A lot goes into making sure you feel your best so you can crush your workouts. You want to sleep well the night before, eat enough nutrients throughout your days, get your mobility work in, and carve out enough time to hit the gym. But sometimes you need an extra boost of energy right before you train and you may wonder: drink coffee or take pre-workout?
Coffee contains caffeine. Pre-workout ingredients vary, but often include caffeine as well. Caffeine will give you that energy boost, but many pre-workout supplements also pack other amino acids and vitamins that serve different purposes. It may also contain different, or more, stimulants. When it comes to coffee versus pre-workout, it’s helpful to get specific about your type of training, your fitness goals, and your preferences.
Here’s everything you need to know so you can make the right decision to help you perform your best in the gym. We’ll get into the specifics of coffee versus pre-workout, the pros and cons of each for training, and which is better to choose for different situations and goals.
Coffee vs. Pre-Workout
Benefits of Pre-Workout
Drawbacks of Pre-Workouts
Coffee as a Pre-Workout
The Benefits of Coffee
Drawbacks of Coffee
Which is Better to Drink Before a Workout?
Frequently Asked Questions
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.
It’s time for an energy boost before your workout and you’re deciding between coffee or pre-workout. They often have one major thing in common that makes them both appealing: caffeine.
There are over 100 years of studies showing that caffeine is an ergogenic aid to exercise performance. It’s helpful in different types of exercise: sport-specific training, endurance exercise, power, and resistance training. Caffeine boosts your energy levels, enhances your mental focus, improves your cognition, and delays fatigue: all of which can carry over to improving your athletic performance, enduring more training, and getting those gains. (1)
Research shows that getting three to six milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight 60 minutes before exercise is ideal. (1) If you weigh 150 pounds, you would need a minimum of 204 milligrams of caffeine. An eight-ounce cup of black coffee contains 80 to 100 milligrams of caffeine. The amount of caffeine in pre-workout may vary, but they typically include at least 300 milligrams. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggests not consuming more than 400 milligrams a day to avoid harmful side effects. (2)(3)
You would need to drink three cups of coffee to match the amount of caffeine in an average pre-workout supplement. If caffeine isn’t your jam, there are also non-stim pre-workout supplements that don’t contain caffeine.
It’s not all about the caffeine content. Coffee is a natural drink that will make you feel awake and focused, while pre-workout is a supplement engineered with various ingredients to provide different types of benefits beyond energy. Let’s break it down further.
Pre-workout is a dietary supplement made popular by the bodybuilding community in the 1990s. It comes in powder, drink, capsule, and gummy form and it’s meant to be ingested before training. Gym-goers who enjoy weight lifting and other high-intensity exercise reach for it to give them an energy boost and other performance-enhancing effects.
What Is Pre-Workout?
Pre-workout supplements can be made up of multiple ingredients, and various brands will offer different blends. They tend to be a mix of caffeine and other stimulants, amino acids, vitamins, and creatine. Each of these substances serves a different potential purpose in your body when you train.
The most common ingredients in the top-selling pre-workout brands were found to be beta-alanine, citrulline, caffeine, creatine, taurine, and tyrosine. (4) Arginine, BCAAs, and B vitamins are commonly also included. Multi-ingredient pre-workout supplements (MIPS) may also include artificial sweeteners and other additives.
Each of the common ingredients in pre-workout has a different effect on your body when you train. Beyond caffeine, these extra effects are what might make someone choose pre-workout over coffee.
[Read More: The 12 Best Supplements for Muscle Growth]
When combined, they can help give you an energy boost, delay fatigue, increase your blood flow, improve your athletic performance, and help you crank out more reps leading to building more muscular strength over time. (3) Let’s outline the specific benefits and which ingredients to look for.
