As with all sport, nutritional strategies are important in maximising performance during training and in competition. If you’re a competitive powerlifter or anybody who takes their resistance training seriously you’ve more than likely reached for a pre workout supplement or strong coffee before ripping that bar up. When I write up comp-day fuelling protocols for my clients (in any sport) I always include caffeine timing guidance to ensure they achieve optimal output when it matters most. Given the growing body of evidence in support of caffeine for improving athletic performance and muscle strength, supplementation is an effective acute nutritional strategy to improve your powerlifting results.
Caffeine is known for its ergogenic effects. Ergogenic aids are substances which enhance energy production and provide users with an athletic advantage in sport. Numerous current studies indicate that caffeine ingestion may enhance strength in powerlifting competitions. The majority of scientific data on this topic has been collected with regard to the squat and bench press, though we can assume that findings also apply to the deadlift. I always take an evidence-based approach with my recommendations so today I am going to share with you some of the basic key factors to apply when considering caffeine intake in powerlifting. All references within my article can be verified within the peer-reviewed study cited below (1).
What Is Caffeine and How Does It Work?
Caffeine occurs naturally in the leaves, seed or fruits of more than 60 plants. It is used regularly to increase alertness and reduce fatigue. Its half-life (the time required for the quantity to reduce to half of its initial value) is generally around four to six hours.
Caffeine is rapidly absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract. Being hydrophobic (repelling water) it easily passes through biological membranes to be distributed throughout the body. Peak concentrations of caffeine in plasma are usually obtained between 15 and 120 minutes after ingestion, when it is then catabolized (broken down from a complex molecule to a simpler one) by the liver, ready to be utilised.
Neurological Effects Of Caffeine
Adenosine, which is a central nervous system neuromodulator, has receptors which when bound to are responsible for the sensation of fatigue. Caffeine can bind to these same receptors thus blocking adenosine and speeding up neural activity.
In a sport where an athlete exerts themself beyond normal feats of human strength, caffeine binding to adenosine receptors will reduce feelings of fatigue and therefore RPE (or Rate of Perceived Exertion, commonly used as a scale of effort in powerlifting programming). This reduction in perceived effort by a lifter increases confidence which is usually a determining factor when it comes to deciding on load attempts.
The Effects Of Caffeine On Maximal Strength
There is also solid evidence suggesting that caffeine may have ergogenic effects on muscle strength by increasing motor unit recruitment and muscle fibre conduction velocity. This has been analysed across many studies.
According to one study (2) where 14 male athletes partook in double-blind testing where 6 mg/kg−1 caffeine and a placebo were administered, performance was increased by 8.7% in the presence of caffeine, improving muscle twitch during short-duration maximal dynamic contraction. Another study (3) specific to testing 1RM with a free weight barbell back squat assessed 17 resistance-trained men following the ingestion of 6 mg·kg−1 caffeine versus a placebo. On average, caffeine ingestion enhanced 1RM strength by ~3%.
Such increases in strength might be considered small in statistical terms, but this difference is important with elite-level powerlifters who rely on competition ‘total’. Besides its positive effects on increasing strength, caffeine may also be useful for attenuating the fatigue-induced decline in muscle strength that is associated with multiple 1RM attempts. This could allow for better maintenance of strength over the course of a powerlifting meet and thus impact a competitor’s final result.
Caffeine Tolerance In Powerlifters Dependent On Habitual Use
One limitation of the current body of evidence is that the majority of studies were conducted among individuals with low habitual caffeine intake.
Given the widespread use of caffeine among athletes and the quantity of caffeine in food, drink and supplements, it is likely that many powerlifters are moderate to high habitual users of caffeine. Caffeine supplementation is highly prevalent since it was removed from the World Anti-Doping Agency list of within-competition banned substances. When analyzing urine samples of 4633 athletes tested for doping control in 2004, caffeine concentrations in samples from powerlifters were significantly higher in comparison to athletes from other sports (4).
In animal studies, high level use of caffeine upregulates adenosine receptor concentration which subsequently reduces caffeine’s effect. Based upon this research it is suggested that regular users will have an increased tolerance to caffeine and therefore experience reduced performance effects when ingested. Although it hasn’t been tested specifically within strength-based performance, it is suggested that people who ingest caffeine less regularly are likely to feel greater benefit when it is supplemented in sport. Based upon this, one possible competition approach may be to ingest a larger dose of caffeine than ingested habitually. One 2019 study (5) illustrates that an athlete with a body mass of 100 kg who has a daily caffeine intake of 200 mg might consider ingesting a dose of 3 mg·kg−1 or higher for competition. This approach may help ensure that any habitual intake-related reduction in caffeine’s effects is modified by increasing the dose for acute supplementation in competition circumstances.
Another study conducted in 2019 (6) noted that the ergogenic effects of caffeine seem to reduce after 20 days of consecutive supplementation. Based upon this, powerlifters may consider ingesting caffeine only before the highest intensity training sessions and competition in order to feel maximal effect when it matters most.
Both of these are an approach I use personally and advise all my clients to take, relying on mental fortitude for the most part, and supplementing with caffeine only on occasions where it is physically required the most, ramping up use to maximal levels only in competition.
