Coffee vs Pre-Workout

Getting some caffeine in your system before a workout has many benefits. Including boosting energy, delaying fatigue, and even burning fat.

But is the caffeine from a cup of coffee the same as what you get from a pre-workout supplement? And which is better to take before exercise?

In this article, I compare the ingredients, benefits, and results you get from drinking coffee vs pre-workout before you hit the gym.

Coffee vs Pre-Workout

To be clear, when I say coffee, I’m referring to black coffee with no cream or sugar. Definitely not a mocha-latte calorie bomb from Starbucks or wherever.

With regards to pre-workout, that could be any stimulant-based supplement designed to be taken prior to workouts to improve performance. Now let’s get into the comparison!

Coffee vs Pre-Workout Comparison

In order to compare coffee and pre-workout supplements, it’s important to understand what’s in them and how they help boost your performance.

First, caffeine is the main ingredient that coffee and pre-workouts have in common. Caffeine is a stimulant that blocks signals of fatigue and helps you feel more energized.

But the amount of caffeine in coffee vs pre-workout can be drastically different. The caffeine dosage depends on how strong you make your coffee. Or the brand of pre-workout and how much you take.

Caffeine in Coffee vs Pre-Workout

The amount of caffeine is measured in milligrams (mg for short). How much caffeine you should take depends on your body size, goals, and tolerance. But typical dosages range from 100 mg on the low end to 300 mg on the high end.

For sake of comparison, Table 1 shows the amount of caffeine in a large and small coffee of average strength. As well as the range of caffeine in 1 scoop of pre-workout.

Drink Type Caffeine Content
Coffee, 8 oz, 1 tbsp grounds 144 mg
Coffee, 16 oz, 2 tbsp grounds 288 mg
Pre-Workout, 1 scoop 100-300 mg

Table 1: Caffeine content of coffee vs pre-workout.  Based on an average of 1.2% caffeine content of Arabica beans1 and 1 tablespoon (12 grams) per 8 ounces of water. (ex. 12 g x 0.012 x 1,000 mg/g = 144 mg)

As you can see, a small cup of coffee has about as much caffeine as a weaker pre-workout supplement. While a large cup of coffee is similar to the strongest pre-workout supplements.

Caffeine In Coffee vs Pre-Workout

Keep in mind, however, that the amount of caffeine in coffee varies depending on the type of beans, how long they’re roasted, and even the brewing method.

Similarly, the amount of caffeine in pre-workouts varies significantly by brand. Other factors to consider are the settling of powders that change the ratios of ingredients in each scoop. As well as proprietary blends that hide how much caffeine is in the formula.

Therefore, you should err on the side of caution if you’re sensitive to caffeine.

Related: DMHA Pre-Workout – Is This Stimulant Safe?

Amino Acids In Coffee vs Pre-Workout

One of the main differences between coffee and pre-workout supplements is amino acids.

In addition to caffeine, pre-workout supplements contain a range of amino acids for boosting performance in the gym. The most common of which are l-arginine (or citrulline), beta-alanine, and branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs).

It’s important to note that coffee does not contain these amino acids while most pre-workout supplements do. But the amounts vary tremendously between brands so be sure to check the label.

L-Arginine Or L-Citrulline For Blood Flow

L-arginine is an amino acid that relaxes blood vessels and allows more blood to pass through. This temporary increase in vascularity and muscle volume is called “the pump”.

With increased blood flow, more oxygen and nutrients get into the muscles. And that can enhance recovery and growth. For resistance training workouts, 5 grams is a good dosage.

L-citrulline works similarly to arginine to extend the pump. Allowing harder training sessions, faster recovery, and potentially greater muscle gain. The recommended dosage of citrulline is 2-6 grams.

Note: you don’t need to take both, take one or the other. I recommend l-citrulline because it doesn’t have a bitter taste.

Beta-Alanine For Performance

Beta-alanine delays fatigue by buffering the pH levels in the presence of lactic acid. This allows longer, more intense training sessions.

In fact, a meta-analysis showed that people supplementing with beta-alanine significantly increased their exercise capacity2. That is, the amount of time they could work before getting fatigued.

An effective dose of beta-alanine is 2-3 grams.

