Recently, Dave and I have been having long conversations while training. It usually starts as a couple comments between sets - post-workday banter about product ideas or the current "who's who" on social media, and quickly spirals into multi-hour long conversations that I end up wishing I could've recorded. I realized that these small tidbits are the types of things that can get neglected topic-wise in table talks. The topics can range from broken noses to training programming to societal impacts of training and so on. Some of these conversations make me literally stop in my tracks and re-evaluate things. This is one of those topics.
In a conversation about powerlifting fads, Dave hits me with:
"that and pre-workout are my least favorite powerlifting fads"
I will admit it. I am addicted to caffeine. I'm addicted and I'm proud.
However, what I did not expect to hear was that highly caffeinated preworkout supplements are robbing people of their strength potential. You read that right. The supplements that exist in the industry today, touting dangerously high levels of caffeine and other stimulants are SABOTAGING people's training programs.
I will be the first to admit, this news was a little unsettling. Last summer, my favorite morning beverage consisted of a certain coffee blend that has taken off as being the most caffeinated of it's kind —boasting 660mg of this wonderful chemical per 12 fl. oz. cup. It wasn't unlike me to have a mid-day energy drink, another 140mg, followed up by a late night pre-workout beverage of 300-400mg. Yeah. I was taking in over a gram of caffeine a day and honestly, my training kind of sucked. I'd oftentimes overestimate my abilities for max-effort work and miss lifts.
"It's true, " Dave said, "caffeine ruins your ability to estimate perceived rates of exertion."
This makes sense. Think about it:
Let's assume people train using the RPE scale. An RPE of 1 is extremely easy. An RPE of 10 is so beyond difficult that you are reaching the limits of form breakdown and you are completely gassed and done with anything heavy afterward.
Next take twins of equal strength and build attempting a max effort bench session. One is training without a pre-workout energy drink, the other is training after consuming stimulant heavy pre-workout.
In this particular bench session, both are working up to an extremely heavy single. It's easy to understand that the highly caffeinated subject will have a higher physiological response to training, his heart rate, perspiration rate, and muscle firing capabilities are all increased. The caffeinated twin is far more likely to feel alert during his lighter sets but at what cost? He's potentially robbing himself of energy stores that should be dedicated to his heaviest single with his heart rate is through the roof and all cylinders are firing muscle-wise. On top of that, the caffeinated twin is far more likely to take larger, riskier jumps in warm-up weight, simply from feeling more alert and ready.
RECENT: The Short Science Behind Titanium Knick-Knacks
While the uncaffeinated twin might be able to take himself to an RPE of 10 today, the caffeinated twin might unknowingly be taking himself past that. One property of caffeine is its uncanny ability to simply make us feel good. This is due to the fact that caffeine releases dopamine (the feel good neurotransmitter) in the brain. ¹ So it's quite easy to see how the caffeinated twin can be made to feel too good about his last rep a grindy "warm up" from the brain's dopamine levels being topped off. Induce more good feelings about the next attempt, and you have a recipe for disaster resulting in missed lifts.
Just to go further, think about what happens when you miss a lift. You pushed yourself to the breaking point and failed. You'll often start to question if it was form breakdown. If you're anything like me, you'll try to blame missed lifts on technical flaws and try again. If that is the case, now you have not only strained to miss a heavy lift, but strained AGAIN. Can you even recover from such volume in time for your next training session? I know I couldn't.
It hit me like a freight train. Caffeine is a wonderful chemical, but it's physiological effects on the human body can be disastrous for strength training.
Let's not forget how caffeine works either. Caffeine simply makes you FEEL energetic. It does not give you energy. It acts to prevent a neurotransmitter that helps you stay awake from breaking down. It has no potential to supply muscle glycogen, unless your coffee is more cream than bean water. Even then, with this energetic feeling, your body becomes more efficient at metabolizing caffeine as you continue to consume more and more. We've all been there — one cup in the morning just doesn't seem to cut it anymore. One cup becomes two and two become four and next thing you know, you've got cold sweats and your hands are shaking.
Meanwhile, inside your brain, caffeine is tapping into your endocanabinoid receptors (endogenous marijuana neurotransmitter system). Caffeine is a one-two punch to your brain's feel-good centers, throwing cocaine left hooks in the form of dopamine, and marijuana uppercuts in the form of GABA.
I'm not here to say that caffeine is a bad thing because it's not. However, it needs to be used in moderation. Being awake and alert in training is crucial, but drinking 4 scoops of who-knows-what isn't doing you any more favors.
I've known for a while that Dave doesn't use pre-workout. He doesn't need it. The man has one standard energy drink from the local gas station before he trains...that's it. Last week I watched him unrack a squat that was almost 900 pounds at the top and proceed to rep it for a triple, but you're trying to tell me you need three scoops of Ultra Colombian Bam-Bam Energy Extreme V4 to squat 300 pounds?
That tub of mystery powder (because who actually knows what goes into that proprietary blend?) is screaming, "YES!"
They do exist and work quite well and also do not keep you up at night either.
Aren't most preworkouts just an energy drink in powder form?
It's so easy to let a cup of coffee become two.. and then three. Recognizing this and using moderation is key.
Yes - some are sold already made into convenient bottles too. It's funny how a few years ago, drinking a Red Bull seemed like big deal (at only 77mg per can) but now you can walk into any gas station and pick up a drink with 300mg+
I think you're missing my point - I'm not trying to say that ALL pre-workouts are bad, rather the super stimulant heavy drinks that people are obsessed with these days. Dave's pre-workout Amp contains only 160mg...vs 400+ touted by most popular supplements.
I've been wondering if a high quality BCAA would help me with the essential supplements I really want. Any thoughts?