Scientific studies show that the best time to take creatine is close to a workout, and using it as a post-workout supplement might offer the most benefits.
For many athletes and bodybuilders, the question is not if you should take creatine. After all, it is the number one dietary supplement for increased athletic performance. Instead, many wonder when the best time to take creatine is.
After reading this article, you’ll be up-to-date with the latest research and know how to time your creatine intake for the best results and whether it’s worth doing so.
What Is Creatine?
Creatine is a naturally occurring compound that plays a crucial role in the metabolism of your body’s cells.
While many people refer to creatine as an amino acid, it is not an actual amino acid in the traditional sense but an amino acid derivative.
Your body makes creatine from other amino acids in the kidneys and liver.
Around 95% of the creatine in the human body is stored in skeletal muscle tissue, with the rest found in organs like the brain and the heart.
Your body needs 1–3 g of creatine per day to maintain normal muscle creatine stores. About half comes from the diet, primarily animal products such as red meat and fish. Your kidneys and liver synthesize the remaining amount.
Vegetarian diets provide less creatine. Hence, vegans and vegetarians don’t have as much creatine in their muscles as people who eat meat.
Creatine is also available in supplement form, commonly used by athletes, bodybuilders, and fitness enthusiasts.
It is the number one dietary supplement for increased athletic performance, and you might already use it to boost your workout performance and strength gains.
How Does Creatine Work?
Of the numerous dietary supplements aimed at improving sports performance, creatine deserves a special place.
Not only is it one of the most popular supplements, but it is also one of the most studied and scientifically supported by extensive research. Creatine is backed by over 500 studies and is proven highly effective for enhancing physical performance during high-intensity exercise.
The majority of the creatine in your diet or from supplements forms phosphocreatine to serve as an energy source for producing a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
ATP: The Principal Molecule for Storing and Transferring Energy in Cells
ATP is the primary energy source for almost all the cells in your body. Yes, your body uses carbs, fat, and protein as energy sources, but ATP is the only directly serviceable energy molecule for your cells.
ATP provides enough energy for a burst of high-intensity exercise, but your muscles can only store limited amounts. Once you’re out, your body produces new ATP through three possible methods: rapid glycolysis, aerobic oxidation, and the ATP–creatine phosphate system.
Creatine phosphate does not directly provide energy to your muscles. Instead, it donates a high-energy phosphate group to a compound called adenosine diphosphate (ADP), regenerating the ATP your muscles can use to continue working.
The ATP–creatine phosphate system provides ATP for approximately 30 seconds of sprinting, weightlifting, or regular strength training.
It’s what you use in your intense workouts, in other words.
Creatine Boosts the Energy Transfer in Your Muscle Cells
You can increase the creatine phosphate storage in your muscles through creatine supplementation, enhancing the energy transfer in the muscle cell.
Increasing the creatine phosphate stores in your muscles allows for more rapid ATP regeneration during high-intensity exercise, improving strength, power, muscle recovery time, and overall exercise performance.
In the gym, it translates to a few more reps.
Creatine also pulls water into muscle cells, which may activate muscle protein synthesis and result in greater gains in lean muscle mass.
Creatine has no significant effect on endurance training performance, although it can be helpful to boost sprints and spurts.
Health Benefits of Creatine
In addition to improved sports performance, creatine might offer several potential health benefits, including the following:
- Supporting cognitive function in older adults
- Preventing age-related muscle loss
- Supporting heart health
- Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels
- Protecting the brain after a traumatic brain injury or spinal cord injury
- Keeping your immune system healthy
- Reducing fatigue and increasing energy levels when you haven’t gotten enough sleep
- Improving mental health
- Supporting reproductive health
How Much Creatine to Take
A typical creatine supplementation protocol involves two parts, the loading phase and the maintenance phase.
- For the first 5–7 days, take a higher dosage to saturate your muscles with creatine, typically 20–25 grams of creatine monohydrate daily, divided into 4–5 equal doses. For example, you could take five grams of creatine four times a day.
- After the loading phase, switch to a smaller dose of 3-5 grams of creatine daily to maintain elevated levels in your muscles. Large and muscular athletes might need 10 grams daily to preserve their creatine stores.
However, you can skip the loading phase and start directly with the maintenance phase. Achieving optimal creatine levels in the muscles will take longer, but the end result is the same.
Older adults should include the loading phase for optimal results and strength gains.
