Man and friend using creatine to help achieve fitness and weightlifting goal

When to Take Creatine: A Beginner’s Guide

Published: April 2022

You train hard, prioritize recovery, and fuel yourself like a pro. But you’d still like to see better results from the gym! Creatine is one of the more well-studied sports supplements that can give your strength training a serious kick in the pants. Let’s get into all the dirty details about creatine supplementation and how it can help you with muscle-building efforts, body composition goals, and exercise performance.

What is creatine?

In your body, you’re going to find creatine—also known as creatine phosphate—mostly in the muscles, but also in the brain. Your liver, pancreas, and kidneys produce it. You can find it in some foods, too, like red meat (albeit in very small amounts). Creatine’s main job is to recycle ADP into ATP. This is important because ATP is the main source of energy for your cells. In other words, creatine helps to replenish your muscle cells’ energy and can thus promote muscular strength. Pretty neat, right?

Creatine is technically an amino acid. However, unlike other amino acids, it’s not directly used to make protein. It’d be more accurate to say that creatine is an amino acid derivative.

What does any of this have to do with you? Well, athletes commonly use creatine supplements because it helps to build lean muscle mass.

What to know before taking creatine

Research says that creatine is safe and well-tolerated to consume long-term. Do bear in mind that if you’re taking it to support muscle growth, supplementation results will vary from person to person. Individuals often consume creatine in capsules or as a powder. One of the more common forms is creatine monohydrate, which simply means that the creatine has one molecule of water attached to it.

Health benefits of creatine

One of the more common uses of creatine supplementation is for athletes who want to take their workouts to the next level and promote muscular strength. Sure enough, research has found that supplementation with creatine can promote an increase in exercise performance.

It’s not solely for gym-goers, though. Creatine can also be beneficial for older adults to help them boost muscle mass and function as they age. Combined with some sort of resistance training or other high-intensity exercises, creatine can help to keep you strong, healthy, and mobile.

Additionally, creatine can be an ally when it comes to cognition and brain health. Creatine could particularly be helpful here if you’re experiencing extra stress in your life. (Psst! If you’re going through a stressful period, you might also find glutamine to be a good addition to your supplement drawer.)

Who should take creatine supplements?

Anyone looking to elevate their workouts can benefit from creatine supplements. It’s also helpful for individuals who follow a plant-based diet since the more common natural sources of creatine are meat. You might consider supplementing with it especially as you age. Finally, if you want additional support for brain health, creatine could be a good fit for you.

For brain health, be sure to also check out L-tyrosine. It helps create important chemicals that affect functions like mood and sleep.

How to take creatine properly: dosage and tips

How much creatine do you need? As with any supplement, consuming creatine in the proper amounts is going to help you reap the rewards. The general consensus for dosage is around 2 to 5 grams per day. Be sure to check any other supplements you’re taking to see if they already contain creatine. For example, Life Extension’s Wellness Code® Advanced Whey Protein Isolate has 2 grams of creatine in it and can be taken once or twice daily.

Creatine is also commonly coupled with beta-alanine—another popular sports supplement.

Is creatine better pre- or post-workout?

Wondering when to take creatine? Taking it pre- or post-exercise is going to be better than not taking it at all, period. Some research has suggested that taking creatine post-workout might be more effective, supporting muscular strength and maintenance and a healthy hormone balance.

However, this isn’t something to stress about too much! Take it when it’s most convenient, and you’re going to experience the benefits. In this case, consistency matters more than timing.

Should a beginner take creatine?

Beginner gym-goers, as well as people getting back into exercise after inactivity, absolutely can take creatine, since it has a well-established safety profile for long-term use. It’s an excellent all-around performance supplement for adults. It's also a good option to fight back against age-related muscle decline.

One word of caution, however: if you're new to strength-training, creatine won't give you superpowers—so don't attempt any exercises you wouldn't be willing to try if you were not taking a creatine supplement. That means sticking to weights that are challenging but doable, warming up and cooling down. Proper form, taking breaks between sets, and drinking enough water are important for athletes of all levels of experience—regardless of your supplementation status.

Should you take creatine on an empty stomach?

Creatine can indeed be taken on an empty stomach, although you might find you prefer to take it with food. Many people combine it with their protein powder, taurine, L-arginine, and any other post-workout supplements and consume them together in a shake since it’s more convenient. It also can be taken with pre-workout supplements.

Should you do the loading phase for creatine?

When we talk about “creatine loading,” it refers to initially taking a bigger dose of creatine than you typically would take, for several days. The idea behind this is that loading allows you to maximize your creatine stores faster.

However, a growing body of evidence suggests that creatine loading isn’t necessary in order to maintain the desired creatine levels. Taking a regular dosage of somewhere between 2 and 5 grams per day will give you roughly the same results.

When is the best time to take creatine?

As we mentioned earlier, science isn’t yet clear if there’s a “better” time for creatine supplementation. However, people will commonly consume it before or after exercise.

Is it okay to take creatine before bed?

Yes! This is perfectly safe and should not interfere with your sleep. The time you choose to take your creatine largely comes down to personal preference.

Is it safe to take creatine supplements? Risks and side effects

You can safely take creatine long-term for up to five years. Science has demonstrated that as long as you stick to the recommended daily dose, your body can easily tolerate creatine. One (debunked) myth is that creatine can lead to dehydration since it sends water to your muscles. However, not only is this not the case, but creatine can actually protect you from dehydration.

Do note that creatine supplementation can be linked to weight gain as a potential side effect. However, if you’re trying to add muscle to your frame, then that means adding weight to your frame. So, an increase in body mass could actually be a positive sign that the creatine is working. We call that a win.

If you ever have concerns about creatine supplementation, speak with your healthcare provider! They should be able to guide you.

Can you support lean muscle mass with just creatine?

Creatine can support the growth of lean muscle mass. However, it’s one part of the equation. Combining it with other supplements—like protein powder and amino acids—can boost the results. Every cell in your body needs protein to function. Protein is also important in the growth and maintenance of your muscles. Amino acid supplements can help encourage protein synthesis, in addition to supporting athletic performance and muscle strength.

Remember, too, that fueling your body properly and staying physically active with resistance exercises or high-intensity fitness (meaning you get your heart pumping) is a must! Rest, recovery, and sleep are vital, as well. No supplement alone serves as a magic trick.

About the Author: Megan Grant has a degree in communications from University of Michigan. She been writing professionally for 15 years, with a focus on nutrition, fitness, and general health. A lifelong competitive athlete, she's fascinated by how the human body responds to food and movement.

References

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD

By: Megan Grant