Are you looking for a natural energy boost to help power through your workouts? If so, you may have wondered which is better: pre-workout or coffee.
The debate between pre-workouts and coffee has been going on for years. Coffee is the tried and true pick-me-up, while pre-workout is relatively new. They both offer a similar benefit of increased energy and focus, but the two have distinct differences.
In this article, we’ll compare pre-workout vs. coffee’s ingredients, advantages, and disadvantages and help you decide which is best for your fitness goals!
While this article was written by Noah Quezada RDN who is a registered dietitian nutritionist, it is for information purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. Before making any alterations to your diet, please consult with an experienced healthcare provider about the best options for you!
Coffee is a well-known stimulant and antioxidant; while it does provide a source of caffeine, it does not meet the minimum threshold to improve performance (3-6 mg/kg). In addition, the source of caffeine that coffee provides seems to be suboptimal compared to caffeine anhydrous. Pre-workout comes with varying ingredients that, when taken in clinically recommended doses, can improve performance. However, between scrupulous manufacturing techniques, proprietary blends, and market influence, it is difficult to know exactly what each product contains and how much.
The use of coffee dates back to the 15th century and is credited for shaping civilization. Before coffee, there weren’t many options. Water was even too dangerous people opted for alcohol.
Since then, it has become a staple for everyone’s morning ritual. With a Starbucks on almost every corner of America, coffee has risen to one of the most traded goods.
This is all due to coffee’s stimulating effects. Coffee contains caffeine, which is a stimulant. It also contains chlorogenic acid and antioxidants. More on coffee ingredients later.
On the other hand, pre-workout supplements have only been around since the early 1980s. (1)
The first product to be introduced into the market was developed by Dan Duchaine, a prominent bodybuilder now known as the “steroid guru.” He had formulated a product called Ultimate Orange which quickly became popular amongst bodybuilders.
It wasn’t long after Ultimate Orange’s release that the controversy surrounding these supplements began to surface.
Nowadays, pre-workouts are mainly composed of caffeine, vitamins, and minerals.
Coffee vs. pre-workout ingredients
Both coffee and pre-workout have similar ingredients, like caffeine. However, there are some differences in the type and amount of each ingredient.
Coffee has thousands of chemical compounds that contribute to its aroma, stimulating effect, and bitter taste. (1)
Caffeine in coffee
The caffeine content of coffee varies wildly depending on its preparation methods. According to the FDA, the average 8-ounce cup of coffee has around 80-100 mg.
If you are like me and enjoy a Nitro Cold Brew, you can get upwards of 150-200 mg of caffeine.
Antioxidants in coffee
Compounds like chlorogenic acid, ferulic caffeic, and n-coumaric acids are natural antioxidants in coffee. (2)
While coffee has a stander set of ingredients, the same cannot be said about pre-workouts. Supplement manufacturers can choose the ingredients they want to include in the amount they see fit.
Caffeine in pre-workout
Most pre-workouts contain caffeine, usually in the form of caffeine anhydrous. The caffeine can range from 100-450 mg per serving, depending on the product. For reference, the upper tolerable limit for caffeine is 400 mg. (3)
Beta-alanine in pre-workout
When researchers looked at the top 100 pre-workouts, they found that 87% contained between 1.2-3.8 grams of beta-alanine per serving. More pre-works had this ingredient than any other ingredient, including caffeine. (3)
If you are not a fan of beta-alanine check out this list of pre-workouts without beta-alanine.
Not as common as caffeine or beta-alanine, Citrulline is an amino acid found in about 71% of pre-workout supplements. At a dose of 1.5-6.5 grams per serving. (3)
As we continue down the list of common ingredients in pre-workout supplements, we find Tyrosine. This amino acid can be found in about 63% of pre-workouts at a dose of 42-654 mg. (3)
Taurine has become a popular ingredient in pre-workouts and can be found in over half of them. It is often dosed at 1.7-1.9 g per serving. (3)
Finally, researchers found that of the top 100 pre-workout supplements, creatine was identified in 49% of them at a dose of 1.1-3.1 g per serving. (3)
Pros and cons of both coffee and pre-workout
We have covered the history of coffee and pre-workout inaddition to looking at some of the most abundant ingredients in each. Let’s look at some of the benefits and drawbacks of pre-workout vs. coffee.
Benefits of coffee before your workout
The benefits of drinking coffee before your workout stem from, most notably, its caffeine content.
Caffeine is a naturally occurring alkaloid found in several plants, including coffee beans and tea leaves. It acts as a central nervous system stimulant that acutely increases alertness, focus, and energy levels.
