January 20, 2022
Creatine is perhaps the most popular - and effective - supplement for building strength and size, and for good reason. Creatine has been around since the golden age of lifting, so you’ve probably heard of, or even used, creatine. Creatine hasn’t changed much since it was first introduced, although there are a few different forms of creatine – monohydrate and hydrochloride - and each has its advantages.
Creatine is typically used by bodybuilders who wish to increase muscle size and/or strength. In fact, creatine is most effective when used to support bodybuilding and strength training, HIIT, and explosive movements like plyometrics and sprinting (running and cycling).
Creatine helps improve strength at the cellular level by increasing the amount of energy available for muscle contraction. But what exactly is creatine, and how does it help build muscle? In this post, we’ll explore what creatine is and how it works. We’ll then compare the differences between the two main kinds of creatine and see how they stack up when it comes to helping you build muscle. Read on for more!
For reference, hydrochloride's abbreviation can be either HCL or HCI, which is why you will see either usage on creatine hydrochloride supplements. Either way, it is the same kind of creatine.
Creatine is not just a supplement - it is a naturally occurring compound that helps with energy metabolism. The body produces some creatine (~1g/day), but it’s also found in the diet, mostly in red meats and fish (more on this below). Creatine is stored in the muscles, but it’s also found in the liver and kidneys. Dietary or endogenous (made by the body) creatine isn’t sufficient to boost performance, which is why supplemental creatine is worth considering. Both creatine monohydrate and creatine hydrochloride increase the amount of creatine your body can store, but in different ways.
Creatine works by increasing the amount of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) available to cells. During exercise, the muscles use ATP as energy currency. That is, ATP provides phosphorous to activate proteins that control contraction, be it a 100-meter sprint or bench press. The supply of ATP is limited, and it takes a bit of time to regenerate once it’s drained. During exercise, ATP is regenerated between sets, and creatine helps by increasing the speed of ATP regeneration.
There are two types of exercise – aerobic and anaerobic. Both forms of exercise rely on ATP, but to different extents, which has to do with the concept of force versus endurance.
Aerobic exercises are basically any form of sustained cardio – think running or cycling. Aerobic exercises ultimately rely on oxygen to sustain contraction, rather than ATP.
Aerobic exercises require a high concentration of mitochondria in the muscles to aid in cellular metabolism. When you’re running, the body uses glucose as energy, which is ultimately broken down with oxygen in the mitochondria to produce CO2. Aerobic exercises do require ATP – but muscle contractions during a run are short, and do not generate much force, meaning the muscles are able to efficiently regenerate ATP. Plus, ATP doesn’t really impact oxygen consumption during exercise, so creatine likely won’t boost aerobic performance.
Anaerobic exercises require little or no oxygen - think lifting, sprinting, jumping. These movements are typically explosive and require power over endurance, meaning they generate a lot of force over a short period of time – less time than it takes oxygen to circulate.
When you perform anaerobic exercises - for example the biceps curl – your body is using ATP to activate the proteins responsible for contraction. This happens during aerobic exercises also, but to a lesser extent as the metabolic pathways differ. Anaerobic exercises rely on force, and the breakdown of glucose takes too long, and doesn’t generate enough ATP, to power contraction. The supply of ATP is limited, which is why you can only do so many reps or sprint so far before your muscles give out.
Enter creatine: Creatine helps increase contractile force by acting as a source of ATP in the muscle. In between sets, creatine increases ATP regeneration and concentration. Thus, there is more ATP available so you can hammer out a few more reps or sprint a little bit further. This, very basically, is how creatine helps with strength.
As demonstrated, you can take supplemental creatine to boost your workouts. Here are some specific examples of the benefits of creatine supplementation:
Now that we’re all experts in creatine, let’s talk about supplementing with creatine and the different types available.
There are many forms of creatine supplements on the market. They all (theoretically) increase the amount of creatine muscles can use, but the most popular and well-studied forms are monohydrate and hydrochloride. The chemical differences between these two are very small, but they can impact your gains in significant ways.
