I’ve been managing a supplement store for nearly a decade, and a common theme I’ve noticed among customers is that they’re confused about whether creatine and pre-workout are the same things or if they have different benefits.
Creatine and pre-workout are not the same. Creatine increases strength, muscle mass, and recovery and should be taken daily. Pre-workout provides short-term (1-3 hours) physical and mental energy but is best taken only when needed, like on days when you’re especially tired.
Although creatine and pre-workout are different products, some pre-workouts contain creatine.
So, it’s important to understand what each product does on its own to decide whether you need both or if one is better than the other based on your goals.
In this article I will cover:
- What is creatine and pre-workout
- The benefits and drawbacks of both creatine and pre-workout
- The main differences between creatine and pre workout
- How to take creatine and pre workout
- Whether creatine or pre-workout is better (if you had to take only one)
What Is Creatine?
Creatine is a compound that is found naturally in human muscle and brain tissue and is used as an energy source for high-intensity activity.
In our bodies, we hold onto about 95% of our creatine within the muscle cells. During exercise, the body breaks down this stored creatine to make ATP (the body’s primary energy source)
Our body naturally only stores 1 to 2 grams of creatine. This limited amount of creatine storage makes creatine a limiting factor for high-intensity activities because when creatine in your muscles is depleted, you will become fatigued and unable to continue performing at higher intensities.
By supplementing with creatine, you can increase your creatine stores (up to 3g/kg of lean mass), providing you with more fuel to create ATP, especially during resistance training or explosive movements (like sprinting).
- Key Takeaway: Supplementing with creatine can increase the amount of energy stored in your muscles for use during high-intensity training like sprinting, jumping, or lifting weights.
Benefits of Creatine
Creatine Benefit #1: Increased Strength
Creatine is most widely known for its ability to increase muscular strength. Supplementing with creatine leads to increases in strength because when your creatine stores are saturated you have more of an energy reserve to help you push harder in the gym to build strength.
Perhaps before creatine supplementation, you could do 2 reps of squats at a particular weight, but with creatine supplementation, you can now do 5 reps of squats at the same weight. These additional reps will help increase your strength levels over time.
In fact, a 2003 review of the available literature at the time found that lifters who took creatine had, on average, an 8-14% higher increase in strength over groups who took a placebo.
A 2016 meta-analysis took this one step further and compared 53 different studies to see if there were any differences in creatine’s effectiveness across different ages, sexes, and training protocols.
They concluded that creatine was effective for increasing strength, regardless of any individual characteristics (age, gender) or training protocols.
What these two reviews tell us is that creatine supplementation paired with exercise will result in increases in strength for everyone.
Creatine Benefit #2: Increased Power
Creatine supplementation has also been shown to increase power output because creatine helps you recover more quickly from high-intensity bouts, therefore you can work longer at higher intensities which helps to improve power output.
Perhaps before creatine supplementation, you could do 3 X 60m sprints within 9 seconds, but after creatine supplementation, you could do 3 x 60m sprints within 7 seconds.
A study using young male cyclists (around 30 years old) measured the highest amount of power output they could achieve during three thirty-second sprints prior to creatine supplementation and compared their power outputs after 14 days of creatine supplementation.
In the group that was supplemented with creatine, power output increased by 13-18%. However, the placebo group saw zero increases in power output.
These same results were replicated in a study of older adult women (aged 58-71). The study found that creatine supplementation resulted in an increase in strength and power without any adverse side effects.
Creatine supplementation is effective for increasing muscular power output regardless of age or sex. This increase in power can help high-output athletes, but can also help people in “swinging” sports like tennis, golf, and baseball.
Creatine Benefit #3: Increased Muscle Mass
Creatine supplementation also increases the potential for muscle gain because the additional creatine allows you to perform more work at higher intensities which helps signal to your body that it needs to adapt to the increased demand by increasing your muscle mass.
Research supports the effectiveness of creatine for increased muscle mass. As far back as 1999, studies clearly showed oral creatine supplementation was effective for increasing lean body mass (aka muscle mass).
Additionally, The International Society of Sports Nutrition outlines that athletes who compete in football, bodybuilding, combat sports, powerlifting, and Olympic weightlifting stand to gain from the increased muscle mass associated with creatine supplementation.
These results support creatine’s effectiveness for both men and women of all ages for increasing lean mass. (Related Article: Learn whether you can build muscle without creatine).
Creatine Benefit #4: Safety
With the high number of studies that have been done on creatine, it has been proven to be both safe and effective time and time again.
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, creatine is the most studied and effective supplement for athletes looking to increase high-intensity exercise performance and lean body mass.
