Creatine is one of the most widely used strength supplements in the world. It’s also perhaps the most researched dietary supplement, with decades of mainstream use and hundreds of academic studies behind it. Despite its popularity among athletes and academics, the question of creatine timing persists. Common practices include before, during, and after exercise, but this article aims to answer this question with the latest scientific evidence.
What Is Creatine?
Creatine is an amino acid that supplies our muscles with energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. The liver, kidneys, and pancreas produce about 1g every day and the body stores it in the muscles. Creatine can also be found naturally in high-protein foods such as red meat and shrimp.
A whole weight room’s worth of studies show that creatine supplements can increase lean-muscle gains, aid recovery, and boost your muscle strength. This amino acid, usually taken as a powder mixed with water or juice, ramps up the production of ATP, which supplies extra fuel. This helps athletes exercise longer and harder, leading to greater strength and mass gains.
Related: Is a Creatine Loading Phase Necessary to Maximize Gains?
But is creatine safe? “Creatine wouldn’t have survived on the market for 20 years if it had dangerous side effects,” says Stu Phillips, PhD, a kinesiologist and outside expert for the Gatorade Sports Science Institute. “There’s not a whole lot of evidence for any serious negatives.” One caveat: Don’t take creatine if you have a kidney condition, says Phillips. However, for healthy individuals, decades of research demonstrates no adverse effects from recommended dosages of creatine supplements on kidney health.
Not all creatine sources are equal. If you want to try creatine, first find a quality powder or pill. “Only buy creatine from a reputable manufacturer and reputable supplement store,” says Brian Quebbemann, MD, founder of The N.E.W. Program in Newport Beach, CA. “What matters is the purity and concentration, so read the label. If a supplement has a low concentration of pure creatine, or creatine monohydrate, you’ll need to ingest more to get the same benefit.”
When Should I Take Creatine?
Fans of post-workout creatine point to a 2013 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. In it, 19 male recreational bodybuilders were randomly divided into two groups. One group took 5g of creatine monohydrate before workouts, and another group took the same amount of creatine immediately following its workouts. The men trained five days a week for four weeks and consumed 1.9g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. While creatine boosted strength and muscle mass among all men in the study, those who took creatine after working out gained more lean mass and increased their bench-press one-rep max more than men who took the supplement pre-workout.
However, that study is seen as just one data point in a set of mixed results. A 2021 review in Nutrients found that while consuming creatine post-exercise provides a benefit, it’s unclear whether that post-workout is optimal. Further, the researchers questioned if workout timing mattered at all—though they stated that in general consuming creatine closer to exercise is better. The authors also explored why exactly that might be. While their findings were inconclusive, they suggested that exercise and its effects on muscle tissue improved the delivery of creatine.
Another review, published in 2022 by Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, concluded that there was insufficient evidence to claim that either taking creatine before or after exercise provided greater benefit. However, all studies and reviews agree on a few things: creatine is effective, more research is needed, and that consuming it before or after exercise—within two hours—may increase its effectiveness.
How Much Creatine Should I Take?
Research shows that a daily serving of 3 to 5g (that’s 0.1 g/kg of body mass/day) of creatine monohydrate leads to the most effective results. This dosage is also recommended by the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Larger supplement doses may be used initially to load creatine, but the body’s capacity for creatine has a limit and any surplus passes through (and out of) your system.
What Is the Best Way to Take Creatine?
You can take creatine by dissolving it in a beverage, blending it in a smoothie or protein shake, or taking it alone in a capsule form. There is no one way that is better than the other, just make sure you’re measuring out the proper dosage.
Can I mix creatine with protein?
While creatine is an amino acid, the building blocks of protein, it doesn’t double as a protein supplement. However, there’s no harm in combining creatine with a post-workout protein shake. Many athletes prefer the simplicity of combining the two supplements.
Can I take creatine on an empty stomach?
Studies into this have found mixed results. Some studies suggest taking creatine with carbs can help boost effectiveness for building muscle, but others suggest that this has no effect. Some nutritionists also suggest spreading your creatine dosage out throughout the day and combining it with a meal with carbs where possible—and drinking plenty of water.
Can I skip creatine for a day?
Research suggests that creatine stores can remain high if creatine supplementation is skipped here and there, but it is not recommended to skip creatine supplementation. Even on rest days creatine should still be taken to maintain creatine stores in the muscles. Just know that it is okay if you accidentally forget to take creatine one day.
Should I load creatine?
Loading creatine may be the quickest method of increasing creatine stores in the muscles. It simply entails consuming about 0.3 g/kg/day (~20-25g/day) of creatine monohydrate for the first 5-7 days. However, taking the standard dosage will have the same effect—getting your creatine stores topped off—after about 30 days. The most important aspect of creatine supplementation is to take 3–5 g/day for maintenance of creatine stores.
Can creatine affect sleep?
Studies continue to suggest that creatine may play a role in improving cognitive function. Specifically, research is ongoing to determine what effect, if any, creatine has on sleep. A few human studies have shown creatine to improve mood, balance, and reaction time after periods of sleep deprivation. At this time, more research is needed to determine any direct effects of creatine on sleep markers, such as quality of sleep.