By Michael Martin
If you're serious about working out and have started researching how to take your gains to the next level, two supplements have probably surfaced at the top of your search results: creatine and protein. And there are many good reasons why.
Both supplements have been extensively researched, and there's a lot of data to support their effectiveness and safety. But what are the benefits of creatine and protein, exactly? What's the best way to take them, including dosage and timing? And should you take creatine and protein at the same time? Here's what the experts say.
A key ingredient in LADDER Pre-Workout, creatine is a compound stored primarily in muscle as phosphocreatine, which the body uses to power quick — as opposed to sustained — bursts of activity. That could include a 100-yard sprint or simply lifting a suitcase into your trunk.
Creatine is comprised of three amino acids — arginine, glycine, and methionine — and is usually found in red meat and seafood. Studies suggest, however, that the body's creatine stores can be increased through supplementation to improve workout performance and results.
"Creatine helps fuel your muscles when they're being used, especially during vigorous exercise," says Bianca Grover, ACSM, EP-C, EIM2, ACE, CPT, an Ohio-based exercise physiologist. "By supplementing the amount of creatine in your body, you provide [additional] fuel for your muscles to perform."*
Numerous studies have found that creatine is a safe and effective supplement.
"Creatine monohydrate is one of the most widely scientifically tested supplements, with documented results for strength, performance, and muscle mass development," says Dr. Rori Alter, PT, DPT, SSC, PRSCC, a New York-based physical therapist who coaches competitive powerlifters.*
1. Increased muscle mass
"Creatine can help boost muscle energy stores, leading to [improved workout performance and thus] bigger gains," says Morgyn Clair, MS, RDN, a Florida-based registered dietitian nutritionist.*
2. Better athletic performance
That performance boost isn't limited to lifters. Whether you're pumping iron or doing sprints, creatine may help you get more out of your workout.
3. Enhanced muscle recovery and repair
Creatine may help maintain muscle mass if you're injured, says Marie Spano, MS, RD, CSCS, CSSD, a consulting sports nutritionist for the Atlanta Braves.
"During longer-term rehab, creatine can help you regain muscle, and it may even help with muscle growth in the absence of activity," she says.
"In one study, creatine increased size by 10 to 15 percent over 12 weeks in the muscle not undergoing rehab," Spano adds. "So, if you're only doing rehab on your injured right leg, your non-injured left leg can benefit from taking creatine."*
Many people find it convenient to take creatine before or after a workout, but the truth is that you can take it any time of day — as long as you take it every day. That's because unlike a fast-acting substance like caffeine, creatine takes time to build up to sufficient levels in your cells to make a noticeable difference in your workouts.
With a typical daily serving of 5 to 10 grams, it can take a month or more to impact your training. Creatine loading, during which you take up to 20 grams per day for a short period of time before dialing back to a daily 5 gram "maintenance dose," can get you there in as little as seven to 10 days.
Either way, you'll likely only notice a performance boost during high-intensity activity.
"Creatine is most beneficial for high-intensity workouts that include quick bursts of output followed by short rests," Clair says. "Someone who does lower-intensity workouts like walks [or long, steady-state runs] probably wouldn't benefit."*
Protein is the principle component in muscle, crucial for its growth and repair. It is comprised of 21 amino acids, nine of which (called "essential") must be consumed in food because they can't be produced by the body.*
Supplementation of protein can be derived from animal or plant sources:
Whey protein — like you'll find in LADDER Whey Protein — is produced from cow's milk. Known as a complete protein because it contains all nine essential amino acids in sufficient quantities, whey is processed in two primary forms for supplementation:
Both forms are safe to consume regularly. But if you find dairy difficult to tolerate, whey protein isolate — which is not only higher in protein content but very low in lactose — may be a better option.
The sources of plant protein formulations can vary widely. LADDER Plant Protein, for example, is derived from pea protein, which is high in leucine, a key amino acid in muscle protein synthesis that supports growth.
Other sources of plant protein include soy, hemp, brown rice, and pumpkin seed, to name a few.*
You can consume a protein supplement just about any time — before or after your workout, before bed, or whenever else you feel a hankering. Alter recommends taking a protein powder that contains 20 to 30 grams of protein per serving, once or twice a day.
"Protein supplementation is helpful for exactly that — supplementing your diet," Alter says. "It should be used after the majority of your protein has come from dietary sources, such as eggs with breakfast, turkey with lunch, chicken or steak with dinner, and Greek yogurt for a snack."
1. Increased muscle mass
"Whey protein has a great ability to stimulate muscle protein synthesis due to its high concentrations of the amino acid leucine, known for its role in hypertrophy, or muscle growth," Grover says. This is also true of pea-based plant proteins.*
2. Enhanced muscle recovery and repair
While a protein-rich diet consisting of whole foods is generally recommended for muscle building, well-timed supplementation with protein may be the more efficient recovery option.
A liquid supplement can be absorbed faster, delivering essential aminos quicker to muscle tissue damaged during intense exercise, hastening recovery.*
3. May help with weight loss or maintenance
"Protein is effective at keeping you sated because it's slow to digest, allowing for a longer feeling of fullness after meals," Alter says.
Since the body has to expend a relatively high amount of energy (compared to other macronutrients) to digest protein, consuming it can also provide a temporary metabolic boost.
"It is definitely OK to take both supplements from a safety perspective," Clair says. "Because they do different things, the two can be taken together to maximize muscle gains."
In fact, it may even be preferable. As evidenced above, there are several overlapping benefits of supplementing with protein and creatine, but that doesn't mean they're redundant.
Depending on your goals, the two may yield even better results when taken in concert, as long as you supplement wisely.
"If you plan on taking creatine and lifting frequently, it's a good idea to add a protein supplement such as whey," Grover says. "Creatine may help during the recovery process, but complete proteins are the essential building blocks of muscle."*
Of course, before you change your diet, supplements, or exercise routine, it's a good idea to consult your doctor.*
"In an otherwise healthy individual with no history of kidney or liver disease, consuming 3 to 5 grams of creatine monohydrate and 20 to 60 grams of protein supplement daily is safe and effective in supporting strength, physique, and performance goals," Alter says.
For general health, it's recommended that the average person consume a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. But, depending on the intensity of your workouts, that number can go as high as 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. (In which case, a 180-pound person would aim for a total of 180 grams a day.)*
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.