Not only do they boast its safety, but they also indicate its potential uses for injury prevention and long-term health maintenance.
Studies have been done with creatine supplementation up to 30g daily (well above the traditional 5g/day recommendation) for up to 5 years with no adverse effects reported.
Creatine was shown to have no negative effect on kidney or renal function in healthy individuals when proper dosing protocols are followed.
Creatine also appears to be generally safe and possibly beneficial for youth athletes and might be an alternative to keep them away from other anabolic agents like steroids.
- Learn everything you need to know about creatine in our Beginner’s Guide To Creatine.
Drawbacks of Creatine
Creatine Drawback #1: Water Retention
Creatine gets a bit of a bad rap in regards to water retention and bloating, but that’s mostly because it’s misunderstood and the information is lost in translation.
Although creatine can cause water retention, this water retention occurs within the muscle cells themselves, causing your muscles to appear bigger and fuller.
It’s often thought that all water retention is bad, but when water retention occurs in your muscles you can actually appear stronger and leaner because your muscles are more pronounced.
That said, if you don’t like the look of fuller muscles, then the water retention associated with creatine supplementation may be undesirable.
Creatine Drawback #2: Stomach Bloating
It is possible to experience abdominal bloating with creatine monohydrate supplementation, but this is most commonly reported in people who utilize the loading phase.
The loading phase involves taking up to 4x the maintenance dose of creatine for the first 5-7 days of creatine supplementation. So, instead of taking 5g per day, you take a total of 20g per day for the first week, then go back down to 5g daily.
The advantage to doing the loading phase is that your body’s creatine levels will be saturated more quickly, allowing you to take advantage of the benefits sooner.
After about 3-4 weeks of creatine supplementation, your body’s creatine levels will be fully saturated regardless of whether you did the loading phase or not.
If you want to avoid the side effect of abdominal bloating, simply bypass the loading phase and start off with 5g daily.
Creatine Drawback #3: Stomach Upset
Creatine has been reported to cause an upset stomach, however, this is usually related to how you are taking your creatine, and not the creatine itself.
Taking creatine with too much sugar, too little water, or taking too much in a single dose (10g or more) will make you more likely to experience an upset stomach.
- Related Article: Creatine Makes Me Feel Sick: Why & How To Fix?
Creatine Drawback #4: Weight Gain
With the water retention associated with creatine intake, there usually comes a weight gain of 0.9 to 2.9% of your body weight. This is more prominent if a loading phase is used, and the weight will come off again if you stop supplementing with creatine.
For the majority of people, this isn’t a significant concern because the weight is water weight and not indicative of fat gain.
However, if you compete in weight-class sports like powerlifting, weightlifting, and combat sports, this may be a concern.
What Is Pre-Workout?
Pre-workout is a broad term for a category of supplements that generally contain a source of caffeine as well as a blend of other ingredients to help with short-term strength, endurance, and mental focus.
Pre-workouts typically come as flavored powders meant to be mixed with water and consumed 15-60 minutes prior to working out.
Benefits of Pre-Workout
Pre Workout Benefit #1: Fast Results
The effects of pre-workout can be felt almost immediately, with some ingredients beginning to work in as little as five minutes.
The impact of a pre workout supplement can be felt right away giving you more alertness, focus, strength, and power for your workout.
Pre Workout Benefit #2: Increased Performance
Pre-workouts are a blend of many ingredients, so they can help improve workout performance almost immediately in various ways.
- Ingredients like Leucine stimulate muscle protein synthesis, a process that is key for strength and muscle building.
- Amino acids like Betaine and L-Citrulline can help increase energy and muscle pumps, reduce fatigue, and increase strength and power output.
- Ingredients like beta-alanine and electrolytes can increase endurance.
Regardless of which type of training you’re doing: hypertrophy, cardio, powerlifting, CrossFit, or training for a specific sport, it is possible to find a pre-workout supplement that will complement and improve your training.
- Related Article: Does Pre Workout Cause You To Gain Weight? 3 Factors
Pre Workout Benefit #3: Mental Focus
Pre-workouts can provide mental energy and mental focus to help you get through your workouts with enthusiasm, regardless of what else you have going on in your day.
Whether you are a student or in the workforce, you might be feeling tired because you are trying to work out first thing in the morning before your day gets underway. Alternatively, you might work out after work when you’re feeling exhausted and run down from the demands of your day.
In either case, pre-workout ingredients like caffeine, taurine, and Alpha-GPC can provide short-term alertness and mental focus.
