If I told you that taking a little bit of white powder every day could give you workout a boost, would you draw closer and listen or back away and call the police?
What if I told you that instead of standing in an alley way coaxing you in, I’m in a supplement store surrounded by smiling people. Then if I added that this little white powder was thoroughly researched and backed by science, not created in an underground lab and cut with who knows what.
Ah, I see that I’ve piqued your interest.
This white powder? It’s creatine and not only is it splashed across every supplement company’s website but as I said before it’s also one of the most researched and written about supplements to date.
Taken daily by athletes, gym bros and average guys alike it offers several huge benefits for anyone looking to squeeze the most out of their workouts;
Can help you build muscle and strength faster
Can improve muscle recovery after workouts
Can result in better anaerobic performance
Today we’ll explore exactly what creatine is and how it works before looking at why and how you should take it for the best results.
What is Creatine?
Creatine is naturally occurring molecule found in the muscle cells of your body. It’s made up of 3 amino acids; L-arginine, glycine and methionine, and its role is to help your muscles produce energy during heavy weightlifting or high intensity exercise.
The amount you have stored in your body is dependent on a few factors (1);
Approximately 95% of the creatine in your body is stored in the muscles as phosphocreatine, a stored form of energy that helps your muscle create a high-energy molecule called ATP.
ATP, adenosine triphosphate, is often referred to as your body’s energy currency as when you have more ATP you can perform better during exercise.
The remaining 5% of creatine is stored in your brain, kidneys and liver (2).
As for supplementation, creatine is provided as creatine monohydrate, which is the same as the naturally occurring creatine in your body with the addition of one molecule of water attached.
How Does Creatine Work?
Creatine supplementation works by topping up the stores in your body to provide various benefits;
Faster recovery and resistance to fatigue (3)
Increased strength gains & muscle mass (5)
It does this by supporting the energy creation process in the body.
As we touched on before your body’s primary source of energy when weightlifting is ATP. Your body’s cells use ATP by breaking it down into small molecules before using by-products of this process to recreate ATP to be used again.
With me so far?
You need energy -> your body breakdowns down ATP for energy -> the by-products of that process are recycled back in ATP -> the process can start again
Good? Ok, great.
The more ATP you can store and the faster you can regenerate it, the higher your work output.
The problem is your body’s natural stores are pretty limited so once your ATP is all used up, your body has to turn to glucose or fatty acids for energy production, which is less efficient for heavy weightlifting and high intensity exercise. (6)
Thankfully this is where creatine supplementation comes in, as by supplementing with creatine you can increase your muscle creatine stores by 10 – 20%. (7)
This is of significance as creatine plays an important role in the recycling/regenerating process of ATP, which means having additional creatine stores can allow you to work harder for longer. (8)
What Are the Benefits of Creatine?
Creatine is hugely popular with athletes and weightlifters from all walks of life due to its ability to increase power output and increase work capacity when weightlifting or performing short bursts of intense activity.
However, creatine is also associated with a variety of other benefits for both performance and health.
It’s worth mentioning here that creatine, although powerful, is a game of small margins.
It won’t make you into a superhero overnight or help you change your body if your nutrition and training aren’t up to scratch. However, if you’re doing everything else right then it can make a big difference over time.
The Health Benefits of Creatine
As we’ve touched on throughout this article so far and will cover in detail shortly, creatine has numerous benefits for your strength and muscle goals.
However, may also provide several heath benefits that should not be overlooked when discussing the overall effectiveness of creatine as a supplement.
Type 2 Diabetes
There is research showing that creatine can help reduce the symptoms of type 2 diabetes.
First, you need to realise that strength training is a very effective, science backed method of reducing the symptoms of type 2 diabetes. Current research shows that creatine can improve these positive effects of strength training on diabetes. (9)
One study showing that those who combined strength training and creatine for 12 weeks saw better insulin sensitivity and average blood glucose levels that those who just did strength training. (10)
Arthritis & Joint Pain
Like with diabetes, strength training alone is a fantastic tool for reducing joint pain. (11)
Knowing this it would be logical to assume that supplementing with creatine which can increase strength would increase the effectiveness of weightlifting as tool for the management of arthritis and joint pain.
One study set out to explore this hypothesis and took 2 groups of women;
One group took creatine and did lower leg strengthening exercises
The other group took a placebo and did lower leg strengthening exercises
At the end of the study they found that the group that supplemented with creatine saw a big reduction in knee stiffness (52%) and pain (45%) whilst also an improvement in overall joint function (41%).
