I’m pretty sure it’s easier to find coffee (or other “energy drink” containing a similar buzz) these days than it ever was to find cigarettes back in the 70’s. It makes sense too, with everyone trying to accomplish more in a 24 hour period than ever before. For those of us who train with a passion, caffeine is even more necessary some days just to help get us through our workouts. Caffeine pre-workout is actually a very good thing. But as with most things in life…”everything in moderation.”
How much is too much?
Here’s my story: As recently as 6 months ago I had a severe caffeine addiction. It sort of snuck up on me. After the birth of my twin girls in 2006 I started drinking coffee every morning as I needed it after a night of ups and downs, feeding and changing babies. Gradually, I needed more and more coffee as my state of sleep deprivation became worse and worse. I didn’t really realize how much I was actually consuming until I sat down and penciled it out.
I would wake up at 3:30 every morning for work and polish off a 6 cup pot of Starbucks drip before leaving the house. On my way to work, I’d stop by Starbucks and pick up a quad Venti Americano. Usually mid-way through my work day I’d walk up the street and pick up another quad Venti Americano. Working in cardio between clients, I’d pop a couple fat burners. On a really rough day I might pop 200mg of caffeine in pill form 2-3 times. When I’d get back home in the afternoon I’d put on another 6-8 cup pot of drip. Then before heading to the gym for my evening lift I’d pop another couple fat burners.
I can hear it now…”Holy sh*t that’s a lot of caffeine!” You’re right, it’s a TON of caffeine and unfortunately no exaggeration. After I sat down and tallied up my caffeine consumption, I started talking to other gym rats and physique competitors. While my caffeine consumption was over-the-top, I have found that many hard core gym rats also have a caffeine addiction. From coffee, to fat burners to energy drinks…you name it, we’ll find a way to get the boost we need to get our workouts on.
Unfortunately, there’s a downside to our nice little “pick me up.” Caffeine is a drug and it’s an addictive drug. The body not only builds a tolerance to caffeine, but a dependence on it as well. If you’re a regular coffee drinker, you probably know that a morning without your coffee will lead to a “withdrawal headache.” Those withdrawal headaches are actually not even the worst of the negative effects of your caffeine addiction.
You’ve probably heard of the stress hormone, cortisol. Caffeine can actually raise the body’s cortisol levels which can lead to weight gain and irritability. With the increased level of cortisol you may find yourself craving carbohydrates and fats which inevitably lead to excess belly fat. However, if you are strategic with the timing and amount of your caffeine intake and consume it before your workout, it can actually increase your endurance and enhance your fat loss efforts. Since exercise itself increases cortisol, make sure you do not consume caffeine post-workout. Consuming caffeine post workout when cortisol levels are already elevated naturally by your workout is counter-productive.
Too much caffeine can be a burden on your adrenal glands. Responsible for your “fight or flight” response, the adrenal glands release hormones to help your body handle stress: physical stress such as exercise, infection or illness and emotional stress from work, relationships, financial issues and more. If you “abuse” caffeine or caffeine-laden stimulants, you risk damaging your adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are responsible for carrying out important metabolic processes. Taxing the adrenal glands with caffeine/stimulant overuse and abuse, not enough rest, too much stress and illness can impair and shut down the adrenals. Simply put, you’re at risk for metabolic burnout, halting your ability to lose body fat.
If the fact that you could be risking adrenal failure/metabolic burnout and an increase in cortisol, the “belly fat hormone”, isn’t enough to make you take a second look at your caffeine consumption then perhaps if I tell you that too much caffeine can have a negative impact on your fertility and hormones responsible for giving you a healthy sex drive. Not feeling so amorous? Maybe it’s the caffeine. Caffeine can negatively impact both female and male fertility.
If you regularly consume high amounts of caffeine you probably find that you need more and more to keep you going. Caffeine impacts the sleep cycle by not allowing the deep sleep needed for adequate rest. This leaves you feeling drowsy and sluggish during the day, feeling like you need another cup of coffee to keep you going. When in actuality, that cup of coffee is furthering your problem. Your body adapts to the caffeine and needs more and more to feel the effects. And as you increase your caffeine intake you begin getting less and less sleep and you’re probably working harder and training harder, therefore constantly needing even more caffeine to keep you going. As you can see, it’s a vicious cycle.
So the million dollar question: how much caffeine is safe? My personal opinion on the matter is: it depends. Not what you were hoping to hear? Sorry. For someone like me, who has abused caffeine laced stimulants to the degree that I have, any amount of caffeine is too much and is detrimental to me. If you recognize yourself (or even close to your own habits) when you read my story, you probably should consider weaning yourself off caffeine and consuming less than 300mg of caffeine a day, preferably zero.
A perfect time for your daily caffeine “fix” would be immediately before your workout. Many studies have shown that roughly 300mg of caffeine (approximately 3 cups of regular coffee) a day is considered “safe”. If you feel like caffeine is your “crutch”, if you feel like you need caffeine to get you through your day, you may want to consider the fact that your body is likely addicted to caffeine and it is probably doing you more harm than good.
Now, caffeine does have its benefits. Many of the “benefits” that are touted about caffeine have not been proven, however. Caffeine in moderate doses (300mg a day or less) can safely give you some health benefits such as:
- Increase muscle strength.
- Increase metabolism by breaking down fat (caffeine is an ingredient used in almost all diet pills, fat burners and other thermic agents).
- Increases mental faculty.
- Increases effectiveness of pain medication (think: Excedrin).
- Eases symptoms of asthma (I can attest to that).
- May benefit people at high risk for liver disease.
The bottom line: if you are safely using caffeine and not abusing it, it can absolutely be beneficial to your training and fat loss goals. As with most things in life, too much of a good thing can be detrimental. Too much caffeine can halt your fat loss efforts, but just the right amount can accelerate it. If, after reading this, you feel that you are probably among those who overuse or even abuse caffeine then consider slowly weaning yourself down to a safer level of consumption. You will likely notice that you are able to sleep better which will, in turn, pay off for you in the gym by allowing you to train longer and harder.