Do the benefits of caffeine extend beyond a morning 'pick-me-up'? Can it really help with fat loss and increasing muscle mass?
Does your morning routine consist of some form of caffeine hit? Do you stagger out of bed, fumble around for the light switch and trudge zombie-like to the kitchen to make yourself that first coffee of the morning.
It's behaviour akin to a drug addict looking for their next fix, but you feel like it's what you need to turn you from an extra of the Walking Dead into the human being you and those around you recognise.
And this little wonder drug sometimes get a really bad wrap in the mainstream press. You're told to cut back on your intake on a regular basis because of all its negative effects. And while side effects such as sleep disruption, nausea, stomach pain, and irregular heartbeats are very real. They only really come into play with heavy usage and for those with a particular sensitivity.
In this article I'm going to outline 5 benefits of caffeine for fat loss and building muscle. And crucially I'll tell you how much you should be looking to consume on a regular basis.
Ultimately, my aim is for you to experience all the benefits, while reducing the risk of any side effects.
So, go put the kettle on. By the time you've finished this article you'll know whether or not you should make that coffee.
Waking the beast
I'm a morning person for sure. And I'm definitely not one for late nights and lie ins. Because most days I like to get up and get after it as early as possible.
So whether that's a heavy workout in the gym or crushing some work, being active early sets me up for the day. And I find that a hit of caffeine really helps my mental focus. And it helps me to plough through a ton of work while others are still coming to terms with the fact that staying under the covers all day is not an option.
But, for all its upside, the 'bro' approach to it is highly annoying.
One of my big bug bears is the chest thumping, Neanderthal opinions of lots of guys in the gym.
No doubt led by the sensationalist marketing that goes with pre-workout products, they see caffeine as simply a means to get 'wired' before hitting the weights. Eyes out on stalks, grunting and hollering before each set, it feels like you're on the set of Planet of the Apes with a load of caged animals. But let's leave to one side the fact that most of the products they're taking don't have effective doses.
More often than not, the key ingredients are lacking the quantities needed to be effective. And as such, most of the effect is probably just placebo.
Without doubt, caffeine has so much more to it than many people realise.
So let's get into the detail and find out exactly what those benefits are.
How Does Caffeine Work?
Caffeine is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream. From the moment you take the first sip of espresso, your body is starting to utilise and absorb it. Due to it's chemical nature, caffeine can be absorbed through the lining of the mouth (when taken in the appropriate form).
When the caffeine enters the body it begins to be metabolised by the liver where it is broken down in to 3 other chemicals (Theophylline, Theobromine, Paraxanthine). These chemicals have various different effects on the body when absorbed, ranging from relaxing smooth muscles (which is why some of you might feel the need to go to the loo after drinking coffee), to increased blood flow and alertness.
Even though the effects can be felt almost straight away, there's a subtle difference between feeling the initial effects and it being fully absorbed in the bloodstream.
Studies have been carried out on the absorption rates of different forms of caffeine and this provides a great insight for those of us that are into fitness.
Understanding this next bit is going to be crucial for optimising when you take that pre-workout drink to get its maximum effect.
When Should You Take Caffeine For Maximum Benefit?
There are 4 main ways to consume caffeine which I'm going to refer to here. You've probably come across one or more of these in your time.
The following summary looked at various studies into absorption rates. The comparison uses 200mg of caffeine consumption through each method. More information on the specific scientific studies can be found through this article on caffeineinformer.com
- Coffee: 99% absorption in c. 40 mins
- Energy Drink: 99% absorption in c. 40 mins
- Caffeine Pill: 90% absorption in c. 80 - 120 mins
- Caffeine Gum: 77% absorption in c. 45 - 80 mins
Therefor, your best source of caffeine to enhance your training, is going to be from an energy drink (ie. pre-workout) or coffee. Consume either around 40 minutes before you workout.
Benefits to Your Training?
Now we're cooking with gas, I'm on my second coffee and I'm tearing up the keyboard. So while I'm on a roll let's dive into those benefits.
Caffeine is proven to improve focus and energy. And it's effect on tiredness is probably the most studied aspect of the drug.
