What you put in your body before a workout greatly impacts your gym performance.

Coffee and pre-workout supplements are both popular options used by millions of people worldwide, but which is going to give you the drive to push through those tough days?

We've taken a deep dive into both, and we're giving you the full coffee vs pre-workout breakdown to help you determine which is best for your workouts.

There’s a split in the fitness world about whether pre-workout or coffee is better to boost your performance. Here’s a breakdown of how they compare:

1. Ingredients

Caffeine

Caffeine consumption has been proven to boost performance and improve mental alertness. This lets you focus on your workout for longer and improve muscle development. [1]

Black coffee contains about 100 mg of caffeine, but pre-workout can contain up to 450 mg, depending on the product.

You can buy stimulant-free pre workout formulas which allow you to control how much caffeine you consume, but generally, they aren't as potent. They should still help you improve exercise performance

Coffee Vs Pre-Workout (Which Is Best For At-Home Workouts?)

Amino Acids

Amino acids are naturally produced by the body and are beneficial for your athletic performance. They are building blocks of protein consumed by your muscles to help their recovery.

While coffee grounds do contain amino acids, it's in very trace amounts. [2]

Many pre-workout supplements have much higher levels of amino acids, and this is one of the main differences between pre-workouts and coffee. This means pre-workouts will help your muscles to recover more quickly and prevent muscle fatigue.

L-Arginine Or L-Citrulline, And Beta-Alanine

L-arginine, L-citrulline, and Beta-alanine are all non-essential amino acids. Both L-arginine and L-citrulline are very similar and work as a nitric oxide agent to kick start increased levels of blood flow within your body, although citrulline increases blood flow much more effectively.

Beta-alanine has been shown to improve endurance and delays the accumulation of lactic acid in your muscles, letting you workout for longer before muscle fatigue kicks in.

Pre-workout supplements tend to contain a mixture of L-Citrulline and beta-alanine, but coffee only contains L-Arginine. This means coffee is still beneficial for your workout, but it isn't as beneficial as a pre-workout for either resistance or endurance exercise.

2. Calories & Nutrition Facts

Most pre-workouts will contain some artificial sweeteners and ingredients which enhance the flavor, but they should be low-calorie.

On average, your pre-workout supplement will probably have 10-30 calories in a serving, but this varies between brands. Black coffee has 0 calories and no carbohydrates, so it's suitable for pretty much any diet.

The ingredients list for pre-workouts is complex, and some can have over 20 different compounds within them.

By comparison, coffee is a lot simpler and only has a single natural ingredient, so if you're conscious about what you put in your body and want to keep the calories down, then this is the safer option for you.

3. Energy & Performance

Both coffee and pre-workout have a high caffeine content and will improve your energy levels, but pre-workout is designed to do more.

The combination of ingredients means that pre-workout will aid in performance and recovery, making it the better option for those serious about fitness.

4. Muscle Gain & Body Building

Coffee provides a natural energy boost, but that's about it. A pre-workout supplement has caffeine, amino acids, creatine, and other ingredients, which are all designed to maximize performance and muscle building.

When it comes to coffee vs pre-workout for bodybuilding, then it's not even close; pre-workout is the clear winner.

5. Weight Loss

Black coffee is often used in diets because it has 0 calories. In comparison, pre-workout has more calories but provides a bit more substance to your body.

If you're talking in terms of pure calories in calories out, then coffee is best in this category, but pre-workout can help you lose weight, maintain body weight, or grow a leaner physique.

6. Cost

The cost of coffee vs pre isn't even close. It only costs about 10 cents a cup to buy the coffee grounds and make it yourself.

In comparison, pre-workout can cost over $2 a serving, depending on the brand, so it's a much more expensive way to fuel a gym session.

pre-workout ready to mix

Can You Combine Pre-Workout And Coffee Together?

Combining coffee and pre-workout supplements isn't recommended because it can give you too much caffeine.

This won't actually improve performance; it will just cause you to become jittery and ruin your sleep pattern. You should avoid drinking coffee for 2-3 hours after taking a pre-workout with stimulants.

However, combining coffee with some specific ingredients found in pre-workout can be beneficial:

Coffee + Beta-Alanine + L-Citrulline

Combining coffee with beta-alanine and L-citrulline can give you the best of both worlds.

It allows you to get the stimulant from the caffeine and the amino acids, which helps to increase performance during your resistance or endurance workout.

It's recommended that you take the coffee and amino acid supplements about 60 minutes before your workout so you can feel the benefits.

Coffee + Protein

Coffee isn't a good source of protein, but adding protein to it is completely safe and can be beneficial. It helps your muscles get what they need to perform and recover fully and will help you reach your fitness goals.

Just be sure to have the coffee and protein at least 60 minutes before exercising to enhance your performance.

Pros & Cons Of Taking Coffee Before A Workout

Coffee is one of the world's favorite ways to get a caffeine boost. While it isn't primarily designed to support performance, if you do drink coffee before you train, then there are a number of benefits:

Pros

Perk #1: Energy Boost

Coffee provides a quick energy boost because it has a high caffeine content. While energy drinks are growing in popularity, coffee remains the number one source of caffeine intake for people around the world.

Perk #2: Mental Alertness

The caffeine helps to improve mental alertness and focus your mind, making you stay in the zone, and thus helping you train harder and burn fat more effectively.

