You can use several techniques to promote creatine uptake into muscle, including taking it with a fast-acting protein such as whey, using creatine with a simple carb source and adding certain nutrients, such as alpha-lipoic acid, to it. All those techniques promote or mimic an insulin release, which, in turn, positively affects the creatine transport system in muscle. Another technique is exercise. The increased blood circulation that results from exercise speeds creatine into muscle. Exercise also activates the sodium/potassium pump system, which turns on the creatine transport protein in muscle.
Some studies show that creatine may help promote muscle protein synthesis, which would result in greater muscle size increases after exercise. Or it could be that the upgraded muscle energetics promoted by creatine allows you to train harder and more efficiently, which itself leads to muscular growth. Since exercise seems to work well with creatine, what would happen if you took it after training certain muscle groups? Would it help add muscle size and strength?
A recent study examined that issue.1 A secondary focus of the study was to determine if there are any differences in the way young men and women respond to creatine supplements after training. The subjects were randomly assigned to either a creatine or a placebo group. The creatine group got 0.2 grams of creatine per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of bodyweight, while the placebo group got cornstarch.
Both groups trained for six weeks. All subjects did one-arm and one-legged exercises for one side of the body twice a week, after which they got creatine. On two other days they trained the other side of the body, arms and legs, then got a placebo. Those in the placebo group got only a placebo on all training days.
After six weeks the upper arms trained before the subjects took actual creatine showed a definite increase in muscle thickness compared to the ones trained before taking the placebo. The legs had no significant increases in muscle thickness. Male subjects showed the greatest increases in lean tissue mass with the creatine. The women’s results were similar to those of the placebo group, although they did achieve the greatest improvement in one-rep bench press strength.
No muscle biopsies were taken, which means the gain in muscle thickness could be due to water retention; creatine is known to promote an increase in intracellular water. Then again, muscle tissue is 72 percent water anyway.
As to why the women didn’t respond as the men did, the authors suggest that creatine may have a superior muscle anticatabolic effect in men. Creatine was equally effective in increasing upper-body strength in men and women, as measured by increases in maximum bench press strength. On the other hand, it wasn’t as effective in promoting muscle thickness or strength in leg muscles.
Many bodybuilders wonder about the best time to take creatine. Before a workout may increase muscle energetic efficiency and act as a buffer that limits the accumulation of metabolic waste products. That would lead to increased energy and less fatigue during intense training. The greater blood flow resulting from exercise, however, also causes greater uptake of creatine into muscle. The scientists who conducted this study aren’t sure whether the gains in muscle thickness that resulted from the subjects’ taking creatine after exercise came from water retention in muscle or actual protein synthesis. If the latter proves true, the obvious time to take creatine would be following a workout.
1 Chilbeck, P.D., et al. (2004). Effect of creatine ingestion after exercise on muscle thickness in males and females. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 36:1781-88.