I still remember the day, from my early teen years, when I first saw Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2. I was flabbergasted at how a human being could amass such size. Knowing now the hard work and dedication that goes into making a bodybuilder, I am even more amazed.

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Have you seen the extreme diet and exercise programs of these athletes? Its nothing short of declaring a war with yourself. Even Hollywood is getting in on the action. You must have heard of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s insane 5000cal diet or Mark Wahlberg’s 4:00 am workout. I am not advocating everyone to be a fitness freak. But our sedentary lifestyle and high sugary diet makes it all the more necessary to have well balanced exercise and nutrition program.

5000 calories seem to be working for him

Gym is only half the battle. The other half is nutrition. You don’t really need supplements if you’ve got good nutrition – but that’s easier said than done. For example, you need about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight to achieve Muscle hypertrophy. For a 200 lbs. individual, that’s anywhere from 4 to 5 chicken breasts a day (31 grams of protein per 100 grams of chicken breast). It may be easier and may also be cheaper to substitute a protein shake instead.

Supplementation may be your only choice when it comes to using caffeine as a performance enhancer. You will have a hard time finding caffeine in concentrated form and coffee is not a good source either. A cup of coffee contains a mixture of other compounds and may subdue caffeine’s effects.

A quick caffeine 101

Contrary to popular belief, caffeine is not the same as coffee. It is one of the several biologically active compounds in your cup of coffee. Caffeine has a compound effect on our bodies. It works by stimulating the CNS (central nervous system), heart, muscles and the centers that control blood pressure. It can raise blood pressure and can also act as a diuretic – increases urine flow.

We mostly consume it through beverages, such as coffee, tea, soft drinks and energy drinks. Since caffeine drinks are so ubiquitous its no surprise that it’s the most commonly used psychoactive substance in the world. Other than beverages, it can also be found in concentrated or pure form. Though one must be cautious as an overdose could lead to some nasty side effects including increased heart rate, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, nervousness, restlessness, stomach irritation and even death.

Does caffeine work? The “Olympics” dilemma

Caffeine is largely accepted as a performance enhancer on aerobic training. In fact, it works so well that its use was banned at the Olympics for 3 decades. The Olympic committee banned caffeine in the early 70’s and it remained prohibited till year 2004. This love-hate relationship is on thin ice yet again. WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) has put caffeine in its 2018’s monitoring program – Its not prohibited yet, but it may get banned once again.

Will caffeine improve my anaerobic training?

There’s extensive research backing caffeine’s ergogenic effectiveness on aerobic performance. Research on its efficacy on muscle strength and power are equivocal. You will find many studies supporting it as an ergogenic aid on muscle strength and power and you will also find similar studies opposing the idea. However, the ever-growing body of evidence is slowly tipping the balance in favor of caffeine’s anaerobic ergogenic efficacy.

Why don’t we have a clear answer on this already? Give me some caffeine, put me on a bench press and I will know right away if it works or not – seems simple enough. Well, a scientific study depends on multiple variables that can change the outcome of an experiment drastically. That’s exactly what happened here. Variables such as the total number of participants (sample size), age, sex, training experience of the participants and the form of caffeine used – all led to different conclusions. To make sense of things, a meta-analysis study (a study analyzing multiple other studies) compared over 71 recently published scientific documents (from the year 2015 onward) and concluded that caffeine may be an effective ergogenic aid for muscle strength and power.

This meta-analysis study is by far the most conclusive authority on this topic yet. It vetted through some of the most important work ever published and elucidated a better understanding. It’s no magic pill, but it did show significant improvements in some area – with overall effects ranging from small to medium. Ask a trained athlete and you will know that even a small change could mean the difference between a win or a loss.

Will it improve my lifts?

Using caffeine resulted in significant increase in maximal upper body strength (1RM) but not on the lower body dynamic strength. For those of us who are statistically inclined, the pooled SMD effects of caffeine ingestion on muscle strength was 0.20 (95% CI: 0.03, 0.36) – with upper body strength (SMD = 0.21; 95% CI: 0.02, 0.39; p = 0.026) and lower body strength (SMD = 0.15; 95% CI: -0.05, 0.34; p = 0.147).

Single-lift style training is most peculiar to the sport of powerlifting and weightlifting. However, bodybuilders should also see similar results. While we are on the this topic, you should mix elements of other resistance training techniques into your bodybuilding regimen (cross-training) – to gain and overall performance boost. I have been mixing components of powerlifting into my hypertrophy workout ever since I learned that cross-training shocks your body. Mike O’Hearn, 4x Mr. Olympia, and many other athletes have been advocating the same all these years. Ever heard of the word “plateau” at your gym? I’ve found cross-training to the best plateau buster!

Caffeine proved to be effective in increasing maximal upper body strength (1RM)

So caffeine works on upper body ONLY?

Lets not jump the gun yet. Something is amiss here. For one, mostly machine based exercises were used not free weights. In fact, two studies used free weight barbell squat – and both reported a significant increase in lower body strength. The other reason why this makes little sense has to deal with the mechanism of how caffeine improves performance altogether.

Scientists believe that caffeine’s ergogenic effectiveness come from its ability to recruit motor unit, among other things. Larger muscles, that of your lower body, have a greater capacity to recruit motor unit than the upper body. Unless our understanding of caffeine’s ergogenic mechanism were flawed, I reckon the disparity between the upper body and lower body strength were due to the use of machine-based exercises. I am confident that future studies, using a larger variety of free weight exercises, will attest to caffeine’s ability in increasing acute strength in both upper and lower body. In the meantime, its ability to increase upper body strength alone makes it a solid ergogenic aid contender.

Caffeine’s effect on muscle power

Power training is a product of both muscle strength and speed. You need power to jump, accelerate, and throw objects. Power is essential in some sports, such as weightlifting, but you also need it to perform many daily functional movements. Use of caffeine showed pronounced effects in both Wingate and vertical jump height muscle power tests.

The Wingate test, also known as Wingate Anaerobic Test (WANT), measures peak anaerobic power and capacity. Put yourself on a gym bicycle, crank up the resistance and peddle as hard as you can for 30 sec. Yup – that’s power. Caffeine’s use showed a significant increase in acute muscle power between the placebo and caffeine trials (Pooled SMD = 0.17 (95% CI: 0.00, 0.34) and 0.12 (95% CI: -0.01, 0.26) using the Trim-and-Fill method).

Use of caffeine also significantly increased vertical jump heights. If you do plyometric training, play basketball, volleyball or play any other sport where jumping abilities and muscle power are crucial, you will find it impressive that the magnitude of improvement with caffeine was comparable to that of roughly 4 weeks of plyometric training! Maybe LeBron James had one energy drink too many when he almost hit his head on the rim – remember that game between Indiana and Miami Heat?

The bottom line

Caffeine’s aerobic enhancing effects are well established. It is readily available in many energy drinks – consumed by athletes and non-athletes alike. Though we are still some ways out in driving a solid conclusion, its future in the anaerobic domain looks promising. Having said that, I would be cautious before including caffeine in your nutrition. While I believe there’s enough evidence on caffeine’s use and anaerobic gains, I find its cons need more exploring. I would like to see more research on its long-term use for addiction and other side effects, specific to resistance training, before I can make a plunge. Till I am able to weigh both pros and cons, I will stick to enjoying it in my Starbucks Caffe Latte.

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