You’re in the gym five days per week, lifting followed by cardio, you switch up exercises and the number of sets and reps. You’ve incorporated going to failure with drop sets, supersets, and rest-pause techniques. You haven’t missed a leg day in months. Your diet is clean. Yet, your results have stalled. You are making gains, but not nearly as fast or as dramatic as the effort you are putting forth would seem to indicate. Have you plateaued? What’s missing? In search of the secret sauce to reignite your muscle development, you turn to several personal trainers for their input. Not surprisingly, their responses centre on two established supplements as the key to unlocking your potential, creatine and protein.
Which of these time-tested supplements is better? Which should you add to your regimen? That is the question we explore in this article, creatine versus protein, for lean muscle development. Although creatine monohydrate may be the most studied and clinically tested supplement of all time, protein supplementation has been around even longer.
In extensive research for this article, all our resources, including the most respected sites in the sports nutrition space, agree on two supplements, creatine and protein, as number one and two for building lean muscle. However, there is little consensus on which of the two is “most” beneficial.
The foundation of any effective muscle-building program starts with nutrition and a dialed-in resistance training program before moving on to supplementation. As we discuss these two products, we will provide a short history of each and detail their benefits. We then review each in terms of form, dosing, timing, and in the final analysis, synergy. So, which is the better choice, Creatine vs. Protein? Let’s find out!
History of Protein Supplementation
Today the global protein supplement market is estimated at some $18 – $20 billion. (Source, Grandview Research). Various forms of protein supplements, including powders, ready-to-drinks, bars, and cookies, are available in multiple outlets such as health food stores, supermarkets, your pharmacy, sports nutrition stores, even convenience stores, and many gyms. But it wasn’t always so easy for strength athletes to get their protein fix. In the earliest days, the desiccated liver was a staple for the hard-core athlete despite the taste. (It’s making a comeback today in tablet form)! Next was raw egg yolk shakes ala Rocky Balboa, salmonella risk be damned. Another source, chocolate milk post-workout, has been used for years. The high protein content and additional carbs in chocolate milk make it a somewhat reasonable option.
From Eugene Sandow, the founder of modern bodybuilding, to Bob Hoffman of York Fitness fame, to Joe Weider, the biggest names in the industry have helped to popularize protein supplements. In the ‘50s, powdered egg yolk products were introduced, followed by whey products, also awful tasting in the early days. With vast improvements in consistency and taste, whey is still the most popular form of powdered protein today. Newer entries to the category include collagen protein and plant-based products such as soy, oat, quinoa, pea protein, pumpkin, rice, and hemp. To date, I have not ventured beyond plant-based to attempt the latest cricket powdered protein.
There is little doubt as to which of our supplements is more essential. Protein is one of the three macronutrients, along with carbohydrates and fat. Even the name, protein, is derived from the Greek “prōteios,” meaning “holding the first place.” We need protein for our very survival. A person can go their entire adult life without consuming carbs, about six months with no dietary fat, but only seventy days without protein. Protein supplies the essential amino acids required for your body to function properly, particularly at the cellular level.
This article, however, debates which supplement is more critical for muscular development, Creatine vs. Protein. There again, protein seems to have a distinct edge. Since muscle is made up of protein, it seems logical to build more muscle; you need protein. You also need dietary protein to stimulate muscle protein synthesis to help repair and strengthen tissue damaged during exercise and develop and maintain lean muscle mass. So, it’s apparent protein plays a crucial role in building muscle. Additional benefits of protein supplementation on body composition include:
- Weight management – increased metabolism, you burn more calories.
- Protein increases satiety to a greater extent than carbohydrates or fat.
- Prevents sarcopenia (muscle loss) in the older strength athlete.
Other Health Benefits of Protein
Protein intake has been shown to decrease systemic inflammation and oxidative stress – two of the primary causes of aging and other adverse health outcomes. Numerous studies have linked protein supplementation with reduced blood pressure. Hospitals use protein supplements to aid patients in recovery from surgery.
Which Protein Supplement is Right for You?
There are two primary measurements of protein quality, bioavailability, and amino acid profile. Bioavailability refers to the absorption and utilization of the protein. The higher the BV score, the better. Whey, egg, and casein have the best scores. The amino acid profile becomes important when discussing plant proteins. The human body uses twenty amino acids to build proteins, classified as essential (those you must get from your diet and supplements) and non-essential (those produced by your body). Animal proteins (meat, fish, eggs) include all twenty amino acids; however, plant proteins typically lack essential aminos making them incomplete.
The gold standard in protein powders in the strength community remains milk proteins, whey protein, concentrate or isolate form, and casein. Many athletes use casein either in combination with whey or as a stand-alone for its slower digestion. Egg protein is another excellent source, having the highest bioavailability and digestibility scores; however, it has decreased in popularity versus milk proteins.
