Kettlebell exercises you should be doing

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Why spend so much time in the gym isolating muscle groups when you can build dynamic total-body strength and conditioning with kettlebells?

The kettlbell has been around the fitness industry for many years. More recently, they have been gaining more popularity with CrossFit, F45 and a variety of other high intensity circuit type training programs.

When used correctly, kettlebells are extremely effective training tools for providing total-body strength and conditioning. The problem is that most people use kettlebells incorrectly. Like any other movement within the gym, proper coaching and execution is required to maximise the benefit.

The army often uses the term “be brilliant at the basics” and elite athletes are usually elite because they’re better at the fundamentals than everybody else. Mastering the fundamentals is critical to success. In training and in life.

The fundamentals of kettlebell training can be broken down into a handful of exercises. If you can master these movements you’ll be well on the way to developing a highly conditioned physique.

Below is a list of exercises that form the fundamentals of kettlebell training:

The Goblet Squat
The squat is one of the 5 basic movement patterns and has many variations. The goblet squat isn’t just a lower body exercise… it’s a full-body conditioning exercise that promotes optimal mobility.

Check out this article for a more detailed description of the goblet squat.

The Swing
The kettlebell swing, in which you project the kettlebell to shoulder-height only, is an insanely effective exercise when executed with proper form. Hip power, hip hinging, and breathing techniques make it incredibly powerful.

It’s a two-for-one exercise, meaning you’re able to combine strength training and cardiovascular conditioning into one efficient movement.

Check out this article for a more detailed description of the kettlebell swing.

The Get-up
The get-up is a slow, deliberate movement that’s been around for centuries. The get-up will help you with functional tasks as well as higher-level exercises. It teaches you to move fluidly, and when you add the external load (such as a kettlebell) it requires strength, mobility, coordination and is a skilled movement.

Check out this article for a more detailed description of the get-up.

The Clean
Similar to the kettlebell swing, the clean is another explosive exercise for total-body strength and conditioning. The main difference from the swing is that the kettlebell finishes in the rack position as opposed to being projected horizontally away from your body.

As defined by Pavel Tsatsouline, an accurate description of the kettlebell clean is:

  • Pick up the kettlebell, swing it back between your legs as if for a swing, and bring it to the rack in one swift movement.
  • Then drop the kettlebell back between your legs and repeat the drill for repetitions.

This movement can take some time to learn, but once you have it mastered it can be used high-powered kettlebell strength and conditioning complexes.

The Press
If you have mastered the earlier exercises, you should have demonstrated appropriate shoulder mobility and stability required to press.

The kettlebell press is another exceptional movement to learn. The press is not just a shoulder exercise, as you are required to recruit muscle activation from the entire body for maximum pressing power and strength.

If you work on your overhead presses hard enough, you will hardly need to do anything else for your upper body and midsection.

The condition:

  • Clean the kettlebell and press it strictly overhead to lockout.

The standard:

  • Pause for a moment, in the rack position to ensure that you are not using any momentum generated by the clean, for the press.
  • Press with the knees softly locked and with minimal back / side bend.
  • Keep the whole body tight, specifically the midsection, glutes and quads.
  • Keep the pressing shoulder down.
  • Lock out the elbow completely and pause at the top.

There are two ways to press overhead for repetitions. The first being to clean the kettlebell before each press. This is known as the “clean-and-press”. The second method is cleaning the kettlebell once, then pressing it multiple times from the rack position. This is known as the “military press”.

Simple Strength Revisited

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If you want to get stronger… lift weights.

Not the easiest of things to do with all gyms currently closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak and the government enforced lockdowns. They will however, reopen. Hopefully as early as next month.

When that happens I’m sure there will be many aspiring athletes and everyday gym goers who will  be itching to get back into the strongman’s room eager to lift as much weight as possible in an attempt to catch up on the workouts missed during the lockdown.

To avoid immediate overtraining or injury, some smart programming will be required. For most people it will have been two or more months since their last heavy workout. A loss in strength and conditioning is to be expected. That is ok.

Here is a strength routine that I picked up from strength coach Dan John and have used on occasion with success after periods of time away from the gym. It’s not too taxing on the body and can be completed several days per week.

It’s simple… but sometimes simple works.

