Caffeine is clearly the world's most popular drug. A potent stimulant of the nervous system, it is usually
ingested in the form of coffee, tea, cocoa, or cola drinks. But for bodybuilders is it an ally or an enemy?
Numerous well-known detrimental effects derive from caffeine use: dehydration (diuresis), overheating
(thermogenesis), rapid heartbeat (tachycardia), jitteriness, irritability, and difficulty in sleeping. So
should a muscle head totally avoid caffeine? Nope. Only frequent or excessive use is detrimental. Moderate
and sporadic use of caffeine can be both pleasant and beneficial. Our word coffee is derived from an Arabic
term meaning "gives strength." By using it properly, a bodybuilder can gain strength through using caffeine.
The key is to avoid regular consumption so as not to develop a tolerance, except for days with especially
long or heavy workouts planned.
Desirable Effects of Caffeine
Caffeine promotes a feeling of restored strength through several mechanisms. It penetrates the blood-brain
barrier to exert a powerful influence on the sensorimotor cortex, resulting in a reduced perception of
fatigue. It temporarily blocks adenosine receptor sites on nerve cells. (Adenosine is a local regulatory
hormone which lowers heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature to induce lethargy and sleep.) Caffeine
then causes the nerve cells to fire more rapidly than normal and stimulates the release of neurotransmitters
and hormones such as adrenaline. Caffeine also activates the enzyme lipoprotein lipase. This substance
transforms stored fat into free fatty acids which are preferentially burned for fuel while precious muscle
glycogen is spared. One can exercise longer before reaching exhaustion - a significant ergogenic effect.
Taken on an empty stomach, a strong cup of coffee can kick in within minutes to sharpen thinking, dispel
fatigue, heighten the senses, and give an overall jolt of alert readiness for action. Respiration quickens,
the pulse strengthens, and a feeling of wellbeing energizes the entire body. Mind and body are then set for
engaging in a productive, high-intensity workout.
Overdosage and Untoward Effects
A typical cup of coffee contains between 50 and 150 milligrams of caffeine. (A cup of tea or cola contains
about 35 to 50 milligrams.) Assuming that our hulking he-man takes his java straight black (no cream or sugar)
for maximum effect, he could gulp down as many as half a dozen cups without inducing any unpleasantness more
serious than an overflowing bladder. As the total dosage of a nonhabituated person climbs to near 1,000
milligrams, though, toxic side effects start to override the benefits of this energy booster. By that point
mere restlessness metamorphoses into muscle tremor. A spontaneous release of calcium ions from the sarcoplasmic
reticulum, triggering muscle contractions in the absence of any neural stimulation. This result is neither
pleasant nor desirable.
Obviously the best way to go with caffeine is moderate, occasional use. An hour or two before that big squat
or deadlift workout, start sipping hot joe to empty the alimentary tubes and begin building the attitude of
intensity necessary for attacking the iron with relish.
By saving the brew pot just for especially heavy days, the lifter will feel the biggest boost. Each set
should rock along more smoothly because caffeine both raises the lactate threshold and produces less lactic
acid build-up. Recovery time, even after working to failure should be shortened so that intensity can be
ratcheted up even further with shorter rest periods between sets.
Correctly employed, caffeine becomes the supercharger that accelerates one past old PRs and maximum lifts.
Just remember, though - reserve it for occasional use only.