If you want to make serious gains in the gym, it’s not just about how heavy you go, how many sets you bang out, or how many reps you can push before failure. Your nutrition outside the gym is just as important, if not more, than how hard you’re going in your workouts.
If you want to see amazing gains, you need to be fueling your body properly. And not just with food—supplements, too.
A supplement protocol will make all the difference between good, great, and out of this world, so getting your stack on point should be one of the first things you do. But when we get to the supplement protocol, it’s also important to time your nutrients properly, because it’s not just about what you’re taking, but also when.
There’s no question that creatine and pre-workout are two of the most widely consumed fitness supplements around both by novice lifters and professional athletes, but when it comes to taking them, what’s the best option?
We’re covering the basics of why creatine should be in your stack, the benefits it offers to your performance, and if you should combine it with pre-workout for a bigger and better effect or let it shine on its own.
Let’s get going.
What Is Creatine?
If you’re looking for maximum muscle gains in the gym, chances are you’ve probably seen or heard creatine come up a few times. It’s a bodybuilder’s best supplement friend for that exact reason—it’s great for adding mass.
Creatine is a naturally occurring molecule produced in the body at rates of about 1g per day 1. It’s produced primarily in the liver and kidneys, with smaller amounts produced by the pancreas.
For people that eat meat, they’re also getting about 1g per day through diet. And of all the creatine consumed and produced within the body, 95% of it is stored in skeletal muscles, with the remaining 5% scattered throughout the brain, liver, kidney, and testes 2.
However, for vegetarians and vegans, getting creatine from the diet can be quite challenging, as it’s found in muscle meats, so supplementing becomes a must.
As a supplement, creatine is most well-known in the fitness industry as an ergogenic aid to improve exercise performance and lean body mass. When taken exogenously, it can boost intramuscular and cerebral creatine stores, along with its phosphorylated form, phosphocreatine 2.
By boosting stores, it can offer some pretty hefty benefits towards preventing ATP depletion, stimulating muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and reducing muscle protein degradation, along with stabilizing biological membranes.
We’ll talk more about why creatine is a staple right now.
The Benefits Of Adding Creatine To Your Stack
Like we just said, one of the most apparent reasons for supplementing creatine for athletes and fitness buffs is because it can enhance strength, fat-free mass, and muscle morphology when combined with a heavy resistance training program 1.
Most available research on the effects of creatine on performance shows that exogenous creatine supplementation increases the body’s creatine pool, which helps improve creatine uptake and, thus, exercise performance.
One study found a significant increase in strength performance after just 12 weeks of creatine supplementation when combined with periodized heavy resistance training 3. The protocol comprised a one-week loading period of 25g/d followed by a 5g maintenance dose for the remaining duration of the training.
The positive effects seen were the result of an increased total creatine pool, which led to more rapid regeneration of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) between resistance training sets.
When ATP regeneration is higher, more intense training can be sustained, thereby allowing for better strength and more substantial gains. Basically, you can train harder for longer and have significantly welled workouts.
But creatine also plays a role in muscle growth. Research shows that creatine supplementation in young, healthy males can enhance muscle fiber size and increase lean body mass. This is typically done by following a creatine loading protocol, which can increase lean mass when combined with heavy resistance training 4.
The study we mentioned above found that creatine supplementation led to an increase in muscle fiber diameter in both type 1 and type 2 muscle fibers by a whopping 35%, whereas those following a resistance training protocol but not supplementing creatine saw only a 6-15% increase 3. These drastic increases in muscle mass may result from increased protein synthesis and/or reduced muscle protein catabolism.
In general, studies repeatedly show that creatine supplementation can benefit athletes by 2:
- Increasing muscular force and power
- Reducing fatigue in repeated bout activities
- Increasing muscle mass
- Improving lean mass
Can You Stack Creatine And Pre-Workout?
The short answer here is yes, you can stack creatine with pre-workout to achieve some pretty impressive results in and out of the gym, but if you take a look at any serious athlete or bodybuilder’s supplement stack, you’ll likely notice that creatine and pre-workout are found as two distinct supplements.
When you look at the nitty-gritty of what a pre-workout and creatine do, there are several similarities—the most obvious being that they bump up energy levels to help you train at higher intensities for longer durations.