If you’re in a hurry and want to maximize the performance benefits of creatine in a month or less, go with the loading strategy and start with 20 grams per day for a week. Otherwise, a lower daily dose will yield similar results, although you will have to wait a few extra weeks to load your muscles with enough creatine to see the benefits.
Typical Creatine Supplementation Protocols
Some studies show that your muscles store creatine more effectively when your insulin levels are elevated. Therefore, take your creatine with a meal containing carbs or protein.
Mixing it with protein powder and gulping it down as part of your pre-or post-workout nutrient timing is a convenient way to combine your creatine and protein supplements and kill two birds with one stone: increased insulin levels for more efficient creatine uptake and essential amino acids to boost muscle protein synthesis. You can also add carbs if you like.
If you use pre-workout supplements, check if it contains creatine. Manufacturers often add it to their products. Depending on the amount, you might not need a full dose of a regular creatine supplement.
On rest days, take your creatine with a meal of your choice.
When to Take Creatine
Unlike supplements like caffeine, which helps you lift more weight and do more reps the hours after you take it, creatine does not have an immediate performance-enhancing effect.
Instead, the effects of creatine are all about filling your muscles as effectively as possible and maintaining high levels they can use for energy production during your workouts.
Still, creatine timing can affect how effectively your muscles store creatine. Taking creatine close to a workout is more advantageous than taking it during any other time of the day for increasing muscle creatine content.
The jury is out on whether the best time to take creatine is before or after your strength training workouts.
In theory, taking your creatine before working out would provide the best results.
- Creatine peaks approximately one hour after ingestion and remains elevated for around four hours.
- During your training session, the blood flow to your muscles increases 100-fold. However, it rapidly returns to baseline within 30 minutes after your workout.
- Combining pre-exercise creatine with enhanced blood flow to your working muscles should in theory lead to increased creatine delivery and uptake into your muscles.
Theories don’t always translate into real-world results, though, as we’ll soon discover.
The Best Time to Take Creatine: The Research
Several studies have examined if the timing of creatine supplementation around training sessions makes any difference in muscle growth and strength gains.
Most research suggests that taking creatine before or after a workout is more effective than at any other time. However, most studies fail to see a difference between pre-and post-workout creatine supplementation.
There are a few exceptions.
In a 2013 study, recreational male bodybuilders took five grams of creatine immediately before or after training and whenever they wanted on rest days.
After four weeks, the bodybuilders taking creatine post-workout had increased their lean body mass by 3% and their 1RM bench press by 7.5%.
Those who took creatine before training experienced a 1.3% increase in fat-free mass and a 6.8% 1-RM bench press improvement: a significant difference.
Accordingly, the researchers concluded that consuming creatine immediately post-workout is superior to pre-workout for improving body composition and strength.
Two years later, another study found similar results.
Untrained older adults were divided into three groups:
- Creatine before and placebo after training.
- Placebo before and creatine after training.
- Placebo before and after training.
After 32 weeks of three weekly resistance training workouts, the researchers found that creatine intake helped improve muscle strength compared to placebo, independent of timing.
However, only those who had taken creatine after working out increased their muscle mass more than those who only received a placebo. A small difference, but a difference nontheless.
Other than these two studies, research suggests similar benefits from supplementing with creatine before of after training.
The Best Time to Take Creatine: The Evidence
The best time to take creatine is before or after your workouts.
Most research suggests that taking creatine before a training session (either immediately or an hour or two before) and after a training session (first thing after or an hour or two later) produces similar improvements in strength and lean mass.
According to a few studies, taking creatine post-workout can provide better results in the form of increased muscle mass, but not strength, compared to taking creatine before a resistance exercise session.
However, the available studies are few, and the methodological quality could be better. For example, only one study included a placebo control group. In addition, the small sample size of most of the studies renders the results inconclusive.
Until more research is available, it’s likely safe to say that the timing of your creatine intake is of no genuine concern as long as you take it reasonably close to your workouts.
The bottom line: creatine is an effective supplement whether you take it before or after training.
There might be slightly greater benefits to be had by taking it post-workout, but the evidence is inconclusive, and it most likely comes down to personal preference.
Should You Take Creatine on Rest Days?
The short answer is yes.
Your body breaks down 1–2% of the creatine stored in your muscles daily. It turns into creatinine, following your pee out of your body.
The more muscle mass you have and the more physically active you are, the higher the daily degradation of creatine to creatinine.
That’s why taking creatine every day, even on rest days, is a good idea. It keeps your creatine stores topped up at an optimal level.
