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September 07, 2022
Unless you're new to the fitness world or you've been living under a rock, you have likely heard of creatine. It's easily one of the most effective supplements in the world of sports nutrition. And with literally hundreds of studies proving its efficacy and safety, there's almost a 100% chance you'll see an improvement in your performance.
That said, there does seem to be some confusion surrounding how to take creatine. Fortunately, taking it is actually pretty simple, and we're going to break it all down in this article. We'll cover:
Even though the topic of taking creatine may seem complicated, it’s not. We’re going to address all of the nuances now.
Creatine is a non-proteinogenic amino acid found naturally within the human body in the form of creatine phosphate. Approximately 95% of your creatine stores are located in the muscles, with the remaining 5% in your brain and testes.
The best creatines are responsible for fueling your body with the energy needed to power physical activity, brain function, and even basic life support like breathing.
Naturally, your body synthesizes around 1-2 grams of creatine internally through several processes¹. In addition, you consume another 1-2 grams of creatine through your diet.
Creatine plays a role in numerous physiological systems, with new functions being found every day that go far beyond improving your ability to build muscle mass.
The amount of scientific evidence that testifies to its versatility has led to many claims of it being a "miracle drug." Non-performance functions that have led to this claim include:
Our body has three metabolic systems: the ATP-CP/Phosphagen system, glycolysis, and the oxidative metabolic system.
All three of these metabolic systems work to replenish a high-energy compound known as adenosine triphosphate, or ATP for short. ATP is the body's energy molecule and is what drives every muscle contraction. As muscle contractions play a crucial role in muscle hypertrophy, you can see how important ATP is.
On a daily basis, the human body will typically use an amount of ATP equal to its weight³. For example, a 70-kilogram person uses approximately 70 kilograms of ATP. This large amount is, again, because it is used to power a huge array of processes.
That said, your body doesn’t actually have 70 kilograms of ATP at any one time. Instead, it has a small amount that is continually used and resynthesized throughout the day. To achieve this, it needs consistent resynthesis through the metabolic systems.
Each of these metabolic systems has a different set of reactions and physiological processes that are used to replenish used ATP. While all three systems are used at all times, the body relies on each one more or less during different levels of activity.
Creatine's role in athletic performance comes from its function in the ATP-CP/Phosphagen metabolic system. The ATP-CP metabolic system replenishes ATP during activities of short duration and high intensity (<30 seconds), such as weight training, HIIT, explosive exercise, and sprinting.
When needed, ATP will undergo an exogenic reaction (releasing energy), and a phosphate group will break away. This leaves results in another molecule known as adenosine diphosphate (ADP).
In order to resynthesize another ATP molecule, a molecule of creatine phosphate will undergo a reaction where its phosphate breaks away to be given to ADP, thus becoming ATP.
Without creatine, your body is unable to replenish ATP fast enough to maintain intensity and is forced to slow down.
We don't need to take creatine supplements. It just helps your muscle cells a lot and is beneficial whether you're bulking, cutting, or trying to gain strength.
Remember above, we stated that people get their creatine stores naturally from their diet and through metabolic synthesis processes. Learn more about this and creatine's importance in our article comparing creatine vs protein.
However, depending on a person's diet, their muscle creatine stores are only at 60-80%. Therefore, through creatine supplementation, we are able to raise these creatine levels to 100%.
As a result of full creatine stores, our bodies have more energy to fuel our exercise performance.
That said, the exact mechanisms still aren't completely clear⁴. It could just come from increased volume or work as you can train with intensity for longer periods. Others have suggested it signals mTOR for faster muscle recovery and repair.
When you first begin supplementing with creatine, there are two phases of your supplementation. The maintenance phase and the infamous creatine loading phase. We're going to break these down for you.
Creatine Loading Phase:
The main purpose of the creatine loading phase is to get your muscles fully saturated with creatine as fast as possible. The reason for this is so you are able to see the benefits of creatine more quickly.
To do this, you take 20-25 grams of creatine daily for 5-7 days. When compared to the maintenance dose, the loading dose is 4-8 times greater.
That said, you don't need to take this all at once. The most common method is to simply take a smaller dose of 4-5 grams multiple times throughout the day. Maybe even slip some into your protein coffee for an added creatine boost.
Creatine Maintenance Phase:
After your loading phase, your creatine stores will be 100%. Now, you just need to maintain the level with your creatine intake maintenance dose.
For most people, this will be 3-5 grams per day, with smaller people taking the lower dose and vice-versa for larger people.
Before we get started on the benefits of taking creatine supplements, we need to make one thing clear. You still have to train hard! While a creatine supplement can increase your creatine storage, it's up to you to take advantage of the extra energy.
This means when you go into your resistance training sessions, you need to progressive overload. Push out that extra rep. Throw on a couple more pounds. Push just a little harder. That's what's going to enable you to gain weight with creatine.
Now you'll enjoy the benefits of creatine supplementation. Let's see what happens if you do that.
If you want bigger muscles, creatine is a must. With all of the information we have on its benefits, choosing to not take creatine is like shooting yourself in the foot.
