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Tea or Coffee For Bodybuilders?

Tea and coffee are two of the most widely consumed drinks in the world. But besides the taste and its ability to wake us up, is there something in these two drinks which may be helpful for our performance in the gym? The answer is yes and that something is caffeine.

Caffeine & Bodybuilding

Caffeine is a white alkaloid compound first isolated from coffee in 1820. Naturally found in coffee and tea, it can also be found in various plant leaves, fruit, nuts and seeds including the guarana berry and the kola nut. Caffeine is the world’s most widely used drug and is termed a psychoactive substance as it is capable of crossing over the blood brain barrier and act on the nervous system. Caffeine and its effects on the body have been researched thoroughly since its discovery and some beneficial effects of caffeine include reduced risk of heart 1 and liver2 disease and possible prolonging of progression of Parkinson’s3, Alzheimer’s and other dementias4.

Caffeine & Exercise

The use of caffeine for sports and exercise performance has been studied extensively with a general consensus of positive effects over several domains:

  • Cognition and Mental Performance. Moderate doses of caffeine have the ability to improve cognitive and mental performance by increasing alertness, attention and concentration5. The ability for increased focused is a definite benefit for a wide variety of sports, but is also important in the gym for focusing on your workout to ensure maximum effect. Poor attention can lead to increased risk of injury and decreased effectiveness of the exercises from poor form and posture during workouts.
  • Endurance Capacity. Many of the studies relating to caffeine and exercise performance have looked at endurance performance. Ganio et al (2009)6 was able to show improved endurance in time trial performance in activities lasting longer than 5 minutes with ingestion of caffeine. Warren et al (2010)7 was able to conclude that caffeine ingestion led to increased muscular endurance. Many theories have been proposed over the exact way in which caffeine is able to increase endurance capacity, two of which have stood out in recent years. The first proposed mechanism is caffeine’s ability to reduce ratings of perceived exertion (RPE)8,9. RPE is a rating of how hard we believe an exercise to be at a single moment. Reductions in RPE then can prove beneficial to help us perform the exercise for longer; ie squeezing out that extra set or rep during a workout. The second proposed mechanism is caffeine’s ability to increase availability of fatty acids circulating in the blood which can help shift energy metabolism to use of fats rather than glycogen9, which can be used later as a more immediate source of energy.
  • Power and Strength. Unfortunately, not as many studies have been performed on effects of caffeine on short bursts of high intensity activity such as resistance exercise. A detailed review performed by Astorino et al (2010)10 of several studies showed that caffeine ingestion is also able to positively affect strength and power production. Results ranged from increased number of repetitions performed, increased force production and increased amount of weight lifted. Warren et al (2010)7 was also able to show an overall improved muscular strength in terms of maximal voluntary contraction through 27 separate experimental studies. The exact mechanism for caffeine’s ability to improve power and strength is still unknown.
  • Post-Exercise. A 2008 study by Australian researchers at RMIT showed that ingestion of 8mg/kg of bodyweight of caffeine with carbohydrates post exercise was able to increase glycogen storage in muscles moreso than persons not consuming carbohydrates without caffeine11. Another study was also able to show reduction of pain of DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) with ingestion of about 2 cups of brewed coffee ~160-270mg.12
  • Fat Loss. Caffeine is a well known ingredient in many thermogenic products (those promoting weight and fat loss). Caffeine has been shown to increase the rate of fatty acid oxidation in our bodies helping us to burn off more fat. Several studies show that combinations of Ephedra, Caffeine and Aspirin, also know as the ECA stack has had great success in promoting weight and fat loss as well as improving insulin sensitivity13. It should be noted however that Ephedra is a banned substance in professional sport.

How Much Caffeine Should I Take?

As with all supplements, different people react to different dosages so there is no one dose that is suitable for everyone. However, several studies have shown improved exercise performance with caffeine ingestion between 2.5-7 mg/kg of bodyweight10. Higher doses are required if one is taking caffeine alone as an ergogenic supplement. So for a 70kg male, the amount of caffeine needed for possible benefits range from 175-490 mg. In actual drink terms, this would mean 2-5 shots of coffee, 2-6 Red Bulls or 1-3 shots of Pocket Shot Energy Drinks. Depending on the strength of caffeine tablets, 2-5 tablets are required to provide the amounts needed by the 70kg man. Timing of caffeine ingestion is also important. Caffeine is absorbed from the gut around 45 minutes after consumption with peak levels seen in the blood around the 1 hour mark. So it may be wise to ingest the caffeine about 1 hour before starting your workouts.

Suggested caffeine dosage:

  • 2.5-7mg/kg of bodyweight
  • Approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour prior to working out.