Perk #3: More strenght

Caffeine has been shown to increase power output in both trained and untrained people, so having a cup of coffee, or two, could make you a bit stronger.

Perk #4: Antioxidants

Coffee is also a great source of antioxidants. These help to reduce oxidative stress, which is caused by heavy exercise routines.

This helps you to recover more quickly from high-intensity exercises and offers other benefits, including improving your immune system. [3]

Cons

When doing a coffee and pre workout comparison, you can see that coffee offers a simpler way to boost your performance.

The natural ingredients make it safer, and there are fewer side effects, but if you have too much, it can still make you jittery, give you headaches, and impact your sleep.

However, if you take it in moderation, it can improve your performance and support muscle growth.

coffee before workout

Pros & Cons From Taking Pre-Workout

Pre-workout supplements are specifically designed to boost your performance. Pre-workout supplements come in a variety of different forms, but it's usually a pre-made drink or a powder you mix with water.

It breaks down quickly in the body and gives your muscles what they need to perform at a high level. This means you can work out with greater intensity for longer and see greater gains in the gym.

Pros

Perk #1: More Strength and Energy

Most pre-workout contains a stimulant of some kind to help increase your mental alertness.

This is usually caffeine, but your pre-workout supplement might contain also contain things like theobromine or theacrine, which could all prove to be helpful.

These stims will wake you up, give you strength, and provide you with mental focus so you can work both hard and smart to build muscle mass in the gym.

Perk #2: More Lean Muscle

Some pre-workouts will contain creatine.

Creatine is a natural compound that's been proven to boost performance, produce energy and improve muscle growth.

Creatine can be taken on its own, but it's a key ingredient in most pre-workout drinks and pre-workout supplements. It will help give your body extra energy so you can push yourself further.

Perk #3: Better endurance and Less Soreness

Beta-alanine is an amino acid that helps to improve muscle endurance. It's used alongside other amino acids to create a substance called carnosine which helps to stop acid build-up within your muscles.

Beta-alanine allows you to have an intense workout without as much muscle soreness. Consuming it as part of your pre-workout can help to delay fatigue and let you work harder to increase muscle growth, as long as you supplement with it separately, too.

Perk #4: Better pump

Nitric oxide helps to widen your blood vessels, which has positive effects across your body.

It means you can transport more oxygen and increase blood flow across your body. This, in turn, increases your exercise capacity so you can train for longer, but also results in massive pumps.

You'll find nitric oxide boosters like citrulline in almost every pre-workout drink, as they're particularly effective for those performing high-intensity exercise.

Cons

Sports nutrition is never simple, and pre-workouts can have some nasty side effects. For example, too much caffeine can make you jittery and anxious and can even cause sleep disruption.

Depending on your caffeine tolerance, you may also have an upset stomach from too much pre-workout.

Energy drinks can contain a lot of sugar and artificial sweeteners, which are not good for weight management. Your personal trainer might tell you to avoid some pre-workout supplements because of the sugar, and you'll need to look for sugar-free supplements.

Too much beta-alanine and pre-workout can cause skin tingling across your body, and this can actually negatively impact your workout performance. Some pre-workout can also cause high blood pressure, dehydration, and even kidney damage if you take too much.

All pre-workouts are different, and some studies have shown that there are serious risks associated with them. Make sure you only have the recommended dose to avoid the side effects. [4]

Thankfully, the vast majority of these side effects (except tingling) can be completely avoided by simply switching over to a well-formulated, clean, stim-free formula, such as Transparent Labs' Stim-Free Pre-Workout.

pre workout instead of coffee

Frequently Asked Coffee Vs Pre-Workout Questions

Do I need to take something before my workout?

No, you don't have to take any kind of supplement before your workout, but by taking a stimulant or a pre-workout, you can enhance your performance and get more from your workout.

Can pre-workout replace coffee, even if I'm not exercising?

Yes, you can take pre instead of coffee even if you’re not working out, but it does contain noticeably more caffeine than your standard coffee so make sure you don’t overdo it.

How much coffee is equivalent to pre-workout?

Standard pre-workout has about 150-300 mg of caffeine, so that's about the same amount of caffeine found in 2-3 espressos.

How long before a workout should I drink my coffee?

You should drink your coffee 45-60 minutes before your workout, so your body has a chance to process the caffeine.

Are there other natural pre-workouts available if I don’t like coffee?

Fruit, oats, and other carbohydrates have all been shown to enhance performance in the gym. Eating them about 90 minutes before your workout will help ensure you have the fuel you need to energize your training.

Conclusion

For serious lifters, there isn't really much competition between pre-workout and coffee.

Sure, coffee can give you an energy boost, but pre-workout supplements can support your all round performance and recovery. This will lead to far better workouts and greater gains.

Hopefully this guide has helped to explain the key differences, and you now know which is best for you.

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References: 

1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27612937/
2. https://www.phd.com/perform-smart/5-benefits-of-amino-acids/
3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5908316/
4. https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-018-0247-6

Miloš Lepotic

Miloš Lepotic

Meet Miloš, a certified sports nutritionist and self-taught supplement expert whose pharmacological background and nearly a decade of gym experience make him the perfect guide for optimizing your health and athletic performance through supplement reviews and practical advice rooted in factual, science-backed information.