May Improve Athletic Performance
Lifters often turn to pre-workout to help improve their athletic performance. Caffeine in pre-workout stimulates your central nervous system and makes you feel more energized, focused, and alert. These cognitive effects can lead to better-quality workouts which can improve your performance over time. (3)
Beta-alanine also plays a role in helping you feel energized — it may reduce feelings of fatigue. Beta-alanine increases the production of carnosine, and together they reduce lactic acid buildup in your cells. This can lead to delayed muscle fatigue, allowing you to lift some more quality reps, withstand more volume, and put in longer sessions. (4)
[Read More: The Gymgoer’s Guide to Whey Protein]
Pre-workout supplements often contain creatine. Creatine is an amino acid that gets stored in your body as phosphocreatine which then increases your stored energy or ATP. ATP is your energy source for weight lifting and other highly-intense short-duration activities. It burns out naturally after two to three seconds, and creatine can help it replenish faster. (5)
Creatine has been studied for over 50 years and has consistently been shown to help improve athletic performance. Research shows that having creatine stored in your body helps improve muscular strength and increases your power output during resistance training sessions. (6)
Boosts Blood Flow
Pre-workout can improve your blood flow when it contains l-citrulline, l-arginine, or nitrates — all are nitric oxide boosters. Nitric oxide causes more vasodilation; the widening and relaxing of blood vessels. In turn, your blood flows more freely and can deliver oxygen and nutrients to your muscles while you are training. This may help delay fatigue and achieve a greater training volume. (7)
Better blood flow enabled by nitric oxide also gives you a better pump. (7) Getting a pump — where your muscles look temporarily larger — is not just for aesthetics. Research shows that having a pump while you lift may have an impact on muscle hypertrophy. Delivering more blood, oxygen, and amino acids to your muscles makes it readily available to better undergo muscle protein synthesis after training. (8)
More blood flow from nitric oxide boosters may also help reduce inflammation caused by oxidative stress from exercise. This can potentially lead to less muscle soreness, boosting your recovery. (9)
May Help Build Muscle
Pre-workout supplements may have a positive effect on muscle growth. It’s not magic — you still need to eat enough calories and protein and train with progressive overload to build muscle. However, certain ingredients in pre-workout can help encourage muscle protein synthesis.
Creatine may play a role in muscle protein synthesis and having it in your system can help boost your hypertrophy. (5) Studies have shown creatine helped people of all genders gain lean body mass when combined with resistance training and adequate nutrition. (10)
[Read More: Get Freakishly Strong With the 5×5 Workout Program]
BCAAs — branched-chain amino acids — in pre-workout can also help you build muscle. They’ve been repeatedly shown to help increase muscle mass when combined with resistance training. (11) Amino acids make up muscle protein, and BCAAs are essential amino acids needed for muscle protein synthesis to occur. Your body cannot produce essential amino acids by itself and you need to get them through food or supplements. (12)
Leucine, one of the BCAAs, is a precursor for muscle protein synthesis. This may explain the popularity of BCAAs as a muscle-building supplement. (11) However, you can also get BCAAs through complete protein sources including food. Their presence in pre-workout can still boost your protein intake leading you to your gains.
Pre-workout supplements are popular because they have plenty of potential positive effects but there are some potential downsides too.
Pre-workout supplements can be pricy. Taking it regularly before every workout can add up. If you’re able to afford it and the potential benefits are worth your investment, then it’s not a problem. But it’s one area where coffee may be a more practical choice.
May Cause Side Effects
There are potential side effects to pre-workout. Caffeine and other stimulants may cause jitters, anxiety, insomnia, and irritability. (13) Pre-workout ingredients may also increase your heart rate and blood pressure which can further exacerbate these side effects. (14)
[Read More: The 15 Best Home Gym Machines]
Not Thoroughly Regulated
Dietary supplements, including pre-workout, don’t need to be approved by the FDA to be marketed and sold. (18) They may contain additives and chemicals that aren’t listed on the label. You may not always know for sure what you are ingesting when you take pre-workout.
People have been enjoying coffee throughout the world for multiple centuries. It’s natural and it comes from beans and water. Coffee provides a boost of energy from caffeine and other health benefits from antioxidants. As a pre-workout drink, it can help you feel more energized and focused.
What Is Coffee?