The Protocol
First pick a compound exercise from the basic movement patterns.

  • Squat: front or back squat
  • Hinge: deadlift
  • Push: bench or overhead press
  • Pull: pull-up or power clean

Then find out how much weight you can move for 5 repetitions. For most people, it’s about 80% of your 1RM.

Use the following lifting scheme: 1 – 2 – 3. That’s 6 repetitions. Pretty simple. Complete a single repetition, rest shortly, complete a double, rest, then complete a triple. Rest as long as required between lifts. The aim is to complete every lift without failure.

Complete this method three times. It should look like this: 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3. Now you have completed 18 repetitions at your 5RM for each working set! Well done.

The Rules:

  1. Don’t miss a repetition. Make every lift.
  2. Don’t chase fatigue.

The weight should feel easy enough to move quickly. Increase the resistance over time from workout to workout. The best part about this lifting method is that you don’t even have to change your program to add these, you can just add a set here and there to your current program.

I usually pick movement pattern and conduct an exercise as my main lift for the day, then follow up with some accessory work to round out the session.

Fasted cardio workouts

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For the most part, there are two types of active people. Those who enjoy an early morning workout, and those who don’t.

If you’re a person who trains first thing then you’ve probably spoken to somebody about fasted cardio or strength workouts. Basically, the conduct of physical activity and elevating your heart rate without eating anything in the last 8-16 hours. Hence the term fasted training.

Whilst most people who train very early may be already be doing this, many people will eat something before a workout, mainly because humans are creatures of habit and have been conditioned to believe that breakfast (or breaking the fast) is to be consumed first thing in the morning.

Intermittent fasting does take a little getting used to, whilst the adaptations are taking place to condition the body not to expect food at regular intervals.

Defining a fasted state
A true fasted state will generally begin in the vicinity of 8-10 hours without the consumption of any calories. However, the body can actually be in a fasted state as early as 5 or 6 hours after a meal.

The idea is that exercising in a fasted state forces the body to tap into its own energy reserves (stored body fat and muscle glycogen), as opposed to energy that has just been consumed, usually in the form of carbohydrates.

Fasted training
Now before you go and run off to the next sunrise there are a few things to consider prior to trialing fasted workouts.

Whilst fasted training is safe and actually a natural process, it will take time for the body to adjust to the idea that it will be conducting physical activity without any fuel. So start off by keeping the intensity relatively low so that the body doesn’t jump straight into an anaerobic state where is it chasing glucose for a quick energy source.

By the keeping a lower intensity, you will be allowing the body the appropriate time to access stored body fat and convert it into the energy it requires. Over time the body will become more efficient at these conversions, allowing you to workout at higher intensities, more quickly and for longer durations.

A point to note. The conduct of fasted workouts not only converts stored body fat and uses it as energy but can also break down stored proteins in the form of lean muscle. For most people exercising, this is not an ideal scenario.

This can be mitigated by drinking some branched chain amino acids (BCAA), before or during the workout. For most people, a serve of approx. 10g pre-workout should be enough to preserve lean muscle mass. Whilst technically not fully fasted, the total calories consumed in 10g serve of BCAA is approx. 50g, which would have a negligible effect on breaking a fasted state.

Bottom line
Fasted training is not for everybody. It does take time for the body to adjust, depending on how dependant you are on consuming sugars. This discomfort usually will pass in time, but if fasting in general isn’t for you, there is no need to keep it up.

Remember, the human body has evolved over millions of years in an environment where it has been forced to exert itself physically and mentally in times of both food scarcity and surplus. This is a totally natural process.

Once the body re-learns to operate and exert itself without any food, it will get better at performing when it does have fuel in the tank.

Why it’s important to have rest days?

screenshotWe’re always told to stay active and get regular exercise. But whether you’re training for a competition or feeling extra motivated, more isn’t always better.

Those who know me personally would have heard me say “less is more” when it comes to optimal health and performance. Yes, it’s important to be active, but how many hours do you really need?

With the energy mismatch created my modern diets excessively high in carbohydrate and overly processed foods its easy to understand why many people think they have to exercise upwards of 15 to 20 hours per week to lose or maintain a healthy weight.

