Whether you’re training at 6 am and trying to beat the early morning grogginess, hitting the gym after a brutal day at work, or just looking for something extra to take your workout to another level, there’s no doubt that knocking back something to boost your energy and enhance performance is a necessity.
Coffee, energy drinks, and pre-workout supplements are some of the most widely consumed energy staples for fitness lovers worldwide and are awesome for turning up the energy dial. But the problem with these three energy-boosters is they’re not all created equal.
While the goal of them is all the same—major stimulation—the results you get from each are going to be massively different.
If you’re stuck between whether you should stick to your normal cup of coffee, invest in a pre-workout, or chug back an energy drink before your training session, we’re giving you the rundown.
We’re talking about how these stimulants work and which one is most effective, so you can make an educated decision on the best way to maximize your time in the gym.
The Science Behind The Stimulation
When it comes to any sort of stimulatory energy-booster, they all have a similar mechanism of action—increasing sympathetic nervous system activity to fend off fatigue and enhance alertness.
In the world of sports, there are three classes of stimulants commonly used: psychomotor stimulants, sympathomimetics, and various CNS stimulants 1.
The most common of these stimulants is caffeine, a psychomotor stimulant. Caffeine is a pharmacologically active compound found in tea, coffee, and many soft drinks that produces mild CNS stimulating effects.
It functions to reduce fatigue and increase concentration and alertness by acting as an adenosine antagonist; because caffeine is structurally similar to adenosine, it binds to adenosine receptors in the brain and modulates heart rate, cardiac and smooth muscle contraction/relaxation, and neural signaling in the central nervous system (CNS) 2.
Some of the major effects conducive to athletic performance include better focus, higher heart rate and output, and increased metabolic rate, but the downsides of excessive caffeine use or unusually high doses are things like anxiety, insomnia, and nervousness.
In most pre-workout supplements, caffeine is the staple stimulant used because it produces favorable effects for performance with minimal side effects unless consumed in high doses.
However, when it comes to energy drinks, the amounts of caffeine aren’t comparable to that of coffee. Caffeine content can range anywhere from 50 to 505mg per can or bottle, whereas a 6oz. cup of brewed coffee contains only 77 to 150mg 3.
When your heart-pumping, energy-boosting pre-gym beverage comes with more warning labels than anything else, it’s probably time to look elsewhere.
And perhaps the most detrimental thing about these drinks is that they are marketed to athletes claiming to improve performance, endurance, concentration, reaction speed, and rev metabolism, but at what cost 3?
While they may acutely increase performance, regular consumption of energy drinks has some potentially harmful consequences, including high blood pressure, sleep disruptions, and addiction 4.
And while the likelihood of addiction is still pertinent to coffee intake, the substantially lower amounts of caffeine present in coffee are much less likely to result in addiction.
Coffee vs Pre Workout vs Energy Drinks
This one we say with a big asterisk attached to it because we’re not bashing all energy supplements. There are a lot of good energy boosters available both in the form of supplements that work on your mitochondria as well as pre-workout supplements that work on the nervous system, but there are also a lot of bad ones filled with synthetic caffeine, artificial additives, and other crappy ingredients that aren’t conducive to good health and performance.
So, let’s compared the usual suspects—coffee, pre-workout, and energy drinks—in terms of how effective they are for boosting performance and what your best option is.
Coffee: Coffee is one of the cleanest and safest ways to boost your performance, and while it may not directly enhance muscle hypertrophy to any great extent, what it can do is increase focus, drive, and intensity for better overall performance and bigger gains. However, one study found that coffee consumption in rodents increases skeletal muscle function and hypertrophy by regulating the TGF-β/myostatin-Akt-mTORC1 5.
Pre-workout: The goal of pre-workouts is to boost your performance and enhance muscle hypertrophy, so when you find a good one, that’s what you’ll get. Ingredients like creatine and BCAAs are often added to boost muscle growth and MPS, but things like red beetroot powder, L-citrulline, arginine, and others can maximize blood flow and oxygen delivery to working muscles to support greater work capacity and more hypertrophy.
Energy drinks: Energy drinks are often loaded with compounds like caffeine, B vitamins, and taurine to enhance energy, but where muscle growth is concerned, their effects are limited due to the lack of any substances that enhance hypertrophy.
Coffee: The link between coffee consumption and endurance performance is pretty strong, suggesting that the caffeine present in coffee can increase work production, VO2, and fat oxidation and decrease fatigue 6. Other studies suggest that caffeine may alter perceived pain due to increased secretion of ß-endorphins, which favor increased endurance 7.