Coffee is a beverage that comes from roasted beans from the plant called Coffea. (19) It’s made by brewing roasted coffee beans with water and you can drink it hot or cold. You can also opt for espresso which is a more concentrated form of coffee that is served in shots. Either type will give you the caffeine you’re craving to feel energized at the gym.
The main reason people reach for coffee before a workout is for caffeine. The amount of caffeine can depend on the type of bean, roast, and brewing method. A cup of coffee typically packs 80 to 100 mg of caffeine and a shot of espresso can contain 30 to 100 mg of caffeine. So espresso doesn’t necessarily have more caffeine than coffee but you can get more of it in a smaller amount.
Outside of caffeine, some of the other compounds in coffee may have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. (20)
When it comes to having coffee as a pre-workout drink, it’s all about the caffeine. Here are all the benefits of coffee as an energy source.
May Improve Athletic Performance
Caffeine has long been known as performance-enhancing. Caffeine works by stimulating your central nervous system and blocking the binding of adenosine. Adenosine can cause tiredness, so blocking the binding may decrease feelings of fatigue. (21)
Because of this, caffeine is known to improve alertness, attention, and reaction time — all of which can contribute to better athletic performance. It may also delay your feelings of exhaustion, increase muscle strength and endurance, and help out with high-intensity sprints. (22)
[Read More: What Are Workout Splits and Which Is the Best One?]
Most research on caffeine shows it is most beneficial to endurance exercise. (23) However it can benefit resistance training as well. Studies on people taking caffeine before resistance training reported a lower rate of perceived exertion (RPE) than people who did not have caffeine. (24) Having a lower RPE while training can potentially lead you to lift heavier and put in some more reps.
May Reduce Muscle Soreness
Coffee contains antioxidants. Antioxidants fight free radicals and cellular damage in your body caused by oxidative stress from exercise. (25) Although it’s good stress, having antioxidants may help reduce inflammation after exercise, potentially reduce soreness, and help you recover better before your next session.
One study investigated caffeine’s effect on delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). The study found that people taking a dosage of five milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight reported reduced muscle soreness, reduced RPE, and improved athletic performance in the three days following resistance training. (26)
The study suggests that consuming caffeine benefits resistance training by reducing soreness in between sessions allowing you to train harder. Though, you don’t necessarily need to drink coffee to reap this benefit.
Natural and Accessible
A major benefit of coffee is that it is natural. It has been consumed for hundreds of years and it is plant-based. Although there are different types of coffee beverages to consume, you can ultimately control what you put into them, with no unknown sweeteners or additives if you don’t want them.
Coffee can also be affordable and accessible. You can make it at home and it’s a less expensive way than a supplement to boost your energy before a workout.
Coffee can improve your athletic performance and improve muscle recovery to an extent, but when compared to pre-workout, there are some drawbacks. Here are the cons to watch out for.
You Only Get Caffeine
Caffeine in coffee can help you out in your sessions and the antioxidants may help you recover. However, that’s the end of the ergogenic effects. Pre-workout supplements contain ingredients beyond caffeine that serve other purposes in your workout. Creatine, nitric oxide, amino acids, and other vitamins present in pre-workout supplements can affect your body and performance differently than caffeine.
Coffee doesn’t contain anything that directly leads to muscle growth, better muscular contractions, or enhanced blood flow.
May Trigger Side Effects
If you’re trying to get as much caffeine through coffee as you would in a pre-workout supplement, you have the potential to overdo it. Coffee comes with potential side effects. Drinking it too close to bedtime can mess with your sleep and cause restlessness and insomnia. It can also give you a jittery feeling, anxiety, agitation, headache, and flushed skin. Coffee is also a diuretic and drinking a lot of it may cause excessive urination. (13)
You May Quickly Build a Tolerance
If you’re a coffee drinker, you already know that you can build up a tolerance to it. Regular caffeine consumption can lead you to need more of it to feel the positive effects. This is problematic if you’re relying on it as a pre-workout drink because you should try not to consume more than 400 mg per day which is about four cups. (2) You can also become dependent on caffeine and experience a headache if you don’t have it every day.
