehicle for caffeine. It has other components that work synergistically with caffeine, making it a great pre-workout drink.

While Joe Weider often gets the lion's share of credit (or blame) for popularizing bodybuilding supplements, Vince Gironda, aka "The Iron Guru," was the true father of supplementation (along with a whole lot of nifty training concepts).

Gironda also popularized being kind of an SOB. I interviewed him twice, but both times he insisted on being paid for the honor, up front. Grumble grumble. But I digress.

Gironda loved supplements, taking desiccated liver tablets, digestive enzymes, and raw glandulars while also drinking unhomogenized, unpasteurized milk and eating up to 3 dozen eggs a day, claiming they were equal to the steroid Dianabol.

He also liked drinking lots of black coffee prior to training to amp him up. Granted, the latter sounds like a no-brainer, but truth be told, most people get their pre-training caffeine in other forms, like Diet Coke or energy drinks.

However, many of the people who get their caffeine from non-coffee sources might want to take Richardson's and Clark's research into consideration. According to the two scientists' findings, drinking a caffeine drink or popping caffeine pills doesn't charge you up as much as a cup of coffee with all its chemical constituents intact.

The scientists rounded up 9 weight lifters and had them establish their 1RM in both the squat and bench press. Then, over a period of a couple of weeks, the subjects participated in multiple squat and bench press sessions performed at 60% of their 1RM, until failure.

Prior to each training session, they drank one of the following drinks*:

  • 0.15 g/kg caffeinated coffee
  • 0.15 g/kg decaffeinated coffee
  • 0.15 g/kg decaffeinated coffee plus 5 mg/kg anhydrous caffeine
  • 5 mg/kg anhydrous caffeine plus water
  • Placebo

* Each one of the caffeinated drinks contained approximately 425 mg. of caffeine, which is what you might find in one super-strong cup of coffee, or two average-strength cups.

Each of the weight lifters partook in each one of the protocols, allowing for at least two days between sessions so that their systems would be washed out of caffeine. They were instructed to drink the beverages or capsules and water 15 minutes before starting their warm-ups.

The coffee group and the decaf plus caffeine group were able to squat more than the caffeine-only group, the decaf-only group, and the placebo group. The weight lifted by the coffee group was significantly higher than the placebo group, but not significantly higher than the decaf group. There was no difference in bench press performance between protocols.

Woman Coffee

Clearly, coffee ain't just coffee. It's filled with polyphenols. As I wrote in Follow the Polyphenol Diet, Become Immortal, polyphenols are chemicals found in plants that have, individually and probably collectively, amazing effects on the animals that eat them.

And coffee is filled with them... along with, of course, caffeine. They seem to work synergistically in amping you up before a workout. Richardson's and Clark's research suggests that having a regular cup of coffee before a workout is the way to go, but even a cup of decaf might have some beneficial effects, too.

Pure caffeine, taken in pill form works, too, but not as well as it does when it's allied with the phytochemicals in a cup of coffee.

Incidentally, you might have noticed that none of the protocols affected bench press performance, only squat performance. This might just be because squats are tougher than bench and the added oomph of the coffee/caffeine didn't reach statistical significance in the less taxing bench press. (However, a couple of other studies have shown that you can bench more after using caffeine.)

I don't mean to suggest coffee is a better pre-workout drink than certain energy drinks. If you prefer energy drinks and want a super energy boost, look for one that has an additional central nervous system stimulant like yohimbine HCL or an additional ergogenic aid like beta alanine.

  1. Richardson DL et al. Effect of Coffee and Caffeine Ingestion on Resistance Exercise Performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Oct;30(10):2892-900. PubMed.