It is universally accepted that Creatine, one of the most popular sports supplements around, is effective in building lean muscle, however there is a lot of debate over how to take it.
Do you take it all in one go or split your doses? When should it be taken for the best effect? Are there times when taking creatine might be ineffective or a bad choice? There is a lot of information that can help make these decisions easier.
Creatine Pre or Post Workouts
Whether Creatine is more effective taken before or after a workout is quite the controversy, with passionate advocates on both sides of the debate.
As creatine is the type of supplement that accumulates and stays in the muscles for a long time, the main concern is not that the supplement reaches the muscles at the time where it would be of maximum benefit, as is the case with many popular supplements, like NO boosters during a workout or BCAAs for recovery. Instead, maximising absorption is the goal.
As single doses larger than 5g can be poorly absorbed and cause stomach upset, larger doses can be split and taken both before and after a workout. A recent study compared pre and post-workout supplementation and found that if taking a single daily dose, there is a small but significant benefit to taking this after a workout (1).
Creatine for Bulking
Creatine should be compulsory for anyone serious about bulking. Because creatine is one of the best studied supplements around, not only for its role in sports nutrition, but because it can be used medically to treat a number of conditions, there is a lot of high quality research out there showing that creatine can enhance muscle gains (2).
It is true that creatine can cause water retention in this muscles, and it cops a bit of criticism from people who say that weight gains from creatine are not "real". While the retained water does make the muscles swell, this should not take away from creatine as a legitimate muscle builder. In fact, there is ressearch showing that the swelling of the cells stimulates the body to lay down more muscle (3). Creatine also stimulates the cells from which new muscle fibres are created (4). In addition, the ergogenic benefits of creatine provide the strength and power to push harder, for longer, supporting bigger gains.
Creatine While Cutting
Creatine does cause water retention, although many people say this can be minimised by eliminating the loading phase, or using creatine nitrate instead of the more common monohydrate.
Water weight can soften that hard edged "cut" look, so many athletes do stop creatine supplementation during cutting. Creatine takes about 28 days to leave the muscles, so many competitive bodybuilders lay off the creatine for three weeks to a month before a competition (5).
Creatine on a Keto Diet
A ketogenic diet severly restricts carbohydrates. Instead of relying on glucose from glycogen, the body instead uses ketones, which are produced from the breakdown of fat stores.
It is well known that creatine is best taken with high GI carbs, because the insulin spike plays a large role in efficiently absorbing creatine into the body. Therefore, creatine may not be as effective when used in the absence of glucose (6).
There are a few things you can do to maximise creatine absorption on a keto diet.
Keto diets are not often used in the long term, and people cycle on and cycle off, or carb up. As creatine accumulates and stays in the muscle for up to a month, loading creatine during the carb up can produce raised levels during the keto cycle. It has been noted that a keto diet is typically very high in natural sources of creatine, like meat, which can help maintain levels.
Creatine will still be absorbed in the absence of carbs, albeit at a reduced level ,and there are some things you can do to maximise absorption. It has been shown that creatine is better absorbed after exercise (1,6). Many keto dieters also use a small dose of carbs (10g or so) after a workout to aid recovery. Timing these two things together, and ensuring the carbs used are high GI to maximise the insulin spike may enhance absorption. Taking a higher creatine dose can mean a greater amount is absorbed, and finally, drink a lot of water. Keto diets are dehydrating, and creatine requires water for storage and activity.
Creatine Before Sleep
Although it is not a stimulant, creatine stimulation has anecdotally been reported to cause restlessness and insomnia. While there has not been a direct study on this phenomenon, indirect research has not indicated to be the case (7).
As well as being an ergogenic, creatine has shown a great deal of promise as a cognitive enhancer, and has been widely used in the elderly to attenuate age-related decline (8). It has similar effects on overcoming the cognitive effects of sleep deprivation as caffeine (9), so it is not unreasonable to expect that it might interfere with sleep in some people.
The effects of creatine are not dependent on the time of day it is taken so it can theoretically be taken before bed, but because it's best taken with high GI carbs and lots of water, it might not lend itself to the most restful sleep.
(1) Antonio J, Ciccone V. The effects of pre versus post workout supplementation of creatine monohydrate on body composition and strength. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013 Aug 6;10(1):36.
(2) Gualano B, Roschel H, Lancha-Jr AH, Brightbill CE, Rawson ES. In sickness and in health: the widespread application of creatine supplementation. Amino Acids. 2012 Aug;43(2):519-29.
(3) Niisato N, et al. Cell swelling activates stress-activated protein kinases, p38 MAP kinase and JNK, in renal epithelial A6 cells. Biochem Biophys Res Commun. (1999)
(4) Olsen, S.; Aagaard, P; Kadi, F; Tufekovic, G; Verney, J; Olesen, JL; Suetta, C; Kjaer, M (2006)."Creatine supplementation augments the increase in satellite cell and myonuclei number in human skeletal muscle induced by strength training". The Journal of Physiology 573 (2): 525–34.
(5) Francaux M, Poortmans JR. Side effects of creatine supplementation in athletes. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2006 Dec;1(4):311-23.
(6) McCall W, Persky AM. Pharmacokinetics of creatine. Subcell Biochem. 2007;46:261-73.
(7) Alves CR, Santiago BM, Lima FR, Otaduy MC, Calich AL, Tritto AC, de Sá Pinto AL, Roschel H, Leite CC, Benatti FB, Bonfá E, Gualano B. Creatine supplementation in fibromyalgia: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Arthritis Care Res (Hoboken). 2013 Sep;65(9):1449-59.
(8) Rawson ES, Venezia AC. Use of creatine in the elderly and evidence for effects on cognitive function in young and old. Amino Acids. 2011 May;40(5):1349-62.
(9) Cook CJ, Crewther BT, Kilduff LP, Drawer S, Gaviglio CM. Skill execution and sleep deprivation: effects of acute caffeine or creatine supplementation - a randomized placebo-controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2011 Feb 16;8:2.