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October 20, 2023
If you have ever taken a pre-workout supplement or enjoyed a protein shake from your local gym's bar, you have likely taken creatine (even if you didn't realize it at the time). Next to protein supplementation, creatine is one of the kings of the supplements world for building muscle mass and improving recovery.
While creatine grew in popularity throughout the 1990s and 2000s, unfortunately, the misinformation and false narratives spread as well. People have attempted to persuade athletes of all ages to avoid creatine by choosing to focus on the harmful effects of taking creatine supplements.
So, what is creatine, and what does it do? Is the popular supplement bad for you? In this article, we will explore the effects of creatine supplementation to determine whether it's worth including in your supplement routine.
Table of Contents:
Creatine is a naturally occurring compound of amino acids that significantly influences the body's energy levels. Creatine helps our muscles contract and provides energy for the muscles to keep working, especially during exercise. Nearly 95% of the body's creatine is stored in skeletal muscle, with the last 5% stored in the heart, brain, testes, and other tissues.
The Creatine Phosphate (CP) energy system, or phosphagen system, is the primary source for short bursts of energy (10 seconds to two minutes) in the body, such as for lifting weights or sprinting. The CP energy system is one of three primary energy systems in the body that produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
ATP is known as "the molecular unit of currency" because it provides energy for all living cells. Creatine supplements are stored in the muscles as phosphocreatine (PCr). The stored phosphocreatine donates its phosphates to adenosine diphosphate (ADP) to become adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
ATP is constantly used and replenished in the body, recycling roughly our body weight worth each day. Between the creatine produced by the pancreas, liver, and kidneys combined with what we eat, most people naturally get roughly one to two grams of creatine daily.
Aside from natural production, we also get creatine through certain foods, including red meats like beef and pork, seafood such as salmon and tuna, poultry (white meat), turkey, and milk. Creatine supplements provide much higher doses and a higher quality of creatine than we can obtain through food, so they are ideal for maximizing creatine benefits.
A creatine supplement is a tasteless crystalline powder that can be mixed into any liquid, capsule, powder, tablet, or food. Studies have shown creatine is safe and can increase muscular strength and build muscle mass, improve exercise performance, assist muscle recovery, and enhance brain function1.
No, creatine is not bad for you. Creatine has been researched extensively over the years, with results showing it has several potential benefits with little to zero harm.
One of the top reasons that people think creatine is bad for you is the idea that it causes dehydration. Creatine use requires you to drink lots of water daily because it causes water to enter the muscle cells, which helps fight fatigue, reduce protein breakdown, and promote a "pumped" look. Creatine adversaries have twisted this concept, as they wrongly believe this can lead to dehydration and muscle cramps.
Studies have shown that creatine may enhance performance in hot and/or humid conditions by maintaining hematocrit (percentage of red blood cells in the blood), aiding thermoregulation, and reducing exercising heart rate and sweat rate. Creatine may also positively influence plasma volume during the onset of dehydration2. This shows that, in reality, creatine actually helps the body during dehydration.
A research article dispels all of the top false narratives surrounding the effects of creatine. One rumor this systematic review disproves is that creatine can cause hair loss or balding due to its connection to testosterone. However, studies have proven that creatine does not affect total testosterone, free testosterone, DHT, or cause hair loss.
Another complaint about creatine that is proven false is that it could worsen kidney function in people with kidney issues. Studies have shown that creatine does affect kidney function at the standard recommended doses3.
Yes, creatine has been proven to be safe for long-term use when taken correctly. Countless studies have shown that creatine supplements are safe for both short- and long-term. The most significant debate regarding creatine safety is centered on underage use.
Despite being proven safe, most experts agree that children should not use creatine until they are 18 years old. However, the reasoning for this is not because of the creatine itself but rather because low-quality brands can be tainted and contain harmful or banned ingredients.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is the governing body of college athletics, and they have some of the most stringent laws you will ever see regarding athletes. Creatine is not on the NCAA's banned supplements for college athletes because it has been proven safe.
