The Ultimate Guide to Creatine

by | Dec 22, 2022 | Featured | 0 comments

When it comes to fitness and getting in shape, one of the first questions on the average gen pop individual’s mind is “What supplements do I NEED?!” which, savvy coaches will know is the wrong question. Ninety-five percent of fitness supplements have hyperbolic marketing and may only make a 1% difference, if that. 

However, there’s one supplement that stands out amongst the rest that actually works. Backed by hundreds of research studies since the 1960’s, it’s shown improvements to performance, muscle gain, strength, and even cognition over time. You might have guessed what supplement we’re addressing today – Creatine. This will be your ultimate guide to the most researched sports supplement of all time. 

Don’t Sleep on Creatine 

Many people tend to gloss over creatine because it’s been around for forever and doesn’t tend to get a ton of marketing dollars put behind it in recent years. So I think part of the reason that creatine’s value may be diminished is that it gets placed into a category with other pre-workout supplements, such things like beta-alanine, citrulline malate, or glycerol.

Now I personally like Citrulline malate, but creatine certainly has the most research or the most extensive    backing when it comes to sports supplements. Creatine usually gets thrown in these same buckets when it comes to pre-workouts or intro workouts or post-workout recovery products, but if we look at the data, there’s really no contest when it comes to creatine.

Newer research is showing that it has numerous other benefits to health besides that of sports performance – Benefits specifically around brain health and cognition. 

Myths and Misinformation Still Persist 

With multiple hundreds of human studies since its inception, it’s not only proven to be safe, but it’s actually effective for just about any fitness goal you could have: a performance goal, a muscle gain goal,  or even maintaining muscle while you’re losing fat. While marketing may make you believe otherwise, the same thing simply can’t be said for other supplements in that category.

Regardless, there’s still a ton of confusion and misinformation about creatine to the point where even within the last year, I’m pretty sure I posted something along the lines of: Update, creatine still isn’t a steroid. It elicited different emotional responses out of everyone to the point where there are Instagram reels going around about it.

Women especially seem to avoid it, and even some men in a fat loss phase. This might be because of the dreaded “creatine bloat” – which, by the way, doesn’t really exist in terms of subcutaneous water retention, but there’s a chance that maybe they just had one bad experience with creatine and they haven’t really gone back to it.

Common Questions and Concerns around Creatine

Maybe you’ve had a client take creatine, or you’ve taken it yourself, and they gained a few pounds in a couple days. Maybe you’ve felt slightly puffy and you freaked out because you were in a fat loss phase, so you just stopped it.  

Maybe you’re a guy, and you have concerns because you heard it might cause hair loss, or perhaps you’ve heard story after story of people in the industry where people are worried about their kidneys being on the verge of shutting down from taking creatine.

Now, a lot of these are false, so we’re gonna clarify all of these later on in the post. We’re also going to clear things up around dosing as well, along with questions such as: Is a loading phase necessary? How much performance or hypertrophy or extra recovery can we legitimately expect from supplementing with creatine? Does supplementing creatine lead to dehydration or muscle cramps?

We’re gonna go into all of these. Here’s the general layout of the post:

  • What is creatine and what is it actually doing in the body to facilitate the effects that it has? 
  • What are the benefits of creatine for exercise performance, muscle mass and some mechanisms that drive those effects. 
  • The benefits of creatine for cognitive performance in certain contexts.
  • Clearing up some myths and misconceptions on things like kidney function and hair loss. 

Creatine Summary (TL;DR)

Our Bodies Produce Creatine

So we’re gonna start with a little summary. First, Creatine is endogenous to the body. The liver actually creates it from a combination of amino acids, so this should cue you into the fact that it’s an important biological molecule. Creatine isn’t just this passerby so to speak, or random supplement that we’ve engineered.

It’s actually something that is natural, and I think a lot of people think of creatine as the synthetic thing. Now, sure, you can add more creatine to the equation, but it shouldn’t be viewed any differently than using protein powder or amino acids as a supplement – You’re augmenting what’s already present in the body. 

Summary of Effects

For a summary of its effects: Creatine acts by providing a little bit of extra ATP during high intensity exercise. More effects include hyperhydration of the muscle cell, increased glycogen storage, and decreased markers of muscle damage when someone’s using creatine.

All of these higher order effects lead to the downstream results we know and love: Increased work capacity, increased recovery, and more hypertrophy and strength over time. 

Creatine can also increase cognition in certain contexts – In those that are likely to be deficient, and in contexts where there’s increased brain ATP turnover, which will also be explained later. People who fall into the first category would be the elderly and vegans – The elderly do not synthesize it as regularly, and vegans do not get any coming in from the diet. 

The second category – Increased brain ATP turnover, this would be things like sleep deprivation, complex problem solving, low oxygen states, or even a traumatic brain injury. Creatine could have value if perhaps you work with athletes and they’ve had a concussion, or you yourself may have had a head injury. So for me, as someone who’s had a pretty significant concussion in the past, I find that aspect very attractive. 

Summary of Creatine Myths (Busted Quickly)

In terms of some of the myths we’ll be diving deeper into later, the research supports the fact that creatine does not damage the kidneys and more than likely does not contribute to male pattern baldness. I’ll dive into the actual research later in the post. 

