Whey protein and creatine are both used by bodybuilders for muscle growth. Since they each have a unique purpose comparing them is a bit like apples and oranges, but you can decide which will be more beneficial in a specific circumstance. Understanding how your body uses creatine and whey protein can decide which one you need more of to meet your muscle-building goals.
As a very basic rule of thumb, creatine promotes energy production and helps your muscles grow by absorbing extra water. Whey protein increases hypertrophy by speeding up the amount of time it takes your muscles to recover from damage.
Some people use both supplements as pre- or post-workout replenishment or part of their diet. Even if that’s the case, knowing how creatine and whey protein operate can help you get the balance right. Read on for the full rundown on these two key supplements and how you can use them most effectively.
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What is Creatine?
Creatine is an organic compound that’s already found in your muscle and brain tissue. In fact, the name “creatine” was taken from “kreas,” the Greek word for meat, after it was discovered in a sample of skeletal muscle.
When creatine bonds with a phosphorus and oxygen compound, it can regenerate ATP, or adenosine triphosphate. ATP is the energy source for your cells so creatine is vital for them to function. Bodybuilders and lifters use creatine as a dietary supplement so their muscle cells have plenty of energy to power through tough workouts.
Your body stores 95% of its creatine supplies in skeletal muscle. The creatine in your muscles absorbs water and makes your muscles look bigger. Additional ATP and water retention from creatine help your muscles perform better so you can lift more or lift longer during a workout session.
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What is Whey Protein?
The coagulated liquid remainder of milk once it has been curdled and strained is called whey. Sweet whey, which is used in the preparation of a wide variety of foods, is a by-product of hard cheeses. Sour whey, or acid whey, is a leftover from cottage cheese and yogurt.
Whey protein dietary supplements are generally a concentrated form of these by-products that has been filtered or treated to remove the fat and lactose so that only the protein remains. Although taking whey protein before a workout session won’t boost your performance, it will greatly help your muscles recover post-workout because it gives your body many more essential amino acids that help rejuvenate muscle protein supply.
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Creatine Vs. Whey Protein for Amino Acids
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and help synthesize hormones that create the continuous turnover of protein needed for skeletal muscle to function effectively. There are nine essential amino acids that the human body doesn’t create and has to get from food. Complete protein foods that contain all nine essential amino acids include red meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products, seafood, quinoa, and buckwheat.
Whey protein is also a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids. One of the most important is an amino acid called methionine and it’s used in metabolism and tissue growth. When the body gets methionine from whey protein supplements, that methionine pairs with arginine and glycine, two amino acids that occur naturally. These three amino acids combine to produce creatine.
Whey protein also includes three essential amino acids known as BCAAs, or branched-chain amino acids. The individual BCAAs are valine, leucine, and isoleucine. Not only do these BCAAs help build muscle mass, but they also help regulate blood sugar, produce energy, and potentially even reducing fatigue during a workout.
In the sense that creatine requires methionine and methionine has to come from consumables, whey protein is a bit more important. If you can only take one or the other, whey protein is probably the wiser choice in terms of essential amino acids.
Creatine & Whey Protein From Food Sources
Creatine is found in many common protein sources like red meat, poultry, and seafood. However, you have to eat a significant amount of these foods to get the same amount of creatine that you could get from a workout supplement. That could lead to increased body fat and weight gain.
In terms of getting enough protein into your system, there isn’t any difference between whey protein and other complete protein sources like red meat, poultry, and seafood. If all you’re concerned with is getting protein and building muscle, then creatine supplements may be the better option.
However, whey protein has essential amino acids in high concentrations and the body can digest it very quickly. You can’t exactly eat a chicken breast in the middle of the weight room but you can take in additional whey protein powder for better performance and post-workout muscle recovery. It’s also a great way to get protein in pre-workout without feeling overfull and lethargic.
Bulking & Cutting With Whey Protein & Creatine
We’ve already mentioned how eating too much creatine-rich meat can easily lead to a buildup of body fat. That’s a quick way to sabotage any weight loss goals you set during a cutting phase, which is why creatine supplementation with powder is more effective when you want to lose body fat. The same is true for whey protein, although it is easier to get all the essential amino acids through complete protein sources in your diet so you can forego whey protein.
If you’re cutting the right way and not crash cutting with a severe or sudden caloric deficit, creatine is wiser because the protein you get from the poultry and seafood in your diet should be enough to prevent muscle loss while you burn body fat. This is going to be more likely if you keep up your resistance training and bodyweight exercises throughout the cutting phase.
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Clean bulking makes the decision between whey protein and creatine somewhat simpler. Since you’ll have a calorie surplus to bulk up, it’s very likely that you’re getting complete protein from food already. If you can only use one of these bodybuilding supplements during a bulking phase, creatine would be wiser because even with the additional calories you’ll be hard-pressed to get as much creatine naturally as you can from creatine supplementation.
If you’re going to kick your workout routine up a notch during the bulking period, creatine monohydrate powder is a great way to boost muscle strength and increase hypertrophy. It won’t give you superpowers necessarily, but it will help you lift more, causing more muscle strain and the need for greater muscle repair afterward. That means more muscle mass.
Enhancing muscle protein synthesis with whey protein will also help build new muscle over time. However, since whey protein and casein can both be found in dairy products that you might already be including in your diet during the bulking phase, you might not need to consume as much whey protein as a supplement during this period.
Side Effects of Creatine
Studies show that there are no negative side effects of creatine supplementation generally speaking. However, some people do experience discomfort related to the increased processing required by the liver and kidneys when high levels of creatine are ingested. Some other common side effects include muscle cramps and gastrointestinal problems.