Having days of low activity or rest allows the body to recover and repair, both physically and mentally. It’s a critical part of progress, regardless of your fitness level or sport. Failing to rest appropriately can result in overtraining or burnout which basically is the opposite of what you want to achieve.

Here are some of the benefits of taking rest days:

Recovery
Contrary to popular belief, a rest day isn’t about being lazy on the couch. But it can be, in part. It’s during this time that the beneficial effects of exercise take place. When you’re resting, you’re allowing the body to make physiological adaptions.

Your muscles store carbohydrates in the form of glycogen. During physical activity, your body breaks down glycogen into glucose to fuel your workout.

Rest gives your body time to replenish these energy stores before your next workout or competitive event.

Prevents muscular fatigue
Rest is necessary for avoiding exercise-induced fatigue. As mentioned before, exercise depletes your muscles’ glycogen stores. If these stores aren’t replaced, you’ll experience muscle fatigue and soreness.

Your muscles need glycogen to function, even when you’re not working out. By getting adequate rest, you’ll prevent fatigue by letting your glycogen stores to be replenished.

Reduced risk of injury
Regular rest is essential for staying safe during exercise. When your body is overworked, you’ll be more likely to fall out of form, drop a weight, take a wrong step or make a poor decision.

Overtraining also exposes your muscles to repetitive stress and strain over time. This increases the risk of overuse injuries, forcing you to take more rest days than planned. This ultimately leads to lost training time and in turn a potential failure in progression.

Improved physical performance
When you don’t get enough rest, it can be hard to do your normal routine, let alone challenge yourself.

Even if you push yourself, overtraining decreases your performance. You may experience reduced strength and endurance, slower reaction times, and poor agility.

If this is not addressed over time, this reduced output may become the new performance standard as the athlete may think they have hit a training plateau and begin to seek an additional challenge to continue progression, when actually a slight reduction in training load may be all that is required.

Rest has the opposite effect. It can increase energy levels and prevent overall fatigue, which prepares the body for more consistent and successful workouts, which can produce optimal mental and physical performance outcomes.

Improved sleep quality
While regular exercise can improve your sleep, taking rest days is also helpful.

Physical activity increases energy-boosting hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Constant exercise, however, overproduces these hormones. You’ll have a hard time getting quality sleep, which only adds to fatigue and exhaustion and resulting in reduced mental and physical performance.

Rest can help you get better sleep by letting your hormones return to within a normal, balanced state.

The take away
Whether you’re just starting out or a seasoned athlete, regular rest and recovery is crucial to maintain optimal health and performance.

The best way to make the most out of your rest days is to conduct low impact activities, such as bodyweight movement pattern training, biking, walking or yoga. These activities will help you stay active while letting your body recover and recharge.

The Kettlebell Swing

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The Swing – for legs and conditioning that won’t give up.

The kettlebell swing is exactly what the name implies. A swing, or hinge movement. The athlete will swing the kettlebell from between the legs up to approximately chest level and back, for repetitions, using the hips to power the movement, similar to if the athlete was jumping.

As mentioned before, the swing is more of a hip hinge than anything else. Designed to maximise explosive hip strength and power.

When done properly, there is minimal compressive and shear stress on the lumbar spine because the spine is neither overly flexed, or extended during any point of the swing.

The arms are not used actively, meaning the shoulders are not forcefully elevating the kettlebell.

The kettlebell is being swung forward by a forceful hip drive and the kettlebell “floats” to approximately chest level.

The height of the kettlebell is actually irrelevant because the hip power is the focus and not the actual elevation of the kettlebell.

Here are a few points on how to teach the swing.

Hips first
A natural athlete moves from the hips, never from the back or knees. A hips-first movement pattern is the safest for your back and knees. It’s also the most powerful.

Whilst standing up, place the edge of you hands into the creases at the top of your thighs. Press your hands into the creases and “hinge”, sticking your butt out while keeping the weight on your heels. This will teach the athlete to go down by folding at the hip joint rather than bending through the back. This is probably the most important part of teaching proper swing technique.

It’s the same on the way up. Hips first. Drive up with the glutes and hamstrings, not the quads and definitely not the back.

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The box squat
The box squat is similar to sitting down on a chair. Powerlifters originally thought up the box squat to improve squatting depth, technique and power.

To start, revisit the hip-crease drill. Once you have mastered the movement pattern it’s time to progress.

