Creatine is one of the most popular exercise performance supplements.
Numerous studies have shown that it increases strength and muscle mass (, , ).
Extensive research has also demonstrated that it's safe to consume (, , ).
But while you may already know that creatine is safe and effective, there seems to be confusion about the best time to take it.
This article tells you everything you need to know about when to take creatine.
Why Take Creatine?
Creatine is a molecule that's naturally found in your cells.
It's also an extremely popular dietary supplement that has been widely studied.
Taking creatine as a supplement can increase its concentration level in your cells, leading to several health and performance benefits (, , ).
These benefits include improved exercise performance and muscular health, as well as possible neurological benefits, such as improved mental performance in the elderly (, , , ).
Studies have shown that creatine can increase strength gains from a weight training program by about 5–10%, on average (, , ).
These performance benefits are likely due to creatine's important role in cellular energy production ().
For those wanting to increase muscular strength and promote overall health, it's a supplement worth considering.
Summary: Creatine is a safe and effective supplement that has several health and performance benefits.
Supplementing on Days You Exercise
On days you exercise, there are three main options regarding when to take creatine.
You can take it shortly before you exercise, shortly after you exercise or at some time that isn't close to when you exercise.
Another option is to split your daily dose and take it throughout the day.
Should You Take It After You Exercise?
Several researchers have tried to find the best time to take creatine supplements.
One study examined whether it was more effective for adult men to consume five grams of creatine before or after exercise ().
During the four-week study, participants weight trained five days per week and took creatine either before or after exercise.
At the end of the study, greater increases in lean mass and greater decreases in fat mass were seen in the group that took creatine after exercise.
However, other research has reported no difference between taking it before or after exercise ().
Overall, based on the limited research available, it's not clear whether there are any reliable differences between taking creatine before or after exercise.
It's Best to Supplement Shortly Before or After Exercise
It seems that supplementing shortly before or after exercise may be better than supplementing long before or after exercise.
One 10-week study provided a dietary supplement containing creatine, carbs and protein to adults who weight trained ().
Participants were divided into two groups. One group took the supplement soon before and after exercise, while the other group took the supplement in the morning and evening, so not close to exercise.
At the end of the study, the group that took the supplement close to exercise gained more muscle and strength than the group that took the supplement in the morning and evening.
Based on this research, it may be better to take creatine close to exercise, rather than at some other time of the day.
For example, you could take the whole dose after you exercise or split the dose, taking half of it before you exercise and the other half afterward.
Summary: The best time to take creatine isn't entirely clear, but it's likely beneficial to take it close to when you exercise.
Supplementing on Rest Days
Supplement timing on rest days is likely much less important than on exercise days.
The goal of supplementing on rest days is to keep the creatine content of your muscles elevated.
When starting to supplement with creatine, a "loading phase" is typically recommended. This phase involves taking relatively high amounts (approximately 20 grams) for about five days ().
This quickly increases the creatine content of your muscles over several days ().
After that, a lower daily maintenance dose of 3–5 grams is recommended ().
If you are taking a maintenance dose, the purpose of supplementing on rest days is simply to maintain the high levels of creatine in your muscles. Overall, it probably doesn't make a big difference when you take this dose.
However, it may be beneficial to take the supplement with a meal, as discussed next.
Summary: When you take creatine on rest days, the timing is probably less important than on days you exercise. However, it may be a good idea to take it with a meal.
Should You Take Anything Else With It?
While the benefits of supplementing with creatine are well established, many people wonder how to maximize them.
Researchers have tried adding other ingredients, including protein, carbs, amino acids, cinnamon and various plant-based compounds to increase its effectiveness (, , , , ).
Several studies have reported that consuming carbs with creatine increases the extent to which it's taken up by your muscles (, , ).
However, other studies have demonstrated that adding carbs provides no added performance benefits (, ).
What's more, some of the studies used doses of almost 100 grams of carbs, or about 400 calories (, ).
If you don't need these extra calories, the excess could lead to weight gain.
Overall, there may be benefits to consuming creatine and carbs at the same time, but the extra carbs could put you at risk of consuming too many calories.
A practical strategy would be to take creatine when you normally eat a carb-containing meal, but not to consume extra carbs beyond your normal diet.
It's also a good idea to eat protein with this meal, as protein and amino acids may help increase the extent to which your body retains creatine ().
Summary: Ingredients are sometimes added to creatine to increase its effectiveness. Carbs may do this, and a good strategy is to take creatine when you eat a meal containing carbs and protein.
The Bottom Line
Creatine is a safe and effective supplement, but the best time to take it is debated.
On workout days, research shows that it may be better to take creatine shortly before or after you exercise, rather than long before or after.
On rest days, it may be beneficial to take it with food, but the timing is probably not as important as on exercise days.
Furthermore, taking creatine with foods that contain carbs and protein could help you maximize the benefits.