We could cite dozens and dozens of studies that show it will increase muscle mass when taking creatine, but we'll focus on the most recent studies. Researchers examined all of the studies on creatine and muscle hypertrophy and concluded that yes, it works⁵.
Research suggests that these benefits aren't just aesthetically pleasing but result in actual gains in muscular strength. For example, this study found that creatine supplementation resulted in significant increases in upper body strength, such as bench press performance⁶.
Another meta-analysis found similar results in total body strength. More creatine means more strength⁷.
By improved body composition, we mean that you will see muscle growth without any increase in fat, which is often part of body recomposition. But be careful.
While it can play a part in fat loss, that's not its main purpose. This means that if you want to lose fat, you need to eat accordingly.
That said, people generally see an increase in their body weight and weight gain when they increase their muscle creatine levels as a result of muscle mass (we'll talk about water retention below). If your diet is in check, these muscle gains in the absence of fat gains will result in a lower body fat percentage.
If you're improving your body composition, gaining lean body mass, and getting stronger, it's a pretty good bet to think that you're also going to improve your exercise performance.
A meta-analysis from 2020 shows that creatine does, in fact, improve numerous performance variables, including sprinting speed, agility, and jumping ability⁸. Get ready to bring your A game to your plyometrics exercises.
Increases in endurance are also commonly seen by taking creatine.
As of now, yes, it is. Creatine monohydrate is the most well-studied form of creatine we have.
There are quite a few different versions of creatine that have hit the market over the years. These include creatine ethyl ester, buffered creatine, and creatine HCL.
We don't have time to address each one in detail, but they all carry the same claims, including being better absorbed by the body, causing less gastric distress, being easier to mix, and requiring less creatine as your body can utilize a high percentage.
The problem with these claims is that there have been very few studies on them. In addition, the studies they use to show the benefits of creatine are studies that use creatine monohydrate.
So when you're choosing between creatine HCL vs. monohydrate, we pick creatine monohydrate every time. Remember that when the claim "most researched supplement" is made, that's referring to creatine monohydrate.
And, interestingly, some of the studies that have compared creatine monohydrate with other forms have actually shown creatine monohydrate is absorbed better, resulting in higher creatine levels9.
There is one study that shows that creatine HCL kind-of, sort-of might have a small advantage. It's definitely not enough to get us excited10.
One of the most common questions concerning creatine is about the loading phase. Do you need it? No, you do not.
Remember that the primary function of the loading phase is to get your muscles fully saturated ASAP. If you're concerned with possible side effects such as bloating or gastric distress, you can forgo it. Just know it will take longer for your muscles to become saturated.
That said, your muscles don't need to reach full saturation to start seeing benefits. While there have been no studies, we imagine there would be a graph that shows a positive dose-response correlation until you reach 100% full.
Just make sure you head into that ultimate leg workout ready to give it your all, regardless of how much creatine you're taking or how recently you started.
You can run a muscle creatine loading phase however you want, really. There's no right or wrong way to run one. That said, we would advise you to run it as fast as you can so you can reach maximal benefits and get down to one daily dose.
Again, there are no studies for this next bit, but it makes sense. Add up the total amount of creatine in the loading phase, and you get somewhere between 100-140 grams. You then take as much as you feel comfortable enough with each day until you reach that amount.
You'll then drop to a single daily dose for maintenance, which you can even combine with the best protein powders for a delicious post-workout shake.
For example, let's say you can take 15 grams comfortably with no distress. It would take you 7-9 days while 10 grams would take 10-14 days. You get the point. The only drawback is the creatine loading phase will go on for a bit longer.
You can even just take your one daily dose and never do a loading phase. A study found that taking 3 grams a day for 28 days successfully filled participants' creatine storage¹¹.
So if loading creatine is the only thing keeping you from trying, don't let it stop you.
To take creatine before or after workout is one question that often arises. There are a lot of nuances here, and ultimately it probably isn't going to make a massive difference. It's not as crucial as selecting what to eat before a workout and what to eat after a workout. That said, there are some guidelines to follow if you're keen on being precise.
A study looked at the difference in effects of taking creatine before or after resistance training and found that taking creatine immediately after resulted in more significant muscle growth¹². Another review from 2014 found that while post-exercise creatine seems to offer a slight advantage, consuming creatine anytime around your workout is better than not doing so¹³.
All that said, we wouldn't make a huge deal about trying to time it, but as you're likely going to have a post-exercise protein shake, it makes sense to just throw some in there for your post workout creatine ingestion.
With that in mind, the other issue with creatine is what you should take with it. To begin, you need to increase your water intake as this is how creatine functions. In addition, studies show that combining creatine with protein and carbs can increase its absorption as well.
That's our summary in one sentence. In an industry full of nonsense and bogus claims, creatine supplementation stands out as a genuinely effective dietary supplement. This is why it's so popular and why so many other versions are constantly trying to break into the field.
Creatine loading's side effects are the only issue raised by some, but it's not really an issue. If it is problematic for you, we showed you how to alter your loading phase.
Other than that, while there are some minor benefits to when you take your creatine, taking creatine at the “wrong time” is still massively more beneficial than not taking creatine at all.
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