Pick up a kettlebell by the handle and hold it in front of you. It’s likely that you will need it for balance, at least for the first few repetitions. Stand approximately a foot or so in front of a stable bench or box facing away from it. Lower the body by creasing at the hips and pushing the glutes backward.

Keep pushing the glutes back. The knees will bend naturally. Remember, hips first.

Don’t let the knees drift too far forward. If you don’t feel the hamstrings tighten when you lower, then you’re squatting wrong.

The knees should track the feet, with the feet pointing slightly outward.

Push the kettlebell forward to counterbalance, and remember to keep sitting back. Continue to sit back under control until your glutes touch the box. If done correctly, you should feel tightness across the top of the quads and a stretch along the hamstrings.

Now it’s time to stand up. Rock back slightly. Now rock forward and stand up. Do this by planting your feet into the ground. Shins upright.

The moment that you feel that your weight has loaded your feet, push your feet hard into the ground.

Tense the glutes, and drive the hips forward until you stand up. Full hip extension. Lock out the hips by cramping the glutes.

This might sound a little exhaustive, but attention to detail is what makes it safe, and effective. If you’re going to doing something, do it right.

The box squat is a basic skill often overlooked when teaching movement patterns, but once it has been mastered, you will find that many drills will build from this foundation and will become a lot easier to master.

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The condition:
Swing the kettlebell between your legs and then in front of you up to chest level for repetitions.

The swing standard:
Maintain the box-squat alignment during swings and when picking up or setting down the kettlebell:

  • Keep your head up;
  • Keep a straight – not to be confused with “upright” – back;
  • Sit back, rather than dip down.
  • Extend the hips and knees fully on the top: the body must form a straight line;
  • The kettlebell must form an extension of the straight and loose arm(s) on the top of the swing.

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A simple look at optimal human health

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Homo sapiens, or modern day humans are basically hairless sweaty apes with large brains and small stomachs. This is how we evolved:

  • Wake up with the first light of the day;
  • Eat one (maybe two) meals of local seasonal foods including a large amount of seafood and marrow from bones of other animals;
  • Be naked in the sun all day;
  • Swim in the ocean;
  • Be moderately active collecting food and fresh drinking water;
  • Watch the sunset;
  • Go to sleep on the earth in darkness.

Humans lived every day like this on the East African rift for 300,000 years in perfect synchrony with the daily and seasonal rhythms of the sun, the earth, the moon and stars.

Lets expand a little all of the points mentioned above:

Wake up with the first light of the day
Humans have detectors for light in the skin (melanopsin) that detect the first rays of morning light before sunrise and wake you up by releasing cortisol.

Watching the sunrise and the all the varying frequencies of the morning sunlight are absorbed by the eyes and skin to build hormones, neurotransmitters and set the circadian rhythms of every cell in the body.

Eat one (maybe two) meal of local seasonal foods including a large amount of seafood and marrow from the bones of other animals
One meal consumed during the day allows for beneficial intermittent fasting for the rest of the day and ketosis at night during sleep.

Humans evolved larger brains and immune systems than our primate ancestors by accessing the fatty acids and other key nutrients such as DHA & iodine from the marine food chain, along with the marrow from the bones of other animals.

Fruits and vegetables traditionally varied geographically throughout the seasons, so make the most of a the variety of these foods available to you.

Be naked in the sun all day
Humans are basically hairless primates that can run around on two feet. This adaptation allows for several evolutionary advantages, such as the increase of the amount of sunlight that the skin is able to absorb.

Visible sunlight is absorbed into the skin to convert or produce hormones, such as Vitamin D, which is critically important to optimal human function.

Other benefits include an improved circadian rhythm, increased blood flow, brain function, dental health, mitochondrial function and sex hormone production.

Swim in the ocean
Humans have traditionally lived near the oceans and river ways and have evolved over time to eat seafood. Swimming in the ocean provides another source of electrolytes, salts, and other micro nutrients that may be difficult to obtain through the modern diet.

Be moderately active collecting food and fresh drinking water
Humans have always been moderately active animal. Nomadic by nature, they had to walk or run everywhere, and had to carry their belongings with them as they moved from location to location.

