Chocolate or vanilla. Pancakes or waffles. Night owl or early riser. Chicken or beef.
When that happens to me, I always think of this Latin phrase: tertium quid (ter-shum kwid).
It literally translates to “the third something.”
The phrase means that there are not always only two solutions or answers to a problem.
Sometimes the right choice is a combination of the two.
Now, it seems to me that we have a situation like that in fitness when it comes to caffeine.
We got our coffee fiends on one side who say it’s better. On the other side are the pre-workout champions.
We all know caffeine is a well-documented performance and cognitive enhancer.
But which one is better: coffee or pre-workouts?
Well, according to a 2016 study from Coventry University in the UK, the answer could be both.
In the study, they compared the effects of caffeine from coffee and caffeine anhydrous (pure caffeine powder often used in pre-workouts) on resistance training.
Now, one thing to keep in mind here are the differences between caffeine that’s found in coffee and the caffeine that’s found in pre-workouts.
First of all, with brewed coffee, there are differences in how much caffeine you are actually getting. How hot the water is, the ratio of coffee to water, the type of bean, how long it was roasted, how coarsely you ground it--all of these things influence the amount of caffeine in your coffee.
On the other hand, the caffeine in pre-workouts--called caffeine anhydrous--has been extracted, processed, and purified. You know precisely how much you are getting in each scoop.
However, as far as bioavailability and absorption, they are pretty much equal. The caffeine in coffee and caffeine anhydrous both enjoy about 99% bioavailability. Both of them will “hit” your system within roughly 40 minutes.
However, the Coventry University study shows that there may be some additional compounds inside brewed coffee that give it a statistically significant edge over caffeine anhydrous.
Here’s how they conducted the study.
They tested the subjects by having them perform squats and bench press to failure at 60% of their 1-rep maximum.
They divided the test subjects up into 5 groups:
- Only coffee.
- Only caffeine anhydrous.
- Only decaf coffee.
- Decaf coffee plus caffeine anhydrous.
The results were pretty crazy.
The groups that benefited the most: coffee and decaf coffee plus caffeine anhydrous.
Quick note: the study found these benefits only extended to the squats, not the bench press.
So what does all this mean?
It means that it’s not just about the caffeine.
Brewed coffee has some kind of nutrient, mineral, or polyphenol that delivers other training benefits that we haven’t identified yet.
In fact, a separate study out of the University of Carolina in 2016 found similar results. This study also found that the training benefits of caffeine only applied to leg workouts, not upper body.
But let me tell you what I think all these studies and this debate is missing: your mindset.
For all we know, coffee could have the edge simply because the act of taking a moment to enjoy a cup delivers some kind of meditative, mental benefit.
Then again, maybe not. This is one of those exciting situations where we operating outside of known science.
Here is what I do know: the most powerful tool I have in the gym is my brain.
If my brain is scattered, if my mind isn’t right, then it doesn’t matter if I take all the pre-workout or coffee in the world.
If I’m not giving my brain the fuel it needs--whether that’s nutrients, meditation, or sufficient sleep--then I’m not going to hit my goals, I’m not going to have a good workout.
So yeah, drink your coffee, take your pre-workout...but don’t expect these things to just automatically get you where you want to go.
They are simply tools. We’re always learning more about which tool is the right one.
My encouragement to you is not to get wrapped up in the debate about which one is better than the other.
They are all useful and good when they are applied in the right way.
If coffee or tea works for you because it helps you get your mindset right before you train, then do it.
If you have a pre-workout that works for you to really get your mindset in a good place, do that.
But if you have dismissed brewed coffee and aren’t experimenting with how it affects your training, the science says you might be short-changing yourself.
Live like a lion.
- Mike Rashid King
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