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Coffee vs. a Pre-Workout: Which Should You Choose?

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It happens a few months into most folks’ workout journey. 

They’ve been hitting the gym regularly. After making it through the grinder of the first few weeks, suddenly, things began to get a bit easier. Then – the cursed plateau!

And whether that plateau really was of the intermediate variety or came after years of grinding, it just seemed like there was “something” missing. It’s at this point that many people start looking into pre-workouts.

And there are opinions on pre-workouts. Some people rave about coffee, while others have a devotion to a mixed pre-workout supplement. 

But: which one is better? Does it even matter?

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Why Take Something Before Your Workout?

Let’s start at the beginning: why would you bother with a pre-workout of any type?

When you exercise, your body is tapping into reserves of glucose and protein to fuel you. The more efficiently your muscles can tap the nutrients they need to keep up with your exertion, the better you can perform. If your stores are low, they can’t trigger the conversion of nutrients into adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

ATP is the chemical that causes muscles to contract, allowing them to move. A pre-workout either helps your muscles quickly convert energy stores into ATP or has other benefits around motivation, clarity, or blood flow.

Benefits of a Pre-workout vs… Nothing

Your body’s muscles store a small amount of ATP within them to use quickly. This helps with that initial muscle contraction. However – stored ATP only fuels your muscle for 5-8 seconds before more ATP must be produced. 

Pre-workout supplements – specifically creatine and caffeine – modify the ATP cycle in beneficial ways for exercise. Creatine is particularly interesting as stored creatine directly enhances ATP synthesis under exertion. Caffeine works on the other end – it activates muscle AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), which in turn encourages ATP’s synthesis.

On top of the direct energy benefits, supplements have other effects as well. Some supplements have psychological effects such as motivation or attention, some increase the blood driven to muscles under tension (such as arginine or citrulline), and others increase endurance.

In short, pre-workout supplements help you complete more reps, run longer and faster, and use more weight with the same amount of effort on a cellular level.

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Coffee Vs. Pre-Workout Supplements

It’s the internet age – a debate will always rage about natural coffee vs. synthetic pre-workouts. (And let’s be real – everything else, besides!).

Can the real foods around us possibly compare to the results that can be attained from a lab product? What will consuming those powders cost us in the long run?

Coffee as a Pre-workout

None other than Arnold Schwarzenegger was a believer in the power of regular old coffee as a pre-workout beverage. He drank a cup in the morning before his sessions – and his results speak for themselves.

The International Society of Sports Nutrition has taken a solid stand for caffeine – coffee’s primary psychoactive component – as extremely useful for sports performance. It hits all the boxes – it enhances performance, helps fight fatigue, benefits maximal exertion, assists in high-intensity exercise, and has a surprising number of other beneficial effects as well

Coffee hits your bloodstream within around 15 minutes of drinking it. Its effects can last for 3-5 hours, giving you plenty of time to enjoy a cup of coffee and get through a workout before its impact wears off. Caffeine also has thermogenic properties, warming your body and boosting your metabolism. 

Combined with the release of epinephrine that comes with exercise, coffee will help you bounce through your workout.

Pre-workout supplements

The standard ingredient list of pre-workout supplements usually starts with the familiar caffeine. To that, supplements add – from common to less common – creatine, amino acids including beta-alanine, B vitamins, arginine, citrulline, and other purported assistive ingredients – and a heap of flavorings and sweeteners. 

With a bit of effort, you may be able to find a pre-workout that uses naturally derived ingredients. For the most part, however, pre-workout supplements rely on synthetic versions to keep their costs low. By eschewing natural ingredients, they easily include the part they want, such as beneficial amino acids like L-theanine. 

The appeal of commercial pre-workouts lies in the convenience – for you and your body. Powders dissolve and readily enter the bloodstream at a faster rate than with whole food (or coffee), and unlike with natural food, you can fine-tune the exact supplements you need. (Imagine trying to get everything through a massive pre-workout meal?)

Pre-workouts conveniently deliver what you need to arrive to the gym motivated, push through a tough workout, and make it home without too much fatigue.

Is Coffee or a Pre-Workout Better?

Using some variety of pre-workout can help you push through a plateau, or turn a day “you’re not feeling” into an excellent workout. It’s not even controversial – pre-workouts work, and coffee or another pre-workout might be what you need to take it to the next level.

Okay, they work – but does all of the science justify the use of chemical concoctions to eke out one more rep in at the gym? Well…

As a natural pre-workout, in my opinion, coffee strikes an excellent balance. To that, you can maybe add creatine if it agrees with your goals – but over my years in the gym, I’ve grown weary of the effects of the hyped ingredients in many pre-mixed pre-workouts. 

(And many of their effects on my stomach!)

A bit controversial? Yes. I don’t deny the science behind many supplements outside caffeine and creatine, but those two are so far up the effectiveness curve compared to most supplements of the week. 

Before you try anything else, see if you can get what you need with coffee and maybe some creatine on the side.

A Stunning Pre-Workout Conclusion

Many pre-workouts on the market really do as advertised – they boost performance and energy. Everything in those supplements usually has had at least a study or two backing its effects.

But for me? It’s about sticking with the tried and true. I’m in it for a healthy blend of the proven and the effective – and I can find half of that combo in a regular coffee cup.

I’ll see you at the gym. Once I finish this cup. Cheers!

Gerard Paul writes about food & drink at ManyEats. His go-to pre-workout has remained the same since college: a cup of black coffee.