Originally published 17 Feb 2017. Last updated 22 September 2020.
Before getting into pre-workout and post-workout supplementation and its effectiveness on performance and muscle growth, I’ll start by saying that I am not sponsored by any food or supplement manufacturer. My goal as always is to tell you the truth to the best of my knowledge.
More often than not, my information comes from published research studies. By doing this, I’m hoping that what I report to you is a minimally biased perspective. This is because when we rely on other people’s experiences with supplements, meal plans, or workout routines, there’s a really high probability that what they’re doing may not work for you at all.
This is why we need well-designed studies–so we can try and figure out if these supplements, for example, work for most. Also, please know that each supplement manufacturer is different: some follow strict quality and purity standards; others don’t.
So before you buy a supplement, it’s best to research the manufacturer first. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to it.
Should You Take Supplements Before Working Out?
I’m not aware of any supplements that are effective immediately before a workout. Instead, two of the best things you can do before your workout are:
- Drink 1 cup of black coffee or plain tea about 1 hour before
When it comes to pre-workout fueling, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends consuming mostly carbohydrate-rich foods. Avoid those that are high in fiber and high in fat. Both fiber and fat will slow the digestion of these foods, which may affect your workout. After your workout, especially after strength training, 20 grams of leucine-rich proteins is often recommended. Leucine-rich proteins are basically animal-based proteins.
How much is 20 g of protein? An an example, 3 oz. of chicken would contain about 27 gram of protein. 3 oz. isn’t much–it’s about the size of a deck of cards.
Sports & Exercise Supplements and Their Effects on Performance & Muscle Growth
There are supplements that have been around longer than others. This usually means that there are more data to help determine whether these supplements are safe and effective. I won’t be able to discuss every single one, but just the ones that are most popular.
Also known as creatine monohydrate, creatine has been found to improve performance and muscle gains for most healthy adults. Our bodies actually make creatine naturally, but researchers have found that in those that are active, and especially for those folks that lift weights, extra creatine may help.
There are some side effects with its use–I don’t usually recommend creatine to those with a history or a family history of kidney disease. This is because it may lead to the body retaining more water, and the kidneys are in charge of helping the body get rid of not only water, but any extra creatine, too.
If you do use it, you’ll need to pay attention to the dosing indicated on the packaging. And, yes, it is good to cycle on and off. But I can’t provide specifics without knowing the dosages.
Before you run out and buy creatine supplements, I must quote the International Society for Sports Nutrition:
“The same result [of improved performance] can be achieved with the ingestion of sufficient carbohydrates and high biological value protein.”
Scroll down for a QnA on the best time to take creatine.
This is a protein, and one of its main jobs is to reduce lactic acid buildup. Think about the last time you sprinted really hard. Did the muscles in your legs start to burn? That’s caused by the buildup of lactic acid. Our bodies produce lactic acid normally when we perform very high intensity movements. Most of us can’t wait to stop and take a rest when we feel our muscles burn like that. So the thinking is: by supplementing with beta-alanine, you will get less of this lactic acid buildup, meaning your muscles won’t feel like they’re on fire, which will allow you to workout at these high intensities for longer.
Unfortunately, there is conflicting data on this. At this time, there simply is not enough information to know whether supplementing with beta-alanine is safe or effective in the short or long-term. I would save your money on this one.
This is also a protein. Our bodies can actually make glutamine on their own. We actually don’t need to get this protein from our diets.
Why would anyone want to supplement with it? Glutamine is interesting because when the body is undergoing extreme stress or has gone through some trauma, we can’t make enough of it to heal ourselves. Under those specific conditions, we may need to supplement with it. Some have argued, “Well, I train so hard and I’m so sore afterwards, doesn’t that count as extreme stress for the body? What about all that muscle breakdown? Doesn’t that count as trauma?” Technically, sure. But what we’re finding from research studies is that while safe to take as a supplement, extra glutamine doesn’t help improve performance, immune functioning, or help the body heal any faster.
Whey is one of the proteins found in milk (the other is casein). So, yes, if you drink milk or consume any products made from milk, you are consuming whey protein. What’s frustrating is that we simply don’t know if whey is helpful or not. From what I have seen, whey protein supplementation is most helpful for those that are over the age of 60 and participate in a strength training program.
Should You Take Sports Supplements?
Here are several key points to keep in mind when you ask yourself this question:
- Most supplements do not appear to help in reality
- The quality of supplement is very important…do your research before buying! I recommend the website Consumerlab.com. They’re an independent organization that tests for the quality and purity of many of the popular supplements on the market.
