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March 14, 2022
By now, most people know the basics of creatine. They know that it’s the most effective ergogenic aid behind protein on the market. They know that, despite what some commentators will have you believe, there actually are long-term studies that show it’s 100% safe for healthy individuals of all ages (yes, even children!)1. They probably also know that the best type of creatine is good ‘ol creatine monohydrate. However, what many people do seem to get confused about is when to take creatine. AM? PM? Before or after a workout? Today, you will learn the answer as this article will tell PLUS a lot more:
You’re gonna learn a lot in this article. The supplement industry wants to confuse you with marketing; we’re gonna make it clear with science. So let’s start off with the basics.
One of the biggest misunderstandings is that creatine is a foreign substance that you are introducing to your body. In reality, your body already has creatine stored in the muscles. In fact, you NEED to have creatine stored up, or your body simply wouldn’t function, or if it did, it would function at a very low level.
This is because creatine is the primary component in your ATP-CP metabolic system. This system is responsible for supplying ATP for events of very high intensity, such as sprinting or lifting weights. However, the ATP-CP system is continuously operating in conjunction with the other two systems (You have three metabolic systems in total) to supply a consistent stream of ATP. ATP is of utmost importance as it’s what actually gives our muscles the energy to contract. No ATP means no muscle movement.
So, in a nutshell, this is what creatine is. It’s a high-energy compound that’s predominantly stored in the muscles that allows the resynthesis of ATP quickly to ensure the body can continue to operate at higher levels of intensity.
It is NOT a foreign substance or steroid. It’s a vital compound necessary for basic function.
So if our bodies already have creatine, why supplement? To be clear, we don’t HAVE to supplement with creatine. We consume most of our creatine through our diet (meat, fish), while some are synthesized from other amino acids. However, people’s creatine stores are rarely ever full from diet alone. When looking at various analyses, your average person’s creatine stores are only 60-80% full, with vegans and the elderly at the lower end of the spectrum. Therefore, when we supplement with exogenous creatine, we are merely filling up these stores; we go from being 60-80% full to being 100% full. This is why vegans and the elderly actually see greater benefits from creatine supplementation because they have a more significant increase in their stores.
This major increase in our stores also explains the loading phase that is performed when beginning creatine supplementation. A “loading phase” refers to a short period of time (usually 5-7 days) in which a person will take a high amount of creatine, generally, 20-25g spread out over 4-5 servings. This is done to get our stores to 100% as fast as possible. After this period of time, the trainee will go back to a maintenance phase in which they take 3-5g/day.
When discussing how to take creatine, you may have heard that it’s best to take creatine before your workout; or maybe after. Before bed or when you wake. In reality, it doesn’t actually really matter when you take creatine. Looking back at the mechanism of creatine, we actually see that creatine does not work acutely. In other words, you do not use the creatine you consume immediately; it works due to its build-up after chronic consumption, not an individual dose. So, in general terms, it doesn’t really matter when you take it, as long as you take it. The most important factor with creatine is following a loading scheme and being consistent with your maintenance dose. Basically, you want to keep these levels topped off consistently rather than fluctuating throughout the week.
That being said, while consistency is the most important factor, could timing play a role? We can take a look at some science for that answer.
The primary concern that most lifters have is should you take creatine before a workout or after a workout. After looking at studies, we can conclude two things.
A study from 2013 was conducted and specifically looked at the effect creatine has when taken pre-workout or post-workout. The study consisted of trained young men (1+ year of training, average age 23) who followed a 4-week program and their normal diet. At the end of the program, the group of men who consumed protein post-workout saw better improvements in body composition and greater strength2. However, as admitted by the authors, there was a relatively small pool, and they did not do any analysis to actually measure creatine levels. That being said, this agrees with other studies.
In 2015, another study looked at creatine’s pre and post-workout consumption. However, this study tested on older healthy adults (50-71 years of age) who followed a resistance training program for 32 weeks. Similar to the 2013 study, they too found a favorable outcome by those who consumed creatine post-workout. Compared to a placebo group, greater gains in strength were seen in both the pre and post workout groups. However, more significant improvements in lean tissue were seen in the post-workout group3.
That being said, in 2014, the same lead researcher from the 2015 study had conducted a very similar study. However, this time there were no differences4.
In 2018, a meta-analysis was done and was only able to find three studies that had looked at creatine timing, the three that we just discussed. They came to the conclusion that we postulated above5. While there’s too little data to say conclusively, two out of three studies suggest that post-workout consumption can produce greater benefits. It’s also important to note that no study has shown better pre-workout consumption. Therefore, if you have a choice, post-workout creatine supplementation may be more beneficial. And just to really clarify, the latest review was conducted in 2021 and ended with the same conclusion6.
Now that we’ve talked about timing, let's discuss how to consume it. When it comes to actually consuming your creatine, a few factors are likely more critical than when you drink your creatine.