The placebo group only saw a moderate improvement in knee stiffness and no difference in pain of joint function. (12)
Research shows that key in many neurological diseases is the reduction of phosphocreatine in the brain. As supplementing with creatine can help restore these levels, it may help or slow disease progression. (13)
Whilst current research in animals is positive and indicative of positive results in humans, more human research is needed to fully understand the effect of creatine supplementation on neurological disease.
The Performance Benefits of Creatine
Here it is, the stuff you’ve been waiting for.
I’ve been referencing the performance related benefits of creatine since the start of this article. Now the time has come to dig in and see exactly what it may be capable of doing.
Let’s get into it.
Perhaps the most sought after, eye-catching benefit of creatine is its ability to help you build more muscle mass over time.
It does this in 2 ways;
It allows you to lift heavier weights for more reps which means you can apply progressive overload beyond the point you would without creatine. This allows you to place your muscles under greater stimulus for growth (21)
It also increases the amount of water in your muscles, which creates better environment for muscle growth by increasing nitrogen balance, positively changing the expression of genes that influence hypertrophy and producing anti-catabolic (muscle protecting) effects. (22, 23, 24, 25)
It’s worth noting that some change in muscle size when supplementing with creatine will be down to the increase in water retention in the muscle cells, particularly at the beginning of your supplementation. However, over time those who use creatine will see an increase in muscle built compared to those who don’t use it.
Research shows that using creatine can, on average, allow you to lift 20% more across all rep ranges, when compared to a placebo (12% increase only) (26).
This is an absolute strength gain of 8% when compared to those not supplementing with creatine. Nothing to turn your nose up at.
Additionally, researchers interestingly found that creatine helped participants increase their bench press 1RM by 3 – 45%. The bottom line is, if you want to get strong then you want to take creatine.
The jury is still partially out when it comes to creatine and muscle recovery.
This is because there still isn’t a huge amount of research available that’s looked at the effect of creatine supplementation on muscle recovery. However, the little that there is available shows a positive relationship. Let’s have a look;
One study showed that long-distance runners who took creatine saw a reduction in muscle damage markers and inflammation after completing a race. (27)
Another study found that creatine can reduce glycogen and muscle protein breakdown during intense training. (28)
Research shows that taking creatine regularly can help increase the number of reps you can do with your 1RM max by up to 26%. Whereas, those using a placebo only saw an increase of 12%. (29)
This is an absolute increase of 14%, which is pretty substantial.
Whilst power output isn’t particularly useful for getting big and strong, it is vital for anyone looking to improve sports performance. Research shows that creatine supplementation can increase power output for weightlifters, sprinters and other performance-based sports (30, 31, 32, 33).
It does this by allowing providing additional fuel for rapid muscle contraction which is vital in many sports.
How Much Creatine Do You Need & When Should You Take It?
Thankfully supplementing with creatine is super simple.
There is no complicated dosing schedule to follow or timely preparation. In fact, all you need to do is take 3 – 5 grams every day (34).
Taking it like this will see you reach top up your creatine stores in a couple of weeks. However, if you want to start seeing results more quickly you can ‘load up’ your creatine stores by taking 20 grams a day for the first 5 – 7 days (35).
As for when to take it, there are no hard and fast rules, as long as you get 3 – 5 grams per day you’ll be good to go.
This being said there is some research that shows;
Taking creatine with a mix of protein and carbohydrate could help increase muscle absorption
Taking creatine after working out is slightly more effective for increasing muscle and strength than taking it before working out
What Happens If You Miss Taking Creatine One Day?
Once you start using creatine, it takes about a week of taking 3 – 5 grams daily to fully top up your muscle stores (36).
After this point, missing a day won’t make much difference. In fact, depending on your training and diet you can go several days or weeks without taking creatine.
This is because it takes a while to deplete your stores. What this means is if you miss a day or even a few days you most likely won’t notice a difference and once you go back to taking creatine, you’ll top your stores back up.
However, to minimise the risk of becoming depleted it’s advisable to take 3 – 5 grams of creatine every day (37).
Do You Need to Load or Cycle Creatine?
As we looked at just a moment ago, you can load creatine if you want to but it’s not necessary.
It takes about a week to fully top up your muscle stores of creatine, which means there is little benefit to be gained from taking a larger amount of creatine for the first week.
As for cycling, the short answer is no. You don’t need to cycle your creatine usage.
Yes, when supplementing with creatine you tell your body to reduce the natural creation of creatine in the body. However, when you stop using creatine your body will start producing it like normal again with no adverse effects (38, 39).
What Are the Different Types of Creatine?
The most well-known type of creatine is without a doubt creatine monohydrate, which is creatine with the addition of a water molecule.
However, there are also numerous other types of creatine;
Buffered creatine: this is creatine with the addition of magnesium or baking soda to raise its PH level. The idea is that a raised PH level will help protect creatine from your powerful stomach acid and increase absorption.
