For many lifters, the most important question is no longer "Should I take creatine?" but rather "When should I take creatine?" Here's what the science says about how and when to take creatine.
Nutrient Timing: Where Science Meets Wishful Thinking
Back in the 1990s, creatine was the supplement that I stashed under my bed. But there's no longer any reason to be ashamed of taking it. It is now one of the most well-researched supplements, and studies have begun linking it to benefits that extend far beyond muscle building, including anti-aging, memory support, and cell protection capabilities.
Nutrient timing is a hot topic, especially among athletes and anyone looking for an edge in the gym. Part of this stems from solid science showing that the timing of carbohydrate consumption can influence important aspects of recovery and growth, such as glycogen replenishment and, to a limited degree, muscle protein synthesis.[1-3]
The other side is practical—you want the most bang for your buck when it comes to the nutritional products and supplements you purchase.
Athletes have attempted to apply timing to "optimize" everything, and anecdotal claims about effectiveness are easy to find; scientific backing is more elusive. You'd think that such a heavily studied supplement would be an exception to this rule, but until relatively recently, there was almost no in-depth research into the effectiveness of creatine timing.
Creatine takers have generally fallen into one of three camps:
Camp 1: Before a Workout
The argument for taking creatine before a workout is usually based on this thought process: More creatine equals more ATP, the primary currency of cellular energy. More ATP means more power available to the muscles. More power means more activation of muscle fibers and more weight lifted. More weight means more muscle.
Camp 2: After a Workout
On the flipside, the argument for creatine after a workout often focuses on how your muscles are depleted of nutrients after a workout, and are thus "primed" for a big influx of nutrients. Throw creatine in there along with your protein and carbs, and your body will supposedly soak up the powerful supplement and receive all of its benefits.
Camp 3: Whenever You Want
The argument for "take it at any time" is based on the hypothesis that both of the former arguments are more or less supplement superstition—there's no shortage of that, right? Basically, they say, you don't need to stress yourself about timing. Since creatine is good for you, as long as you supplement with it you'll see the benefits.
What the Research Says
The "take creatine after your workout" camp seemed to receive a big boost in 2013 in the form of a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. A group of 19 recreational male bodybuilders were given 5 grams of creatine either before or after their workouts. They trained five days per week and were also directed to consume 5 grams on their rest days at any time they wanted. The workouts were fairly standard push-pull-legs splits, and the methodology used in the study suggests that the findings would apply to most weightlifters.
This study became popular because the abstract appeared to say clearly that taking creatine after a workout is better than taking it before. Yet upon closer inspection, the results of the study become far less clear than the abstract makes them out to be.
While both groups found benefit from the creatine supplementation, the benefit they received was more or less equal. Put another way, there wasn't any significant effect of one over the other. Rather, when the researchers broke the results down on a case-by-case basis, they saw a trend that suggested that there may be a difference.
So if we removed all of the jargon and big words, the researchers are really saying they think taking creatine after a workout is better than before, but really need to do more research in order to prove that.
The Best Way to Take Creatine
The JISSN study has been interpreted a number of ways by writers since it came out, from "See? Take it before" to "Take it before and after a workout," which is what Jim Stoppani recommends in his article "Ask the Supplement Guru: When Should I Take Creatine?" The JISSN researchers made a compelling case that creatine is effective, but they definitely didn't close the book on timing.
Until something more conclusive comes along, I take this as a vote for Camp 3: "Take it whenever," or maybe more appropriately, "Take it when it works for you." Many people take supplements that include creatine, so if that's in your pre- or post-workout drink, you should receive all the benefits.
All the other standard creatine advice seems to hold up in this and other studies. Optimal creatine dosing still appears to be between 3-5 grams per day. You can "load" for the first 5-7 days to help saturate your cells, but beyond that there's no benefit to taking large amounts. So save your money and take the smaller dose when and how you please. It'll still offer maximum results.
No matter when you choose to take it, creatine has been shown to be safe. Don't believe the myths out there about cramping, dehydration, organ damage, or rhabdomyolysis. And women, don't believe that it'll excessively bulk you up or make you feel bloated.
Don't fear creatine, or fear that you're taking it wrong. Just take it whenever works for you, and stick with it!
- Haff, G. G., Koch, A. J., & Kuphal, K. E. (2001). The effects of supplemental carbohydrate ingestion on intermittent isokinetic leg execise. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 41(2), 216.
- Haff, G. G., Stone, M. H., Warren, B. J., Keith, R., Johnson, R. L., Nieman, D. C., ... & Kirksey, K. B. (1999). The Effect of Carbohydrate Supplementation on Multiple Sessions and Bouts of Resistance Exercise. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 13(2), 111-117.
- Tipton, K. D., Rasmussen, B. B., Miller, S. L., Wolf, S. E., Owens-Stovall, S. K., Petrini, B. E., & Wolfe, R. R. (2001). Timing of amino acid-carbohydrate ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance exercise. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, 281(2), E197-E206.
- Antonio, J., & Ciccone, V. (2013). The effects of pre versus post workout supplementation of creatine monohydrate on body composition and strength. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10(1), 36.
- Forbes, S., Waltz, X. A. V. I. E. R., & Candow, D. (2014). Creatine timing on muscle mass and strength: appetizer or dessert. Agro. Food Ind. Hi. Tech, 25(4), 19-21.