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Fact checked by Andrew Lenau, ISSA CPT & Sports NutritionistFACT CHECKED
March 07, 2022
Welcome back to another supplement comparison! This time we’re looking at creatine and pre-workout, two of the most popular nutritional supplements there are on the market! Both can be extremely effective and can produce gains in strength and hypertrophy. That being said, should you only take one of them or both? Or, if you could only take one, which should it be? This article is going to go over everything you need to know about these two supplements:
To begin, let’s talk about sports supplements as a whole; mainly, what are they? Sports supplements are a branch of exogenous compounds meant to be consumed to improve sports performance to some extent. Every supplement will consist of different combinations of compounds which are to be taken for different goals.
The one important factor to remember is that these are all “supplements''; they are supposed to be taken to supplement a diet. The reason you need to keep this in mind is that neither creatine nor a pre-workout has the ability to outperform a bad diet, poor sleep, or poor programming.
Creatine is the most used sports supplement on the market today. This is because it is also the most studied AND the most effective. Creatine is a non-proteinogenic amino acid that naturally occurs and is vital for basic life functions. It plays a vital role in the resynthesis of a high-energy phosphate known as ATP through the metabolic system known as the phosphagen system, which supplies energy during events of short duration and high intensity such as weightlifting.
Also known as our bodies’ “energy currency”, ATP is the compound that actually provides energy for muscular contractions to occur, meaning that without sufficient supplies of creatine, our workouts will suffer greatly. While we already do have some creatine stores naturally, they are generally only about 60-80% full, depending on your diet. Therefore, creatine supplementation merely fills up these levels so that we operate at 100%.
An analysis of all creatine studies found that the vast majority of users can expect the following benefits:
A “pre-workout” is an umbrella term to describe any supplement that is supposed to be consumed shortly before a workout as a means to enhance performance. While different pre-workouts can contain their own blend and doses of different compounds, a few common ingredients are found. Below are some of the most common ingredients found in pre-workouts:
Note: There are many pre-workouts on the market that also include creatine! Some even at a proper dosage.
Again, any pre-workout on the market may have some of these, all of these, more than these, or different amounts. Therefore, it’s challenging to say if they “work” but as a whole, yes they do. For example, the ISSN stand on energy drinks states that energy drinks generally seem to have a benefit in terms of improving performance. That being said, the primary ingredient responsible for the improvements seen is caffeine.
Regardless, most pre-workouts will work through several different mechanisms:
One of the biggest differences between creatine and pre-workout is how they make you feel during a workout. When you take creatine, you don’t actually “feel” it working. While you may find that you are able to lift a little bit heavier or perform a few more reps, this comes from having more ATP rather than being “psyched up”. On the other hand, you will definitely feel your pre-workout. In fact, that’s why there are so many gym memes talking about taking your pre-workout, being late to the gym or stuck in traffic; you feel like you’re going to freak out. The stimulation may feel a bit different depending on your pre-workout blend, but you’ll feel amped and ready to go. (Check these out if you’re interested in a stim-free pre-workout).
Therefore, if you’re a person who needs that stimulation, a good pre-workout could make your workout much more enjoyable. Or perhaps you had a long day at the office, take a scoop of your pre-workout and you’ll be ready to go. However, if the idea of pushing more weight is enough to get you psyched or maybe you just don’t like stimulation, creatine is the way to go.
As seen in the information above, these two supplements are not exclusive to each other and, in fact, could probably work well when taken together. Think about it like this; you take your creatine so that you are able to fill your muscle’s creatine stores. Now you are primed for the weight room and able to lift more weight. In order to utilize all of that delicious creatine for ATP, you should then probably take your favorite pre-workout so you’re jacked and ready to go in the weight room. What you have now is not only the ability to do more work through your increased creatine stores, you have the drive to get it done with your pre-workout. Therefore, the question in itself is a bit of a trick question as it implies you should only take one!
As mentioned above, creatine and pre-workouts operate very differently from each other on almost all fronts; this includes a proper dosing protocol. Therefore, we will break down what an appropriate protocol of dosing looks like for both of them.
PROPER DOSING FOR CREATINE:
In order for your creatine stores to become fully saturated, you must take what’s known as a “loading” protocol. This is a period of time when you consume large amounts of creatine to fill up your stores faster. Generally speaking, this consists of taking 20-25g of creatine a day for 5-7 days. Keep in mind the 20-25g can be broken down into smaller doses throughout the day, so you are not required to take all 20-25g at once.
