It started back in 2001. That was the first time I “experimented” with creatine. For years, I had avoided the product 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 importantly it’s safety. In a nutshell, you could expect:
- More Power and Strength
- More Muscle
- Better Aerobic Capacity
But still, I was nervous. I don’t like putting anything in my body that has a shroud of doubt, but I eventually achieved a level where I read enough that I was willing to try…in secrecy. I went with my best friend to a local GNC, 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 I was wrong. Whatever the reason, creatine was my secret.
Fast forward and there’s no reason to fear or be ashamed of creatine. It’s one of the most well-researched supplements and has a variety of benefits that extend beyond its muscle building capabilities. Research also suggests that it can help fight muscle pain, protect your cells from damage, and even help your memory.
But one question has repeatedly popped up: When is the best time to take creatine? Recent research has suggested that there might be an ideal time. That’s when I decided to speak with the supplement experts at Examine.com. For those of you who don’t know, they have created the world’s largest database of facts about supplements. No marketing BS. Just a bunch of Ph.D’s, PharmD’s, and biomedical researchers who are obsessed with sharing the truth. Their Supplement Guide is the best thing written about supplements since…well…ever. If you’ve ever had a question it’s pack with research and fact-based information to help you make healthier supplement choices.
Which brings us back to creatine. I spoke with the minds at Examine.com to discover the truth about a simple question: Is there a best time to take the supplement?
Nutrient Timing: Part Science, Part Wishful Thinking
Nutrient timing is a hot topic, especially for athletes and anyone looking for that extra edge in the gym or in body transformation. Part of this stems from science showing that the timing of carbohydrate consumption does influence important aspects, such as glycogen replenishment (and in limited cases, 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.
This concept of timing has been applied to everything from fat burners, protein supplements, carbohydrates, and various other supplements. In some cases, you can see a difference based on when you take a product. But more often, the timing is based more on anecdotal evidence than any hard science. Recently, this nutrient timing aspect has even been extended to creatine, a product that is so effective that it’s worth the investigation of determining if there’s an element that can give you even greater benefits.
Ever since creatine became a popular supplement, there have been three types of prescriptions: Before a workout, after a workout, and whatever time you want. Here was the reasoning for each:
Before your workout
The argument for creatine before a workout include that it should be able to increase power output acutely during your workout, allowing you to exert more force. More force might help you activate more muscle fibers and lift more weight. Those factors can lead to more muscle growth. So you can see where this is going.
After your Workout
On the flip side, the argument for creatine after a workout is based around how after a workout your muscles are ‘primed’ for nutrient influx, and you can just throw creatine in there as well and let your body soak up the powerful supplement to receive all of its benefits.
Whenever You Want
The argument for ‘take it at any time’ is based on the hypothesis that both of the former arguments are crap and you don’t need to stress yourself with worrying about timing. In other words: Creatine is good for you. So as long as you’re supplementing with it you’ll see the benefits
As you can imagine, the disparate beliefs leads to a simple question: Is one approach clearly better than another?
Research Says The Best Time to Take Creatine Is…
Surprisingly, very little research has been done on determining a best practice for creatine usage. If you know anything about research, this probably comes as no surprise as many “cool” study ideas never have the funding to be tested.
However, the basis of “take creatine after your workout” comes from a 2013 study published in the JISSN, which can be found here (open access too!). In this study, recreational male bodybuilders (19 men overall) were given five grams of creatine either before or after their workouts. They trained five days per week but were also directed to consume 5g on their rest days at any time they wanted. The workouts were fairly similar to most gym workouts, and the methodology (what they did and how they did it) suggests that the findings would apply to most weightlifters.
This study became popular because the abstract appeared to paint a clear picture that taking creatine after a workout is better than taking it before. That comes from this section. (Pay close attention to the bolded portion.)
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
The thing is, when you take a much closer look at the research (and not just the generalized statement) there wasn’t any significant effect.
What happened was that, statistically speaking (less than 5% chance what was observed was due to chance means ‘significant’ for this study) there was no significant difference between pre- and post- workout, meaning that both were equally effective. This protocol did note that both groups found benefits with creatine supplementation, but they both found the same amount of benefit.
When the study was broken down on a case-by-case basis, they did not find any significant differences between the groups, but they did find 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 to prove that.”
The Bottom Line on Creatine Timing (And Dosing)
Considering how much research has been performed on creatine, it’s surprising how little has been performed on actual timing.
While the aforementioned study insinuated that after was better, at this time the “just take it at any time” or maybe more appropriately, “take it when it works for you” is the best way to go. Many people take supplements that include creatine, so if that’s in your pre- or post- workout drink, you should receive all the benefits. Optimal dosing still appears to be between 2 to 5 grams per day. You can “load” for the first 5 to 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; it’ll still offer maximum results.