May 30, 2021 10 min read
Only a few decades ago, creatine was the thing that you hid from other people. It wasn’t properly understood, and people were understandably wary of its use. However, this has all changed in recent years.
Creatine is now one of the most widely used and widely studied workout supplements, on par with the classic whey protein powder that’s a mainstay in every gym-goers workout arsenal. If you’re at all serious about working out, creatine is a must-have in your supplementing needs.
And on top of the workout benefits, creatine is also beneficial in other aspects of your health that can benefit you over the long term.
This compound is a naturally occurring amino acid, normally found in red meat and seafood sources. It’s stored in the muscle and brain tissues of people and produced in the liver and kidneys. Because your body is able to produce it on its own (assuming a well-rounded diet), it’s considered a non-essential nutrient.
The chemical reaction that makes creatine special comes down to energy production and ATP. When your cells or muscles need energy, they break the bond between phosphate groups in an ATP molecule. There is a lot of energy stored in this bond, and your body saves these ATP molecules in the muscles to be used when necessary.
However, there are only about three seconds of stored ATP energy within your muscles at any one point. In order to replenish these levels quickly and get you back to work, your body relies on the phosphagen system which cycles through ATP and ADP breakdown and production. After about 8 to 10 seconds, these stores of creatine are depleted as well.
And this is where supplementing comes in: the more creatine you have in your muscles, the more energy production your able to keep up. While it doesn’t last very long, it’s used for high-intensity and heavy resistance training—just enough to smash out another set of 5 reps. This is also where the gains come into the equation.
Creatine began its rise in popularity in the 1990s, as bodybuilders began catching on to its potent effects on muscle gain and exercise performance. Because of the chemical characteristics of creatine and its usefulness in the muscles, it has a wide range of benefits in weightlifting and bodybuilding.
Research has shown that creatine is the best supplement for adding muscle mass, when compared to six other supplements. It’s also been shown that supplementing with creatine is able to produce muscle fiber growth at 2 to 3 times the rate than without supplementation.
Another study even found that supplementing with creatine even doubled the weight someone could bench press in a 12-week study period. This is all due to creatine’s effects on power production in the muscles.
It increases maximum power and strength, increases sprint performance, decreases recovery times, supports muscle growth without packing on body fat, helps to train vertical power output, improves hydration, and helps to prevent fatigue for longer.
All in all, it’s difficult to argue that creatine is one of the best supplements out there if you’re serious about building muscle and getting stronger.
However, the benefits don’t begin and end at the gym. While most studies don’t provide watertight cases yet, there is evidence for a host of other benefits that creatine may provide.
One study looked at a group that was already deficient in creatine, mostly composed of the elderly, vegans, and vegetarians. After supplementing with creatine, the group was found to be better at reasoning and thinking abstractly. This points to creatine’s potential effects on brain health.
Creatine has also been found to potentially aid with heart health in patients suffering from heart diseases. This is because creatine may be able to mitigate problems by increasing blood flow, increasing skeletal muscle strength, and improving the physical endurance of patients.
Lastly, creatine may also be terrific for skin health when applied in a cream. It’s able to reduce wrinkles, sagging, and improve the damage caused by the sun.
The most popular form of creatine out there is by far creatine monohydrate. This is tried and tested method of ramping up your gains in the gym and it’s been used for decades. The new kid on the block is creatine HCL.
While both are utilized for the same ends, HCL differs in that it’s molecularly bound with hydrochloric acid. Doing this allows for a better absorption rate and increases solubility. The main benefit here is increased bioavailability, since it’s more quickly broken down and therefore, more quickly utilized by your muscle cells.
The fact that it’s quickly used also means that your body doesn’t have as much of a chance to retain water, and side effects may also be reduced. However, right now there just aren’t enough studies done on the topic to be able to tell for sure whether HCL really is that much better. Whatever you go with, gains are guaranteed.
Unlike certain other nutrients, creatine is deemed “non-essential,” but this doesn’t mean it’s not essential for a properly functioning body. Rather, non-essential means that we don’t need to worry about getting “creatine sources” from our diet since our body is able to produce it.
However, we do need to be eating a balanced diet in order for our body’s to be able to create the necessary creatine. Every day, our body naturally makes 1 to 2 g of creatine, which is enough for most people (and those who are eating well).
Creatine is also found in plenty of meats, such as fish, pork, chicken, and beef. While the amount of creatine largely depends on the source, a 3-ounce serving of meat will have around 0.4 g of creatine. This is more than enough for most people, but if you lift heavy, do high-intensity exercises, or stick to a vegetarian or vegan diet, then you should consider supplementing with creatine.
So, how much should you take if you want to get bigger and stronger? There are actually different ways to approach this, and the amount of creatine it’s recommended you take will depend on the different phases of your training.
The most common way to take creatine is through two stages. The first stage is meant to reach peak creatine storage in your muscles, and the second stage is meant to maintain muscle creatine storage. The first stage is called the loading phase which lasts for 5 to 7 days. Creatine loading brings your creatine levels up to a saturation point, where no more can be stored in your muscles.
This is meant to be efficient and fast and relies on taking about 20 grams of creatine per day. While you can do this all in one sitting every day, some people do experience stomach discomfort after such a high dose. That’s why it’s recommended to take smaller doses throughout the day (at about 5 g).
