When it comes to gains, pre-workout has the competitive edge over coffee, although your cup of joe still has plenty to offer.
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Having neither the mental fortitude nor the natural inclination to wake up early to exercise, I often treat workouts like a mid-day repose from being at the computer. And despite the seemingly random times of day I work out, I’ve managed to be pretty consistent thanks to a trusted fitness app, and also thanks in part to drinking caffeine, which cues me to get in that pumped up headspace. I most often drink coffee as my energy drink of choice, however, I’ve wondered if a pre-workout supplement might offer more bang for the buck.
Until recently, I knew very little about pre-workout other than the (irony alert) groundbreaking fact that you drink them pre-workout. With the help of fitness and nutrition experts, we’ve explored some of the benefits and drawbacks of coffee versus pre-workout to help you find your beverage of choice. Here’s what to know about the benefits of coffee, the benefits of a pre-workout supplement and which may be more aligned with your health and fitness goals.
Benefits of Coffee
Coffee. What’s not to love? There’s a reason after all that a staggering 75 percent of the U.S. population enjoys coffee. So many blends and flavors; so many methods to prepare it; so many ways to drink it. And best of all, when enjoyed in moderation (with the exception of pregnant women and those with gastrointestinal sensitives to coffee) drinking coffee is a largely risk-free activity, and even has associated health benefits including a correlation with lower risks of cancer, and neurological, metabolic and liver conditions.
More pertinent to our agenda here, coffee notably has sports performance benefits. In one small study, caffeine dosing quickened the five kilometer race times of seasoned runners by 11 seconds and habitual runners by 12 seconds—a slight, but significant improvement if you’re looking for a competitive edge.
Coffee’s cognitive and performance benefits are largely tied to caffeine’s status as a stimulant. Caffeine acts on our central nervous system to give us a boost of energy via binding with adenosine receptors, and thus preventing the usual drowsy-inducing feelings of adenosine from acting on our bodies. And contrary to some folklore, coffee does not stunt growth, and in fact, doing more reps because of the added amp from coffee can help you make muscular gains.
Benefits of Pre-Workout
Before getting into the benefits of pre-workout, it’s important to note that pre-workout is a much broader category than coffee. Most important, since pre-workout supplements by and large exist outside the umbrella of FDA regulation, it’s vital that you find a reliable brand with safe ingredients. Many of the top brands use third-party testing to ensure formulations are safe and effective.
“Pre-workout is a multi-ingredient supplement system that’s designed to be taken prior to sports, exercise, going to the gym,” Pete Nastasi, certified sports nutrition coach, says. “In most cases, it’s going to come in a powdered form, and you’re able to basically mix it with water or juice.”
Like coffee, your pre-workout drink will often contain caffeine, and quite a substantial amount of caffeine compared to the average cup of coffee, at that. However, caffeine content is where the similarities between coffee and pre-workout both begin and end: Pre-workout has other ingredients that go above and beyond the energy boost caffeine supplies. “Some of the other ingredients that come in pre-workout, they might be some extra vitamins and minerals,” Nastasi says. “They might act as electrolytes in the body and keep you well hydrated throughout your workout, maybe [add] a little bit extra endurance. So you’re able to push out one or two more reps in your set.”
Is Coffee Better than Pre-Workout?
Our take: If you’re seeking better gains at the gym, coffee is simply going to be inferior to pre-workout. “Not only do many pre-workout supplements contain more caffeine than a cup of coffee, it may be easier to take more of them versus coffee,” Abby Langer, registered dietitian says.
Think about it: Does physically exerting yourself after chugging two cups of black coffee sound appealing? Probably not, considering that for many of us, the acids in coffee steer you toward the bathroom, rather than the gym.
A smaller serving of coffee may not have that same drawback, but then you’re left with a much smaller dosage of caffeine. Compare that to pre-workout: The typical pre-workout capsule has the caffeine equivalent of two cups of coffee.
There are ingredients beyond vitamins, caffeine and electrolytes that you’ll see in pre-workout blends designed for top-tier exercise performance enhancement. “Some of them have an NO, a nitric oxide, which helps increase blood flow to the muscles, and get you that ‘pump’ feeling, or you can find ones with creatine or branched-chain amino acids,” says board-certified holistic nutritionist Dan LeMoine. (Side note: BCAAs alone cannot build muscle, you need a complete amino acid profile, which can be found in the best protein supplements).