Caffeine Warning

Of course as with any drug that affects our central nervous system, our body becomes tolerant to its effects quite soon. It is recommended to abstain from caffeine for 7 days to maximise the ergogenic effects of caffeine. Cycling caffeine 1-3 weeks on and 1 week off will also help to maintain the positive effects of caffeine on your exercise performance. It is also important to know that increased intake of caffeine can cause issues such as sleep disruption, nervousness, irritability, heart palpitations, headaches and stomach upsets which may negatively affect your workouts. For professional athletes, it should also be noted that while caffeine is not banned by WADA (World Anti-Doping Association), it is part of WADA's Monitoring Program. This program includes substances which are not prohibited in sport, but which WADA monitors in order to detect patterns of misuse in sport14.

Caffeine & Creatine

A common question floating around over the past few years has been the connection between caffeine and creatine. While more research needs to be conducted to confirm and reproduce findings, two studies showed that ingestion of caffeine with creatine is able to decrease the ergogenic effects of creatine. One study showed that creatine’s ability to shorten muscle relaxation time is counteracted by caffeine which prolonged the relaxation time15. The other study showed that while caffeine did not affect the amount of phosphocreatine concentrations in the muscle (important as a fast energy source), ingestion of caffeine with creatine meant the muscle was not able to increase force production16. Caffeine is also a diuretic which may negatively affect creatine’s muscle volumising properties. While this may impact on the volume and girth of your muscles, water retention in your muscles isn’t a source of strength. With all this information in mind, it may be wise to consider taking caffeine and creatine separately.

Caffeine – Should I or Shouldn’t I?

Caffeine is a well researched compound and supplement. It can help improve endurance, strength, power and mental performance during exercise and sports performance. On top of that it can help promote better recovery after exercise and even fat loss. While over consumption of caffeine has several issues related to it, this author believes moderate, proper, educated and sensible use of caffeine can really help boost your workout capacity and therefore your results. Ensure that you cycle caffeine for the best benefits and not to consume it with creatine as it will completely counteract any positive effects of creatine.

1 Greenberg, J.A.; Dunbar, CC; Schnoll, R; Kokolis, R; Kokolis, S; Kassotis, J. "Caffeinated beverage intake and the risk of heart disease mortality in the elderly: a prospective analysis". Am J Clin Nutr 2007 85 (2): 392–8
2 Apurva AM et al. 'Increased caffeine consumption is associated with reduced hepatic fibrosis.' Hepatology 2010 Jan. 51(1): 201-209
3 Ross GW et al. 'Association of Coffee and Caffeine Intake With the Risk of Parkinson Disease'. The Journ. of the Amer. Med. Assoc. 2000: 283(20): 2674-2679
4 de Mendonca A & Cunha RA. ‘Therapeutic opportunities for caffeine in Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders’ J Alzheimer’s Dis. 2010: 20 Supp 1: S1-2
5 Peeling P & Dawson B. 'Influence of caffeine ingestion on perceived mood states, concentration, and arousal levels during a 75-min university lecture.' Adv Physiol Educ. 2007;31:332-5
6 Ganio MS, Klau JF, Casa DJ, Armstrong LE, Maresh CM. 'Effect of caffeine on sport-specific endurance performance: a systematic review.' J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Jan;23(1):315-24.
7 Warren GL, Park ND, Maresca RD, McKibans KI, Millard-Stafford ML. 'Effect of caffeine ingestion on muscular strength and endurance: a meta-analysis.' Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 Jul;42(7):1375-87.
8 Doherty M, Smith PM. 'Effects of caffeine ingestion on rating of perceived exertion during and after exercise: a meta-analysis.' Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2005 Apr;15(2):69-78.
9 McArdle, William (2010). Exercise Physiology. 7th edition. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. pp. 559.
10 Astorino TA & Roberson DW. ‘Efficacy of Acute Caffeine Ingestion for Short-term High-Intensity Exercise Performance: A Systematic Review.’ Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2010 Jan: 24(1): pp 257-265
11 Pedersen DJ, Lessard SJ, Coffey VG, Churchley EG, Wootton AM, Ng T, Watt MJ, Hawley JA. 'High rates of muscle glycogen resynthesis after exhaustive exercise when carbohydrate is coingested with caffeine.' J Appl Physiol. 2008 Jul;105(1):7-13. Epub 2008 May 8.
12 Maridakis V, O'Connor PJ, Dudley GA, McCully KK. 'Caffeine attenuates delayed-onset muscle pain and force loss following eccentric exercise.' J Pain. 2007 Mar;8(3):237-43. Epub 2006 Dec 11.
13 Kreider RB et al 'ISSN exercise & sport nutrition review: research & recommendations.' Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2010 Feb, 7:7
14 Accessed May 2011
15 Hespel P, Op't Eijnde B, Van Leemputte M. 'Opposite actions of caffeine and creatine on muscle relaxation time in humans.' J Appl Physiol. 2002 Feb;92(2):513-8.
16 van Leemputte M, Vandenberghe K, Hespel P. 'Shortening of muscle relaxation time after creatine loading.' J Appl Physiol. 1999 Mar;86(3):840-4.
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