Coffee vs Pre-Workout Beta-Alanine

Coffee vs Pre-Workout: Which Is Better?

So far we’ve compared the ingredients in coffee vs pre-workout. But now I’m going to give you an overall side-by-side comparison to help you determine which one better fits your needs.


As I’ve already shown, coffee and pre-workout typically contain anywhere from 100 to 300 milligrams of caffeine per serving.

With coffee, you can easily increase or decrease the amount of caffeine in your cup based on the type and amount of beans or grounds you use. While you can also choose a pre-workout based on caffeine content, it’s not as easy to change the amount to fit your needs.

For this reason, I think coffee has an edge when it comes to giving you the right amount of energy.


Performance can be improved with certain amino acids that delay fatigue and increase blood flow. Since coffee doesn’t naturally have those amino acids in any significant amount3, pre-workout supplements are superior to coffee for improving performance in the gym.

Although, you should look closely at the label before buying a pre-workout to make sure it has the effective amount of each key amino acid.


In terms of cost, coffee is cheap. To put it in perspective, you can buy coffee grounds and make black coffee at home for about 10¢ per cup. That comes out to roughly 15¢ per 200 mg of caffeine.

On the other hand, pre-workout supplements cost $1-2 per serving depending on the brand and ingredients. On average, that’s about $1.50 per 200 mg of caffeine.

Based on the cost per mg of caffeine, coffee is about 10 times cheaper than pre-workout.

Coffee vs Pre-Workout Cost

Other Factors

Some other things to consider when deciding between coffee and pre-workout is what you’re comfortable putting in your body.

For instance, black coffee consists of just one natural ingredient. Not much can go wrong there. And you also have control of anything else you add to it.

Whereas pre-workout supplements can contain dozens of ingredients including additives and fillers. Also, proprietary blends conceal the actual ingredients and amounts.

Therefore, coffee is a safer bet if your conscientious about what you put in your body.

Coffee vs Pre-Workout Infographic

Overall, I’d say a good old-fashioned cup of Joe scores more points than a pre-workout. But what if you could get the best of both worlds? Well, you can. All you have to do is add a couple of things to your coffee.

Coffee PLUS Pre-Workout

Up to this point, we’ve been pitting coffee against pre-workout. But I’m going to show you how to combine coffee and pre-workout. This way you gain the benefits of both and you have control over the ingredients.

Coffee + Beta-Alanine + L-Citrulline

The best way to combine coffee and pre-workout is by buying the key ingredients and mixing them in your coffee. You can purchase beta-alanine and l-citrulline in bulk for only about 10-20¢ per serving.

When you factor in the cost of coffee, you get a strong natural pre-workout for less than 50¢ per serving compared to $1.5 for brand name pre-workout. With that savings, you can even add other ingredients like BCAAs or MCT oil.

Coffee + Protein

Another way to combine coffee and nutrients before your workout is with protein coffee. Icon protein coffee provides 150 mg of caffeine along with 20 grams of protein.

So you get energy from the coffee and amino acids from the protein. You can also add beta-alanine and l-citrulline to make an all-in-one pre-workout shake.

Coffee vs Pre-Workout Protein Coffee

Another trick I use is buying unflavored whey protein and mixing it with coffee. That way you get the flavor of your favorite coffee with added protein.

And you can add whatever amino acids you want to boost performance or mental focus. Giving you the ultimate control over your coffee concoction.

Key Takeaways

  • Coffee is a natural, low-cost way to get caffeine and boost your energy
  • Coffee also gives you more control over how much caffeine you get
  • Pre-workout supplements combine caffeine and specific amino acids
  • Pre-workouts are better for boosting performance but cost more
  • You can add specific amino acids to your coffee to get the best of both worlds


When you’re looking for a natural energy boost without a bunch of expensive ingredients, grab a cup of coffee. But if you’re looking to optimize performance at the gym, a pre-workout supplement will work better for you.

At the end of the day, you don’t have to choose between coffee vs pre-workout. With a dash of beta-alanine and a teaspoon of l-citrulline, you can transform your coffee into a homemade pre-workout drink!

Check out my related content below for more supplement information as well as pre-workout meal ideas.

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Homemade Pre-Workout Recipes

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