Creatine monohydrate is the most popular form of supplemental creatine, and it stands the test of time. Creatine monohydrate has been bodybuilders’ supplement of choice since the 1960’s. Creatine monohydrate is creatine plus a water molecule, which helps it dissolve in your favorite beverage. But more importantly, the water increases its absorption into the muscles, which are full of water. There is another form of monohydrate called anhydrous, where the water molecule has been removed. It may increase absorption, but it also tends to be more expensive.
Because creatine monohydrate is the most common form, it is the most studied form, which means we know more about how it supports muscle development compared to other forms. This includes increased 1 rep max for squat, increased vertical jump height, and reductions in 30 meter sprint time1,2. Creatine monohydrate may also increase total reps during exercises and can improve overall anaerobic capacity. It has also proven to be effective at reducing muscle damage, while showing increased rates of muscle repair post-workout1. This means you will likely see increases in overall strength with no negative impacts on recovery time.
One thing that sets creatine monohydrate apart from other supplements is the need for a loading phase. Loading, discussed in detail below, is the concept of priming the body with extra high doses of creatine for a week, then dropping down to a maintenance dose.
The Bottom Line
Creatine monohydrate is the gold standard of creatine supplements. It has been proven in research studies and in the gym. Despite the somewhat confusing loading and dosage requirements, creatine monohydrate delivers consistent results, and should be on the top of your supplement wish list.
The ‘other’ form of creatine that you will likely come across is creatine hydrochloride. This form is relatively new, although it’s been around since at least the 1990’s.
This form of creatine has the chemical hydrochloride attached instead of water. This seemingly small change can increase its absorption. In fact, creatine hydrochloride may be up to 38 times more soluble in water than creatine monohydrate3.
In terms of benefits, creatine hydrochloride is pretty even with its nemesis, monohydrate. Creatine hydrochloride helps increase muscular strength and power, similar to monohydrate. This goes for overall anaerobic fitness. Unfortunately, creatine hydrochloride hasn’t been studied nearly as much as monohydrate, which is bad news for the absolutists. But, the author contends that this shouldn’t discourage you: creatine hydrochloride delivers creatine to your muscles with smaller doses than monohydrate, which leads to similar gains in muscle size and strength.
Both forms of creatine may seem like the magic bullet, and while they do lead to gains in strength and size, they have some drawbacks.
Water Retention: Because creatine monohydrate has a water molecule attached, which means it causes water retention, or bloating, in the muscles. This can be discouraging, especially to beginners, as they may perceive the bloating as gains in fat.
In a way, this is a sort of ‘rite of passage’ for creatine users, as it seems bloating is unavoidable. There is no real way to measure the level of water retention, as it varies from person to person. Bloating can be frustrating, even discouraging, but trust us, it is as natural as your desire to have big biceps, but it subsides within a week or two as your body adapts to the increases in creatine.
Loading: A fairly contentious topic, loading is the idea that you need to ‘frontload’ your creatine with extra high doses – approximately 3-5 grams, 4 times per day, for about 7 days. This is followed by a maintenance period, which consists of about 3-5 grams per day, once a day, for 6-12 weeks, or whatever the duration of your mesocycle.
The point behind loading is to saturate the muscles with creatine, so that it has a reservoir that will provide energy during exercises. Loading is supported by the literature, but there is evidence that loading is not necessary, or that the amount and duration of loading varies. Loading also contributes to water retention, which speaks for itself.
Diminishing Returns: Persistent intake of creatine may lead to diminishing returns, or plateaus. The muscles adapt to repeated, non-variable exercises, which is why the principals of progressive overload and periodization are critical to consistent gains. The same is true for creatine – over time, the muscles don’t respond to extra creatine. This means you should cycle your creatine intake based on your exercise phases.
Long Term Risks: There is very little evidence to suggest that long term creatine use causes adverse effects. Most studies focus on rather short-term creatine use (~3-12 months), so we can only speculate about the effects beyond that time frame. Of course, as with any supplement, you should be sure you are in good health, and stay hydrated. You should focus on creatine from reputable manufacturers, since supplements are poorly regulated.
If you are focusing on building muscle and strength, meaning you do traditional bodybuilding or HIIT type exercises, then yes, creatine might be just what you need. But, the form you take may depend on your experience with creatine.
Creatine, either monohydrate or hydrochloride, is a relatively safe supplement. In fact, creatine has been shown to be an effective treatment for kidney diseases, diabetes, bone loss, and even some forms of cancer4. This may have to do with how creatine impacts cellular metabolism, but we highly recommend you focus on creatine for its benefits to exercise.
