When to take creatine has been a contested topic among gym-goers and athletes.
It is well known that creatine helps increase strength and muscle mass. What’s up for debate is exactly when to time your creatine supplement for maximum gains.
Timing matters for supplement delivery when it comes to carbohydrates and protein. But does the same logic apply to creatine?
Let’s clear some confusion around creatine timing. Read on to learn about creatine’s benefits and how to maximize them through timing and strategic supplementation.
Why take creatine?
Creatine is arguably the most popular and well-studied workout supplement on the market for high-intensity athletes.
Creatine monohydrate is the most extensively researched form, but you may also see creatine hydrochloride, creatine ethyl ester, creatine magnesium chelate, and the like.
Here’s a quick rundown of specifically how creatine helps boost performance:
- Increased sprint performance
- Increased strength & lifting performance
- Increased muscle mass & strength adaptations during training
- Enhanced glycogen synthesis
- Increased anaerobic threshold
- Enhanced recovery
- Greater training tolerance
When to take creatine for the best results?
When it comes to the question of “when to take creatine?”, popular opinion varies. Here are the three options up for debate - and the rationales behind them:
- Before a workout - Ensuring muscle tissue has maximum creatine may help boost performance during the workout itself
- After a workout - Muscles post-workout are depleted of creatine, and therefore may be primed to absorb and store more of it when supplemented
- Before and after a workout - Why not get the best of both worlds? Creatine before and after workouts covers all bases
- Anytime - Creatine may have the same benefits regardless of when you take it
So, which option is correct? Let’s take a look at what available evidence can tell us.
Pre or post workout?
Numerous studies have investigated the effects of creatine both before and after a workout.
These studies have found that supplementing with creatine both pre and post workout creatine supplementation had benefits like the following:
- Increased lean body mass
- Improved one rep maximum lifts
- Increased muscle thickness
- Increases in both upper and lower body strength
One 2013 study of nineteen male bodybuilders found that taking creatine after workouts was slightly more effective at improving fat free mass and bench press performance compared to taking creatine pre-workout.
It’s important to note that the differences were subtle, the sample size was small, and the study design lacked a placebo group. We therefore can’t put too much stock in the results.
But another 2015 study compared pre and post exercise creatine supplementation in 39 aging adults who did resistance training three times per week.
Again, both pre and post workout creatine helped with muscle strength gains compared to the placebo.
There’s an argument that taking creatine close to your workouts - whether it’s before or after - is more helpful than taking it at other times in the day.
Researchers suspect that is because of an increase in blood flow (which helps deliver creatine to muscles more effectively) and an upregulation of how creatine is transported.
Does it matter when you take creatine?
While it’s clear that creatine is an effective ergogenic aid, it’s still unclear exactly what timing is most beneficial.
Should creatine be an “appetizer” or a “dessert” to a workout? Evidence does not directly point us one way or the other.
With this in mind, splitting creatine into both pre- and post-workout doses may be a way to hedge your bets and get the best of both worlds. Research does seem to suggest that taking the creatine closer to your workout (on either end) has physiological advantages.
Another thing is personal preference.
If you’re seeking maximum benefits of creatine, whatever timing helps you take it most consistently might be your answer. If you’re habitually more likely to drink supplements on your way to the gym, then going with that flow might be your answer.
Despite no firm evidence that creatine has significant side effects, some people do still report GI symptoms or cramping with creatine.
If you have a sensitive stomach or are prone to cramps, taking your creatine at the end of the workout may help you avoid these feelings while you’re actually at the gym.
Is creatine safe?
Not only is creatine effective - it’s also safe.
Despite misconceptions that creatine causes harmful side effects, the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition has taken the stance that creatine has no documented short-term or long-term harmful effects.
The Journal clarifies that while we may still see descriptions in the media of dehydration, cramping, kidney and liver damage, musculoskeletal injury, gastrointestinal distress, and anterior (leg) compartment syndrome, these conditions are probably related to physically demanding exercise, rather than creatine intake.
In fact, athletes who take creatine are probably less likely to experience these effects.
Creatine is naturally found in high amounts in our diets, since creatine is stored in meat just as it is in human muscle tissue. The average omnivore gets about 1-2 grams of creatine per day from diet alone.
Should I take creatine every day?
There do not appear to be any negative consequences of taking creatine daily.
With that said, you may not need to take creatine every day depending on what you're taking. Some studies have participants taking creatine only two or three times per week, while others take creatine daily.
To maximize the benefits of creatine, the key is to make sure that your muscles' stores of creatine are high.
Typically, people start creatine with a loading process to maximize how much their muscles are storing. They initially take around 20 grams per day to saturate their muscle stores, and then switch to 3-5 grams per day to maintain optimal levels.
Some gym-goers also do creatine cycles to help make sure their muscles maintain adequate creatine storage over time.
How should I take creatine for the best results?
If you take your creatine along with carbohydrates and protein, you may get even more bang for your buck.
Evidence has shown that pairing creatine with these macronutrients helps your muscles retain creatine longer.
Pairing creatine with protein and carbs makes sense if you’re already taking a moment to make a shake or grab a pre- or post-workout snack.
Creatine powder can be combined with other liquids to make it both tastier and more nutrient-dense.
Sometimes the search for optimizing nutrient timing can be wishful thinking - we want precise answers for how to maximize gains, but the science has not yet met us there.
The studies we have so far are small in sample size, varied in design, and further complicated by the fact that different bodies respond to creatine differently.
The good news is that taking creatine at any point near your workout - before, after, or both - will likely have beneficial effects on your performance. Experts seem to agree that all of these strategies are effective.