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Fact checked by Andrew Lenau, ISSA CPT & Sports NutritionistFACT CHECKED
May 09, 2022
You scream, I scream, we all scream for caffeine! That's a 100% original jingle with no inspiration from anywhere. Maybe that's true, and perhaps it's not, but we can all agree that we all do scream for caffeine. We love it. That's why coffee and tea are the most consumed beverages in the world. And let's be honest, green tea tastes like piss, and the only reason anyone really drinks it is for the little buzz. Personally, it's not a big enough buzz for us because it's just not enough caffeine to make the tinkle water worth it. And that got us thinking, how much caffeine would we need to drink toilet water? Kidding, what we really want to know is how much caffeine should a pre workout have if we want to actually see benefits from it?
That's what this article is going to discuss.
Caffeine is the most widely consumed drug in the world. And make no mistake about it; caffeine is a drug in the truest sense of the word. That's a good thing because this psychoactive effect gives caffeine its ergogenic benefits.
Once it's consumed, caffeine is rapidly absorbed into the gastrointestinal tract and appears in the bloodstream within minutes. Because it is able to pass through virtually any membrane, it is easily transferred throughout the body, including the brain.
Interestingly, it seems that the liver does not remove any caffeine, meaning that its absorption rate is nearly 100%.
Naturally, caffeine can be found in a wide variety of food sources, with the most common being various green tea leaves, cocoa, and coffee plants.
While the benefits of coffee are relatively understood, its mechanisms are still being studied. However, researchers have a decent understanding and believe that many of the performance benefits come from its effect on the central nervous system (CNS).
1) Delays Fatigue:
Perhaps the most studied athletic benefit that comes from caffeine is its ability to prolong exercise. For example, this study found that caffeine supplementation lengthens the time to exhaustion and increases overall exercise performance, oxygen deficit, and maximal oxygen uptake1.
We should mention that this tends to apply to endurance events or intermittent sports such as soccer. However, improving oxygen uptake is definitely not a bad thing and no one said you can’t take a pre-workout before endurance exercise!
2) Increase Cognitive Function And Focus:
We all know that taking caffeine makes you more productive or at least increases your attention. While this may just be focusing on watching cat videos on Youtube, it can also mean staying more focused when you get to the gym.
Further, this doesn't just refer specifically to concentration on a topic, but caffeine can actually improve your motivation to carry out a task. In our case, caffeine can motivate us to kill a session or set a PR on our deadlift.
3) Mitigate Pain Brought On By Exercise:
One of the components of caffeine's action on the CNS is the release of dopamine. When an athlete takes caffeine before exercise, dopamine can be released into the body, which can lower any discomfort or pain brought on by high-intensity exercise. This is important as pain can decrease the firing rate of muscles as well as raise the rate of perceived exertion (RPE).
This exact phenomenon has been found to actually occur in studies where caffeine ingestion has been found to decrease the pain experienced in athletes. A lower RPE could mean more reps which could mean more gains2.
4) Improve Muscle Firing:
As mentioned, previously caffeine was thought to be beneficial only for cardio and endurance. However, this is one of the areas that shows this may not be the case. Newer research finds that caffeine may actually have a more direct effect on muscular function than previously believed.
This is likely due to caffeine improving the sensitivity to release calcium ions, ultimately increasing force production3. This is exciting as this directly affects anaerobic performance such as lifting weights.
If you have been around the supplement game for any length of time, you'd realize that caffeine is one of the primary ingredients used. As you saw from the benefits above, this isn't really a surprise as caffeine brings a ton of proven benefits.
That being said, it's not uncommon for pre workout supplements to underdose the ingredients that they put in their product. Basically, this means that a company will put in a small amount of a particular ingredient just so that they can claim the product has it inside.
The problem is that the majority of substances used in most pre workout supplements have a minimum threshold. In other words, your body needs to ingest a certain amount in order to see a benefit. Think about it like drinking beer. Beer will get you drunk but half a can won't do it.
The problem with answering this question is that the answer can fall on a huge range, from zero mg (yes, some pre-workouts don't have caffeine) to 420mg (this is the most we have found, find out what pre-workout it is below!).