This speaks volumes for the safety of creatine because the NCAA has an extensive banned substance list, including stimulants, anabolic agents, diuretics, narcotics, and anti-estrogen drugs, among others. Overall, creatine is very safe and has several health benefits, especially for athletes.
Like any supplement or medication, you should consult your doctor or healthcare professional before starting creatine, as certain conditions or medications may cause complications.
There are several types of creatine, including liquid, but the most popular are power and pills. Creatine monohydrate is widely available in powder and capsule form, which are well-tolerated by the body. Creatine powders can be easily mixed into protein shakes, beverages, or foods because they are tasteless and blend well.
Users typically start with a "loading" phase involving a higher dose, followed by a maintenance dose. During loading, users will take between 20 and 25 grams daily for the first five to seven days. After the loading phase, you take five grams a day for as long as needed. It can be used at any time of the day, but many people prefer to use it pre-workout for an energy boost or post-workout to help muscle recovery.
Looking for more great information on creating timing and dosing? Check out our articles on How To Take Creatine To Build Muscle and Strength and another that answers the question: When's The Best Time To Take Creatine?
The first step with creatine ingestion is the loading phase to saturate the creatine concentration in your muscles quickly. Users typically gain a few pounds with the creatine loading phase, although most is water weight. It is common to experience bloating during the loading phase since you are hydrating your cells as much as possible.
However, the bloating usually goes down as you move to the maintenance phase. Since the skeletal muscle is flooded with creatine during the loading phase, the benefits come on quickly due to elevated muscle creatine stores. If you skip the loading phase, you will likely gradually experience results rather than quick initial gains.
I recently started using creatine again after a few years off. During the loading phase, I gained roughly 4 lbs and appeared slightly bloated, but after a week, I kept the weight, and the bloat went away. I also noticed improvements in muscle endurance, as I had more energy than usual toward the end of reps and improved recovery.
Once you reach the maintenance phase, your body maintains the elevated creatine stores from the loading phase. The benefits will be more gradual during this phase because the body has adjusted to the elevated creatine stores. While you will lose your water weight from the loading phase, you will slowly regain the weight as muscle. It is normal to hit plateaus, but you can expect improved recovery, elevated energy levels, and gains in strength if you remain in the maintenance phase.
To learn more about the effects of creatine on weight gain, check out our article: Does Creatine Make You Gain Weight?
When you stop taking creatine, losing a few pounds rather quickly is normal. However, this is likely just excess water weight, so if anything, it will improve your appearance, giving you a hardened and vascular look.
My least favorite part of when you stop taking creatine is noticing a decline in energy, particularly muscle endurance. An exercise that you may have easily performed 12 reps using creatine may be challenging to do ten reps without it. This is when you should adjust your workouts to match your endurance levels and possibly focus on lower rep ranges.
If all other aspects of your diet and routine remain the same, you will likely slowly lose some strength. But if you look at the big picture, it's not a big deal if you lost 10-20 pounds on an exercise when you gained 80-100 pounds on it while on creatine. It is still a significant net gain long-term. There are no withdrawal issues or side effects from stopping creatine from a safety point of view.
As we briefly mentioned above, the primary goals of using creatine are to increase strength, improve exercise performance, assist muscle recovery, and enhance brain function.
Research has shown that creatine monohydrate supplementation increases performance in short-duration, max-intensity exercises. Creatine monohydrate increased maximum power (one-rep maximum) by 5-15%, work performed during sets of resistance training by 5-15%, single-effort sprints by 1-5%, and work performed during repetitive sprints by 5-15%.
Similar studies show short-term gains included cycling power, bench press and jump squat work, and improved soccer, running, and swimming performance1.
A meta-analysis using 22 studies tested how creatine monohydrate supplementation affects muscle strength when combined with resistance training. The results showed that creatine supplementation combined with resistance training improved strength and performance.
Creatine users experienced an average of 20% increase in strength (one, three, or ten rep maximum) compared to 12% with the placebo groups. The average increase in weightlifting performance (measured by maximal repetitions at a given percent of maximal strength) increased by 26% compared to 12% with a placebo.
The increase in one-rep max on the bench press ranged from 3 to 45%, while weightlifting performance in the bench press ranged from 16 to 43%4.
