Name: Adam Bornstein
Occupation: Fitness author, editor, coach, and consultant
It started back in 2001. That was the first time I "experimented" with creatine. I had been hearing great things about the product for years, but up to that point, I had avoided it like some black market drug. But then research started to come out—lots of it. Literally hundreds of articles professed not only the benefits of creatine, but more important, its safety. For starters, you could expect:
- More muscle
- More power and strength
- Improved anaerobic capacity
Still, I was nervous. I don't like putting anything in my body that has a shred of doubt attached to it. But eventually, I was willing to try it—in secrecy. I went with my best friend to a local supplement store, bought a creatine product, and then immediately hid it in another bag.
When I returned home, I stashed my creatine under my bed.
As crazy as it might sound, I didn't want anyone to know I was taking it. Maybe I thought they would diminish my hard work. Maybe I was still worried that the studies were wrong, and I was foolish to believe them. Whatever the reason, creatine was my secret.
Mystery Supplement No More
Fast forward 13 years, and there's no longer any reason to fear or be ashamed of creatine. It's 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.
On the athletic front, creatine's effectiveness has only been reinforced. It's been shown repeatedly to provide the physique and performance benefits which people talked about back when I first bought it. In addition, studies have shown it to improve work capacity for a wide variety of training, aid in workout recovery, and decrease the time needed to regain strength after workouts, to name just a few. Along with sleep and a good diet, creatine has earned its reputation as the cheapest way you can improve both your performance in the gym and the results you see.
In short, the question of why to take creatine is no longer the most pressing one to ask. Instead, it's when.
Nutrient Timing: Where Science Meets Wishful Thinking
Nutrient timing is a hot topic, especially among athletes and anyone looking for an edge in the gym or in a body transformation. 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.
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 from fat burners to protein supplements and all supps in between. Anecdotal claims about effectiveness are easy to find; scientific backing is more elusive. You'd think that such a heavily studied supplement as creatine would be an exception to this rule, but until recently, there was almost no in-depth research into the effectiveness of creatine timing.
In the face of such a void, creatine takers have generally fallen into one of three camps:
Camp 1: Before A Workout
The argument for taking creatine before a workout usually follows these lines: 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.
Sounds tempting, right?
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 last year 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 5g 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. Here's what it said:
Creatine supplementation plus resistance exercise increases fat-free mass and strength. Based on the magnitude inferences, it appears that consuming creatine immediately post-workout is superior to pre-workout vis a vis body composition and strength.
Yet upon closer inspection, the "superiority" becomes far less clear than the abstract makes it 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 (less than 5 percent chance what was observed was due to chance meant "significant" for this study) 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, this is what the researchers are really saying: "We think that taking creatine after a workout is better than before, but we really need to study more 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 ." The 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 recent studies. Optimal dosing still appears to be between 2-5g 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.