At a 3-6 mg/kg dose of caffeine, which is about 204-408 mg for a 150-pound person, 30-90 min before working out. The benefits seem to include increased strength, muscular endurance, and power output. (4)
While there is a significant amount of research to support these claims, it is important to mention that the effects of caffeine will vary between individuals, and more research is needed. (5)
In addition to the caffeine content of coffee, it also has antioxidants.
Why is that important?
When you work out, your body creates free radicals. Free radicals are molecules with unpaired electrons, which can lead to oxidation and damage your cells. Antioxidants help to combat this oxidative damage by neutralizing the free radicals. (6)
As I mentioned above, a cup of coffee has thousands of compounds. Undoubtedly, the most prominent advantages of coffee pre-workout are its energizing and protective properties.
Cons of coffee before you workout
Coffee before a workout may not be the ideal solution. While it does contain caffeine, according to multiple studies, anhydrous caffeine found in pre-workout supplements can produce more beneficial results.
Coffee usually has 80-100 mg of caffeine, but 3-6 mg/kg is recommended for optimal benefits, meaning that a single cup would not have enough of the stimulant.
Additionally, many people find that drinking coffee before exercising leads to them needing to use the restroom due to its laxative effects. (7)
Hence, if you’re looking for the best performance during exercise, relying on pre-workout or other similar supplements might be a better option than coffee alone.
Benefits of pre-workout before your workout
Generally speaking, pre-workout supplements contain a variety of ingredients that can help to provide energy, enhance performance, and increase focus during workouts.
The example used in the drawbacks of coffee was the quantity and quality of the caffeine that a cup of joe provides.
When researchers compared the top 100 pre-workouts, 86% contained between 175-333 mg of caffeine. (3)
As mentioned by the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), 3-6 mg/kg was the optimal dosing. This average caffeine content among pre-workouts falls in line with the current recommendations.
Furthermore, many pre-workouts contain a specific type of caffeine called anhydrous caffeine. Numerous studies have indicated that anhydrous caffeine provides more reliable and consistent results than coffee’s natural form.
Other benefits of pre-workout ingredients, such as Beta-alanine, Citrulline, Creatine, and Tyrosine, can help to enhance performance, strength, endurance, delay of fatigue, and power output. (8, 9, 10, 11)
Even though pre-workouts are popular, there is limited research on each component within a formula, let alone the combination of multiple ingredients.
It is time to chat about the potential drawbacks of pre-workouts.
Cons of pre-workout before you workout
While pre-workout supplements may be great for some people, they aren’t the best option for everyone and can even be detrimental in some instances.
These products are not subject to FDA pre-market approval unless a supplement company brings a compound to the table. (12)
To protect their secret sauce, supplement manufacturers often use proprietary matrix formulas that prevent competitors from knowing exactly how much each ingredient is included in their supplement.
Making it difficult for you, the consumer, to know precisely how much of each ingredient is being used. Therefore, not being able to assess the safety and efficacy of the product accurately.
Moreover, the average labeled ingredients don’t correspond with clinically supported dosages, which could present serious health risks. On the contrary, you also may not get the desired effect. (3)
In conclusion, we are looking for a way to improve our performance in the gym. Coffee has been a tried and true method for getting in a small but consistent dose of caffeine. Since the invention of pre-workout supplements, their popularity has skyrocketed.
While coffee has been around for years, pre-workouts contain a more potent dose of caffeine and other ingredients that can help to enhance performance, strength, endurance, delay of fatigue, and power output.
However, the proprietary matrix formulas used by pre-workout manufacturers make it difficult to accurately assess their products’ safety and efficacy. And due to shady tactics employed by some supplement companies, it can be difficult to trust the quality of their product.
Ultimately, the deciding factor between coffee and pre-workouts is a personal choice. Before using, understand the potential risks associated with pre-workout supplements and any special considerations that may need to be considered. Please reach out to your doctor or healthcare provider before taking a pre-workout supplement.
Remember: this post is for informational purposes only and may not be the best fit for you and your personal situation. It shall not be construed as medical advice. The information and education provided here is not intended or implied to supplement or replace professional medical treatment, advice, and/or diagnosis. Always check with your own physician or medical professional before trying or implementing any information read here.
Noah Quezada is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist located in Denver, Colorado. Over the course of more than a decade, he has gained extensive experience in helping clients manage their weight through in-person sessions. Noah is also the 2023 President of the Colorado Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.