That being said, it seems like the average pre workout with caffeine provides around 150-250mg per serving.
So now let's talk about how much caffeine pre workout products SHOULD have. The good thing is the answer is pretty straightforward. The recommended dosing for caffeine as an ergogenic aid is 3-6mg per kilogram of bodyweight4.
Here's a basic graph to give you an idea of what this dosing looks like. As you look at these numbers, keep in mind your average cup of coffee gives 80mg per cup, as do most energy drinks.
70kg (154lbs): 210mg-420mg
80kg (176lbs): 240mg-480mg
90kg (198lbs): 270mg-540mg
100kg (220lbs): 300mg-600mg
110kg (242lbs): 330mg-660mg
So right off the bat, we see that all of these recommended doses for caffeine are higher than many of the doses used in some pre workouts. Still, that's when using the lower range of recommended dosing. Further, if you are a bigger person, you're even more likely to not be getting an optimal dose.
Unfortunately, this is another problem with trying to properly dose caffeine with a premixed pre workout as the optional amounts are different for everybody (but we have a cheap solution below!)
Therefore, if a pre workout is going to promote beneficial effects with caffeine, we think that 300mg is the sweet spot. Reason being is that 300mg is a pretty high dose that will be plenty for most guys.
While 400mg is obviously more and might be good for some guys, it could be too much for others. Considering that you can always add caffeine (see below) to a pre workout but you can’t take it away, we think 300mg is the optimal dose.
For most people, 300mg will provide plenty of energy, without the crash. Be aware that if taking pre-workout on an empty stomach, the caffeine's effects may impact you more significantly. Dose accordingly.
Not all pre workouts are packing a measly 150-250mg of caffeine. Some have more. Much more. Let's look at the pre workout caffeine content in some popular pre workouts known for providing high doses:
Disclaimer: This article contains some affiliate links where we will receive a small commission on any purchase you make at no additional cost to you. We appreciate the support.
As mentioned above, don’t mess with these unless you are familiar with how you react to caffeine. While very rare, people can have serious adverse reactions to high doses of caffeine. There is most certainly a thing as too much caffeine.
Again, the main problem with pre workout is that the optimal dose of caffeine is different for everyone and depends on the person's size. However, a pre-workout only delivers a set amount of caffeine that may or may not be enough for an individual.
Unfortunately, this is just the nature of the beast, and there's really not much you can do about it. You could take more, but now you're risking overdosing on other compounds, not to mention that pre-workout isn't the cheapest supplement on the market.
The good thing is that caffeine is cheap; actually, it's really cheap. If you find that your pre-workout isn't really delivering as much caffeine as you'd like, you can easily just buy some caffeine tablets to use in conjunction.
For example, this bottle from Prolab contains 100 pills which pack 200mg per pill for just $7.19 (on 04/18/22). That's insanely cheap. You can either take the whole 200mg or break it in two or quarters.
The point is that this is a very easy and affordable way to up your caffeine intake if your pre workout doesn't have enough.
On the other hand you could always opt for a stim-free pre-workout if you wanted to avoid caffeine in the formulation and then just supplement with caffeine pills. If that's the case then check out the Best Caffeine Free Pre-Workouts on the market today.
While caffeine is definitely essential as a preworkout ingredient, we actually don't think it makes sense for caffeine to be your deciding factor when buying a pre workout.
As mentioned above, caffeine tablets are insanely cheap at just 0.07 for 200mg. While some of these pre workouts might not underdose their caffeine, instead, they will use their high caffeine content for marketing to persuade lifters to pay a higher price. In reality, 400mg of caffeine only costs 0.14 cents and is hardly something to pay a premium price for.
To be clear, we’re not saying a pre workout is bad if it has or doesn’t have caffeine; we’re just saying a low dose shouldn’t persuade you to not buy it if its other ingredients are good.
Instead, we would recommend looking at other pre-workout ingredients such as arginine or citrulline. Use the inclusion of different compounds to help you choose what pre-workout to buy, and if it comes with our suggested 300mg of caffeine, then awesome. If it comes short, you can always increase your caffeine consumption with a caffeine pill.
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