The enduring question is, which should I take – creatine monohydrate or hydrochloride? The winner is…both. Honestly, either form of creatine will give you what you need, provided you use it as directed and for the right reasons.
The author recommends you experiment, but if you want something more definite, start with creatine monohydrate. In fact, you may want to start creatine when you start a new exercise routine. Ideally, your specific routines last anywhere from 6-12 weeks, whether bulking, cutting, or focusing on strength. In any case, you should use creatine when you are focusing on building muscle or improving your conditioning, rather than maintaining.
We also suggest you become familiar with the concept of loading, if even just once. The literature supports loading, and we agree, because our goal is to provide evidence-based guidance. Moreover, loading ensures you can frontload your creatine intake, and maximize creatine stores, so your progress will be more consistent. Loading also gives you an opportunity to observe how your muscles respond to something new. The loading phase should coincide with the first week or so of your new routine, the time when you’re focusing on familiarization, rather than progression (see this more information on periodization).
So, take creatine monohydrate. It is available from so many manufacturers, is affordable, and it is proven. If you like how you respond to monohydrate, switch it up to hydrochloride during your next cycle. Variety is the best thing for your workouts.
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If you don’t like to take supplements, or you are interested in other, natural sources of creatine, you’re in luck. Creatine is found in many foods; in fact, you may already be consuming about as much creatine as a supplement may provide.
As mentioned, there are many different forms of supplemental creatine. Monohydrate and hydrochloride are the most well-known and studied, but here are a few extras you may come across:
If you want to know if you can take creatine with other supplements, the answer is Yes. Creatine works well by itself, which makes it an ideal supplement, but it’s been shown to be just as beneficial when taken with other supplements. In fact, many supplements, including pre- and post-workouts, contain creatine in some form. This can be problematic if you’re taking multiple supplements that contain creatine; at some point, you’ll be consuming far more creatine than your body can use. We recommend you stick with a single source of creatine, monohydrate or hydrochloride, and stack it with a pre-workout, and maybe some amino acids.
When it comes to timing, there’s no difference between taking creating before, during, or after a workout. Your best bet is to take creatine before your workout, or with one of your meals. This is really just to ensure consistency.
We go more in-depth into how and when to take creatine here.
In summary, both creatine monohydrate and hydrochloride can increase muscle size and strength and can improve recovery. This is especially true when they’re used as part of an intense resistance or strength training program.
Creatine monohydrate is pretty well studied, but hydrochloride offers nearly the same benefits to performance. There is a bit of a loading phase, and you can expect some bloating due to water retention, but this means it’s working.
We recommend you try monohydrate if you’re new to creatine, or supplements. It’ll introduce a new approach to supplementation and its reputation speaks for itself. However, the research doesn’t hurt.
If you’re more interested in endurance exercises than resistance training, you may want to consider creatine hydrochloride. It offers the same benefits as monohydrate and may improve recovery – all without the loading and bloating.
Good luck, and don’t forget to add on a few extra reps.
(1) Wang, C.-C.; Fang, C.-C.; Lee, Y.-H.; Yang, M.-T.; Chan, K.-H. Effects of 4-Week Creatine Supplementation Combined with Complex Training on Muscle Damage and Sport Performance. Nutrients 2018, 10 (11), 1640. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10111640.
(2) Cooper, R.; Naclerio, F.; Allgrove, J.; Jimenez, A. Creatine Supplementation with Specific View to Exercise/Sports Performance: An Update. J. Int. Soc. Sports Nutr. 2012, 9, 33. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-9-33.
(3) Gufford, B. T.; Sriraghavan, K.; Miller, N. J.; Miller, D. W.; Gu, X.; Vennerstrom, J. L.; Robinson, D. H. Physicochemical Characterization of Creatine N-Methylguanidinium Salts. J. Diet. Suppl. 2010, 7 (3), 240–252. https://doi.org/10.3109/19390211.2010.491507.
(4) Creatine HCL vs. Creatine Monohydrate https://www.oldschoollabs.com/creatine-hcl-vs-monohydrate/ (accessed 2022 -01 -15).
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