Humans also have a great need for a daily supply of fresh clean drinking water. The human body is roughly 60% water, with the brain and heart being composed of approx. 73% water. Additionally, plasma (the liquid portion of your blood) is approx. 90% water. Plasma helps carry blood cells, nutrients and hormones throughout the body.

It’s possible for the body to survive several weeks without food, but the body can only survive a few days without water.

Watch the sunset
The eyes and skin pay attention to the waning frequencies of light at sunset to prepare the hormones of the body for sleep. The absence of light at night is a signal to release the hormone melatonin to facilitate regenerative sleep at night.

Go to sleep in darkness
The absence of light is a very important signal for cellular circadian rhythms and metabolism. Proper circadian rhythm promotes quality sleep, helps keep the cells healthy and contributes to optimal performance.

Concluding
A very simple look into a template for optimal human health. Remember, there is no one size fits all. However, by applying these practices to the modern environment of generally poor nutrition, constant over stimulation, inadequate time in the sun and disrupted circadian rhythms, we may be able to prevent and even reverse many of the chronic diseases that affect so many people today.

Humans need to relearn what is a species appropriate diet and lifestyle. The diet and lifestyle that previous generations have lived which shaped our evolution throughout history. The closer you can emulate this natural lifestyle, the less likely you will develop one of chronic diseases of life.

Why organ meats belong in your diet

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There a few foods that actually deserve the title of “superfood”. Liver, along with many other organ meats like kidneys and hearts are some of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet. 

Our bodies evolved to eat these foods and to draw nourishment and energy from them. We didn’t spend millennia gulping down multivitamins and sports supplements.

Once a popular and treasured food source, liver, along with other organ meats, have fallen out of favour as nutritional staples.

The reality is that our palates and routines have evolved far from some of the foods we most need for optimal health. Instead, people are chasing the regular sugar highs that come with more modern, overly processed and hyper palatable “foods”.

Organ meats have an excellent nutrient profile. High in protein and low in calories, some of the key nutrients that are important to optimal human function are found in organ meats such as liver, include:

  • Retinol. The active form of vitamin A, which is crucial for healthy skin, fertility and pregnancy, vision, and immune health;
  • Choline. Critical for DNA synthesis, brain function, and a healthy nervous system;
  • Iron. Another essential nutrient that helps carry oxygen around the body. The iron in liver is heme iron, the kind most easily absorbed by the body;
  • B12 and folate. These nutrients are crucial for methylation, which affects everything from gene expression to the production of neurotransmitters to detoxification;
  • Zinc and copper. Zinc and copper work together to influence immune function, metabolism, and the nervous system. A single serving of liver provides enough copper for an entire week.

Sadly, most people today don’t like the taste of liver, and beef kidneys and heart aren’t high on the list either.

How to get more organ meats into your diet
Here are a few ways to get more organ meats onto your plate:

  • Pan fried. Liver goes well when fried with onions;
  • Bolognese sauces. Liver and other organ meats can be chopped or minced and then mixed with regular ground beef and added to pasta or vegetable dishes;
  • Burger patties. As with Bolognese sauces, chop or mince organ meats and mix it with ground beef to make highly nutritious burgers;
  • Adding lots of spices. By adding lots of herbs and spices, you can use strong flavours to help disguise its taste.
  • Soaked in lemon juice. Prior to cooking will reduce the strong flavour.

The bottom line is that liver and other organ meats like kidneys and hearts are a greatly underrated food source. Naturally nutrient dense and low in calories, they make a truely valuable addition to any nutritional strategy.

Using the evolutionary exercise template to boost performance

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What did our primal ancestors do for exercise? Well, for a start, exercise for them wasn’t anything they had to think about. It was life.

There were no gyms or running tracks. No spin rooms or Zumba classes. It was just the surrounding environment. Everyday. This meant moving and exercising to gather food, build shelter, or simply to survive.

An evolutionary exercise program can be defined as one that is similar in principle to what our ancestors did on a daily basis.

Move often at a slow pace
Early humans spent much of their day walking around hunting and gathering their food, along with seasonal migrations to new territories following food sources.

Low level aerobic activity throughout the day will build stronger blood vessels, bones, joints, and connective tissues.

