5 Things You Should Know About Caffeine and Lifting

Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world.

With almost 90% of the American population consuming caffeine in some form each day, I’m safe to assume most of you reading this are using caffeine in your daily life for one reason or another. You may even be enjoying a cup of coffee right now.

What’s not safe to assume is an individual’s understanding of how caffeine works. Despite it’s prevalence in terms of usage, you’ll find that most people’s understanding of caffeine doesn’t extend much further than “I drink the bean juice and it makes me go fast”. 

Things like proper dosing, tolerance to caffeine, how caffeine actually works, simply never get taught to the vast majority of individuals.

With caffeine being such a popular, and legal, ergogenic aid for lifting, I want to help improve understanding of this interesting drug so you can better leverage it to your advantage both in and outside of the gym, and do so in a healthy way.

Caffeine Does Not “give you energy”

Simply stating “caffeine gives you energy” doesn’t give the whole story around how this psychoactive actually works.

More correctly worded, it blocks you from feeling tired.

Caffeine blocks a neurotransmitter called adenosine from binding to receptor sites in our brain (This adenosine binding would normally start signaling that would lead us to feeling tired). Since caffeine doesn’t allow for this binding to happen in the first place we don’t get the signal for feeling tired.

Additionally while not actually producing more dopamine (commonly referred to as our “feel-good” neurotransmitter) in our brain, caffeine does slow down it’s re-absorption. This increases dopamine levels in our brain for a period of time leading to increased mood, and is where caffeine gets it’s “euphoric” effect from.

Blocking adenosine from binding also leads to a cascade of effects in which the end result is an increase in adrenaline production in our body. Commonly understood as our “fight or flight” hormone this increased adrenaline production is where the basic idea that caffeine is just “giving us energy” comes from. Adrenaline will lead to an elevated hear rate and blood pressure, opens our airways, redirects blood flow in the body to our muscles, and causes the liver to release sugars leading to elevated blood sugar levels. All of which will leave you feeling more alert and stimulated.

While not strictly speaking related to you feeling “energized” it’s also good to note from a lifting perspective that caffeine results in a slight increase in muscle force production, as well as a decreased sensation of pain.

All of these effects happening combined lead to caffeine’s ability to leave you feeling more stimulated, alert, and euphoric.

Effective Dose

Take this information with a grain of salt because individual response to caffeine is HUGE.

For performance…again…for PERFORMANCE, the researched recommended dosage for consistent full performance improvement is 4-6mg per kg of body weight. If you aren’t familiar with caffeine dosages…that’s a whole bunch of caffeine.

For a 200lb man that would equate to a range of about 365mg-546mg of caffeine. For reference an average cup of coffee is in the 85mg-100mg range. This is quite a bit of caffeine to be consuming for a workout, not to mention if you are consuming additional amounts of caffeine on top of this for other reasons throughout the day.

400mg of caffeine per day is the upper limit you’ll see recommended by the FDA as being reasonably safe. But, again, due to individual tolerances it’s hard to state this as a “concrete” number to go by.

What’s important to keep in mind is that high levels of caffeine can notably cause anxiety, and digestive issues. You should not jump straight in to taking such a high amount of caffeine purely on the hopes of increased performance. Only do so slowly, and if you can increase your intake without negative side effects.

Personally, I would experiment with what works for YOU specifically. People with lower caffeine tolerances may feel full effects with doses as small as 50-100mg and will not need to push to such a high intake level. Due to the high individual variability of caffeine slowly finding the right range for you will be best and can help you dodge unwanted side effects of caffeine. I just wanted to provide the researched numbers as a reference.

Tolerance Builds Quickly

The more caffeine you consume, the more your body is going to build a tolerance for it. I don’t think this is news to anybody.

Unfortunately, people tend to value the “euphoric” effect of caffeine most, and will take more and more trying to feel that same way they felt the very first time they had a cup of coffee. This will not work. In response to repeated caffeine exposure our body will produce more receptor sites for adenosine to bind to. This means it’s more likely adenosine will end up binding which in turn means you will not feel the effects of the caffeine. Understand that caffeine’s ability to delay the re-absorption of dopamine is the exact reason it can be “addictive” in the first place, don’t fall into the trap of chasing that euphoria with higher and higher doses.

It’s also for this same reason you can’t use more and more caffeine to out run bad sleep habits. Your body will continue to increase those receptor sites until adenosine can successfully bind. One way or another your body is going to  make sure you feel tired and sleep.

This tolerance will exist even if you are taking the same amount of caffeine everyday. However, the cool thing is while the “stimulated” and “euphoric” feelings of caffeine will fade with regular caffeine usage over time, effects that are useful for lifting like adenosine being blocked from making us feel tired, increased muscle force, and decreased sensation of pain, do not decrease with regular caffeine usage.

So understand that if you’ve been taking caffeine for awhile now, no, you may not feel quite as “stimulated” as when you first took it, but it is still assisting you in some capacity in the gym.

The Half-Life of Caffeine is LONG

Caffeine takes just 15 minutes for you to begin feeling effects, and 45 minutes to reach it’s peak effects.

It takes significantly longer for it to actually leave your system…

This is where I think caffeine can be more harmful than beneficial for a lot of people. It all just depends on when you take caffeine in the day, as well as when you go to bed.

The half-life of caffeine is around 5 hours. This means that in approximately 5 hours of you taking caffeine, half of it will still be left in your system.

So for example, if a lifter were to take a 300mg caffeine dose from their pre-workout for an evening workout at 5pm, 150mg of caffeine would still be in their body come 10pm that night. Take another 5 hours from there and at 3am their is still 75mg of caffeine floating around in their body. Even small amounts of caffeine are enough to mess with your body’s ability to sleep.

For many individuals caffeine in their system may very well be the reason behind their “sleep issues” they just don’t know it. Respect how long it takes caffeine to clear your system and do the math on when you’ve consumed your caffeine and when you intend to go to bed for the day.

Is being maximally hyped on 400mg of caffeine for your 6pm workout really worth it if you aren’t able to sleep and properly recover from training later that night?

Caffeine is Caffeine

Much like people will mistakenly believe different alcohols cause them to behave different ways (that’s a myth btw, it’s all ethanol, it’s your own belief  about a certain alcohol that may effect mood) people will mistakenly believe there is a difference between caffeine from coffee, pre-workout, sodas, energy drinks, and straight up caffeine pills.

There is not.

So long as you are taking the same dosage of caffeine across the board, your particular source of caffeine does not matter.

While I tend to prefer sources in which I know EXACTLY how much caffeine I am taking in (I love coffee it’s just extremely hard to gauge how much caffeine you are getting per serving due to a variety of factors). You should take whichever is most pleasurable to you.


Matt Molloy

Matt Molloy

I'm a graduate the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Exercise Science. I’m a local guy (North Penn) and athletics has dominated my life. I've led teams in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf and my passion, long distance running. I've been strength training for 6 years with a focus in power-lifting but have recently stretched to strongman since joining the pride here at the Den. When I’m not in the gym I enjoy, spending time with my friends, music, and relaxing and playing some video games.