Now that you have all the information on coffee and pre-workout, which is better to drink before a workout? It depends on what type of workout you’re doing, your level of dedication, and your personal preference.
For Endurance: If you’re looking to complete endurance exercises like running or cycling, coffee should give you enough energy to get through it.
For Athletic Performance: If you’re looking to improve your athletic performance when it comes to lifting weights, pre-workout has more ingredients that can enhance your muscular contractions, increase your blood flow, and give you a better pump.
For Convenience, Price, and Natural Ingredients: If these things matter most to you, coffee is simple and affordable.
For Bodybuilders and Strength Athletes: For physique and strength athletes who are dedicated to their sport, pre-workout supplements may give you more benefits that help you to build muscle, potentially lift heavier, and recover better.
Coffee versus pre-workout: who wins? It depends. Even if you are a dedicated bodybuilder or strength athlete, you don’t technically need pre-workout supplements if you don’t want to take them. If you’re open to them, they may be more helpful than coffee.
[Read More: The 15 Best Shoulder Exercises For Building Muscle]
For the average gymgoer who needs to feel more awake and alert, coffee will probably do the trick. But if you already have a high tolerance to caffeine, you could still benefit from pre-workout.
Coffee and pre-workout supplements are two popular drinks that gym-goers reach for to help them improve their athletic performance when they train. Both contain caffeine which helps you feel more energized, focused, and less fatigued. Pre-workout contains other amino acids and vitamins that can help you increase your strength, muscle mass, and performance in other ways.
While pre-workout may have more benefits, it also may contain unknown additives. Coffee is a natural, plant-based drink with antioxidants and centuries of use. Pre-workout can be expensive and coffee can be cheap, and they both can trigger side effects.
It all depends on your preferences and your goals. Many bodybuilders and strength athletes reach for pre-workout supplements to reap more specific benefits, but some may prefer a cup of coffee, and both can work in a pinch.
Let’s answer some common questions on coffee versus pre-workout.
Can coffee replace pre-workout?
Coffee can replace pre-workout if you are only looking for caffeine to enhance your workout. If you also want creatine, nitric oxide, amino acids, and vitamins — you won’t find them in coffee. Pre-workout may also contain more caffeine per serving.
Is it better to drink coffee or pre-workout?
It’s up to your individual preference. If you’re training late in the day, you can choose a non-stim pre-workout that won’t affect your sleep.
Are there any side effects from drinking coffee before working out?
Drinking too much coffee before working out may cause headaches, a jittery feeling, and gastrointestinal discomfort. It can potentially raise your heart rate and blood pressure too much. For best results, try drinking a moderate amount of coffee 60 minutes before your workout.
Pickering C, Grgic J. Caffeine and Exercise: What Next? Sports Med. 2019 Jul;49(7):1007-1030.
FDA. Spilling the Beans: How Much Caffeine is Too Much? U.S. Food & Drug Administration.
Harty PS, Zabriskie HA, Erickson JL, Molling PE, Kerksick CM, Jagim AR. Multi-ingredient pre-workout supplements, safety implications, and performance outcomes: a brief review. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018 Aug 8;15(1):41.
Jagim AR, Harty PS, Camic CL. Common Ingredient Profiles of Multi-Ingredient Pre-Workout Supplements. Nutrients. 2019 Jan 24;11(2):254.
Hoffman JR, Emerson NS, Stout JR. β-Alanine supplementation. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2012 Jul-Aug;11(4):189-95.
Mills S, Candow DG, Forbes SC, Neary JP, Ormsbee MJ, Antonio J. Effects of Creatine Supplementation during Resistance Training Sessions in Physically Active Young Adults. Nutrients. 2020 Jun 24;12(6):1880.
Gonzalez AM, Townsend JR, Pinzone AG, Hoffman JR. Supplementation with Nitric Oxide Precursors for Strength Performance: A Review of the Current Literature. Nutrients. 2023 Jan 28;15(3):660.