For vegans and vegetarians, there is soy protein such as SPIRU-TEIN, pea protein like that of Ghost Vegan Protein, hemp protein, and brown rice proteins that make up the most popular options. Soy is a complete protein with all the essential amino acids; however, the least often used type among athletes. Although plant-based proteins have gained in popularity, taste and their incomplete amino profile are still somewhat limiting. Mixed plant proteins, combining several plant varieties in one formula, may also contain a complete amino acid profile.
Collagen protein, depending on type and source, is most often used for skin, hair, and nails or joint and cartilage support.
Our choices for the best proteins for muscle protein synthesis would feature the milk proteins, faster-digesting whey protein concentrate and/or isolate, coupled with a slower digesting casein. To maximize the synthesis benefits, the addition of a medium-digesting egg protein would be beneficial.
Protein Dosing – the Great Debate, Resolved
Let’s start this segment by restating our objective, determining which is better for muscle growth, protein or creatine. Although protein intake is often debated by dieticians and nutritionists who contend we consume too much protein, their objective is quite different. Their Recommended Dietary Allowance represents the amount of protein required to meet your basic nutritional requirements. Without revisiting all the details as to the RDA’s grams per pound of bodyweight, suffice it to say that 10% of your caloric intake from protein will not build lean muscle mass, period.
Research tells us that higher protein intake coupled with resistance training results in greater muscle mass – and less fat. Athletes expend more energy and calories than accounted for in the RDA. For those training hard, we recommend a minimum of 1.0 – 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight. For those hard-trainers, also on a carb-restricted diet, 1.5 – 2.0 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight is recommended.
When to Take Your Protein
The timing of when you take your protein, and the type of protein you are taking is a serious consideration for those seeking to gain more lean muscle. There are meal replacement shakes that can be used for precisely that – replacing a whole food meal. There are weight gainer products used to add mass; however, the focus shifts to calories and carbohydrates in addition to the protein content. In this segment, we address when to take your protein to optimize protein synthesis, muscle gains, repair, and recovery.
We start with what many consider the most important meal of the day for the strength athlete, the post-workout shake. After an intense workout, your muscles are primed for nutrient uptake. A faster-digesting whey isolate is an excellent choice to shuttle the nutrients into your system. Many commercial post-workout products add high glycemic carbs, glutamine, and BCAAs. We believe adding casein to your post-workout is even better for protein synthesis.
Another consideration for strength athletes is avoiding muscle wasting while fasting. Those practicing IF (Intermittent Fasting) are aware of the potential and devise appropriate eating strategies. Overnight you are also fasting for seven-eight hours, so we recommend a slow-digesting protein before bed. Casein is our protein of choice.
A final thought regarding timing for those who train in the A.M. If your morning workout is strictly cardio, training on an empty stomach is acceptable, perhaps even preferable for weight management. However, when strength training in the morning, we recommend you replenish your protein before heading to the gym to replace depleted nutrients.
The above makes a great case for protein as the most important supplement for building muscle, providing you get the right protein, in sufficient quantity, at the appropriate time. Can creatine even compete?
History of Creatine Supplementation
Creatine was first discovered by the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul in 1832 when he extracted the compound from the tissue of the meat. Ironically, Chevreul is far more famous for his “principles of colour” theory and development of the stearin candle. It wasn’t until 1912 that researchers at Harvard University discovered that ingesting creatine could increase the creatine content within muscles. A synthetic form of creatine was developed in the ‘50s, and studies on its effect on muscle atrophy followed. Finally, creatine supplementation for athletes caught on after the 1992 Olympics, when two gold medalists credited creatine with their performances.
Today, creatine supplementation is approaching $400 million in global sales, a mere fraction of the size of the protein industry. Creatine is considered an ergogenic aid, a performance-enhancing substance that provides athletes with a competitive advantage. Illegal anabolic steroids are also ergogenic aids, and perhaps this association slowed the broader acceptance of creatine in its early days as a supplement.
As previously mentioned, creatine monohydrate is the most clinically studied supplement ever, considered by many strength athletes as the best and safest supplement for increasing strength and muscle size.
If you were impressed by the origin of the word protein, derived from Greek, and meaning “holding the first place,” then creatines’ origin, from Greek “kreas,” meaning “flesh, meat,” should have equal merit.
Creatine is produced naturally in the body to provide energy for muscle and tissue. Typically, the body produces about 1-2 grams per day, stored primarily in skeletal muscle. You can also source creatine through your diet, primarily from milk, red and white meat, fish, and mollusks.
The NCBI’s Journal of Sports Science and Medicine defines creatine supplementation as “A tasteless, crystalline powder supplement that readily dissolves in liquids. The intention of creatine supplementation is to increase resting phosphocreatine levels in muscles, as well as free creatine, with the goal of postponing fatigue, even briefly, for sports-enhancing results.”