The main drawback for pre-workout versus coffee is the potential for negative side effects, since pre-workout does boast so many additional ingredients. Always consult a physician before incorporating pre-workout supplements into your diet, especially if you experience food sensitivities.
Coffee vs. Pre-Workout FAQs
How long does coffee effect last?
Coffee typically affects you for four to five hours. For that reason, nutritionists recommend dosing with coffee half an hour to four hours before mealtime if you’re trying to harness the appetite-suppressing effect of caffeine to lose weight. If you’re more sensitive to caffeine, leave a longer buffer between your caffeine intake and bedtime.
How much stronger is pre-workout than coffee?
The caffeine content in pre-workout is considerably more compared to one cup of coffee. Pre-workout typically has 150 to 300 milligrams of caffeine, while a cup of coffee has 80 to 100 milligrams of caffeine. Women who supplement with pre-workout should, in particular, pay attention to caffeine content, since your recommended upper limit is based on body weight.
Is caffeine bad for muscle growth?
Caffeine is not bad for muscle growth—in fact, it can benefit muscle growth via improving your athletic performance. The only caveat is that any positive effects of caffeine toward enhancing your muscular strength in a workout will be canceled out if drinking coffee close to bedtime causes insomnia.
Is it good to dry scoop pre-workout?
No, pre-workout should absolutely never be dry scooped. Just like crushing or chewing a pill can dangerously release all of the drug at once, dry scooping pre-workout can be highly precarious. Not only does ingesting the powder without mixing present a choking hazard, flooding your body with a high dose of caffeine too quickly can cause your blood pressure and heart rate to drastically rise, leading to arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeats.
How many cups of coffee is too much?
You should limit your caffeine intake to 400 milligrams a day, which is about three to four cups of coffee, or four to five shots of espresso, according to the FDA. Having said that, safe caffeine consumption is a spectrum, not a hard and fast rule. The best way to calculate a safe range for you is with your body weight—10 milligrams per kilogram daily.
Our Favorite Pre-Workout Brands:
Transparent Labs Bulk Black is an even more potent take on the brand’s popular Bulk pre-workout supplement. That means this supplement is definitely for the serious athlete or gym-goer. For instance, Bulk Black features 4,000 milligrams of beta-alanine, which studies show can help performance by delaying the on-set of fatigue. Just be warned beta-alanine can cause a harmless tingling sensation that some find to be a nuisance.
Related Post: Transparent Labs Bulk Black Pre-Workout Review
Another active ingredient is citrulline malate, so-named for its 2:1 ratio combo of L-citrulline and malic acid. Citrulline malate is said to boost performance by increasing aerobic capacity and blood flow to the muscles, and decreasing muscle soreness.
Bulk Black is also made easy to mix into your favorite smoothie or juice thanks to its broad range of stevia-sweetened flavors that sound closer to delightful daiquiri varieties rather than pre-workout flavors: cherry kiwi, blue raspberry, peach mango, sour gummy and black cherry.
Don’t be intimidated by names like Jacked Factory—the brand’s supplements are not in fact solely for extreme bodybuilding. The NitroSurge Max pre-workout will however definitely get you in the headspace for high-intensity exercise of any variety.
Jacked Factory NitroSurge Max is unique in that two serving options (one versus two scoops) are prescribed, helping you moderate the mix’s organically sourced caffeine intake if needed. The “NitroSurge” in the name refers to the use of nitric oxide precursor L-citrulline (arginine is another you’ll see often in pre-workout). The NO boost helps you feel pumped up by widening your blood vessels and increasing blood flow: Just be sure you’re O.K. with the tingling that comes with it.
Despite the fact that NitroSurge has unnecessarily high doses of some of its active ingredients (albeit not harmful amounts), the supplement is one of the most budget-friendly, at about $1 a serving. You can get the formulation flavored in watermelon, blue raspberry or cherry.
Swolverine Pre is a plant-powered powder that’s free of stimulants and caffeine, helping you avoid any potential negative effects of caffeine, like elevated blood pressure and heart rate. To get you pumped, the formulation uses compounds like l-carnitine, beta-anhydrous, beta-alanine and citrulline malate to help muscle growth and muscle recovery.
Swolverine is free of artificial sweeteners, and includes other plant-based superfoods like pomegranate, coconut water and Siberian ginseng, which are packed with nutrients and antioxidants.
This is a pricier formulation (a little over $2 a serving), however, you can save 15 percent if you get the pre-workout as a monthly subscription. Flavors offered to add variety to your smoothies are sour gummy, peach mango, blue raspberry and cherry kiwi.