Withdrawal from caffeine may provoke side-effects such as headache, fatigue, decreased energy, decreased alertness, drowsiness, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, and irritability. These symptoms peak 24 to 48 hours after caffeine restriction and last about one week.
It has been previously suggested that high-level users of caffeine stop intake altogether before competing, in order to feel maximal benefit on the platform. Considering that powerlifters generally perform their tapering and peaking practices around one week out from competition, experiencing side-effects due to caffeine withdrawal at this time may hinder the quality of training during the final week, which can have negative effects on mental factors such as confidence as well as performance at the competition.
In one study (7), habitual caffeine users with an average daily caffeine intake of 761 mg, performed a cycling to exhaustion test under three conditions: (a) no withdrawal, (b) two days of withdrawal, and (c) four days of withdrawal from dietary caffeine. Similar improvements in performance following caffeine ingestion were attained in all three cases, suggesting that withdrawal is not necessary.
Considering this and the powerlifting-specific factors previously considered, I would avoid complete withdrawal from caffeine prior to competition. To ensure efficacy and avoid over-dosing of caffeine, I supply my athletes with a timed approach, ensuring the right dosing of caffeine is ingested in competition, at the right times to ensure its bioavailability during 1RM attempts.
Caffeine dosing is highly individual and will depend very much on habitual use and tolerance. Caffeine metabolism may be also be influenced by factors such as genotype, age, sex and hormones, obesity, smoking, and diet. For these reasons I take an individualised approach with my clients and test caffeine dose and timing efficacy prior to competitions. When it comes to the platform, I leave nothing to chance!
Ergogenic effects are most widely noted in the range from 2 to 6 mg/kg−1.
In one study (8), as little as 75 mg of caffeine (0.9 mg·kg−1 according to the average body mass of participants) provided ergogenic effects on strength.
Whilst higher doses of caffeine may offer some benefits, there is also a risk of side-effects including anxiety or nervousness, headache, gastrointestinal problems, insomnia, and even muscle soreness, particularly in individuals with low habitual caffeine intake. Therefore, athletes need to be mindful of these drawbacks which ultimately might outweigh the benefits of caffeine supplementation.
It may be worth considering that the effects of caffeine are even higher in trained athletes, who have a greater density of adenosine receptors than untrained individuals. Athletes also tend to display greater mental discipline to exercise hard enough to benefit more from the caffeine stimulus.
So when it comes to caffeine, in some cases less is more.
Powerlifting is a sport of relative and absolute strength. Powerlifting competitions are weight category specific and include three events: squat, bench press, and deadlift, held in that order. For each event, powerlifters are allowed up to three attempts whereby the goal is to lift the highest amount of weight possible in a one repetition maximum (1RM). Powerlifting competitions can be unpredictable in duration. Depending on the number of athletes, the competition may last anywhere from one to two hours or, when there are many competitors, it may last even longer.
Guidelines (9) suggest using a dose of caffeine in the range from 3 to 6 mg·kg−1 60 minutes before exercise is effective. However, factoring in the unpredictable duration of competitions in powerlifting and the fact the athletes perform up to nine 1RM attempts in one competition, adhering to these guidelines are less than ideal. In longer duration competitions it is unlikely that one dose of caffeine 60 minutes before exercise will maintain peak plasma concentration over the entire duration of the event resulting in a decrease in performance enhancing effects over time.
The form of caffeine must also be considered.
Caffeine Containing Capsules should be ingested one hour before the start of exercise given that one-hour post ingestion, plasma levels of caffeine are believed to be the highest (10).
Coffee reaches peak levels at ~40 minutes following consumption (11).
Caffeinated Chewing Gums and Gels are fast absorbing, taking effect in as little as 10 minutes (12).
Rather than ingesting one large dose of caffeine before the start of the competition, athletes may consider splitting up the total dose of caffeine into several smaller doses. For long competitions a dose of 6 mg·kg−1 administered in capsules could be divided into 3 × 2 mg·kg−1 doses that are ingested 30-60 minutes before each event. This approach would ensure the maintenance of high circulating levels of caffeine throughout the competition. Alternatively, an initial dose administered by capsule could be topped up with caffeine gels 10 minutes prior to lift attempts. For many of my clients, we have even used an abstinence technique to good effect, delaying caffeine intake altogether until pre bench or deadlift, thus using caffeine only when the athlete begins to fatigue.
For shorter duration powerlifting competitions of around 2 hours, one pre-competition dose of caffeine may be sufficient for acute performance-enhancing effects maintained across all three events.
Finally, it is well-established that exercise performance varies according to the time of day (13) . Powerlifters that train in the evening and compete in the morning hours might experience a performance decrease in competition. Caffeine ingestion could avert
Tamar's Top Tips For Caffeine Consumption
Avoid relying on caffeine in training
Supplement with caffeine only when it is required most
Increase caffeine intake for competition
Carefully choose which form of caffeine you are going to utilise
Test and record your reaction timings to caffeine dosing prior to competition
Thanks for reading,
Grgic and Mikulic 2017b
Van Soeren and Graham, 2002
Grgic et al., 2019b