However, the mechanisms behind how they do this is different. While creatine directly supports faster ATP regeneration, caffeine boosts energy by acting as a potent adenosine antagonist to prevent fatigue. It’s the reason your nervous system gets a kick, and you see a faster heart rate, higher blood pressure, and more energy.
Basically, the two compounds work together—not against each other—to support better overall performance.
But while there are some obvious advantages to combining them, it turns out that it may be more beneficial to consume them separately.
There are two reasons why:
#1 Caffeine May Inhibit The Absorption Of Creatine
Caffeine and creatine are a duo you see often. Whether it’s in the form of pre-workout or a coffee knocked back after a scoop of creatine to get you pumped at the gym.
But as some research shows, when you consume to pair together, you may not be absorbing as much creatine as you think. And as a result, you may not be reaching your full performance potential when you hit the gym.
There may not be any pharmacokinetic interactions between caffeine and creatine because they both work on their own pathways that rarely interact with one another, but there is some research supporting the fact that some of the ergogenic benefits of creatine loading may be blunted when caffeine is present in the bloodstream.
However, it’s also important to keep in mind that this conclusion is based on a single study that looked at levels of muscle phosphocreatine (PCr) and performance after consumption of oral creatine only and a creatine supplement combined with caffeine 4.
Results of the study found that although the conditions differed, muscle ATP concentrations remained the same, and torque production with significantly higher in the group taking only creatine; the group supplementing creatine with caffeine saw no change in torque production.
While the results suggest that some benefits of creatine may be lower when combined with caffeine, it’s minimal and not likely applicable in a broader context.
#2 You’re Likely Not Getting Enough Creatine In A Pre-Workout
The most significant consideration to combining creatine and caffeine is the dose. Most pre-workout supplements under-dose creatine substantially, which is why most people are under the impression that creatine doesn’t work or they don’t necessarily see results. That’s because the typical amount of creatine in a pre-workout is about 1-2g. Basically, they’re not taking enough to actually give them the results they want.
If you take a look at any study on the ergogenic effects of creatine, you’ll notice they follow a creatine loading protocol where you consume 20g creatine per day for one week, followed by a maintenance dose of 5g per day afterward, which can range up to 10g for some people to maintain optimal creatine stores 5, 6.
When you look at the amount of creatine in any pre-workout, you’re not going to be getting anywhere near an effective dose to get any sort of benefit.
But what’s interesting is that studies show nutrient timing is everything when it comes to the effects of creatine. Compared with supplementing creatine pre-workout, research suggests that consuming creatine monohydrate immediately post-exercise may be more beneficial than consuming it pre-exercise with respect to improving body composition—gains in fat-free mass, loss of fat mass, and strength adaptations 7.
So rather than wasting your time doubling down on creatine supplements, just take it separately, and you can have better control over how much you’re consuming.
All in all, there’s no harm in taking your pre-workout with creatine, or taking a pre-workout that contains creatine because they’re both going to take your workout to an entirely new level, but based on research, waiting until post-workout to supplement with creatine could be more effective for improving body composition and strength if that’s your goal.
However, in any case, be mindful of the dose you’re taking. If you decide to take creatine and pre-workout before training, it may be to your benefit to bump up the dose and invest in a creatine monohydrate supplement to ensure you’re getting adequate amounts to actually support your body during training.
- R Cooper, F Naclerio, J Allgrove, A Jimenez. Creatine supplementation with specific view to exercise/sports performance: an update.J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012;9(1):33.
- AM Persky, GA Brazeau. Clinical pharmacology of the dietary supplement creatine monohydrate.Pharmacol Rev. 2001;53(2):161-176.
- JS Volek, ND Duncan, SA Mazzetti, et al. Performance and muscle fiber adaptations to creatine supplementation and heavy resistance training.Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1999;31(8):1147-1156.
- K Vandenberghe, N Gillis, M Van Leemputte, P Van Hecke, F Vanstapel, P Hespel. Caffeine counteracts the ergogenic action of muscle creatine loading. J Appl Physiol (1985). 1996 Feb; 80(2): 452-7.
- RB Kreider, DS Kalman, J Antonio, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017; 14: 18.
- AM Persky, GA Brazeau. Clinical pharmacology of the dietary supplement creatine monohydrate. Pharmacol Rev. 2001 Jun; 53(2): 161-76.
- J Antonio, C The effects of pre versus post workout supplementation of creatine monohydrate on body composition and strength. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013;10:36.