What is creatine?
Creatine is a popular performance enhancing supplement used by bodybuilders, gym enthusiasts and athletes to help improve their strength, weight lifting capabilities and muscle mass.
It is a substance – produced by amino acids (glycine and arginine) – that is naturally found in your muscle cells, whose job is to produce energy (high energy molecule ATP) during intense physical activity and heavy lifting. In fact, 95% of your body’s creatine is stored in your muscles in the form of phosphocreatine (the other 5% can be found in your brain, kidneys and liver).
Now these stores can be affected by a number of things, but most importantly by how much exercise you do, the meat you eat, your muscle mass, and your testosterone and IGF-1 levels. And this is important as the more ATP you have, the better equipped you’ll be to work harder in the gym.
Basically what happens is that, during high intensity exercise, creatine helps to increase your phosphocreatine stores in your muscles. These extra stores can then be used to create additional ATP, which is an essential energy source for muscular contraction.
Creatine can also influence cellular processes which can lead to increased muscle mass, strength and muscle recovery, making it an ideal supplement for bodybuilders.
Creatine can improve your muscle mass by:
- Boosting your workload (allowing you to do more work during one session)
- Increasing satellite cell signalling (encouraging muscle repair and new muscle growth)
- Raising the production of anabolic hormones IGF-1
- Increasing water content/hydration in your muscles cells causing cell volumization (which can influence muscle growth)
- Lowering myostatin levels (bolstering muscle growth) and reducing protein breakdown.
Why take creatine? The benefits
Creatine may be well known for its muscle building capabilities, but this nutrient has got some other tricks up its sleeve as well.
So before you ask yourself “when should I take creatine” you might first want to consider “why take creatine”:
- Memory support – 5% of your natural creatine stores can be found in your brain. And this is good news as it can improve your concentration/focus and help protect you against neurological diseases.
- Physical performance – in many ways creatine can supply your body with the fuel it needs to over perform and workout harder, as it can offer you bursts of speed and energy.
- Increased lean muscle mass – creatine prevents the breakdown of protein, offering your muscles added protection against muscle loss.
- Hastened muscle recovery during exercise.
- Improved strength – studies have shown strength gains of 5-10% when combined with weight training.
- Anti-aging properties – alongside bolstering muscle recovery, creatine can also replenish and create new cells, improving their overall elasticity.
- Treatment of health conditions caused by weakened muscles: heart failure/heart attack; Huntington’s disease, muscular dystrophy and amyotrophic later sclerosis (ALS).
- Lower high cholesterol levels.
So when should I take creatine?
So we answered the question “why take creatine”; now let’s move on to the question you want the answer to the most: “when to take creatine?”
Supplementing on days you exercise
On days when you hit the gym, exercise or simply lift weights, you’ve got three options on when to take creatine:
- Shortly before you exercise – preferably 30 minutes before you start your workout (take 5g in one dose).
- Shortly after you exercise – this should be no later than 30 minutes after you have finished exercising (again take 5g in one dose).
- At a time that isn’t close to when you want to exercise (so basically in the morning or in the evening) – this option rests on the theory that taking creatine just before or after exercise is supplementation superstition. Remove exercise, and creatine is still good for you – so why put so much pressure on nutrient timing and when is the best time to take creatine? Instead, simply split your dose into small portions and take it throughout the day.
Of these three, the latter produces the weakest results. In one 10 week study, participants who took creatine in the evening gained less strength and muscle mass than those who took the supplement just before/after they exercised.
So, should you take it after you exercise?
There are definitely some perks to taking creatine after exercise, the primary being its ability to increase muscle recovery.
Remember, after hitting the gym hard your muscles will be torn up, beaten and will be completely depleted of essential nutrients – you will have pushed your muscle fibers to the limit.
Taking creatine post workout can provide your starving muscle cells with the fuel i.e. the nutrients, it needs to repair these torn muscle fibers; build muscle and retain your lean mass gains. This is especially true, if you take a creatine supplement that has been paired with carbohydrates and protein.
What about shortly before your exercise?
Again, there is merit to this idea.
Think about it…
By taking creatine just before you train, can instantly supply your muscle cells with enough phosphocreatine to handle even the craziest of workouts. Instead, your cells will be able to readily transform it into ATP – energy – and give your routine all the fuel it needs to succeed.
More creatine = More ATP = More lifting power (from activating your muscle fibers) = bigger muscles.
Supplementing on rest days
Obviously, supplementing on rest days is less important than on exercise days, but this doesn’t mean you can’t still benefit from it.
If you’re determined to keep creatine at optimal levels, then it makes sense to use these rest days to keep the creatine content in your muscles elevated. For that reason, split your creatine dose in two and take one in the morning and one in the afternoon (no more than 5g in one day).
So when is the best time to take creatine?
If we’re brutally honest – whenever!
As long as you take it just before or after your exercise, it doesn’t matter which one you choose as you will still experience the EXACT SAME RESULTS. The only time it isn’t beneficial for strength and muscle building, is if you take it nowhere near exercise.
All you need to remember is: NEVER take more than 5g of creatine a day (if you aren’t loading).
Should you take anything else with it?
Whilst our bodies can create a large portion of creatine on its own; you can help supplement this store with your dietary choices. Meat and fish for example are a great way to boost these levels as they are rich in carbs and protein.
Yet this is not all you can do to optimize your results. You can also try investing in creatine supplements that have been formulated using protein, carbs, amino acids, cinnamon and variety of plant-based compounds. Each of these can help to increase the effectiveness of creatine.
Now, most creatine supplements already contain protein and carbs, as carbs in the particular can increase how much creatine is taken up by your muscles.
If that is the case, you will need to be careful with your diet as excess carbs can trigger weight gain if you don’t need/use up the extra calories. For instance, in one study they encouraged participants to have 100g of carbs per day alongside creatine – that is 400 extra calories. Now unless you plan to do something to burn all of that off, you could find yourself piling on the pounds.
The safest thing to do, is to take creatine as part of a normal carb-containing diet, but don’t eat too many carbs.
Similarly, you will need to eat a healthy amount of protein to ensure that you have got plenty of amino acids to help retain creatine.
How to dose creatine for good results
We’ve talked a little about creatine dosage already, but to truly understand when to take creatine and whey protein, you should follow this dosing plan. Do this and you can maximize your results:
- You should load for only 5-7 days to help saturate your cells with creatine. Typically, dosages during this loading phase should be 20g per day, which you split into four 5g servings. NOTE: technically you can skip the loading phrase and just stick to use 3-5g of creatine per day; however, it will take you a full 3-4 weeks to maximize your stores.
- For the following period, you should take 3-5g of creatine per day as this will help to maintain your creatine levels (the exact amount you will need to have will depend on your weight).
Now the great thing about creatine is that there is no need to cycle. You can basically stick to just 3-5g of creatine per day (for as long as you need) to help build up muscle and increase your lean tissue mass.
Just remember to drink plenty of water with each dose (to keep yourself hydrated) as creatine has a habit of pulling water into your muscle cells.
Read also: Is it better to use creatine pills or powder? >>
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