The next stage is called the maintenance phase and it can last as long as you’d like to continue taking creatine. Since your body degrades and releases creatine in urine every day, it’s recommended you take 3 to 5 g per day as a maintenance dose. And since creatine stores are degraded even on rest days, it’s best to continue taking a daily dose when you’re not working out.
Now that we know when we should be taking creatine (and how much) throughout our training cycle, we can look at the debate surrounding creatine timing. This is broken down into those who believe it’s best to take it before a workout, and those who take it post-workout. Before working out makes sense, since taking creatine results in more ATP being accessible for your body to use.
More ATP means more power, and more power means you’re able to work out harder and eke out extra gains. On the other hand, taking it after a workout makes sense in that your muscles are depleted of nutrients once you’ve gassed them out. This leaves them starving for some sort of nutrients, which are delivered with creatine. Your body then hungrily uses it and receives all of the benefits.
The third argument is that you can take creatine whenever you want. The compound is so useful, that simply taking it consistently is good enough to impart its benefits on both lifters and non. But what does the science say? Well, the science isn’t all that conclusive.
Different studies have said different things. For example, certain studies claim that taking it before a workout is better, while other studies claim that taking it after a workout is better. As of right now, there isn’t a best approach. However, we can take this to mean that anytime is the best time.
Rather than getting in a twist about timing your creatine before or after a workout, just ensure that you’re taking it consistently and in good quantities. The gains will come in time.
There have also been studies looking at how best to increase the uptake of creatine in your muscles. Carbohydrates have been shown to the big winners when it comes to this, effectively increasing muscle stores of creatine when both were consumed together.
Similar effects have been seen with taking protein and carbs in equal amounts, allowing for more creatine to be taken up by the muscles. However, there is a catch. The studies which researched this used very high levels of carbs and proteins: 100 grams of carbs, for example, to see a significant increase in uptake by the muscles.
Similarly, with proteins and carbs, each macro was measured out to be 50 g and 47 g, respectively. Needless to say, this isn’t a really realistic way to go about things. However, we can still keep in mind that taking creatine with protein and carbs helps its uptake. While we might not see a dramatic improvement as in the studies, it could help you over the long run.
We saw that you should be taking creatine with food, but that doesn’t mean you should be sprinkling it over your pasta and steak. Creatine is most commonly seen in powdered form, and it’s easily ingestible by simply mixing it with water. However, taking it in a shake, smoothie, or juice is also a great (and tasty) way to go. Some people even take it in their coffee—the sky really is the limit, much like with whey protein powder.
Creatine can also come in pill form, but keep in mind that this can take longer to dissolve and be absorbed by your body. If you’re looking for a quick hit of it, a powder is probably the best way to go. Eating it with a meal is also a good idea because it increases uptake. Additionally, taking creatine with food can also lessen the upset stomach that some people get after ingesting it.
Creatine is also commonly found in pre-workouts, whey protein powders, and other supplements. Just make sure that what you’re buying is of high quality and has an appropriate amount of creatine.
This will largely depend on your diet and whether you’re cutting or bulking, but creatine does tend to make people gain weight. However, this does not meal fat gain. The most obvious effect of creatine is muscle mass gain. Since you’ll be able to put in more work at the gym, you’ll be gaining muscles while also burning more fat during your sessions. The other side of this is water retention.
Creatine also tends to make people retain water in their muscle cells. This usually only comes down to 0.5 kg to 4 kg of extra water weight—which isn’t a lot—but if you’re going for a very “cut” look, then this could be an issue. However, this bloating also depends on your diet and what phase of training you’re in.
Creatine powder can be taken both during bulking phases and cutting phases. It’s also important to keep in mind that this water weight will disappear after you stop using creatine, but the muscle gains will remain. In the long run, creatine will help you get leaner.
Creatine has had its share of side-eyeing due to the purported risks of taking it over the long term. This usually has to do with claims that creatine is hard on the liver and the kidneys. By now, enough studies have come out that these claims are effectively heresy.
One of the byproducts of creatine is creatinine, which is filtered out by the kidneys. However, this has never been an issue in adults with healthy kidneys. If you do have a history of kidney issues, this may be an area for further research with a dietitian.
Unfortunately, more creatine does not equal more gains (to an extent). Because your body is only able to store so much, using significantly more than the recommended dose will only hurt your wallet. The amount your body can store is predicated on your muscle mass. So, the more jacked you are, the more you should theoretically be able to store in your body.
Every kilogram of muscle mass is able to store in the range of 2 to 3 g of creatine, but this will vary from person to person. Most studies have tended to stay within the 3 to 5 g range per day—keep in mind that your body is also producing it on its own, on top of supplementation.
Higher levels have also been tested, and you should be taking more (around 5 to 7 grams) in the loading phase, but this isn’t the level you should necessarily be sticking to over the long term. Save your money, save your health, and stay within the recommended dosages or speak to a dietitian to get a better idea.
When it comes to its safety, benefits, and ability to turbocharge your gym sessions, creatine seems like a miracle supplement. And while that might be true to an extent, it’s important to remember that there are no magic supplements.
If you want to get the most out of creatine, you have to use it on top of an already healthy lifestyle. That primarily means getting enough rest, exercising enough (and with the correct workouts), and eating well. Only once all three of these things have been taken care of can you really tap into the potential of creatine.
However, once consistency has been achieved with healthy sleep, rest, and resistance exercises, this supplement really can take you to the next level. Just make sure that you’re getting a high-quality compound and you’re well on your way to bigger muscles and better long-term health.