Can Creatine or Whey Protein Boost Your Workout?
When it comes to fueling your workouts and maximizing muscle growth, two supplements stand out: creatine and whey protein.
Can these powders really improve your pump at the gym and your performance on the field? Are they safe to take regularly? Does your body really need extra protein or more amino acids?
Before you run to your favorite vitamin and supplement store, consider your options and the potential risks for your body.
Why do athletes like whey protein?
Whey protein, derived from milk during the cheese-making process, is a complete protein source that’s readily absorbed by the body.
“It can help you build mass and build strength, if you use it and exercise correctly,” says Kristopher J. Paultre, M.D., a family medicine and primary care sports medicine specialist with the Sports Medicine Institute, part of the University of Miami Health System.
Compared to other animal-based proteins, whey has the highest content of essential amino acids (43%) — including branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) like leucine, isoleucine and valine, as well as lysine and methionine. These molecules combine to form proteins and play a vital role in muscle protein synthesis (how the body builds new muscle tissue). BCAAs, in particular, are quickly absorbed and transported to muscles.
To see and feel the best results with whey protein supplements, follow the recommended serving size and exercise regularly, including strength training (lifting weights or using resistance).
“The best time to utilize protein supplementation is within 15 minutes post-workout,” Dr. Paultre says. This will help repair muscle damage and reduce muscle soreness, allowing you to recover quicker after exercise. This makes whey protein an excellent choice for athletes, bodybuilders and individuals looking to support muscle growth and repair.
Whey protein may also help with weight loss/management by promoting feelings of fullness, which can reduce your caloric intake.
In addition, some whey protein formulations contain compounds that can support your overall health and wellness. Certain proteins, like immunoglobulins and lactoferrin, are known to protect the body against some bacteria, viruses and fungi. Plus, some peptides in whey protein may have anti-inflammatory properties.
Do you need more protein to get the best results?
“While athletes require increased protein intake, you may be surprised to learn that it’s not the heavy lifters and football players who need the most protein,” Dr. Paultre says. “Endurance athletes have much more muscle breakdown during activity. Strength athletes require 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, while endurance athletes need 1.8 grams/kg.”
Who should avoid whey protein?
“It’s relatively safe,” Dr. Paultre says. “My biggest concern is not the actual product. It’s the additives and fillers and how they’re processed. You don’t know what’s in a lot of these supplements, and very few of them have oversight by the Food and Drug Administration.”
Before you start taking whey protein or any dietary or performance-boosting, over-the-counter supplement, speak with your doctor. You may be taking a medication or have a medical condition that conflicts with the supplement’s ingredients or additives. People with kidney disease, for example, should not add more protein to their diet.
“[Too much protein] can further damage their kidneys,” he says.
Because whey protein is made from milk, it is also not suitable for people following a vegan diet and those who are lactose intolerant or allergic to milk products.
Why do athletes take creatine?
Creatine is a naturally occurring compound found primarily in red meat and fish. Unlike whey protein, creatine is not an amino acid itself, but it is synthesized from three amino acids: arginine, glycine and methionine. These amino acids combine to form creatine through a chemical reaction in the liver, kidneys and pancreas.
Creatine is stored in the muscles as creatine phosphate.
“That phosphate helps your muscles contract,” Dr. Paultre says. It plays a crucial role in the body’s energy production system, particularly during short bursts of intense physical activity, like weightlifting, sprinting and high-intensity interval (HIIT) training.
Your body rapidly breaks down adenosine triphosphate (ATP) for energy, and creatine can help regenerate ATP.
“Because of that extra energy, you may get in an extra rep at the gym if you’re working out appropriately. Over about a year, those extra reps can add on some strength.”
Additionally, creatine may promote the release of certain growth-promoting hormones that can support muscle mass development in some users.
Creatine helps reduce muscle cell damage and inflammation by providing a rapid energy source during exercise. This can result in less muscle soreness and faster recovery times between workouts.
What should you know before taking creatine?
“Creatine is overwhelmingly safe,” Dr. Paultre says. “Again, the problem is that nutraceutical companies put additives in these supplements. You have to be really careful what you put in your body.”
Creatine can cause an increase in water retention in muscle cells, which can help prevent dehydration during intense exercise. However, it’s essential to balance this effect with proper hydration to avoid potential side effects. When taking creatine, you should drink enough water (12 to 16 cups per day) to slow down your body’s absorption of this supplement.
Many creatine products recommend a larger “loading dose” when you start taking the supplement. But, Dr. Paultre says larger doses can increase the risk of dehydration with minimal benefit.
“If you’re thinking about trying creatine, consider both the timing and the type of sports you wish to participate in,” he says.
“Starting any sport in the off-season is preferable, as it reduces the risk of any side effects during activity, and the best results are from actual resistance or strength training.
“Finally, athletes must remember that creatine helps only with short bursts of energy,” Dr. Paultre says. “For many types of sports, especially with endurance athletes, you are likely to see either minimal benefit or negative effects on performance.”
Like the warnings associated with whey protein, people with kidney disease should not take creatine. In addition, this supplement is not recommended for those with high blood pressure or liver disease.
You don’t have to choose between creatine and whey protein.
Many athletes and bodybuilders take both of these supplements during the same day or even at the same time, which is considered safe and effective for those who exercise regularly and drink sufficient water.
To maximize your fitness results, take these supplements as directed (more is not necessarily better), exercise regularly (including strength training), get enough rest and quality sleep to allow your body to recover, stay hydrated, and eat a balanced diet that provides all of the calories and nutrients you need to stay active.
“It’s important to understand that protein supplementation, in general, is not the holy grail with regards to strength training,” says Dr. Paultre. “Many studies have shown that, while it can help with muscle synthesis and mass, it does not have a significant effect on strength. Therefore, protein supplementation’s true value is for muscle recovery and repair after exercise.”
As with any over-the-counter supplement or new exercise program, speak with your doctor first.
Dana Kantrowitz is a contributing writer for UHealth’s news service.