However, research shows that buffered creatine is no more effective than creatine monohydrate as your stomach acid is too strong (40). The good news is that creatine is naturally resistant to stomach acid which renders buffered creatine a pointless creation (41).
Micronized creatine: this is creatine that has been broken down into smaller molecules to help it dissolve better in water. It is generally creatine monohydrate and offers no additional benefit in relation to absorption or effectiveness.
When you consume creatine, your body breaks it down (or in other words micronizes it), this means supplementing with micronized creatine does nothing but make it easier to drink.
Liquid creatine: this is creatine mixed with water and is the worst of the bunch. You see when you mixed creatine with water it begins to break down into creatinine which provides none of the benefits of creatine.
This doesn’t mean you need to worry about pre-mixing your post workout shakes as it takes a couple of weeks to fully breakdown into creatinine after it’s been mixed with water. All it means is, you don’t want to buy a pre-mixed creatine and water supplement which sits in a warehouse or store for weeks before you even get your hands on it.
Other creatines: there are also numerous other types of creatine, but they do not appear as commonly on supplement websites as the above and didn’t warrant being included here. Generally, most creatine supplements that aren’t creatine monohydrate are created to try and increase absorption rates (42, 43).
Yet to date there has either been no research to compare the different types of creatine or the research that has been done shows no benefit of supplementing with creatine that isn’t creatine monohydrate.
However, current research does show that 80 – 100% of creatine monohydrate will make it through your stomach acid and be absorbed, rendering supplementation with other types of creatine pointless until new research shows additional benefits (44, 45).
I know what you’re thinking now, that’s up next…
What Kind of Creatine Should You Take?
As it currently stands creatine monohydrate is the cheapest and most effective creatine supplement.
Until there is more compelling research available to say otherwise you should supplement with creatine monohydrate.
The Creatine Supplement FAQ
To finish off this article, here are the answers to some of the most commonly asked creatine questions that haven’t been answered so far.
Can/Should Women Use Creatine?
Yes, they can and yes, they should.
Women typically have similar goals to guys, lose some fat and build some muscle and strength.
Seeing as creatine can help with all of these goals it would be foolish not to take it. Additionally, with the modern processing methods bloating when taking creatine is no longer an issue.
Can You Mix Creatine & Coffee?
Yes, if you want to.
However, when deciding you should keep in mind 2 things;
Coffee is more beneficial when taken before your workout
Creatine is more beneficial when taken with protein and carbs after your workout
So, whilst you could take them together, you’ll most likely be better off splitting it up if you to optimise your results. At the end of the day my opinion is this, take it whenever and however works best for you as taking it consistently is going to be the difference, not whether or not you mixed it with coffee or not.
Should You Use Creatine If Your Goal Is Fat Loss Not Muscle Building?
Absolutely. Not only does creatine help increase strength which is vital for preserving muscle mass in a calorie deficit, but it also helps with recovery and overall performance when lifting weights (46).
If you want to lose fat and get lean, then maintaining your muscle mass should be your number on priority. Creatine helps you do this.
Is Creatine Safe?
Are There Any Side Effects to Taking Creatine?
See above. Creatine is 100% safe and has been tested in trials lasting years with no negative effects.
If there is anything to be aware of it is staying hydrated. Creatine draws water into your muscles which means if you don’t maintain a healthy water intake you may suffer from dehydration. That’s it.
Is Creatine Bad for Your Kidneys?
No, at least not if you have healthy kidneys (50). The reason many people mistakenly think creatine causes kidney damage is because elevated levels of creatinine can indicate kidney issues.
However, when supplementing with creatine it’s normal to have higher levels of creatinine as you have higher levels of creatine in the body. As for damaged or impaired kidneys there is some research showing that a daily dose of 20 grams had no impact on a slightly damaged kidney (51).
However, more research is needed, so if you know you have any kidney issues or are unsure then it’s always advisable to consult your doctor before starting to use creatine.
Creatine offers several benefits for athletes, gym bros and the average guy alike; from improved strength and more muscle mass to increased power output and enhanced recovery.
It’s taken the world over for its ability to improve all round performance. Not only this but it’s one of the most tested supplements in the world and completely safe for human use.
Whilst there are multiple types of creatine on the market, the most popular, effective and cheapest version is creatine monohydrate.
The recommended dose is 3 – 5 grams every day with an optional loading period where you consume 20 grams a day for 5 – 7 days before switching to a maintenance dose of 3 – 5 grams daily.
It can be taken any time of day with some research showing that additional benefits are gained from taking it post workout with protein and carbs.
If you’re looking to get the most from your training, there really is no downside to supplementing with creatine.