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Could You Please Tell Me the Difference Between Creatine and Pre-Workout?

They’re both powders, I know that — and one of them is supposed to be taken before a workout. But after that, I have not a clue

Back in the late 1990s, the media had a significant freak-out over creatine, portraying it as everything from an all-purpose energy booster to an undetectable alternative to steroids. So outrageous was the furor — due in large part to the erroneous perception that creatine greatly influenced the 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, a competition that we now know was fueled by actual steroids — that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had to convene a special conference in December of that year to explain that they had no intentions of banning Olympians from taking creatine.

“It’s food,” declared Prince Alexandre de Merode, chairman of the IOC’s medical commission. “You can’t prevent people from eating food.”

Today, that all seems kinda quaint, and everyone has moved on to pre-workout, the new weekend warrior supplement of choice. What, though, does pre-workout have in common with creatine — beyond the hype, of course — and should they be taken in tandem, separately or not at all?

Yeah, I’m new to all of this. What even is pre-workout?

Most pre-workout powders are primarily a hodgepodge of amino acids and caffeine that are intended to kick-start the production of energy within the body. Many of the amino acids, however, are available in ordinary food sources that you eat or drink without ever considering their amino acid composition. For example, a single glass of milk contains the same amount of L-tyrosine as pre-workout does.

In reality, the ingredient in pre-workout that leaves most people feeling so energized is the astronomical caffeine content, which often exceeds the quantities in 16-ounce energy drinks. While the caffeine and amino acids in pre-workout powders are beneficial to elite athletes who need to maximize every last millisecond of their workouts, in most people’s bodies, pre-workout administers an onslaught of superfluous ingredients — namely, all of that caffeine.

Is creatine a pre-workout powder?

Not only is creatine not a pre-workout powder, it’s not even a powder that’s intended to be taken prior to a workout. Instead, the most authoritative research on the topic indicates that creatine is most effective when it’s taken in the immediate aftermath of a workout, likely because it’s able to fully regenerate the ATP-PC system, and assist with the post-workout muscle-recovery processes.

Does pre-workout have creatine in it?

Yes, but it’s mainly there to convince you that there’s something beneficial in it other than two-a-half Red Bull’s worth of caffeine.

In order to be truly beneficial to its user, creatine requires a typical loading phase of 20 grams per day for several days, immediately followed by daily maintenance doses of 5 to 10 grams. So the one to two grams of creatine monohydrate in your pre-workout doesn’t reach the threshold of a maintenance dose, let alone the much larger dose necessary to prepare your body to take full advantage of creatine’s presence. To say nothing of how some researchers have hinted that caffeine may diminish some of the effectiveness of creatine even when it’s dispensed in recommended quantities.

While I’m on the topic, you’ve probably seen Bang energy drinks being sold in convenience stores, and you also might have been taken in by their promises of CoQ10 and “super creatine,” or creatine bonded with the amino acid L-leucine. But no matter how supremely enhanced this super creatine is, it’s almost certainly ineffective at adding substance to your workout, given that the entire proprietary blend in a Bang energy shot is 1.875 grams. Again, that’s more than three grams shy of the minimum dose of creatine that’s required to maintain its necessary saturation levels in your muscles.

Which one should I take then — creatine or pre-workout?

If you have a specific performance goal in mind, I vote for creatine. This isn’t to say that the ingredients in pre-workout are valueless — the caffeine has been known to increase adrenaline and boost strength. However, the quantity of caffeine is far higher than required to aid muscle performance, and also likely to be habit-forming. Meanwhile, the benefits of creatine are easy to calculate: After a loading period, creatine users typically see strength increases in the realm of 10 percent, which usually results in one more repetition per strength exercise, or a few more pounds per resistance movement. This may not seem like much, but athletes routinely lifting 10 percent more weight or cranking out 10 percent more reps will achieve gains in muscle strength and endurance much faster than those who haven’t crossed this threshold. 

Or, to put it another way: Pre-workout is the performance-booster of the weekend warrior; creatine is the go-to supplement of the serious athlete. But they are most definitely not one-in-the-same.