It’s also easier to habitually take creatine if you do so daily.
The good news is that it won’t make a noticeable difference if you miss a day of taking creatine now and then. It takes time for your creatine levels to deplete significantly.
Ideally, however, you should take it every day.
Which Creatine Is Best?
The most widely researched and commonly used form of creatine, by far, is creatine monohydrate.
Monohydrate is considered the gold standard and is the only type of creatine with substantial scientific support regarding bioavailability, efficacy, and safety.
Other forms of creatine, such as creatine ethyl ester, creatine pyruvate, buffered creatine, and creatine nitrate, have been marketed as potentially offering better absorption and effect.
However, no research supports using any novel forms of creatine over creatine monohydrate. They are, at best, no more effective, only more expensive. At worst, they are a waste of money.
Is Creatine Safe?
According to scientific research, creatine supplements are safe for adults with no significant side effects. They also appear to be generally safe and potentially beneficial for children and adolescents.
Multiple studies lasting for years show that creatine has no significant adverse effects in athletes, the general population, or in people with various medical conditions.
There is no evidence that creatine leads to kidney damage, dehydration, or muscle cramps, three of the common myths about creatine use. If you already have kidney disease, you should not experiment with creatine without a doctor’s approval, but creatine won’t cause it.
The only potential side effects of creatine supplementation in healthy people are weight gain and stomach issues.
Any weight gain you might experience when using creatine is lean body mass, which is advantageous for anyone looking for increased strength, power output, and muscle mass, particularly strength athletes.
The added body water is almost entirely stored in your muscles, not under your skin, meaning it won’t make you look bloated.
High doses of creatine (10 grams or more) can cause gastrointestinal distress and diarrhea. Not dangerous, but unpleasant. That’s why spreading your intake into lower doses over the day is a good idea.
Final Words and Conclusion
There you have it! Let’s break it down:
- Creatine is highly effective for improving athletic performance in high-intensity exercise tasks. Monohydrate is the go-to type of creatine.
- A daily dosage of ~5 grams of creatine effectively fills your muscles with creatine and improves performance. Creatine loading is not necessary but speeds up the process.
- Taking creatine before or after working out is likely more beneficial than taking it at other times during the day.
- On rest days, take your creatine with a meal.
- Research does not support a clear advantage of taking creatine before or after working out, although post-exercise creatine might offer a slight benefit.
Ultimately, the most important thing is that you consistently consume the recommended dosage of creatine daily to maintain elevated muscle levels.
Creatine is your number one dietary supplement for improving various athletic and sporting activities, and the timing is less critical than maintaining consistent daily intake.
Want to learn more about dietary supplements? Which ones are worth your money, and which are questionable or useless? Check our StrengthLog’s Supplement Guide, our free guide where I review 26 of the most popular supplements.
For more about creatine and other supplements, take a look at these great resources:
- >> Creatine: Effects, Benefits and Safety
- >> The Five Best and Worst Supplements For Your Gains
- >> The Best Supplements to Get Shredded in 2023
- >> The 10 Best Bodybuilding Supplements for Men Over 50
- Nutrients 2022, 14(5), 1035. Bioavailability, Efficacy, Safety, and Regulatory Status of Creatine and Related Compounds: A Critical Review.
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2017; 14: 18. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine.
- Nutrient Metabolism: Structures, Functions, and Genes. 2nd Edition – May 8, 2015.
- Sports Medicine 53, 1017–1027 (2023). Effects of Creatine Monohydrate on Endurance Performance in a Trained Population: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.
- Open Access J Sports Med. 2017; 8: 213–226. Effect of creatine supplementation during resistance training on lean tissue mass and muscular strength in older adults: a meta-analysis.
- Nutrients. 2021 Feb; 13(2): 447. Creatine in Health and Disease.
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition volume 18, Article number: 13 (2021). Common questions and misconceptions about creatine supplementation: what does the scientific evidence really show?
- Nutrients 2021, 13(6), 1912. Meta-Analysis Examining the Importance of Creatine Ingestion Strategies on Lean Tissue Mass and Strength in Older Adults.
- Nutrients. 2021 Aug; 13(8): 2844. Timing of Creatine Supplementation around Exercise: A Real Concern?
- Front. Sports Act. Living, 20 May 2022. Creatine O’Clock: Does Timing of Ingestion Really Influence Muscle Mass and Performance?
- Front Nutr. 2018; 5: 115. Safety of Creatine Supplementation in Active Adolescents and Youth: A Brief Review.