Creatine is by far the most popular muscle-building supplement and for good reason. There are thousands of research studies showing its effectiveness for building muscle, boosting performance, and improving body composition.
In this blog post, we're going to answer all of your questions about creatine including what kind of creatine you should be taking, what dose you should be supplementing with, do you need to cycle off creatine periodically, whether you need to do a loading phase or not, and more!
Let’s get right into it.
What is creatine?
Creatine is a naturally occurring molecule in muscle tissue. Steak, poultry, and seafood are all natural sources of creatine. Contrary to what many people think, creatine is NOT a steroid. It’s a completely natural substance. Although we can get creatine from our diet, the amount of creatine present in food is not enough to help you build substantial muscle. For example, you’d need to eat about 16 servings of steak per day to reach the dose of creatine that’s necessary to have muscle building benefits.
How does creatine actually work?
When we work out, we use ATP, also known as adenosine triphosphate, as the main source of energy to contract our muscles and fuel exercise. ATP is simply a molecule of adenosine that has three phosphate molecules attached to it (see image below). This will be important to know when we explain how creatine works in just a bit.
Figure 1: Adenosine Triphosphate
We all have some ATP readily available in our muscles, but it’s not much and it usually runs out after just a couple of seconds of intense exercise. Our bodies can also produce ATP to fuel exercise by two different mechanisms known as aerobic and anaerobic metabolism. However, these two mechanisms produce ATP at a rate slower than that used by your muscles during exercise. In other words, we can’t produce ATP quickly enough to keep up with the ATP demands of our muscles during resistance training. So, the amount of ATP available in our muscles is one of the limiting factors that cause you to reach muscular failure (ie: not being able to perform another repetition despite trying your hardest.) If you failed a set of squats after 10 reps, you probably also ran out of ATP momentarily.
This is where creatine comes in.
Aside from readily available ATP just sitting in the muscle, there is another way our bodies can quickly produce ATP to contract our muscles and that’s known as the phosphocreatine system. When we take creatine as a supplement, we store it in our muscles as phosphocreatine. When we use ATP to contract our muscles during exercise, the ATP is converted to ADP or adenosine diphosphate, and it loses one of its phosphate groups. Creatine phosphate can donate it’s phosphate group to ADP to quickly regenerate ATP, as illustrated below:
Figure 2: Creatine Phosphate Regenerates ATP
We always have some creatine phosphate in our muscles, even if you don’t take creatine as a supplement. However, taking creatine as a supplement can help increase your phosphocreatine stores, which can help increase the amount of ATP available during exercise. In essence, creatine works by helping you have more ATP to fuel exercise, which might help you get 1-2 more repetitions at the end of a set. By helping to boost your overall performance in the gym, creatine contributes to better muscle growth and strength over time.
For example, in this study (PMID: 29214923) participants performed 4 days of resistance training per week and trained each muscle group 2x per week. Half of the participants received a creatine supplement while the other half received a placebo. The results showed that those who were supplemented with creatine experienced significantly greater muscle hypertrophy in both the upper and lower body compared to placebo even though their training regimen was the same.
Figure 3: Creatine Supplementation Results in Greater Muscle Hypertrophy in both the Upper and Lower Body
Similarly, this 2020 study published in Nutrients (PMID: 32599716) had participants resistance train for six weeks and again half the participants were supplemented with creatine while the other half were provided a placebo. Instead of assessing muscle hypertrophy though, the researchers looked at changes in muscle strength and demonstrated that creatine supplementation resulted in significantly greater strength improvements in both lower and upper body exercises like the leg press and chest press (see below).
Figure 4: Creatine Supplementation Increased 1RM strength to a Greater Degree than Placebo
These are just two of the many studies that show the benefits of creatine supplementation for strength and hypertrophy. There is no doubt that supplementing with creatine will help you make better gains over time.
What is the best form of creatine?
There are a bunch of different types of creatine. Creatine HCL, Creatine ethyl ester, super creatine, buffered creatine, and the list goes on. But we're here to tell you that all of these are bullsh*t. Supplement companies just try to sell “new forms of creatine” to set themselves apart for marketing purposes and to sell more of their product. The most well-studied form of creatine is creatine monohydrate. That’s all you need. It’s also the cheapest form of creatine; all of those other forms of creatine tend to be more expensive. On top of all that, there’s absolutely no scientific evidence that any of these forms of creatine are more effective for growing muscle and improving strength than creatine monohydrate long-term.