Some easy ways to incorporate low level aerobic activity could look like this:

  • Walking or riding your bike to work;
  • Parking your car as far away from your destination as possible and walking the rest of the way;
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator;
  • Take frequent breaks at work to get up and walk around; or
  • Take a walk outside during your lunch break.

You may even want to try a standing desk if possible. On weekends or after work, try going for a hike or even a swim. The possibilities are infinite.

Find ways stay active every day, even on your rest days. The benefits of being mobile are endless, especially as you enter into older age.

Sprint every now and then
Our ancestors didn’t spend hours upon hours exercising, and neither should you. For early humans, life depended on being able to outrun animals, either in the form of hunting them (persistence hunting), or to avoid being hunted by them. They would only work hard when it was absolutely necessary.

These short bursts of high intensity physical effort increased the release of Human Growth Hormone (HGH). HGH helps to maintain, build, and repair healthy tissue in the brain and other organs. This hormone can help to speed up healing after an injury and repair muscle tissue after exercise. This helps to build muscle mass, boost metabolism, and burn fat.

HGH is released in proportion to the intensity (not the duration) of the physical activity.

Lift heavy things… and carry them
Just like sprinting, early humans had to use quick bursts of energy to lift and move heavy objects. They would have to move large rocks or logs to build shelter, carry firewood or large animal kills back to their camps.

These types of high intensity workouts help release testosterone that boosts metabolism and improves muscle strength and size.

The best movements to mimic this type of activity are the basic movement patterns:

  • Loaded carry;
  • Hinge;
  • Squat;
  • Pull;
  • Press.

This includes exercises like the squat, deadlift, pull-ups, push-ups and farmers walks.

The biochemical signals created by these very brief, but intense muscle contractions generated a surge of HGH, prompting an increase in muscle size and power.

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Rest, relax and recover
Exercise is utterly pointless and even counterproductive without proper rest, relaxation, and sleep. You need to eat well and eat enough, let your muscles rest and recover, and have enough downtime to reap the benefits of exercise.

If you want a better quality of life, to be strong and have the ability to run fast and for distance so that life is generally easier for you. Then get your rest and recover well. You don’t need to be in the gym every day. Enjoy time socially with friends and family. Read a book. Visit a museum or art gallery. Give your body some time to physically recover.

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In summary
You don’t have to spend hours every day in the gym to be physically fit. It’s actually the opposite if you’re after general physical fitness. Depending on individual goals and competitions you may need to spend additional time completing sports specific training.

However, if you want to be healthy, strong and mobile into old age the basic template can be fairly simple to apply, follow and easy to achieve.

The Goblet Squat

Created by strength coach Dan John and named after the position in which the weight is held, the goblet squat is one of the simplest ways to learn and reinforce the basic squatting movement pattern.

It can be used as a mobility trainer, a warmup activity or as part of your workout proper. The goblet squat is so versatile that it might be the only squat you need in your workout.

The set up & execution
Similar to setting up for the kettlebell sumo deadlift, the athlete should take a comfortable stance, with feet slightly turned out.

With a dumbbell, holding it vertically by one end. Hug it tight against your chest. If you’re using a kettlebell, hold it by the horns. A medicine ball can also be used.

With your elbows pointing down and head facing forward, lower the body down and back into a squat, keeping the chest upright at all times (making sure not to fall forward or have excessive rounding the back).

Allow the elbows to brush past the insides of your knees as you descend. It’s okay to push your knees out. If your heels come off the ground at any stage, your stance is likely too narrow.

Finally, if mobility isn’t that great, squatting to the point where your elbows touch your knees if fine. In time, mobility and depth will increase.

Now, return to the standing position with a full hip extension (standing tall).

Pretty simple.

As mentioned earlier, the goblet squat is a great tool for teaching the squat in general and can be used as a mobility trainer. There isn’t a real requirement to go heavy, as higher volume sets with lighter loads will work very well.

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Taking the time to master the basics
Something that has been instilled in me throughout my military career is to be “brilliant at the basics”. A great lesson that can be applied to almost all aspects of life.

The mistake most people make is that they try to move too quickly into complex movement patterns before they have mastered proper form first. Often sacrificing technique for time or load.

If you really want to optimise your overall athletic performance, take the time to master the simple patterns first, like the goblet squat. You can alway add complexity to your programming later.

