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Fact checked by Andrew Lenau, ISSA CPT & Sports NutritionistFACT CHECKED
September 01, 2022
Results-driven supplements are great, but one of the biggest fears many lifters have is losing all their muscle gains once they stop taking them. Creatine, a beloved product in the strength and conditioning world, is one of those supplements.
It's great when you're taking it daily, but what happens when you stop? Are your results gone within a few weeks? Or, does your body hold on to the gains you made when taking creatine?
Let's discuss. This post will cover:
Creatine is a naturally occurring compound stored in skeletal muscle in the form of creatine phosphate. Additionally, smaller amounts are found in the brain and testes.
Without supplementing with creatine, the average person will consume 1-2 grams of creatine daily, primarily found in red meat and fish¹. In addition, another 1-2 grams of your own creatine is synthesized internally through the amino acids arginine, glycine, and methionine during natural creatine production.
Before supplementing, a person's natural creatine stores are around 100 to 120 mmol per kg of body weight, equating to their creatine levels being just 60-80% full. This means there is certainly room for more creatine stores, ideally leading to more muscle gains as you tackle your 7-day workout split.
Creatine phosphate is used by the ATP-CP/Phophagen metabolic system to help resynthesize the high-energy compound ATP. Known as adenosine triphosphate (triphosphate= 3 phosphates), ATP is the body's "energy currency" and is used to supply energy for a host of reactions, processes, and muscle contractions.
During high-intensity activities such as lifting weights and HIIT workouts, the body requires ATP fast to fuel the muscles. To provide energy, ATP goes through a reaction in which one of its phosphate molecules breaks off. This creates energy along with another compound known as adenosine diphosphate (diphopshate= 2 phosphates).
At this point, creatine phosphate is used to provide one of its phosphate groups to ADP, thus becoming another molecule of ATP.
The majority of people's creatine levels are below their maximum levels. This can be the result of numerous factors, yet a person's diet often plays a large part.
Regardless, taking one of the best creatine supplements fills these creatine levels to 100% full. As a result, the body is able to better withstand strenuous exercise as well as perform more work.
People usually see rapid weight gain during the first month of supplementing, which equates to 1-2kg. After that, the weight gain becomes less drastic and evens out.
Learn more about this in our article: How Long Does Creatine Take To Work?
The benefits of a creatine supplement do not occur until the creatine level begins to rise. While you can just take a small dose of 3 grams daily, this could take an entire month.
This is why when someone first starts taking creatine, it's recommended they follow a loading protocol. By doing so, they are able to get their stores full quickly and start reaping the benefits.
Most sports researchers will suggest a 5-7 day period in which a person takes 20-25 grams per day². This can be broken up into smaller doses as well.
Many people are concerned that creatine causes weight gain. We will go over this more below but for now, yes. This is due to more muscle mass along with water retention.
However, we promise this isn't a bad thing. In fact, it contributes to muscle fullness. We'll explain soon.
There are many great supplements available to help you burn fat, but creatine is not one of them - at least not directly. While fat loss and an improved body fat percentage usually accompany creatine ingestion, and we do recommend taking creatine while cutting, this is due to higher work output and diet.
Above we spoke of how taking the supplements boosts your creatine levels. That's what happens physiologically, regardless of whether you're taking creatine pills or powder. Due to this modification of creatine levels, the body can perform at a higher level. It's this higher intensity that yields results.
A few of the common effects of creatine supplementation include increased muscle hypertrophy and strength gains, improved body composition, better endurance, and an ability to generate a greater workload².
A common "myth" that is perpetuated with a creatine monohydrate supplement is that your weight gain is actually just water weight. There is some truth to this, but it's misunderstood.
Creatine is an osmotic compound, meaning it draws water into cells. Being that 95% of creatine is stored in the muscle, creatine will draw water into the muscle cells. For example, a study measuring the levels of total body water, as well as intracellular and extracellular water levels after the use of creatine, found that participants gained 0.9 liters of total body water³.
However, when this was compared with intracellular water retention, the ratio remained the same. And after the loading phase and maintenance phases were completed, the participants gained weight by increasing their body mass.
The ISSN's stand on supplementation notes a similar response². While you may gain water weight during creatine loading, in the long run this generally evens out to match the gain in body mass.
It's important to note that water weight from creatine isn't necessarily a bad thing. Keep in mind that the muscle is 79% water anyway, so you want it to be hydrated.
Further super hydrated muscles have been found to be more anabolic (read up on anabolic vs. catabolic here) and more resistant to strenuous exercise. At the end of the day, the water weight concern shouldn't really be a concern at all.
So this leaves us to the main point of this article: What will happen when you stop taking creatine? Will all of the progress you made during your 6-day split disappear?
Pause for dramatic effect.
Sorry, this is going to be anticlimactic, but it's really not a major deal.
There are a few effects that may be of concern. That said, people will respond very differently, so keep that in mind. Here are a few potential things to keep an eye out for.
Obviously, the first thing we can guarantee will happen is that your levels of creatine stored are going to drop down to the original levels. However, this does not drop overnight. Not even close.