Pre Workout Benefit #4: Specialization
There are hundreds of pre-workout supplements available on the market with virtually every combination of ingredients possible.
Because of this, you can likely find a pre-workout formula that offers exactly what you are looking for to make the most of your workouts.
You can find ingredient blends to focus on blood flow and pump, power, strength, endurance, or mental focus.
There is also a high variability in the amount of caffeine offered, with some formulas being completely stimulant-free (and therefore better to take in the evening) to others that offer upwards of 420 mg of caffeine per serving (roughly the equivalent of two Extra Large coffees).
- Related Article: Pre Workout vs Intra Workout: Do You Need Both?
Drawbacks of Pre-Workout
Pre Workout Drawback #1: High Caffeine
While you can find some stimulant-free formulas, they are much less common. Many of the products with the most effective strength and performance ingredients also come with a moderate-to-high amount of caffeine.
Most caffeinated pre-workouts contain between 200mg and 420mg of caffeine per scoop.
For reference, a standard energy drink has 200mg of caffeine, the same as two cups of coffee.
This high amount of caffeine is more likely to impact sleep and cause negative side effects like anxiety and jitteriness.
Taking a caffeinated pre-workout also requires you to plan out the rest of your day if you like to consume other caffeine-containing products like coffee, tea, or energy drinks to make sure you are staying within a safe daily caffeine intake.
Pre Workout Drawback #2: More Possible Side Effects
Because of the increased number of ingredients, there are an increased number of side effects associated with taking pre-workout.
The caffeine and stimulants found in pre-workout can cause jitteriness, anxiety, and insomnia.
Beta-alanine, which is found in almost all pre-workouts because of its effectiveness in improving performance, causes itchiness or skin tingling (a sensation called paresthesia).
While this tends to subside after about 10 minutes and becomes less noticeable with prolonged intake of beta-alanine, some people are especially sensitive to it and find this experience to be overwhelming and detracting from their workouts.
Creatine vs Pre-Workout: 5 Key Differences
1. Creatine Offers Long-Term Benefits While Pre-Workout Offers Short-Term Benefits
- The effects of creatine supplementation are demonstrated over the long-term, with potential life-long benefits for strength, muscle mass, and brain health. The effects of creatine may compound over time, making it more effective the longer you take it.
- Pre-workout on the other hand provides short-term (1-3 hours) increases in energy, mental focus, and athletic performance. These benefits wear off quickly and do not provide the same long-term benefits that creatine does.
2. Creatine Needs To Be Taken Consistently, Pre Workout Can Be Taken As Needed
- For creatine to be the most effective, it should be taken daily over the long term, even on days when you are not training.
- Conversely, Pre-workout should be taken only as needed, and ideally not every day. Pre-workout should be taken less often because you can build up a tolerance to the stimulant-based ingredients in pre-workout which would make the product less effective over time.
- Furthermore, timing is much more important with pre-workout than it is with creatine. As long as you take creatine daily, the specific timing isn’t critical (i.e. you can take it at any time throughout the day).
- Pre-workout timing on the other hand is crucial, needing to be ingested between 15 and 60 minutes before your workout (depending on the product) and should be avoided within 5 hours before bedtime.
3. Creatine Is A Single Ingredient, Pre Workout Contains Multiple Ingredients
- Creatine is available as one single ingredient – creatine. While it is possible to find creatine products that have other ingredients added to support muscle growth or recovery, most creatine formulas are available as a single ingredient in either an unflavoured powder or capsule form.
- Pre-workouts are blends of anywhere from 5 to 20 ingredients and offer a variety of short-term benefits including mental focus, energy, strength, and endurance.
4. Creatine Is Stimulant-Free, Pre Workouts Usually Contain Stimulants
- Creatine is a caffeine-free product and can be safely taken at any time of day.
- Pre-workouts can be caffeine free, but might also contain up to 420mg of caffeine per serving. These caffeinated pre-workouts should not be taken within 5 hours of going to bed as they can cause insomnia and reduced sleep quality.
5. Creatine Is 50%+ Cheaper Than Pre Workout
- Creatine supplements can be found for as low as $0.37 per serving, with some of the more expensive options capping out at around $0.70 per serving.
- Pre-workouts start at $0.80 per serving, already above the most expensive creatine supplement, and can cost up to $3.00 per serving.
How To Take Creatine & Pre-Workout
How To Take Creatine
If you choose to do a loading phase with creatine, take 0.3g/kg of body weight daily for 5-7 days. After that, go down to a 5g per day maintenance dose. However, if you choose to bypass the loading phase, you can take 5g daily right off the bat.