Pre-workout: Endurance athletes rely on anti-fatigue compounds to enhance performance, and that’s exactly what pre-workouts do. Things like beta-alanine and red beetroot powder buffer lactic acid and increase blood flow to support stronger muscle contractions and prevent fatigue. Studies have found that red beetroot can improve cardiorespiratory endurance by increasing efficiency, which ultimately improves performance at various distances, increases time to exhaustion, and may improve the cardiorespiratory performance at anaerobic threshold intensities and maximum oxygen uptake (VO2max) 8.
Energy drinks: Where energy drinks are concerned, there is potential for improving endurance activity and neuromuscular performance, likely because of their caffeine and carbohydrate content. Studies suggest that caffeine can increase endurance performance by delaying central nervous system fatigue and elicit an improvement in neuromuscular performance via a direct effect on muscles 9. However, the introduction of sugar-free versions of energy drinks results in faster declines in endogenous energy stores (muscle glycogen, phosphocreatine, and ATP) and thus counteracts any ergogenic actions.
Coffee: Although the main role of coffee is to block adenosine receptors and prevent fatigue, coffee is also widely consumed for its stimulant and fat-burning properties. As a CNS stimulant, it can have a direct effect on the breakdown of fat cells via the release of catecholamines, namely epinephrine (adrenaline), which increases fat oxidation and serum concentrations of free fatty acids (FFA) 10.
Pre-workout: Most pre-workout supplements aren’t designed to specifically target fat (that’s what a fat burner is for), but if you’re lucky, they can have ingredients that do up-regulate lipolysis. Like we mentioned, any pre-workout containing caffeine may elicit some fat-burning effects by stimulating the CNS and boosting fat oxidation, as well as something like Bioperine black pepper extract that is a known thermogenic agent. But in general, the point of a pre-workout is to enhance performance, results, and recovery, not burn fat.
Energy drinks: Energy drinks are designed to increase energy, not increase fat loss. Although, the caffeine and B vitamins present in many of them may support metabolic processes that induce lipolysis to a small extent, but don’t expect any miracles on fat mass with energy drinks.
Coffee: One of the sole purposes of coffee consumption is to reduce mental fatigue by acting as an adenosine receptor, but what about physical fatigue? Some studies show that, at a central level, caffeine consumption may modulate fatigue due to neurochemical changes that modify the rating of perceived exertion (RPE) during exercise and reduce pain sensation; at a peripheral level, modulating fatigue may result from stimulation of Na+-K+-ATPase that promotes the release of calcium, thereby improving neuromuscular function 7.
Pre-workout: Anti-fatigue compounds are the primary mechanism of action for many pre-workout supplements, and they’re something you just won’t find in coffee or energy drinks. We’re mainly talking about nitric oxide boosters and buffers that enhance the nitric oxide pathways to dilate blood vessels for better blood flow and thus greater oxygen and nutrient delivery, and enhanced removal of lactic acid, wastes, carbon dioxide, ammonia, and metabolic byproducts that cause muscle fatigue and impair work capacity.
Energy drinks: If mental and physical fatigue are significant concerns, energy drinks will likely give you the boost you’re looking for. However, they rarely contain compounds that support reducing muscular fatigue to extend work capacity and improve overall athletic performance.
With all of that said, we’ll be the first to support coffee consumption. It’s a natural and powerful stimulant that can help to support a better and stronger workout.
Energy drinks, on the other hand, are a big gamble. While they can increase alertness and focus, they’re often too high in artificial ingredients and caffeine to offer any real benefit to your training program.
And studies actually find that caffeine delivered in low doses (<3 mg/kg body weight) before or during exercise can improve performance, especially at a cognitive level, as well as enhance wakefulness, alertness, and mood due to its effect on the nervous system 7. But what’s interesting is that where caffeine is concerned, more is not better.
Research shows that high doses of caffeine (≥9 mg/kg body weight) don’t provide greater benefits for performance but instead increases the risk of adverse effects like sickness, diarrhea, dehydration, anxiety, and insomnia.
But if you’re looking to elevate your workout to an entirely new level, pre-workout takes the cake.
And with Pre Lab Pro®, you’re looking at a research-backed pre-workout formula delivering low-dose natural caffeine for the ultimate fine-tuned stimulation, combined with RedNite® Beetroot Powder, Setria® Performance Blend, Ajipure® L-Tyrosine, Suntheanine®, and NutriGenesis mineral complex to support better neuromuscular performance, fight fatigue, enhance muscle energy, support healthy cardiovascular performance, and boost strength, power, speed, and endurance, all while giving you a head start on muscle growth and recovery.
It’s a superior formula for training and promotes results like you’ve never experienced before.
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