Creatine & Protein Powder: Similarities, Differences, & How To Use Each
Protein powder and creatine are two of the most popular supplements in the fitness industry. People often use them together to gain muscle and improve athletic performance. However, there’s some confusion about when and how to take these supplements and whether they’re effective for weight loss.
Here, we explore the differences between creatine and protein powder, their benefits and side effects, and how to use them effectively to achieve your fitness goals. So, can you take protein and creatine together? Let's find out!
What is creatine?
Creatine is a naturally occurring compound produced in the body from amino acids, primarily in the liver, kidneys, and pancreas.
It plays a crucial role in producing adenosine triphosphate (ATP)1, which provides energy for muscle contractions. As a result, creatine supplementation is a popular choice for athletes looking to improve their strength, power, and muscle mass.
A common question is whether it's better to take creatine pre-workout or with protein. Research has shown that it doesn't necessarily matter when you take creatine as long as you consistently take it each day2. However, some people prefer to take it with their pre-workout supplement for an extra energy boost, while others like to mix it with protein to support muscle growth and recovery.
If you're considering taking both whey protein and creatine together, there's no harm in doing so. They may complement each other well, supporting muscle growth and recovery3. However, whey protein doesn’t naturally contain creatine, so you must supplement with creatine separately. Also, creatine supplementation may have potential side effects4, such as water retention and gastrointestinal distress.
Benefits of creatine
It may improve muscle strength and power.
Creatine has been shown to improve muscle strength and power, especially in short-term, high-intensity exercises5 such as weightlifting and sprinting. For example, one 6study found that supplementing with creatine for 12 weeks led to an 8% increase in strength compared to a placebo group6.
Another study in The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that creatine supplementation resulted in a 14% increase in power output6 during resistance training. These benefits are not limited to men, as a study of women7 found that creatine improved maximal strength in upper body exercises.
It may support women's health.
Creatine’s benefits for women’s health don’t stop there. “Creatine’s health benefits for females across their lifespan appear profound," Susan Kleiner, PhD, RD, an authority in sports nutrition, tells mindbodygreen. "Promising research includes reproductive health and fertility8, hormonal-related changes9 and management through the lifecycle, bone health and osteoporosis, sarcopenia10, brain health11, mood and cognition, and more.”
It may increase muscle mass.
Creatine supplementation has also been shown to increase muscle mass, particularly when combined with resistance training6. However, this benefit may be more pronounced in individuals new to resistance training or with lower initial muscle mass.
It may improve cognitive function.
Studies have found that creatine supplementation can improve cognitive function, particularly in tasks that require short-term memory and reasoning.
For example, one study from 2019 found that supplementing with creatine for six weeks improved working memory12 in healthy young adults. In addition, an older study observed that creatine supplementation improved cognitive function in older adults13, which may help to mitigate age-related cognitive decline.
“Creatine supplementation has been shown to improve memory, increase bone mass (density), and enhance mood and cognition,” states Tim Ziegenfuss, PhD, researcher and CEO of The Center for Applied Health Sciences. “These effects are particularly evident in vegans and individuals who don't regularly consume meat, a primary source of dietary creatine.”
It may boost brain health and mood.
Some research suggests that creatine supplementation may reduce the risk of neurological diseases14 like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's by protecting neurons from damage and increasing energy availability to the brain.
Creatine has also been linked to improvements in mood and overall well-being. For example, one study found that creatine supplementation improved women's self-reported well-being15. Another found that creatine supplementation improved depression symptoms16 in individuals undergoing treatment with antidepressant medication.
It may support bone health.
Finally, creatine supplementation may positively affect bone health, particularly in postmenopausal women.
Some research suggests that postmenopausal women who supplement creatine have increased bone mineral density9 and improved bone strength. These findings suggest that creatine supplementation may be a helpful intervention for preventing osteoporosis and age-related bone loss.
How it differs from protein powder
Creatine and protein powder have different functions in the body. Creatine helps provide energy to the muscles during short, high-intensity activities, while protein provides the building blocks for muscle growth and repair17.
“Creatine is a natural compound found primarily in meat used by athletes to improve athletic performance and increase lean mass, strength, and power. Protein powder, on the other hand, is typically derived from milk, certain plants, or soy and is used to build and repair muscle tissue," explains Ziegenfuss.
"When consumed orally, creatine neutralizes appetite while protein can blunt (reduce) appetite and thus help dieters feel more satiated and eat less food,” he adds.
Creatine is a molecule made up of amino acids, while protein powder is a blend of different amino acids. Therefore, creatine is usually consumed in smaller quantities than protein powder and is often mixed with other ingredients. In comparison, protein powder is typically consumed in larger quantities and can be used as a meal replacement.
Creatine is often taken before or after a workout to maximize its benefits, while protein powder can be taken throughout the day to support muscle growth and recovery. However, some people also take both together before or after a workout.
Creatine and protein powder have different effects on the body. Creatine is primarily used to enhance athletic performance and increase muscle mass5, while protein powder is used for muscle growth and repair18, as well as weight management and satiety19.
Additionally, creatine has been shown to have potential benefits for brain health11 and bone density, particularly for women, while protein powder has been associated with improved immune function20.
Creatine has been associated with minor side effects like water retention21, weight gain, stomach upset, and muscle cramps, while protein powder can cause digestive issues like bloating and gas.