A study examining this found that after taking 5 grams of creatine for 10 weeks, participants' levels were still slightly increased after 4 weeks⁴.
Because strength is driven by neurological factors, it's hard to say how much muscle you may lose or what it means for muscle weakness. In the study mentioned above, no strength was lost during the entire 4 weeks of no supplementation. This means we have no reason to believe the gains you made during your strength training program will disappear.
We'll discuss this more below in conjunction with loss of muscle.
Similar to losing strength, it's hard to say if you will lose lean muscle mass. But, the muscle size will likely appear smaller due to losing the water weight gain.
A loss in muscle tissue occurs for a few other reasons as well, including low-calorie diets and illness.
While you can lose muscle mass due to a decrease in training, this actually takes a very long time, assuming you're still training with intensity. The mechanisms to build muscle are much more difficult to achieve than just maintaining.
For example, this study found that resistance-trained individuals were able to maintain skeletal muscle and muscular strength for 32 weeks with training once per week⁵!
Therefore, it's hard for us to believe you're really going to drop a substantial amount of lean muscle mass any time soon after quitting creatine supplementation. Therefore, keep training hard, and you should maintain that muscle gain. Don't forget to eat foods for muscle as well.
As mentioned, with decreased creatine production, you're going to lose weight, but this will largely be in part due to a loss in water weight. When you take creatine monohydrate, higher amounts are stored in the muscles.
Due to their osmotic nature, they cause more water retention in the cells. When you stop, these creatine levels drop along with water weight.
Excessive, continuous ingestion of creatine has been found to possibly have a negative effect on your creatine transport system, meaning that there is potential it can reduce natural creatine production. Well, not your creatine transport system specifically, but the study found this led to lower natural creatine production in rats.
Rats are commonly used in studies before humans, so that's not too uncommon and certainly not the study's fault. However, using these studies to extrapolate to humans is an issue. And we should note that this study specifically said that no harmful effects of any type, including lower activation of creatine transport systems, have been found in humans⁶.
One study examined the effects of creatine cessation on older men, 83 years old⁷. Participants followed a training plan for 12 weeks while taking creatine, then following 12 weeks of training with 33% reduced volume.
During the second 12 weeks, some men quit supplementing while the other group continued. After, they discovered that no decrease in strength or loss of muscle mass was found in either group and there was a similar decrease in muscular endurance.
This seems to suggest that maintaining training is key and that maintaining is much easier than gaining. Again, this was an older demographic so it may not be apples-to-apples, but the results seem to indicate that continuing training is key.
Despite what many naysayers will claim, there have been numerous long-term studies ranging from 5 to 10 plus years that have looked at the safety of creatine². Most of these have been done with creatine monohydrate and have concluded no serious long-term effects are associated with supplementation.
Further, creatine has been used in just about every population you can think of:
Creatine supplementation has shown no ill effects in any of these groups.
A group that absolutely shouldn't be taking creatine long-term is those with kidney issues. And if you ever have any concerns with taking a supplement, always speak with your doctor first.
If you decide that instead of stopping, you want to take creatine long-term, there are several suggestions given. One suggestion is that you should cycle creatine. However, there's no hard evidence to back this or suggest a cycling schedule to follow.
We spoke to Dr. Jose Antonio from ISSN, and his suggestions lined up with our inclination that it doesn't make sense to cycle creatine. Instead of having constant fluctuations in your creatine levels, he suggested that as far as how to take creatine goes, simply take a smaller dose instead.
While 5 grams a day may work initially or for the short-term, it's too much and not needed if you plan to use it chronically. Therefore, Dr. Antonio suggested taking a lower dose of 3 grams, or possibly even lower for smaller individuals. Pair your smaller doses with an effective program, and we bet you'll be able to improve your muscular strength.
First, despite what some sources try to claim, there are very few adverse effects on individuals. That said, there are a few. The most commonly reported are gastrointestinal distress, water weight gain, and creatine bloating.
None of these are ideal, but we already explained the issue with water weight gain. When it comes to the other two, they are generally accompanied when individuals load with high doses.
Even those who do experience negative effects report them subsiding once they begin a lower dose. If you're concerned about these effects, you can just start with a lower dose to begin with, skipping the loading phase entirely. It may take longer to fill your levels but you won't feel bad.
The effect of creatine supplementation is not the same as taking steroids. This includes the effects after stopping,
While creatine does help increase muscle size and muscle strength, it does so within your genetic potential. What this means is that you could increase your creatine naturally by dialing in your diet, eating the best foods before a workout and after a workout, and maximizing your potential.
However, steroids take your hormone levels waaaaay past normal. Therefore, when you stop, it's impossible to maintain your gain. This is assuming you trained past your natural ability. This is because instead of maximizing you're potential, you're increasing your potential.
If you want to take a break from creatine or stop altogether, by all means. If you're training hard enough, it's likely you won't see many drastic changes as far as loss of strength is concerned. However, if you want to stop due to supposed water retention that causes weight gain, we'd suggest you rethink it.
If you gain weight, you can rest assured it is not fat. In fact, you should notice an increase in arm size as well as better performance. Prepare to progressive overload!
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