- Many of the studies that have been performed focus on comparing protein supplements against each other. We really need more research comparing protein supplements with real food to see if eating more nutritious food would lead to the same or better results.
Last, I will end with a quote from a research article written by experts in the field of Sports Medicine:
“Although most supplements may be considered as safe when taken at the recommended doses, athletes should be aware of the potential risks linked to the consumption of supplements. In addition to the risks linked to overdosage and cross-effects when combining different supplements at the same time, inadvertent or deliberate contamination with stimulants, estrogenic compounds, diuretics or anabolic agents may occur.”
Basically, as I mentioned, we simply can’t guarantee the safety or effectiveness of sports & exercise supplements.
When Is The Best Time To Take Creatine?
QUESTION: “Hi Dr. Malik, I learned a lot from the episode in which you discussed protein timing. I was always under the impression I should be taking protein immediately after training. It's good to know that as long as I'm hitting my daily goals, I will be okay. I'm curious if the same goes for creatine timing? I am currently taking creatine 30-45 minutes before and again immediately after a workout. There is a lot of information about creatine amounts, types and timing out there and sometimes it conflicts. I was hoping you might be able to provide some clarity or perspective on this topic.”
DR. NEAL: Thank you for your question, and for listening to the show. I’m so glad you found the episode about protein timing so helpful.
There are so many myths and misconceptions about sports nutrition, it’s hard to keep up with them all. As you mentioned, all of the conflicting information about creatine timing is just another example of this.
A Bit of Creatine History
Creatine has been available as a supplement for so long.
In my first year undergrad writing class we had to pick a controversial topic and write about it. I chose creatine my topic. Back then, Major League Baseball was experiencing some of the highest viewership ratings…all because we wanted to which baseball player was going to beat Roger Maris’ single season homerun record first: Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa.
Both of these homerun hitters were suspected of getting this extra power by supplementing with performance enhancing substances, one of which was creatine.
So, creatine supplementation has been going on for quite some time. But, what is creatine, anyway? Is it a protein?
What’s Creatine, Anyway?
Creatine is actually not a protein. Instead, it’s a compound that most animals, including us humans, make naturally. In fact, our livers are responsible for making it. From there, it gets sent to the muscles.
This also means anytime we eat animal flesh, animals’ muscle tissues, we consume small amounts of creatine.
In the muscles, creatine helps with generating energy. More energy in the muscles may mean more strength and endurance, both of which we want when we’re working out or competing. This is why creatine supplementation became a thing.
Supplementing With Creatine: The Basics
We already know that the type of creatine supplementation seems to play an important role. The body seems to respond best when supplementing with creatine monohydrate (as opposed to its other forms like creatine pyruvate). Studies have found that for most people, creatine supplementation is safe, provided that the product is free of impurities and dosing instructions are followed.
For those with pre-existing kidney disease, creatine supplementation is not recommended. This is because any excess creatine in the body has to be removed by the kidneys, which may place them under stress.
So, how does creatine supplementation work? And, to answer the question, when should it be taken?
Supplementing with creatine isn’t as simple as take a pill everyday willy-nilly. In the beginning, a “loading phase” is often recommended. This means for the first 5-7 days of starting a creatine supplementation regimen, 20-25 g creatine about every 4 hours is recommended. Then, the maintenance dose is about 3-5 g per day after the initial 5-7 days.
Studies have found that water weight tends to increase during the loading phase. And, possibly because of this weight gained, athletes may find that their performance temporarily suffers, especially when it comes to activities like running and jumping.
For maintenance creatine doses, when should it be taken?
When Should Creatine Be Consumed?
Studies conducted about 15 years ago did find that supplementing with creatine after a workout seemed to help athletes gain more muscle mass and lose more body fat when compared with taking creatine before a workout.
Other studies found that strength gains improved when creatine was taken after the workout. Since then, other studies tried to repeat these findings and weren’t able to. Most researchers agree on one thing: more research is needed to know the best way to time creatine supplementation. What they can agree on, though, is that if you want to see any results, you have to exercise.
Exercise improves creatine’s effectiveness. The muscles can store more of it when we exercise them. Also, some studies are finding that when you do end up taking creatine, it may be helpful to eat some carbohydrate-rich foods at the same time. The carbohydrate will tell the body to secrete insulin. Insulin will then help the muscles absorb the creatine better.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that we don’t know the best time to take creatine, before or after the workout. Instead, we know that exercising our muscles is key and that consuming some carbohydrate with the creatine may help maximize its absorption. So take it close to your workout for best results.