The simple movements patterns can also make the some of the most demanding and challenging workouts.

Caffeine and athletic performance

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Having a cup of coffee first thing in the morning or to push through the mid-afternoon slump is a pretty standard thing for most people. Caffeine is a stimulant. It will give you a bit of buzz.

It makes sense that using caffeine to supercharge athletic performance.

What is Caffeine
Caffeine is a naturally occurring stimulant found in leaves, nuts and seeds of numerous plants. Its widespread social acceptance means that many athletes consume caffeine regularly over the day in varying amounts from coffee, tea, cola, energy drinks and, increasingly, from pre-workout supplements or caffeinated sports products.

Caffeine-containing beverages typically contain between 30-120mg of caffeine but this varies widely between products and brands.

Caffeine is becoming increasingly popular in sport to help improve performance and various caffeinated supplements and sports products are now being marketed to and consumed exclusively by athletes.

Caffeine and performance
The main performance benefits of caffeine appear to come from its influence on the central nervous system and resulting reduced perception of effort (exercise feels easier) and/or reduced perception of fatigue. 

Some other ways that caffeine can help improve mental and physical performance are as follows:

  • Caffeine can increase the body’s ability to burn fat via lipolysis, or the breakdown of stored fatty acids within the fat cells;
  • Caffeine has been shown to increase thermogenesis, or heat production, which helps you burn more calories;
  • Caffeine can raise endorphins, which increase feelings of happiness, giving you the exercise “buzz” that people often experience after working out;
  • Caffeine may also spare glycogen stores (carbohydrate stored within the muscles), primarily due to increased fat burning. This can enhance endurance performance.

Endurace exercise
Most of exercise/caffeine research is based on endurance training and performance. Historically, the most often cited benefit to consuming caffeine before a race or training activity was that it would increase the oxidation of fat, thus sparing muscle glycogen for when you really needed it, such as the final sprint to the finish line.

Maybe the caffeine simply makes exercise more tolerable, makes muscles work harder and better, and allows those exercising to do so harder, and for longer. Caffeine generally will give you a bit of a buzz. When taken prior to a workout, this “buzz” equates to an increased endorphin response to exercise.

So, if endorphins are high, exercise is more tolerable, even enjoyable.

The bottom line is that caffeine seems to boost athletic performance in endurance events, maybe through enhancing energy partitioning or an increase exercise induced endorphin response, make the activity more enjoyable.

Strength exercise
The effects of caffeine in sport aren’t limited to improving endurance. Research also indicates the benefits of caffeine in strength performance.

Whilst the results of studies are varied, they generally suggest that supplementation may help trained strength and power athletes.

This meta analysis, comparing 27 studies found that caffeine may improve leg muscle power by up to 7%, but had little effect on smaller muscle groups

Caffeine may also improve muscular endurance, including the amount of repetitions performed at a certain weight.

To summarise, most research indicates that caffeine may provide the most benefits for power-based activities that use large muscle groups, repetitions or circuits.

How to use caffeine for performance
Although early research was conducted using high doses of caffeine (6+ mg caffeine / kg body weight), more recent research indicates that lower doses can provide similar performance benefits with less negative side effects.

Individual responses to caffeine vary but typically doses in the range 1-3 mg caffeine per kg body weight are sufficient to improve performance (e.g. 70-210mg for a 70kg athlete).

Some experimenting may need to be done to determine the most beneficial timing protocol, which may include taking caffeine:

  • Pre-competition or exercise;
  • During competition or exercise;
  • A combination of both.

Potential side effects
High levels of caffeine intake can cause declines in performance through:

  • Increased heart rate;
  • Impaired fine motor control;
  • Anxiety and over-arousal;
  • Sleep disturbances;
  • Gastrointestinal upset.

Like any other supplement, it is important to trial smaller doses first in training activities prior to race day to assess individual tolerance and responses.

In Summary
The incorporation of caffeine into an athlete’s nutrition plan should be considered on an individual basis.

Caffeine is one of the most effective exercise performance supplements available. It is also very cheap and relatively safe to use.

Many studies have shown that caffeine can benefit endurance performance, high-intensity exercise and power sports.

The recommended dose varies by body weight, but is typically about 200–400 mg, taken 30–60 minutes before a workout.