Ben Pollack is one of this generation’s greatest lifters and geniuses, a physical culture expert, world record holder and US Open powerlifting champion. Know as “PhDeadlift” on social media, Ben is currently wrapping up his PhD and is one of the most educated and insightful competitors to grace the platform. Check out his site at phdeadlift.com.
Confession time: I’m a preworkout junkie. The adrenaline rush from lifting alone is great, but combine that with a boatload of caffeine and every other stimulant under the sun, and even light training days can feel more exciting. Plus, all that extra energy obviously has a performance-enhancing effect, as well.
Or does it?
In reality, as fun and useful as stimulants can be for lifting, they can be really detrimental, too — especially if you tend to rely on them too much, or find that you can’t lift well without them. The problem is compounded by most of the preworkout products on the market, which are loaded not only with caffeine, but also with a bunch of other new-wave stimulating compounds that can enhance both the benefits and drawbacks of more common pick-me-ups like caffeine.
Dave Tate has explained why preworkouts don’t work for him, and I strongly suggest you take a look at his thoughts on the matter. Chris Duffin and Chad Wesley Smith agree. And I also suggest that, if you’re using lots of stimulants, that you pay careful attention to a few particular areas of your training:
One of the most important parts of making long-term progress involves learning to regulate your effort when you train. On some days, or at certain times during a training cycle, you’ll want to push yourself close to your limits, in order to create the necessary stimulus to build strength and muscle. At other times, you’ll want to train less intensely to allow for better recovery.
Unfortunately, regulating effort can be pretty difficult. Personally, I tend to overestimate my own abilities, and as a result, really struggle to use a rate of perceived exertion effectively. If you’re familiar with the Kabuki methods, then you already know that velocity tracking can a little more quantitative measure of effort — or at least of ability on any given day, which can then be extrapolated to effort. You might also simply give yourself some leeway in terms of daily loading parameters to allow for minor and normal fluctuations in performance.
Implementing any of these methods becomes more complicated when you use stimulants. They’ll likely cause you to perceive higher levels of energy and ability, regardless of any actual performance benefits. So if you’re supposed to do a set at RPE 8, and your warmups are flying because you pounded a venti latte and two Monsters before lifting, there’s a good chance that you’ll end up adding too much weight to the bar and find that you’re training at RPE 9 or 10 instead.
Furthermore, whether you overestimate your abilities or not, you’re probably going to train harder and heavier when you’re using a lot of stimulants. That’s a good thing, right? Well — it can be. But remember, you need to recover as hard as you train.
Think of it this way: good programming is purposeful. It involves a planned progression over the course of micro-, meso-, and macro training cycles. Just because you can train heavier on a certain day (in any one of those contexts) doesn’t mean that you should. On the contrary, going to hard early in a macrocycle may well lead to you peaking too early or finding yourself too fatigued to complete your scheduled training later on.
Of course, stimulants can interfere with recovery in other ways. They can impede sleep increase anxiety. They can also take an additional toll on your body, over and above what your training does. Increases in heart rate and blood pressure that persist after training mean that your body is still working hard even after you leave the gym, instead of relaxing and healing.
Learning to Dip Deep
Finally, I think there’s a huge benefit to learning to train with intensity without needing to use stimulants as a crutch. Now, this one is less cut-and-dried than the other points, but in my own experience, developing a mental training routine that allows me to get “in the zone” in any situation, under any circumstances, has improved my training outcomes tremendously. And, once you develop this type of routine, you can always use stimulants as an additional boost — but only when it’s appropriate within the contexts of your training and goals.
Now, to be fair, this is not an easy process! I certainly don’t recommend cutting out stimulants cold turkey, especially if you’ve relied on them for quite some time. Instead, scale back slowly. Maybe you first drop your stim-packed preworkout for a couple of cups at coffee, and then stick with that for a few months before dropping to just one cup, or no cups at all. Alternatively, you can cut back stimulant use to one or two training sessions per week, and continue your normal regimen on the other days.
And don’t worry if you feel a little “off” as you do this. Trust that your body will adjust, and you will eventually learn to — and benefit from — training without any extra boosts.
Look, I’m not saying that you should abandon stimulant use completely. If you enjoy them, and they work for you, that’s fantastic — stick with them. But do try to be mindful of how they can affect your training and your body.
Alternatively, if you want to cut back on stimulants, try something like VasoBlitz — a product with non-stimulant performance-enhancing effects. You can always combine these with something mild, like a large cup of coffee, to get a little extra boost when you need it, but you won’t feel the same need to rely on that day in and day out.