There are hundreds of dietary supplements on the shelf of your local health food store and thousands more available on the Internet. The majority of these substances are unproven. Eating a healthy diet is essential and eliminates the need for many supplements. After that, your money is probably best spent on supplements that have gained widespread acceptance in both the athletic and scientific communities. Creatine and protein are two dietary supplements that have been demonstrated to be safe and effective in improving performance in certain athletic activities.
Multiple studies have reported that the dietary intake of supplemental protein can chronically increase nitrogen balance and promote anabolism, thereby resulting in greater physical strength. For example, researchers at Laurentian University observed that protein supplementation during six weeks of resistance training, increased lean tissue mass and strength when compared to an isocaloric placebo and resistance training. Likewise, a group led by Dr. Paul Cribb reported that subjects supplemented with whey protein over 11 weeks of RT significantly increased their maximum bench press over their baseline, and that the change in the whey protein group was significantly greater than that of a placebo group. Most studies that have shown such positive effects of protein supplementation have had subjects consume the protein immediately after their workout, to help rebuild the damaged muscles as efficiently as possible.
Creatine supplementation has been demonstrated to provide a performance benefit in repeated short-duration, high intensity exercise like weightlifting and sprinting. Creatine was studied extensively in the 1990s and in 2003 Eric Rawson and Jeff Volek wrote a summary of such work. In their review of 22 studies they found that the average increase in muscle strength following creatine supplementation plus RT was 8 percent greater than the average increase in muscle strength following placebo ingestion plus RT. Similarly, the average increase in weightlifting performance following creatine supplementation plus RT was 14 percent greater than the average increase in weightlifting performance following placebo ingestion during RT.
Most studies of creatine supplementation have not examined ingestion timing -- their only goal was to ensure a greater than normal amount of creatine in the body so as to boost the phosphagen system for energy creation. In that case, creatine can be ingested without regard to timing. Many athletes take their creatine in the morning but some take creatine after a workout in hopes of replenishing its stores, although that strategy does not appear to have scientific backing yet.
Supplementing with Both Protein and Creatine
Despite a wealth of evidence indicating the efficacy of supplementing with protein and creatine independently, there is little research that has studied their combined effect. In one such study, led by Darren Burke at St. Francis Xavier University, compared males supplementing with whey protein alone, whey plus creatine, or a placebo. They reported that the whey group had greater improvement in knee strength and lean tissue mass than those on placebo. Males who supplemented with a combination of whey protein and creatine had greater increases in lean tissue mass and bench press than those who supplemented with only whey protein or placebo. However, not all strength measures were improved with supplementation. Squat strength increased similarly in all three groups.
When to Take What
Both creatine and protein supplementation can be beneficial in adding lean mass and strength when added to a RT program. From a strictly scientific point of view, creatine can be taken in a variety of forms and at any time. Protein may also be useful in different forms, although whey is the most common. There is evidence to show that the benefits of protein ingestion are greatest immediately following your workout. However, people respond differently to any supplement and there are undoubtedly athletes that prefer taking creatine prior to protein, others prefer the reverse -- and there are some who prefer taking them simultaneously. Therefore, you might consider trying each sequence and seeing how your results vary.