Here's a bit more science to explain how it all works. Andenosine plays a key role in telling your brain when it's time to go to sleep. If enough Adenosine binds to the Adenosine Receptors in the brain then your brain / body will know it's time to go night night. What caffeine does is bind to those receptors and prevent the Adenosine from binding, thus giving you that more awake and alert feeling.
By blocking Adenosine, caffeine increases the release of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, which regulate mood and behaviour and have ananti-depressant effect.
#2. Fat Burning:
Caffeine increases the body's ability to burn fat. How awesome is that? I can imagine a lot of you have goals of being leaner. So, it looks like caffeine can play a small part in that process.
This study highlighted an increase in energy expenditure and fat burning for those performing exercise and supplementing with caffeine, versus those just exercising.
There are several other studies that have linked caffeine to fat loss. And for the those of you interested in the science side of it. Here's another short study you can read.
Evidence is mixed on the direct effect of caffeine on the muscles. One thing is for sure, caffeine is not going to increase protein synthesis. Effectively that means caffeine isn't going to help that muscle repair and growth process to add more lean muscle mass. What it will do is impact the part of the brain that signals muscle activation.
This study looked at the effects of varying caffeine dosages on squat and bench press performance. It concluded that 3mg/kg of body weight significantly increased muscle power of those two lifts. Whilst this study only looked at these two lifts, you could logically extrapolate that there's benefit across other similar compound lifts. And as I'm a huge advocate of heavy compound weight lifting there's a clear benefit here.
#4. Increased Thermogenesis.
Thermo-what??? Thermogenesis. This is basically the production of heat in the body and can directly effect your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR).
Increases in thermogenesis have been shown to increase energy expenditure and the oxidation of fat (fat burning). So it's another benefit for more fat loss.
Several studies are cited in this article on authoritynutrition.com.
#5. Energy Stores.
This is an interesting one (well to me anyway, I'll let you be the judge). Consuming caffeine as part of your post workout nutrition as well as carbs has been shown to preserve glycogen (energy stores). A study carried out by the Australian Institute of Sport in 2008 showed that those consuming caffeine and carbs after exercise had 66% more glycogen in their muscles.
There are obvious benefits to this in terms of recovery from training and also being able to nail the next day's workout. It's definitely something to consider as part of trying to maximise your training and nutrition strategy, especially in a calorie deficit.
How to Supplement with Caffeine
You now should have a good understanding of what caffeine is, how it works, and what the benefits are. In terms of incorporating it into your diet, you need to be mindful of all the potential sources you are getting it from.
Caffeine is contained in coffee, energy drinks, chocolate, and fizzy drinks (to name just a few). Therefore, you need to have some consideration to your overall intake. Excessive caffeine consumption can lead to unwelcome side effects. Not only that, but your body will build up a tolerance, making the effect of caffeine diminish over time.
Caffeine anhydrous (water removed) seems to be the favoured version to improve performance in exercise, but coffee is a good secondary option too.
The right dosage
Your dose of caffeine per day should range between 3-6 mg per kg of body weight. This is the range where the scientific studies have proven to be beneficial without causing unwanted side effects.
However, your own tolerance and response to caffeine may differ to others. My advice would be to start with a very low dose and build up from there. You can assess your tolerance in a gradual way.
But, if you have high blood pressure I would be very careful with your caffeine intake. Because, exercise is going to increase your blood pressure, and caffeine will add to that. So it's worth seeking the advice of a medical professional first.
If you are using caffeine for specific sporting events then you should consider the amount of caffeine you consume and when to consume it. But you should also consider your intake in the days leading up to the event. When I used to cycle, I would make a conscious effort to back off the caffeine in the week before a big race. This helps reduce the tolerance your body might have to it. Additionally, it will increase the effectiveness on the day.
The Bottom Line On Caffeine
Caffeine has benefits for many aspects of exercise performance, from fat loss, to increased energy, to improved power output.
A healthy athlete should look to consume 4-6mg per kg, per day with the majority weighted to pre workout and the remainder post-workout.
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Hope you enjoyed the read. Let me know what you think of the article guys.