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Does Caffeine Give Athletes a Jolt in Performance?

Sport Scientist Discusses the Many Sides to Caffeine Research and Latest Campus Study
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Many of us need a morning cup of Joe to wake up, counting on the caffeine to get us going. In late afternoon or evening, we reach for another cup to help us stay alert. For years, athletes have used caffeine, often as a component of protein supplements, to help enhance their training and performance.

But does caffeine actually enhance performance? And, if so, how much does it help?

“That’s the big debate,” said Jared Coburn, professor of kinesiology at Cal State Fullerton. Research to prove whether it actually does improve muscle performance has been mixed.

“That’s why we test it and why it continues to be so widely studied,” added Coburn. “A study will come out that demonstrates that caffeine does improve athletic performance and then another shows it doesn’t.

“So, we continue to explore, adjusting what we are looking for, and changing the focus and parameters of our studies, such as the amount of time after ingestion,” Coburn explained.

“Nearly all of the research I have conducted for the past 14 years has been with graduate and undergraduate students,” said the scholar. “When a student expresses an interest in working with me, we continue several lines of research that examine muscle activation/function during resistance training, as well as nutrition and ergogenic aids — substances and devices that enhance energy production.”

That was the case with the recent study on caffeine use and its effects on upper-body performance, “Caffeine’s Effects on an Upper-Body Resistance Exercise Workout.” Lead authors are CSUF alumni Robert Salatto ’14, ’16 (B.S., M.S. kinesiology) and Jose Arevalo ’16 (M.S. kinesiology), who worked with Coburn and fellow kinesiology professors Lee Brown and Lenny Wiersma on the study.

They had a group of participants take part in a number of upper-body exercises, once following the ingestion of 800-mg. of caffeine and once following ingestion of a placebo — both the participant and workout supervisor were blind to which treatment was administered on a particular day. Participants were asked how they felt about their vigor before warming up, midway through the workout and immediately at its conclusion. 

“Vigor — or state of energy, physical force — is one of the six subscales on the Brunel Mood Scale (BRUMS), which is widely used to assess mood,” explained Coburn.

“Our participants reported they felt more ‘vigorous’ before and during the workout after ingesting caffeine compared to the placebo,” adds the researcher. “They felt like they were going to have a better workout beforehand, and that they were having a better workout during the lifting.”

The “results suggest that caffeine has an ergogenic effect on strength workout performance due, at least in part, to positive effects on workout perception,” the authors noted in their conclusion.

“The biggest difference compared to prior studies is that we looked at the quality of the entire workout. Most previous research has looked at measures of strength — how much weight can be lifted once, for example — but not at the quality of an entire workout — how many times a given weight can be lifted, across multiple exercises,” Coburn added. 

The study, “Caffeine’s Effects on an Upper-Body Resistance Exercise Workout” is scheduled for publication in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.