To be clear, you don’t need to do this. You could take a regular dose (3-5g) every day from the beginning but keep in mind that it will take much longer to completely fill your creatine stores. At the same time, you could take 10g, or 15g a day. The amount you take during the loading phase is up to you and can depend on how you tolerate creatine (some may experience slight bloating when taking too high a dose). The amount you take will merely dictate the number of days you must take the loading dose. After the loading phase, you can then cut down to a maintenance dose of 3-5g every day.
PROPER DOSING FOR PRE-WORKOUT:
Dosing for pre-workouts is much simpler. For one, pre-workouts elicit acute benefits meaning that there is no need to load like with creatine. You can take a pre-workout whenever you want and get a reaction shortly after that.
That being said, we want to touch on beta-alanine real quick. Since beta-alanine is a common ingredient in pre-workouts, many people assume that it also works acutely. This is not true. While you may get “the tingles” when you take beta-alanine, also known as paresthesia, this is a separate phenomenon and has nothing to do with an increase in performance (but these traditional medicines may be what you’re looking for!). In fact, beta-alanine is taken similarly to creatine and requires a loading protocol. You must then take it chronically to get the desired effects (which is why pre-workout without beta-alanine is just as effective). Anyways…back to the point of this article.
While every pre-workout is slightly different, you likely need to consume it 30-60 minutes before hitting the gym. However, unlike creatine, you can take your pre-workout when you want. Once a day, once a week, or once a month; it doesn’t really matter.
If you’re not careful, you can find yourself spending a lot of money on sports supplements. It’s not uncommon for average gym-goers to spend hundreds of dollars every month on supplements. Remember that above all, the supplement industry is still an industry whose primary goal is to make a lot of money. Therefore, considering the price of a supplement can be a significant factor in deciding if it’s worth it.
Out of creatine and pre-workouts, creatine is almost always going to be cheaper. One of the reasons is because it’s been out for so long. Furthermore, it’s extremely popular, so many brands want to offer their brand. At the same time, creatine is creatine. It’s a single compound supplement which makes it difficult to claim any type of proprietary benefit. In fact, this is one of the reasons there has been an influx of other creatine versions such as HCL. We wrote about this specifically, so check out this article, but in short, it’s basically a money grab. That being said, you can easily go online and find a 500g (100 servings) bottle of good creatine monohydrate for less than $40. That’s about $13 a month.
When it comes to pre-workouts, every brand will have its own special list of ingredients that makes there’s better; and more expensive. Some of these are worth the money, while others are not so much. Regardless, you can expect to pay anywhere from $30-$40 for just a one-month supply of a pre-workout. Again, this might be worth it to some trainees, but it’s still about 3x as much as creatine.
As mentioned above, creatine and pre-workout function by altering different physiological mechanisms. In fact, they are not even exclusive of each other as a pre-workout could actually include creatine. That being said, it’s difficult to say what “works better,” but we would probably have to say creatine.
As mentioned, the pre-workouts primary mechanism of action is to increase energy and mitigate fatigue to allow for a longer and more intense workout. This increased intensity could then theoretically translate into greater gains in the weight room.
On the other hand, creatine works by increasing the body’s natural creatine stores. This allows a more excellent supply of ATP to be produced, allowing more work to be done. In this sense, creatine “works better” as it supplies the body with real fuel it can use to produce more work. A pre-workout can only get you hyped, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can actually do more; it just means you’re going to be really excited to try.
At the same time, some people like to be able to “feel” a supplement working. While this is more of a psychological phenomenon, it’s definitely a real thing that can’t be discounted. If a person needs to feel his supplement to give him that boost, then a pre-workout is definitely the way to go.
So which one should you take? Creatine vs. pre-workout? We went over some of the evidence and caveats and came to a conclusion. If you’re still choosing between creatine and a pre-workout, you should…go back and read what we wrote, as this shouldn’t even be a question!
At the end of the day, creatine and pre-workouts can both be very effective. While they function on different mechanisms, your average person will give positive feedback with both and will likely see noticeable progress. However, some won’t. Some will respond to creatine but not pre-workout and vice-versa. Even further, there are dozens and dozens of pre-workouts on the market with entirely different ingredient lists. This means that you may like one but not another. The bottom line is you will need to experiment yourself and see what you like.
However, our final recommendations are as follows...
Everyone should take a quality creatine monohydrate supplement. Literally everyone. Its benefits have been proven time and time again, and you will almost definitely see improvements. However, it can take some time to see, so get started now. And if you're worried about what happens when you stop taking creatine, don't be! As long as you continue training hard, your gains should stay.
At the same time, we would recommend to start experimenting with some pre-workouts if you feel like you need the extra umph.
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