In short, just buy creatine monohydrate and don’t waste your money. Our Recovery product contains 5g of micronized creatine monohydrate per serving, along with other evidence based ingredients to help you recover from hard training and build muscle!
How much creatine should I take?
Most people will benefit from taking 5g of creatine per day. Some argue that creatine recommendations should be more specific and based on body weight. However, most studies supplement all participants across the board with 5g of creatine and show improvements in muscle mass and strength. If you’re a large person (ie: over 200 lbs.), you might benefit from taking a slightly higher dose. And if you're a smaller person, you may still see benefits with a slightly lower dose.
When should I take creatine?
In terms of timing, it really doesn’t matter when you take creatine. Since creatine is a supplement that has cumulative effects, what matters most is that you take it consistently. You can take creatine in the morning or at night, you can take creatine before or after your workout... it doesn't matter. Just make sure that you are using it consistently.
For those people who have sensitive tummies or GI issues, you may want to avoid taking creatine before your workout. Creatine is a known gut irritant. It’s funny because many pre-workouts often include creatine (not ours.) However, some people can experience an upset stomach when they supplement with creatine. If that's you, then you may want to wait until after your workout and take your creatine with food or after a meal on a full stomach to avoid GI discomfort.
That covers the majority of the info you need to know about creatine. Next, we are going to address some frequently asked questions that people have when it comes to supplementing with creatine.
Do you need to do a loading phase?
A loading phase refers to taking a large dose of creatine per day for the first week of supplementation. Usually about 20 grams per day. The reason a loading phase can be helpful is that it helps saturate your muscle creatine stores quicker. However, some people experience significant GI distress like an upset stomach, bloating, and cramping with such high doses of creatine. The good news is that a loading phase is completely unnecessary, and you will fully saturate your muscles with creatine after about a month of supplementation if you just take a normal dose of 5 grams per day.
Does creatine cause bloating or weight gain?
Creatine does cause water retention. In fact, this is one of the reasons for creatine's anabolic effects. Creatine pulls water into the muscle cells. It’s normal for you to gain anywhere between 3 to 5 lbs the first month after starting creatine supplementation. However, since creatine is stored inside our muscle cells, the water we retain is also inside the muscle, which will actually help your muscles look fuller and larger. Creatine does not cause you to increase water retention under the skin, so it doesn’t make you look bloated or puffy. This is a common misconception about creatine.
Do you need to stop taking creatine during a fat loss phase?
Absolutely not. People think they need to stop creatine during a fat loss phase because it causes a bit of weight gain. However, the weight gain from creatine supplementation is just water inside the muscle and none of it is fat. On top of that, creatine doesn’t inhibit fat loss in any way. If anything, creatine may be helpful during a fat loss phase since it helps you train harder, which can help you retain more muscle during fat loss.
Do you need to cycle creatine?
In other words, do you need to periodically stop taking creatine throughout the year? The answer is no. There is no data showing that it’s harmful to take creatine long-term. Creatine is completely safe to take indefinitely. Furthermore, there isn’t any data saying that it’s any less effective the longer you take it and there really isn’t any sort of benefit to stopping creatine supplementation.
Does creatine cause hair loss?
No. This myth originates from a 2009 study that showed that creatine supplementation increased dihydroxy testosterone or DHT concentrations in rugby players. DHT is a metabolite of testosterone that is associated with hair loss. However, this is the only study that’s shown this relationship. Multiple follow-up studies have failed to demonstrate that creatine increases DHT concentrations. Furthermore, there are absolutely no studies that show that creatine actually causes hair loss.
- Creatine is the most well-studied sports supplement that has consistently been shown to improve both strength and hypertrophy adaptations.
- Creatine works by providing additional ATP to fuel muscle contraction during exercise.
- 5g of creatine per day is sufficient to realize its performance-enhancing benefits.
- Timing doesn't matter, just focus on taking creatine consistently.
- A loading phase is not necessary but it can help saturate the muscle cells faster.
- Creatine may cause some weight gain in the form of water retention in the muscle, but it does not inhibit fat loss and should not be avoided during weight loss.
- Creatine does not need to be cycled throughout the year and can be taken indefinitely.
- Creatine does not cause hair loss.