Biolo G, Tipton KD, Klein S, Wolfe RR. An abundant supply of amino acids enhances the metabolic effect of exercise on muscle protein. Am J Physiol. 1997 Jul;273(1 Pt 1):E122-9.
Ghimire K, Altmann HM, Straub AC, Isenberg JS. Nitric oxide: what’s new to NO? Am J Physiol Cell Physiol. 2017 Mar 1;312(3):C254-C262.
Delpino FM, Figueiredo LM, Forbes SC, Candow DG, Santos HO. Influence of age, sex, and type of exercise on the efficacy of creatine supplementation on lean body mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. Nutrition. 2022 Nov-Dec;103-104:111791.
Santos CS, Nascimento FEL. Isolated branched-chain amino acid intake and muscle protein synthesis in humans: a biochemical review. Einstein (Sao Paulo). 2019 Sep 5;17(3):eRB4898.
Fouré A, Bendahan D. Is Branched-Chain Amino Acids Supplementation an Efficient Nutritional Strategy to Alleviate Skeletal Muscle Damage? A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2017 Sep 21;9(10):1047.
Evans J, Richards JR, Battisti AS. Caffeine. [Updated 2022 Nov 28]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-.
Eudy AE, Gordon LL, Hockaday BC, Lee DA, Lee V, Luu D, Martinez CA, Ambrose PJ. Efficacy and safety of ingredients found in preworkout supplements. Am J Health Syst Pharm. 2013 Apr 1;70(7):577-88.
Dolan E, Swinton PA, Painelli VS, Stephens Hemingway B, Mazzolani B, Infante Smaira F, Saunders B, Artioli GG, Gualano B. A Systematic Risk Assessment and Meta-Analysis on the Use of Oral β-Alanine Supplementation. Adv Nutr. 2019 May 1;10(3):452-463.
Bagdy G, Riba P, Kecskeméti V, Chase D, Juhász G. Headache-type adverse effects of NO donors: vasodilation and beyond. Br J Pharmacol. 2010 May;160(1):20-35.
Ostojic SM, Ahmetovic Z. Gastrointestinal distress after creatine supplementation in athletes: are side effects dose dependent? Res Sports Med. 2008;16(1):15-22.
Ronis MJJ, Pedersen KB, Watt J. Adverse Effects of Nutraceuticals and Dietary Supplements. Annu Rev Pharmacol Toxicol. 2018 Jan 6;58:583-601.
Jeszka-Skowron, M., Zgoła-Grześkowiak, A. & Grześkowiak, T. Analytical methods applied for the characterization and the determination of bioactive compounds in coffee. Eur Food Res Technol 240, 19–31 (2015).
Poole R, Kennedy OJ, Roderick P, Fallowfield JA, Hayes PC, Parkes J. Coffee consumption and health: umbrella review of meta-analyses of multiple health outcomes. BMJ. 2017 Nov 22;359:j5024.
Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Military Nutrition Research. Caffeine for the Sustainment of Mental Task Performance: Formulations for Military Operations. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2001. 2, Pharmacology of Caffeine.
McLellan TM, Caldwell JA, Lieberman HR. A review of caffeine’s effects on cognitive, physical and occupational performance. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2016 Dec;71:294-312.
Southward K, Rutherfurd-Markwick KJ, Ali A. The Effect of Acute Caffeine Ingestion on Endurance Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2018 Aug;48(8):1913-1928.
Grgic, J., Mikulic, P., Schoenfeld, B.J. et al. The Influence of Caffeine Supplementation on Resistance Exercise: A Review. Sports Med 49, 17–30 (2019).
Powers SK, Jackson MJ. Exercise-induced oxidative stress: cellular mechanisms and impact on muscle force production. Physiol Rev. 2008 Oct;88(4):1243-76.
Hurley, Caitlin F.; Hatfield, Disa L.; Riebe, Deborah A.. The Effect of Caffeine Ingestion on Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 27(11):p 3101-3109, November 2013.
Featured Image: BarthFotografie / Shutterstock
The post Coffee vs. Pre-Workout: Which Should You Use Before Your Workouts? appeared first on BarBend.