One of the best benefits of creatine is its ability to improve recovery from high-intensity exercise. One study gave five grams of creatine monohydrate with 95 grams of carbohydrates (glucose) before exercise. The results showed greater glycogen restoration in the participants with creatine and carbohydrates than those with just carbohydrates5.
The creatine group also saw a more significant recovery in muscle damage and recovery from intense workouts. They measured creatine kinase (CK) levels, an enzyme present in high amounts during muscle injury or inflammation.
They found that plasma CK levels were 84% lower after 2,3,4 and 7 days in the creatine group compared to the placebo group. This shows that creatine monohydrate can help improve muscle recovery by improving glycogen restoration and reducing inflammation caused by muscle enzymes.
Studies show that creatine supplementation may have neuroprotective properties and can potentially improve cognitive function, especially in those with conditions marked by brain creatine deficiencies, such as Alzheimer's or depression.
There is a need for more conclusive research on this, but research to date has been positive6.
For the majority of people, there are no bad side effects. The majority of people can use creatine safely if they use it properly. Potential side effects of dietary supplements like creatine include:
It's important to note that not all creatine supplements were created equal, and the product's quality significantly impacts effectiveness. First, you must determine which type of creatine you want, as there are several forms, including creatine monohydrate, micronized creatine, and ethyl ester. You'll also want to choose between creatine pills and creatine powder.
Creatine monohydrate is the least expensive type of creatine and is the most well-studied. Micronized creatine is a type of creatine monohydrate that goes through a process to shrink the particle size by 20x to increase its solubility and mixability.
The quality level and purity of the creatine supplement are essential for preventing any side effects or problems. Micronized creatine is the highest purity form of creatine available on the market, with several products containing 100% creatine monohydrate per serving. The best overall creatine supplement on the market today is Optimum Nutrition Micronized Creatine Monohydrate.
Optimum Nutrition is regarded as one of the top supplement manufacturers in the industry, and their micronized creatine product is sure to deliver results. Each serving contains five grams of 100% pure micronized creatine monohydrate. The product is unflavored and keto-friendly, making it easy to use in any diet. Optimum Nutrition has all its products tested for banned substances, ensuring no harmful ingredients, which is especially important for athletes tested.
For an in-depth breakdown of more great creatine supplements, check out our article: 8 Best Creatine Supplements For Lifters. And, ladies, be sure to check out the 7 Best Creatine Supplements For Women!
In this section, we answer some of the most commonly asked questions about creatine supplements.
If you are still using creatine, the side effects usually disappear after the initial loading phase. Once you stop creatine, it can take two to four weeks for side effects like lethargy to stop.
The use of creatine by teenagers under 18 is highly debated, but most doctors and professionals agree that children under 18 should not use creatine.
While creatine works best when you exercise, it still has benefits even if you don't workout. It can help boost energy for daily activities, like walking, and to improve brain function.
No, creatine does not affect testosterone. Learn more about this in our article: Does Testosterone Increase Testosterone?
Long-term creatine supplementation has been proven safe for up to five years, but you should cycle off every 8 to 12 weeks due to the effects plateauing. You can not take it forever without cycling time off.
Creatine does not harm sleep and, therefore, can be taken before bed. For more information, check out our article: Can You Take Creatine Before Bed?
Creatine has consistently been among the highest-selling fitness supplements for over 30 years, a testament to its effectiveness and safety. Countless studies have shown that creatine is highly effective, extremely safe, and has a very low risk for side effects.
Creatine is not bad for you. On the contrary, most people can benefit from taking a creatine supplement, whether they exercise or not. Taking creatine supplements is a great way to help people gain weight, build muscle mass and strength, recover from workouts faster, increase muscle endurance, and support brain health.
Creatine products will continue to grow in popularity, and we can only hope the misconceptions regarding the dangers of creatine fade away as people become more educated on the supplement.
Ready to start taking creatine? Check out our articles on the 8 Best Creatine Supplements For Lifters and the 7 Best Creatine Supplements For Women. Interested in more muscle-building supplements? Head to our article: 9 Best Supplements For Muscle Growth!
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