Almost as sure as the fact that creatine will improve performance variables, carbohydrates have been found to help the absorption of creatine. In other words, your body will absorb more creatine, providing more for availability.
A simple study from 1996 was able to show the body absorbs more creatine by dividing a group in half. One group then ate 5 grams of creatine, while the other ate 5 grams plus 93 grams of carbohydrate. The next day (24 hours later), both groups provided urine samples to test for increased excretion. While both groups had elevated levels of creatine, the carbohydrate group had an impressive 60% greater creatine retention7.
Another study from 2000 performed a similar study but had four groups consume 20 grams of creatine over four events. The four nutrition protocols were as follows:
After 24 hours, urine samples were taken and compared. They found that both the 96g carbohydrate group and 50g protein with 47g carbohydrate had similar creatine retention but were both significantly higher than the lower carbohydrate groups. This led to the conclusion that instead of a lifter needing to eat almost 100g of carbohydrates, they could supplement that with protein8 (check these out if you’re looking for a great protein powder).
The relationship between water and creatine is an oxymoron that can tell you how the fitness industry likes to confuse you. On the one hand, it’s popular to say that creatine can cause muscle cramping and dehydration. Oh, that sounds bad. But then they also say that creatine can cause water retention so the weight gain isn’t natural muscle but actually water. So which is it? Dehydration or water retention? Or are you walking around dehydrated and with oversaturated muscles?
While neither of these is true, we need to consider that creatine is an osmotically active substance, meaning it relies on water intake to be stored. This means we should increase our fluid intakes when consuming creatine, regardless of whether you're taking creatine pills or powder, due to possible better absorption, not to prevent dehydration. There’s also reason to believe this increased uptake should be taken concurrently with the creatine to further dilute the creatine for better absorption. Again, no studies (that we know of) have looked at this, but it makes sense.
Further, no studies have shown exactly how much of an increase to take, but the number 100ml per gram of creatine is used, so we’re not talking gallons. Being that you're an active individual, there’s very little chance of you being too hydrated unless you are drinking gallons and gallons, so just be conscious of adding a little extra.
Looking at all of the available evidence, we can come to a safe suggestion about the best time to take creatine. If you are looking to optimize your creatine supplementation, we would suggest that you take it post-workout. Further, you should consume an adequate mixture of protein and carbohydrates totaling 80-100g total. If we looked at an essential 1:2 carb:protein ratio, this is about 33.3g protein and 66.6g carbs, which is right around where we want to be anyway, so it all works out great.
This is perfect as there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be consuming a post workout shake so go ahead and just drop a scoop in there! This also eliminates any silly argument about creatine tasting bad, being gritty, or not mixing well. You can also add an extra splash of water and call it a day. Again, we at SET FOR SET like to keep things simple, not overcomplicate things.
The most vital variable to remember is that studies don’t really show any benefits to pre- or post-workout consumption because they both worked! We can sometimes get lost in these conclusions because it’s “negative”, but all these studies say it’s hard to say which one is better. Even in the two studies that did show some favorable outcomes in the post-workout group, the pre-workout group still improved!
What’s better, creatine monohydrate or creatine HCL?
If you have thought about this question, then you obviously know of other variations of creatine besides the most popular - creatine monohydrate. We wrote an article on creatine monohydrate vs HCL, so check it out for more detail, but in a nutshell, creatine monohydrate is the way to go. Many of these other variations, including HCL, claim to be absorbed faster, meaning you can load faster and you don’t need to take as much. In reality, there just haven’t been enough studies with these other variations. In fact, the ones that have been done are far from conclusive, and one even shows the opposite; creatine monohydrate is absorbed better9.
As of now, these seem to be money grabs, so save your cash and buy creatine monohydrate.
What’s the best brand of creatine?
Ironically, the best brand of creatine isn’t necessarily a brand but a lab out of Germany. We’re talking about CreaPure. Creapure is manufactured by AlzChem Trostberg GmbH located in Germany and is then sold to various supplement companies to use in their products, either pure creatine or as a combined with protein or pre-workout. CreaPure is generally designated as the purest form of creatine so when looking for a creatine product, look for their logo.
Related: Best Creatine Brands on the Market
What’s the best loading protocol for creatine?
Keep it simple. Consume 20-25g per day with equal servings spaced evenly throughout the day. Continue this for 5-7 days and then drop down to a maintenance serving of 3-5g per day. If you do find that you have bloating, which can happen in some individuals, you can take smaller servings more frequently. If this is still an issue, you can take less during the day. However, this will just lengthen the loading period. For example, instead of taking 20-25g per day for 5-7 days, you can take 10-15g per day for 14-18 days. In fact, you don’t even need to do a load; it's just that a load can fill your creatine stores faster.
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