Take creatine every day. Don’t worry about taking it at a specific time of day, just focus on taking it consistently.
How To Mix It
Creatine can be taken as a capsule or mixed with water or your favorite beverage. We’ve also experimented with mixing it with juice, hot liquids, oatmeal, and energy drinks.
How To Take Pre-Workout
Dosing strategies are specific to each brand or product. Carefully read your ingredient label to find your product’s recommended dose to avoid accidentally doubling up and consuming dangerous amounts of ingredients.
For example, some brands recommend taking either a half scoop or one full scoop, whereas other brands recommend taking one to two scoops.
I can’t stress enough to carefully read your product’s label to confirm how much to take. When in doubt, start with 1/4 to 1/2 a scoop rather than a full scoop.
Pre-workouts should be consumed between 15 and 60 minutes before your workout. However, you should avoid taking pre-workout within 5 hours of going to bed unless it’s stimulant-free.
How To Mix It
Pre-workouts come as flavored powders meant to be mixed with 6-8 ounces of water. You can dissolve the powder in water by shaking it in a mixing cup or stirring it with a spoon.
Some pre-workouts might be slightly carbonated, so if you shake it in a cup I recommend opening the lid or spout briefly to release the pressure.
- Related Article: Creatine vs Mass Gainer: Do You Need Both To Gain Weight?
Can You Take Creatine and Pre-Workout Together?
Creatine and pre-workout can be taken together; in fact, some pre-workouts have creatine included in their formula.
However, the amount of creatine in a pre-workout is usually below the effective dose (<5g), and it’s not recommended to take pre-workout every single day; therefore, it’s best to have a separate creatine supplement.
My recommendation: Take creatine with your pre-workout on days when you are training, and take creatine on its own on your off days. If your pre-workout does contain creatine, you can take a smaller dose of your other creatine on the days you’re taking your pre-workout.
- Related Article: Can You Mix Creatine With Pre-Workout? Yes, Here’s How To Do It
Creatine or Pre-Workout: Which Is Better?
Ultimately if I had to choose just one, I would choose creatine. The long-term benefits of creatine, far outweigh the short-term benefits of a pre-workout supplement and for a more reasonable cost per serving.
Who Should Take Creatine
- Virtually everyone can benefit from creatine supplementation. Research has been done on active populations, sedentary populations, men, women, youth, middle-aged adults, and older adults. Creatine has been shown beneficial for strength, muscle mass, body composition, and brain health for all populations.
Who Should NOT Take Creatine
- Creatine should not be taken by anyone with liver or kidney disease. Additionally, if you are pregnant or breastfeeding or have diabetes, consult your health care practitioner before taking creatine.
Who Should Take Pre Workout
- Pre-workout should be taken by individuals who are looking for short-term energy and performance boosts to make the most out of their workouts. I recommend that pre-workout be taken by individuals who have already been consistent with a workout regime for at least a couple of months.
Who Should NOT Take Pre Workout
- If you are sensitive to caffeine or already have trouble with insomnia, jitteriness, and anxiety then stay away from stimulant-based pre-workouts. Because of the caffeine content and lack of available research, pre-workout should not be taken by youth or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Always consult a doctor before taking pre-workout if you have high blood pressure, diabetes, liver or kidney disease, or heart disease to make sure that the products won’t have a negative impact on your health or other medications you might be taking.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Creatine Better Than Pre-Workout?
While they offer slightly different benefits (creatine provides long-term health and performance benefits vs pre-workout’s short-term benefits), ultimately creatine comes out on top. The benefits of creatine far outweigh the benefits of pre-workout, with more research supporting its safety and effectiveness.
Can Creatine Be Used as Pre-Workout?
Creatine is not a replacement for a pre-workout because its benefits are not felt immediately upon taking it and it does not provide the same focus and alertness as a pre-workout.
What To Read Next:
- 10 Types Of Creatine: Best & Worst Explained (Science-Backed)
- Does Creatine Help You Lose Weight? (What Science Says)
- 9 Pre Workout Alternatives That Won’t Make You Crash
- Caffeine Pills vs Pre Workout: Pros, Cons, & Which Is Better?
- Can You Take Pre-Workout & Fat Burner Together? (4 Tips)
About The Author
Jennifer Vibert is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Nutrition Coach, and supplement store manager. She has a Bachelor of Kinesiology with a major in Fitness and Lifestyle and a minor in Psychology from the University of Regina. She is a Certified Nutrition Coach through Precision Nutrition, with a passion for helping clients learn the fundamentals of nutrition and supplementation in order to build healthy, sustainable habits.