There isn’t much data available on the effects of creatine when it’s consumed over long periods. It’s safe for up to five years, but past that point continued use or suddenly stopping creatine supplementation might possibly cause negative side effects.
Side Effects of Whey Protein
The most common side effect from whey protein is an adverse reaction to the lactose it contains. Severely lactose intolerant people might find that whey protein isn’t worth the havoc it wreaks on their digestive system. Isolated whey protein with all or nearly all the lactose removed is also available to solve this issue.
Research has consistently shown that normal use of whey protein alone does not have negative effects on the liver or kidneys, nor does it make osteoporosis more likely. As long as the whey protein powder you choose doesn’t have hidden dangers like tons of added sugar and calories, it should be fine to take to build muscle mass. Make sure you choose a reputable brand with a clear label as some kinds of whey protein powder were shown to contain lots of toxins.
Health Benefits of Creatine
Creatine supplementation offers a few health benefits outside of sports nutrition. Your body stores creatine mostly in skeletal muscle but there is also a small percentage stored in the brain. For that reason, higher levels of creatine may help prevent or reduce symptoms of Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s Disease in addition to helping improve memory and brain function in older adults.
There is also some evidence that creatine can help regulate blood sugar levels and help prevent diabetes. However, this could be a side effect of the physical activity of people who are most likely to take additional creatine.
Health Benefits of Whey Protein
Any kind of protein has numerous health benefits. Whey protein, expecially isolated kinds without lactose, is an incredibly high-quality protein. It can help lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, boost antioxidant function, and reduce “bad” cholesterol. Since whey protein is such a refined, high-quality protein, it also helps you feel full for longer, making it a great weight loss aid.
Whey protein also boosts metabolism. Increased protein intake has been linked with reduced likelihood for osteoporosis in older adults.
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Can You Mix Whey Protein and Creatine?
Since they’re both popular supplements for building muscle mass, could you just combine creatine and whey protein instead of worrying about choosing one?
Many bodybuilders do just that without any problems. The additional energy from the ATP generated by creatine plus the amino acids from relatively fast-acting whey protein would ideally combine their powers for massive muscle gains.
In one study, researchers found that participants who supplemented with a combination of whey protein and creatine did perform better at bench presses. However, they also found that other participants who used only either whey protein or creatine had similarly increased squat strength.
There are no negative side effects of combining both creatine and whey protein, but you should consider the timing of each supplement. Whey protein is quickly digested and your body needs the essential amino acids it contains for muscle recovery post-workout. Creatine, on the other hand, takes longer to digest and is used for boosting strength during exercise.
So while you can take both whey protein and creatine, it doesn’t make sense to mix them both together in the same protein shake. Creatine supplementation should be taken about one hour pre-workout and creatine should be consumed either during or immediately after you finsih exercising.
Dosage Recommendations for Whey Protein
While both of these supplements are great for building muscle, that doesn’t mean you should gorge yourself on protein shakes throughout the day. At best, you’ll just be wasting money on supplements that your body can’t even digest.
Whey protein is really easy to consume because all you have to do is mix it with water or some other liquid. Most whey protein powders have dosage recommendations on their labels and you should certainly take those into account. As a general rule, one or two scoops of whey protein powder (or between 30 and 45 grams) should be consumed in a day.
That amount of whey protein lines up fairly well with the amount of protein your body can digest per meal. Anything above that amount will pass through your body without being absorbed.
Dosage Recommendations for Creatine
Creatine is a bit more complicated. Regular creatine intake normally begins with a loading phase where you take much more for a short period in order to completely saturate your muscles with the supplement. Then you can move onto a lower dosage to maintain the amount of creatine in your body.
For a week or slightly less, consume about 25 grams of creatine per day. Don’t drink all that at once of you could start to feel bloated. Take in some creatine 5 times a day for the best results.
After this loading phase is complete, you only need to consume about 5 grams of creatine per day. Once your muscles are saturated, it doesn’t take much to keep them that way so you can continue to see a better performance at the gym.
Creatine Supplementation for Weight Lifting
There are some people who drink their creatine at random periods throughout the day while some drink it before and after a workout. As we’ve already mentioned, the strength benefits of creatine supplementation will be most apparent if it’s consumed pre-workout. If you load for a week and only have to drink a few grams of maintenance creatine per day, then drink it before you hit the gym.
If you don’t load first and have to drink creatine several times throughout the day, then you can indeed spread it out. Just make sure one of the creatine servings is consumed pre-workout.
Other Helpful Supplements
Bodybuilders commonly use other supplements like casein, omega-3, and glutamine to gain muscle. Casein is a by-product of milk just like whey protein but it takes much more time to digest. Casein is more useful to cover long periods, so you might consider drinking it on a rest day just to keep your protein levels high.
Omega-3 fatty acids are commonly found in fish and help reduce muscle soreness. Your body uses them to build cells, making them important for post-workout recovery. Glutamine also helps during recovery by removing some of the ammonia that builds up in your body during exercise.
While these other supplements have their benefits, if you can only choose one it should be either creatine or whey protein. Depending on your personal lifting goals, one might be more appropriate than the other. If possible, you can use both at different times of day for the greatest effect.
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Whey protein and creatine are by far the most popular supplements for bodybuilders and other people who want to build muscle mass. Although they both work to build muscle, they do so in different and complementary ways. Creatine gives your muscles more energy and absorbs water to make them look bigger while whey protein is chock-full of the essential amino acids your muscles need to recover and increase hypertrophy after a workout.
It’s hard to say that one of these supplements is always going to be better than the other. Whey protein is in some ways more well-rounded but creatine is harder to get from foods without putting on body fat. For the best muscle gains, consume creatine before you hit the gym and whey protein during or after your workout.
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