This elevated creatine content in the muscle’s cells not only enhances performance by postponing fatigue, but it also improves muscle strength and helps gain muscle mass.
When used in conjunction with resistance training, creatine supplementation increases lean body mass, strength, and power. Most studies validate creatine’s ability to enhance performance in high-intensity exercise as measured by 1-rep max, the number of reps, endurance, and speed.
Added to creatine’s already significant muscle strengthening and building benefits:
- Research indicates that creatine prevents atrophy (muscle wasting).
- May raise levels of IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor).
- Increases the water level in muscles.
- May lower blood sugar levels.
- Has an excellent safety profile.
Different Types of Creatine
Although monohydrate is the most studied and best-selling creatine, sports nutrition companies continue to introduce new forms such as creatine esters, chelates, and hydrochlorides.
One of the first to do so was EFX Sports with their Kre-Alkalyn, a more basic monohydrate form with the correct pH balance for better absorption.
Promera Sports, owner of the Con-Cret brand of creatine, was the first to use an HCL (Hydrochloride). This form has gained traction of late with consumers and other manufacturers due to its purported superior solubility. This solubility results in less creatine residue in the stomach leading to fewer gastrointestinal issues.
Other supplement manufacturers have attempted to improve creatine’s stability by adding an alkaline powder – also designed to reduce stomach issues.
Esters and chelates have been introduced with absorption claims, as well. To date, there is insufficient scientific research to substantiate any alternatives superiority to monohydrate.
We recommend you experiment using monohydrate as a baseline and see which type performs best for you. Things to observe are stomach issues such as bloating, excessive water retention, and, of course, lean muscle gains.
Creatine Dosing: Is a Loading Phase Required?
Recommendations regarding the proper dosing of creatine vary by company, trainers, and by type of creatine. Most commercial monohydrate products have a serving size of four-six grams, whereas HCL products typically have smaller dosages (2 grams) due to their claimed superior absorption.
Similarly, recommendations vary regarding the need for a loading dose of creatine to saturate the muscles before switching to maintenance levels. Studies indicate a loading dose may not be required to achieve elevated levels; however, it takes a longer time. For loading advocates, twenty – twenty-five grams per day, split into four or five servings, is the standard for five to seven days. Your follow-on maintenance dosage of monohydrate would be about 3.5 grams/day.
For some people, a loading dose brings on stomach distress issues. The alternative is to consume three to five grams per day, and you’ll achieve the same levels as with a loading protocol, albeit in about three weeks.
When to Take Creatine
Creatine is the most widely used ingredient in pre-workout products in the sports nutrition space. Although there are exceptions, most pre-workout products that exclude creatine are typically energy-focused or cutting formulas intended for those who do not want to add mass.
So, when should you take creatine? Most people consume their creatine either as part of a pre-workout powder or as an added ingredient before their workout. Relatively few ready-to-drinks contain creatine as it breaks down rapidly when in a liquid – the more acidic the liquid, the quicker it will break down.
Many people include creatine in their post, often with glutamine, BCAAs, and possibly with protein and carbs. Regardless of the other components, for optimal results, we recommend you consider creatine both pre-and post-workout – as close to your workout as possible. It works best in the gym and is supported by research. On non-training days timing is not critical.
So, as with protein, the right type of creatine (we prefer monohydrate or HCL), in the correct dosage (loading or not), at the appropriate time, preferably pre-and post-workout, makes a compelling story for creatine as the most important supplement for building muscle. Perhaps our answer lies in the synergy of both protein and creatine as staples in your supplement regimen.
Creatine vs. Protein: We Suggest Synergy
Based on sheer market size alone, protein would appear to emerge as our clear winner. However, many vegans and vegetarians, runners, golfers, dieters, and skiers supplement protein with no intention of packing on lean mass. In contrast, creatine is marketed and promoted primarily to the person who is training and concerned with gaining muscle and size, clearly a small subset of the protein population.
There are three main criteria required for lean muscle gain:
- You must consistently consume more calories than you expend.
- You must consume more protein than you break down.
- Your training program must progressively challenge your muscles.
This criterium would also appear to make protein the winner in our search for the secret sauce; however, it is entirely possible to take in more protein than you break down through diet alone – difficult, but possible. A bodybuilder’s diet of chicken every four hours could, perhaps, meet that requirement. In which case, in an environment where you are getting sufficient calories and protein, adding high-quality creatine appears to emerge as our winner.
In the final analysis, we believe that to truly optimize your muscle-building potential, synergy is required. The synergy of protein supplementation, in the right form, at 1.5 to 2 grams per pound of bodyweight, timed for optimal results, minimally post-workout and before bed, coupled with the right form of creatine, in the correct dosage, both before and after training will help you achieve the results you seek.