Whether you’re a weight lifter, bodybuilder, endurance athlete, sprinter, or some type of hybrid athlete, you know that the key to reaching your full potential is paved with consistent training. Some days, however, you need an extra jolt of motivation to get your gears turning—which is why so many athletes use pre-workout and other sports performance supplements.
More often than not, these solutions are loaded with caffeine—but if you’re looking to lower the voltage on your workout fuel or go entirely stim-free, there are plenty of effective products to choose from, as well as alternate avenues.
First, The Facts on Caffeine Dependence
Before we jump into caffeine-free ways to pump up your workouts, there’s something important to address: caffeine dependence. To those who rely on caffeine for the energy to train, my first advice here is to reflect on why. If you lack energy for your workouts, caffeine just masks an underlying problem that you need to address. Otherwise, you’ll never reach your full workout potential.
A few areas to analyze: your sleep, mental preparation, and nutrition. I’m not going to get into these factors here, but know that if you only get five hours of sleep per night, skip meals, and/or eat poorly, no amount of caffeine can substitute getting your lifestyle right.
Read More: 5 Signs You Need A Break From Caffeine
If you’ve addressed these areas and still rely on caffeine, remember that your body adapts and becomes desensitized to caffeine over time, which is why you need more and more to get the same benefits. For this reason, even if you have no plans of eliminating caffeine completely, I recommend you be more conscious of your intake.
Jitter-Free Workout Fuel
There are a number of other ways you can amp up your training without relying on massive loads of caffeine. Here are a few options to try.
Tea contains an amino acid called l-theanine that, when combined with caffeine, has been shown to synergistically boost focus and concentration. Teas, such as green tea, are also rich in flavonoids and polyphenols that can also help amplify the benefits of caffeine by inhibiting the enzyme COMT (catechol O-methyltransferase), which breaks down catechins (like stress hormone norepinephrine) in the body, and may help prolong their effects.
Though teas contain some caffeine (an 8-oz cup of green tea contains about 35 mg), these factors can help you reap its benefits without feeling jittery. Try drinking tea before working out or taking 100 to 200 milligrams of a tea extract.
Or, if you do continue with some sort of caffeine-containing supplement, pair 100 to 200 milligrams of that caffeine with 50 to 200 milligrams of l-theanine.
2. Citrulline or Arginine
An often-ignored pathway for brain and muscle power is enhanced blood flow—and one major way to regulate blood flow is through nitric oxide (NO), a key signaling molecule produced naturally in the body that dilates (widens) blood vessels to enhance the flow of blood to tissues, such as muscles. Enhanced blood flow can have benefits for greater nutrient delivery and clearance of wastes like lactic acid from tissue.
Two amino acids—arginine and citrulline—are famous jitter-free workout fuel for their ability to boost NO. Interestingly, citrulline and arginine appear to work in synergy when consumed in a 1:1 ratio. Typically, you’ll want to take at least one gram of each amino for optimal results.
3. Brain Boosters
Another route you can explore when looking for jitter-free workout fuel: supplements that support brain function and can thus boost motivation and focus.
To understand how these work, you need a basic understanding of a few key neurotransmitters. The first is dopamine, which is known for its role in pleasure and reward. Higher dopamine levels equal less fatigue and more motivation, which ultimately supports better exercise performance. There are a few supplements you can incorporate to support this pathway, including mucuna pruriens, a plant rich in natural l-dopa (a precursor to dopamine), and the amino acid l-tyrosine, which is also a precursor to the mood-boosting neurotransmitter. Try 100 to 500 milligrams of mucuna prurians and 500 to 1,000 milligrams of l-tyrosine, either on their own or together.
Another important neurotransmitter in the brain is acetylcholine. When increased in the brain, Acetylcholine excites or “activates” neurons that are important for learning, memory, focus, and concentration.
There are several popular supplements that may help boost acetylcholine. Choline, for one, is a precursor the body uses to make more acetylcholine. Alpha-GPC (glycerylphosphorylcholine) is yet another popular precursor molecule known to boost acetylcholine in the brain. Finally, huperzine, an ingredient that comes from natural herbal and plant extracts (such as Chinese club moss), works by preventing the breakdown of acetylcholine in the brain. I recommend choosing either choline or Alpha-GPC and taking it together with huperzine. Stick with 100 to 500 milligrams of choline or Alpha-GPC plus one to five micrograms of huperzine.
The Bottom Line
In summary, if you are struggling with energy in the gym, you don’t have to rely solely on caffeine. Make sure to first work on good lifestyle habits, including sleep, mental prep, and nutrition. From there, if you do take caffeine, consider stacking it with l-theanine, or opting to get it from tea or tea extracts. If you are looking for a completely caffeine-free approach, some good options include blood flow boosters, dopamine boosters, and acetylcholine boosters. Many of these can be taken separately or stacked together for a unique pre-workout cocktail.
Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.