Coffee vs. Pre-workout

You want to boost your energy for a great workout, but should you go for a coffee or a pre-workout mixture? Lets look at the key ingredients and benefits of each;


Caffeine is the central ingredient in both coffee and pre-workout powders that fights fatigue and improves focus. Caffeine keeps you alert by blocking the adenosine receptors in your brain which normally signal to your body that it’s time to rest. Some of the positive effects of caffeine include:

  • Increased alertness and delayed fatigue.
  • Increased dopamine levels which contributes to a positive state of mind (1)
  • Increased endurance by changing the way muscles utilise glycogen  (2)
  • Caffeine can reduce inflammation and reduce ones’s perception of pain.  (3)
  • Possible aid in weight loss by causing your metabolic rate to temporarily speed up.

Caffeine takes about 60 minutes to reach peak levels in your bloodstream and should therefore be taken around 30-45 minutes before your workout. Caffeine has a half-life of 6 hours, meaning that half of the dose of caffeine taken is still present in your bloodstream after 6 hours. This may cause difficulty sleeping if you consume caffeine too late at night.

The caffeine contents in coffees varies and is often hard to specify. As a rough guide, a brewed coffee contains about 95mg of caffeine, where a single shot of espresso contains about 63mg. If you opt for a grande Starbucks coffee however, the caffeine content is a whopping 330mg.

Pre-workouts typically contain between 100mg-250mg of caffeine per serving. The precise amount can be found on the nutritional information on the packaging. If using a pure caffeine powder, it is recommended to exercise caution with measuring as it is easy to mix up measurements and overdose.

The recommended maximum daily dose of caffeine is 400mg according to the FDA and the Mayo Clinic. 

Stimulants in Pre-workouts

The majority of pre-workouts have additional stimulants and ingredients on top of the caffeine. The most popular workout stimulants include:

  • Beta Alanine  (Boosts short duration muscle performance by increasing carnosine concentration)
  • Citrulline Malate  (Delays the onset of fatigue)
  • Vitamin B12  (Contributes to normal energy production)
  • BCAA’S  (Muscle building and recovery benefits)
  • Creatine Monohydrate (Increased short term, high intensity performance)

The stated benefits are considered to be true but may not be scientifically proven at this point.

There are also a host of shadier stimulants such as ephedrine and DMAA which are illegal in Ireland and many other countries. The majority of pre-workouts are compliant with the law and do not contain these stimulants. 

These stimulants can give pre-workouts and edge over coffee for many gym-goers due to the host of benefits attributed to them. However, if you want to keep it simple and go with a simple caffeine buzz then coffee may be more ideal.

Cost Comparison

Lets take a look at the differences in cost per use for a sample of coffees and pre-workouts;

Myprotein Pre-workout €1.12 per serving
ProteinWorks Pre-workout €0.92 per serving
Optimum Nutrition GS Pre-workout (HPnutrition) €0.73 per serving
Insomnia Tall Americano €2.45 per serving
Espresso Pod (Supervalu Brand) €0.35 per serving
Nescafe Instant Coffee (Tesco)  €0.06 per serving

It’s easy to see that home brewed coffee is by far the most economic option, however it is worth considering that it may be necessary to use two or more pods or multiple scoops of instant coffee to reach the same caffeine content as pre-workouts. There is definite savings to be had by purchasing tubs of pre-workout mixture or coffee pods/powder and mixing/brewing it yourself compared to buying canned energy drinks or takeaway coffees.


Pre-workouts are suited to those who want optimal performance in the gym as they are likely to provide better energy and endurance for workouts due to their stimulants and high levels of caffeine. It is however a good idea not to take highly caffeinated pre-workouts for every workout as your tolerance to the caffeine will heighten substantially. Its also a good idea to avoid taking pre-workouts within 4-6 hours of your bedtime or you may have trouble sleeping.

Our recommended pre-workout is The Protein Works Genesis pre-workout powder, which has a moderate caffeine content of 135mg, a substantial 5 grams of BCAA’s and 2 grams each of beta alanine, citrulline malate and arginine. It also contains an extensive vitamin blend, taurine and ginseng to fuel your workouts.

Coffee is a handy and economic solution for those who want a simple energy boost for their workout. It is a natural product and contains none of the additives/flavourings present in pre-workouts. Coffee also typically has lower levels of caffeine than pre-workouts and therefore may be a better solution for daily use or use later in the evening.

The contents of this article are based on a combination of freely available scientific articles and the author’s experience. It does not constitute professional medical or fitness advice. If in doubt, contact your medical practitioner or fitness professional for advice. While this article represents the author’s honest opinion based on experience, affiliate links may be present in the text.


  1. Solinas, M., Ferré, S., You, Z. B., Karcz-Kubicha, M., Popoli, P., & Goldberg, S. R. (2002)
  2. Graham, T. E. (2001)
  3. J Snel and MM Lorist, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 1996