However, these side effects are generally rare and mild, and both supplements are considered safe when taken in recommended doses.
Creatine is typically taken in smaller amounts, with a loading phase of 20 to 25 grams daily22 for the first week, followed by a maintenance dose of 3 to 5 grams daily2.
Conversely, protein powder is usually taken in larger amounts to meet daily protein needs, with recommended daily amounts ranging from 0.8 to 2 grams per kilogram of body weight23, depending on your activity level and fitness goals.
Following dosage recommendations for both supplements is essential to maximize their benefits and minimize potential side effects.
The standard dose of creatine is 3 to 5 grams daily2, which can be taken all at once or divided into smaller amounts throughout the day. Most creatine powders can be dissolved in water, juice, or a shake. It's essential to follow the recommended dosages on the supplement label and not exceed them.
Timing is also crucial when taking creatine. Many experts recommend taking it immediately after exercise to maximize absorption and uptake into muscles. It can also be taken with a meal that includes carbohydrates to enhance its absorption. Some people choose to cycle their creatine usage, taking it for several weeks and then taking a break to prevent their body from becoming desensitized to it.
Choosing a reputable brand with high-quality ingredients is essential when shopping for creatine. Look for third-party tested and certified products to ensure their purity and potency. Additionally, make sure the creatine you choose is in the form of creatine monohydrate, as this is the most researched and effective form.
“I recommend creatine monohydrate over all other forms of creatine on the market. It's cheap, effective, and safe for long-term use,” recommends Ziegenfuss.
While creatine is generally safe and well-tolerated, it's essential to be aware of potential side effects, including stomach upset, dehydration, and muscle cramping. However, these side effects are typically mild and can be minimized by staying hydrated and following the recommended dosage guidelines.
Using protein powder
Your ideal protein intake depends on body weight, age, and activity level, but generally, experts suggest that most people will need to consume at least 100 grams per day. Protein powder can help you meet this requirement, and you can add it to shakes, smoothies, coffee, and certain foods like oatmeal and pancakes.
Regarding timing, it’s best to work 25 to 30 grams24 of protein into each meal and snack to maintain muscle mass and satiety. Regarding dosage, it's essential to follow the manufacturer's instructions and not exceed the recommended amount. Consuming too much protein can lead to digestive discomfort, dehydration, and kidney problems25 in people with pre-existing conditions.
When buying protein powder, it's crucial to check the ingredient list and choose a product with high-quality protein sources and minimal added sugars or artificial ingredients.
“Protein powders should contain all essential amino acids and at least 2.5 grams of leucine," says Ziegenfuss. He also recommends looking for an option that packs at least 20 grams of protein per scoop.
Whey protein is a popular option as it's a complete protein26 that contains all essential amino acids and is quickly absorbed by the body. However, people with lactose intolerance or dairy allergies may prefer plant-based protein powders like pea, soy, or hemp.
Using them together
Combining creatine and protein powder (in the same pre-workout shake, for example) can have a synergistic effect, with each supplement complementing the other to maximize both benefits.
One study5 found that combining creatine and protein resulted in more significant muscle mass gains and strength improvements than taking each supplement alone. Combining creatine and protein may enhance muscle protein synthesis and muscle fiber growth27, improving muscle strength and mass. Ultimately, individual results may vary, and the best approach depends on your specific goals and needs.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you take protein and creatine together?
Yes, you can take protein and creatine together without any adverse effects. Some studies suggest consuming creatine and protein together may benefit muscle growth and recovery. However, taking them together doesn’t necessarily increase the absorption or efficacy of either supplement.
Is it better to take creatine with pre-workout or protein?
Some people prefer to take creatine with their pre-workout supplement to enhance energy and performance, while others take it with protein to maximize muscle growth and recovery. Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference and what works best for your body and goals.
Is whey protein or creatine better for beginners?
Whey protein and creatine are both safe and effective supplements for beginners. However, the choice between the two depends on individual goals and preferences. Whey protein is an excellent option for those looking to increase muscle mass, improve recovery, and boost overall protein intake. Creatine can help increase strength and power during workouts, leading to greater muscle size and strength gains—and it might benefit women's health too. Neither supplement is a magic pill; they should be combined with proper nutrition and exercise for optimal results.
Creatine and protein are two popular supplements in the fitness industry that can be used together or separately to support muscle growth and athletic performance. Creatine provides energy for muscle contractions, while protein provides building blocks for muscle growth and repair.
Creatine supplementation may lead to potential side effects but can provide various benefits, such as improved muscle strength and power, cognitive function, and bone health—and these benefits may be even more pronounced in women. Although whey protein doesn’t contain creatine naturally, taking them together may complement each other well.
Adam Meyer is a health writer, certified holistic nutritionist, and 100 percent plant-based athlete. He graduated from the NutraPhoria School of Holistic Nutrition in 2019 and has since founded Pillars Nutrition. His work has been featured on EatingWell, Eat This Not That!, The Beet, Verywell Fit, The Healthy, Livestrong, Alive, Best Life and others.
Adam lives in British Columbia, Canada, with his wife, two kids and an Australian shepherd. That's where you can find him running mountain trails, working out in his home gym, or writing in a coffee shop.