Creatine vs Pre-Workout: Which Is Better?

Creatine and pre-workout are two of the most popular supplements among weightlifters. While they offer some similar benefits, they’re also very different.

So what makes these supplements unique? And how should you use them to reach your fitness goals?

In this article, I break down creatine vs pre-workout. So you can get the best results from your supplements without wasting money.

Creatine vs Pre-Workout

Creatine vs Pre-Workout

Creatine and pre-workout are sports supplements aimed at improving workout performance. Most people use them with the goal of increasing muscle and strength gains.

Both kinds of supplements are sold in small tubs containing a few hundred grams of powder. And they’re designed to be mixed in water or your favorite beverage.

Despite their similar appearance, creatine and pre-workout have different functions. So let me explain exactly what each one is.

What Is Creatine?

Creatine is a molecule produced by your liver and found in many foods such as red meat. And it’s a critical component of the adenosine triphosphate (ATP) energy pathway that you use during exercise like resistance training.

While weight lifting, your muscles use up the available ATP within a matter of seconds. This is when your muscles fail and you can’t perform any more reps. But after a few minutes, ATP regenerates and you can perform another set.

Creatine supplies phosphate, which helps ATP regenerate faster. By providing this cellular energy, it allows you to train harder and longer than you normally would.

Creatine

What Is Pre-Workout?

Pre-workout supplements are made up of multiple ingredients. Most of the time, there is a stimulant like caffeine. As well as certain kinds of amino acids used to increase blood flow and delay fatigue.

Sometimes, pre-workout supplements also contain creatine as an ingredient. The idea is to get the benefit of both supplements. But there are some things to watch for, which I’ll get into below.

Pre Workout

Benefits of Creatine vs Pre-Workout

From a high-level view, creatine and pre-workout improve your workouts. As you zoom in, however, the specific benefits provided by each supplement come into focus.

In this section, I’ll compare the effects of creatine vs pre-workout in the areas of energy, blood flow, performance, and muscle gain.

Energy

Both creatine and pre-workout help boost your energy for a workout. But they do it in two totally separate ways.

As mentioned earlier, creatine provides phosphate to the ATP energy pathway. This means it’s actually a source of fuel that you can burn during your workout.

Creatine Phosphagen System

An illustration of the phosphagen system and how creatine contributes to the ATP energy pathway. Creatine phosphate (CP) donates its phosphate molecule to turn adenosine diphosphate (ADP) back into adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

On the other hand, pre-workout supplements provide energy in the form of a stimulant. Most often caffeine.

As a stimulant, caffeine works by inhibiting the degradation of intracellular cyclic AMP (cAMP) and delaying fatigue. In other words, it doesn’t actually give you energy, it just makes you feel less tired.

Blood Flow

Another ingredient commonly found in pre-workout supplements is an amino acid that can help increase blood flow during exercise. This can be either l-arginine or l-citrulline.

L-arginine relaxes blood vessels and allows more blood to pass through. With increased blood flow, more oxygen and nutrients get into the muscles. And l-citrulline works in a similar way.

Increased blood flow is not an effect normally attributed to creatine. Although one study suggests creatine supplementation may increase blood flow to the limbs during resistance training1.

Performance

A third common ingredient in pre-workouts is beta-alanine. An amino acid that delays fatigue by buffering the pH levels in the presence of lactic acid.

To elaborate, a meta-analysis showed that people supplementing with beta-alanine significantly increased their exercise capacity2. That is, the amount of time they could work out before getting fatigued.

Although studies are mixed on whether pre-workout supplements actually improve power output and force generated during resistance training.

Creatine also increases performance by delaying fatigue, but not in the same way as beta-alanine. Again, creatine works by increasing the available pool of muscle cellular energy.

And this effect is directly related to resistance training. In a 2012 meta-analysis, researchers concluded that creatine supplementation had a significant effect on short duration, anaerobic exercises3.

Muscle Gain

With increased energy, blood flow, and performance should come increased muscle hypertrophy (growth). However, studies involving pre-workout supplements are hit or miss when it comes to significant muscle gain.

The reason for the lack of concrete data could be the differences in pre-workout formulation, exercise routine, and participants. As well as the relatively short duration of the studies. Many of which only last 1-4 weeks.

On the other hand, studies demonstrating the muscle growth benefit of creatine are not hard to come by. One particular study showed that creatine results in significantly greater total body lean mass gains compared to a placebo4.

Creatine Phosphagen System

Which Is Better?

