Creatine is one of the most widely used supplements in the fitness industry and for good reason. There is a ton of research available that shows creatine helps to promote increases in skeletal muscle mass, lean body mass, muscle fiber size, intramuscular creatine and phosphocreatine. There is also plenty of evidence that creatine helps to increase muscle strength, energy and power. So we know creatine is plenty valuable, but what I’ve never seen much conclusive evidence on is when the best time to take it is, if there is one, and if cycling is necessary. Everyone has their theories, but I personally like to see the data and not listen to bro-science.
In this article we will be looking specifically at creatine monohydrate. If you remember my creatine ethyl ester vs. creatine monohydrate article, I don’t see any point in using any other form of creatine, but of course to each their own. Besides most research out there uses creatine monohydrate, so that just makes things simpler.
Creatine is made from a combination of 3 amino acids: glycine, arginine and methionine. Creatine works by allowing you to train harder and longer by increasing your ATP stores. ATP is also your body’s first choice of energy when training anaerobically is creatine phosphate stores. If you are storing more creatine phosphate it only makes sense you’ll have more energy for strength training. Creatine allows the muscle cells to hold more water and in turn more ions.
Muscle cells will get saturated with creatine regardless when you take it, this we know for sure. The only question is if there is a time muscles are more likely to take in creatine. One common thought is if creatine gives you more energy wouldn’t taking creatine pre-workout make the most sense? It sounds good in theory but I’d have to say not really. Supplementing with creatine will increase your ATP stores as well as your creatine phosphate stores which is what will allow you to train harder and longer. So the creatine your body would use in your upcoming workout would come from creatine phosphate stores already in the cells, not from the creatine you just took before your workout. The effects of taking creatine happen over time, so it’s not something you will utilize right away.
In doing a lot of research it was quickly becoming clear it did not matter when you took creatine. That was until I came across research published in the Official Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine. In this study researchers split subjects into two different groups during a 10 week study. Both groups consumed creatine twice per day. One group took a dose once in the morning and once again in the evening while the other group took a dose once before working out and once again immediately after working out. The group who took the creatine pre and post-workout had greater increases in strength on the bench press, squat, and deadlifts and they gained more lean mass. The two groups had the same amount of creatine, protein, and carbohydrates but one group had much more positive results.
As I mentioned this was the only research I could find that definitively showed one time of the day to be superior than any other. One possible explanation could be the random chance of certain subjects being people who respond well or not well to creatine. Not everyone’s response to creatine is the same and if someone already stores a lot of creatine on their own, supplementing won’t do as much as it would for someone who has naturally low levels. Especially as you age, creatine levels will drop. I’m not dismissing the study, the results are there and should be taken into account, but I’m also not ready to say this is for sure the way to go either.
That research had creatine before and after exercise, so the next question would be if we do think taking creatine around training is the way to go, which is better pre or post-workout? If you are taking caffeine before your workout it may be best to wait for post-workout. Vandenberghe et al (1996) showed that caffeine counteracts with muscle-creatine loading. On the other hand if you are taking in carbohydrates research has shown combining carbs and creatine can help to increase retention of creatine within the muscles. So as always your own protocols play a role in what you should do individually.
The bottom line is as long as are you taking in creatine daily your muscles will store it and you will benefit from it. Research isn’t very clear on what time of the day is best to take it but if I was forced to pick a time I’d say post-workout makes the most sense, especially if you are taking in post-workout carbs. The insulin could potentially help drive the creatine into the muscles and your body tends to absorb nutrients better post-workout anyway. The real answer to what time of day is the best, however, is whatever time you are most likely to take it on a consistent basis.
The next question regarding creatine is if loading is necessary. Some people swear by loading, around 15-30 grams per day for the first 5 days or so, and then cutting back to the recommended 5 grams daily after that. One thing I can tell you for sure is loading is not necessary, but it will allow your to realize the benefits faster. This will allow your body to quickly saturate the muscles with creatine and see the results faster. Whether you load or stick with 5 grams per day right from the start, in the long run it will be exactly the same which is why I don’t care to load myself.
Another common question when it comes to creatine is if cycling is necessary. This is a very tough one and there is no real research available to support creatine cycling. The thought is after time your body will stop producing as much creatine on its own or the number of receptors that admit creatine into the cell will diminish. There are studies that show a decrease in creatine transporter content after long-term supplementation of creatine in rats, but this has never been duplicated in humans.
There are a lot of theories out there for why one should cycle creatine, but I’ve never found any data to back it up. Whether you choose to or not is totally up to you. I recommend experimenting for yourself and seeing how your body responds to different protocols. The protocol I used for a long time was to stay on creatine for 4-5 months at a time, and then take an entire month off. I’ve noticed strength stays the same during the time off, but when I return it increases again. I’m currently experimenting with a new protocol, but it’s way too early to know how it will work. Trying new things is the only way to know definitively how your body will respond.