I understand the desire to pit creatine against pre-workout supplements. After all, they’re both geared at boosting weight lifting performance. And you want to spend your money on what works best.

However, comparing creatine and pre-workout is an apples and oranges debate. While they are similar relative to the vast array of supplements on the market, they are still totally different.

So whether creatine or pre-workout is best for you depends on your situation and your goals. And for many people, both supplements might benefit you more than one or the other.

Who Should Take Creatine

Based on the benefits above, it should be clear that creatine is best suited to help you gain muscle and strength. So it’s one of the top supplements on the list when you’re bulking, lean bulking, or even for body recomposition.

Best Time To Take Creatine

The best time to take creatine a hotly debated topic. Since creatine gets used during exercise, some say it’s beneficial to take it before your workout. But nutrient uptake is maximized immediately following your workout, so others say take it after.

However, it seems more likely that timing isn’t the critical factor. What matters more is muscle saturation. Or the total amount of creatine available in your body’s stores.

Think of it as a savings account. How much money you can withdraw depends on the total balance, not when you last made a deposit! Similarly, creatine availability is not dependent on when you ingest it.

That being said, one study showed that taking creatine with dextrose (carbs) significantly increased whole-body creatine retention5. For this reason, I recommend taking it with your post-workout meal or shake, since that usually contains high glycemic carbs.

Creatine Retention

Creatine uptake is increased when consumed with high glycemic carbs. Adapted from R Jäger et al.

Who Should Take Pre-Workout

Pre-workout supplements are best if you need an extra jolt of energy to get to the gym and complete your workouts. While studies show they are relatively safe for most individuals6, you may get jittery if you’re sensitive to stimulants.

In addition, pre-workout supplements are suitable for any fitness goal from fat loss to muscle gain. But keep in mind that these supplements don’t directly build muscle or burn fat on their own. That is simply a potential byproduct of training harder.

Best Creatine And Pre-Workout Supplements

Buying Creatine

When it comes to buying a creatine supplement, you will be bombarded by buzzwords. And there are new variants popping up all the time like creatine HCL, AKG, and ethyl ester.

But don’t fall for flashy marketing. All you need is plain old creatine monohydrate. Anything else is supplement companies trying to sell you creatine at a marked-up price.

I’m currently taking Nutricost Creatine Monohydrate. But other good brands include Bulk Supplements, Hard Rhino, and Optimum Nutrition.

Buying Pre-Workout

The effectiveness of a pre-workout supplement is highly dependent on its formulation. While certain ingredients are proven to work, they may not be present in the effective dosage.

A quality pre-workout supplement should contain at least 5 grams of either l-arginine or citrulline. As well as a minimum of 3 grams of beta-alanine. The caffeine content is a matter of personal preference.

Pre-Workout Supplements Containing Creatine

For those looking to build or even maintain lean muscle, you might consider taking a pre-workout supplement that contains creatine. And there’s nothing wrong with this approach as long as you look at the label.

Many pre-workouts with creatine as an ingredient contain tiny amounts. So look for a supplement that has at least 5 grams of creatine.

In a quick Amazon search, I didn’t find anything with 5g of creatine along with the effective dosage of the other ingredients. This is one reason I started making my own homemade pre-workout supplements back in 2012. 

Make Your Own Pre-Workout

All you need to do is buy l-citrulline and beta-alanine in 300-500-gram containers. And you can experiment with other ingredients like creatine or BCAAs if you’d like.

Then what I do is measure those ingredients with a scoop or teaspoon. And mix them with my pre-workout coffee or protein shake.

This approach might not be as convenient as buying pre-mixed supplements. But it saves you up to $28 per month and you get an average of 85% more of the key ingredients.

Check Out These DIY Pre-Workout Recipes

Custom Nutrition & Workout Plan

Don’t forget that supplements are a small piece of the fitness puzzle. Specialized nutrition and training are far more important to reach your goal!

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All this for just $19.99! Click here to choose your plan.

Conclusion

It’s important to realize that creatine vs pre-workout is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Which is better for you depends on what you need to reach your fitness goals.

Creatine is more effective as an actual fuel source for gaining strength and building muscle. While pre-workouts are more of an immediate stimulant to get you through your workout.

Each supplement has its place. And there’s nothing wrong with taking both creatine and pre-workout supplements at the same time! Just be sure you’re looking at labels to know what’s actually in them.

For more information on bodybuilding supplements, check out some of my related content below.

Homemade Pre-Workout Recipes

Homemade pre-workout saves you up to 70% compared to top brands. And gives you nearly 2X the key ingredients. Try these 5 easy recipes!

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