Form, Timing, and to Load or Not to Load

Put simply – Creatine monohydrate is still the best form to take, despite expensive marketing being put behind novel, newer forms.  It is best taken post workout with carbohydrates and protein to increase muscle saturation. Loading is not necessary, but can be done for faster saturation of stores.

I would also note that consistency is the most important thing with creatine. So if you can’t take it post workout for whatever reason, but you remember more easily to take it in the morning, don’t worry about not consuming it at the “optimal time” – Just taking a consistent daily dose will eventually saturate your stores.  

What is Creatine and What does it Do in the Body?

So let’s kick it off with just what creatine is and what it does in the body. First we’ll run through some key points here and then we will give you a 10,000 foot, big picture view.

As I mentioned, it shouldn’t be viewed differently than whey protein or an amino acid supplement since it’s naturally produced in the body. It’s also present in foods, namely red meat and seafood, so once again, it exists in foods that we eat. Whether you are pescatarian or you’re carnivore, you are consuming creatine.

Although creatine can certainly help you en route to your fitness goals, it is not to be viewed in the same category as performance enhancing drugs or hormones. There still exists a stigma attached to it in that respect, so I’ll drive this home: When you’re supplementing with creatine, you’re not actually supplementing with something totally foreign, but you’re basically augmenting what your body already produces and what’s coming in from the diet.

As I mentioned in the beginning, the liver produces creatine from a combination of amino acids and about 90 to 95% of creatine is present in skeletal muscle, with the other five to 10% being in the brain. There’s also trace amounts within male testicles. 

To understand one of the main things that creatine is doing in the body, you have to understand energy systems. There are other effects that we’ll get into later, but this is one of the main ones. A few of you who are more savvy coaches out there might have taken a certification or two, so these energy systems may be familiar to you. 

Energy Systems and Creatine

In a nutshell, we’ve got three main energy systems. We’ve got the aerobic system, we’ve got the anaerobic lactic system, and the anaerobic phosphocreatine system. The aerobic system generates ATP through the mitochondria, and is what we normally use at rest walking or low intensity exercise.

As intensity starts climbing to a more moderately high or high intensity, the energy demand outpaces the energy that can be supplied by the aerobic system, so we switch over to a different system, which is the anaerobic lactic system. This system can be used for up to 90 seconds and generates metabolites that cause a burning sensation within the muscle. 

Finally, we have the anaerobic phosphocreatine system. This system is a little bit less talked about and less known, but it’s right there in the name. This is the system that creatine influences. It’s tapped into during  very high intensities and can only be maintained for about 10 seconds. In the muscle, about 60 to 70% of creatine is stored as phosphocreatine and the rest as free creatine. 

Let’s consider ATP for a second. This is basically the molecule that fuels most biological functions in the body that’s also responsible for muscle contraction. It’s full name is adenosine triphosphate.

Phosphocreatine. Tri-phosphate. There’s something in common there. When the muscles contract during high intensities, you’re burning through ATP at a seriously fast rate, and when an ATP breaks down in the process of being used to fuel contraction, it loses one of its phosphate groups becoming ADP.

In swoops phosphocreatine to donate its phosphate group, which regenerates ADP back to ATP and now we’re ready to pump out some more reps in a shorter amount of time. This can serve some benefit if you’re resistance training, sprinting, etc; basically any sort of anaerobic power or resistance activity. Therefore, when you’re saturating your creatine stores, you’re giving yourself just a little bit extra ATP for use during higher intensities. This is one of the factors that translates to being able to add those couple of extra reps in moderate to high rep sets when we were exercising. In terms of real effects, once stores are saturated, you can expect a minor increase in reps performed at moderate intensities anywhere from the 8 – 30 rep range.

It might not have the same immediate, acute effect if we’re talking about doubles and triples and you’re doing more powerlifting. However, we do see increases in 1-RM and strength over time with resistance training, so there is a carryover, but a lot of what we have is really a little bit of a higher rep range in terms of acute effects. 

Other Reasons Creatine Augments Strength and Size

We know that the total amount of quality volume is one of the main things that drives muscle hypertrophy. So if we can perform a few more quality reps on all of our exercises because of saturated creatine stores, then we can probably expect to achieve better gains over time. Many studies consistently show significantly larger increases in muscle mass in groups that are supplementing creatine versus groups that aren’t when doing the same resistance training regimen.

Similarly, we consistently see increases in strength and one RM over time as well.  Since we know that the increased muscle mass obviously translates to stronger muscles as well, the increased performance isn’t just relegated to body-building style training either – this is any training that taps into those high intensity energy systems.

Since ATP can actually regenerate faster, you might think you can perform more work in less time as well. You’d be right; this has been shown for sprinting, sprint cycling, and other similar exercises. For example, creatine supplementation improved sprint speed during a 100 meter sprint significantly in several studies. This was also directly after a loading phase, not necessarily after a period of time where you were training with creatine, taking it consistently every single day. 

You can also expect this effect to bleed into other glycolytic activities like CrossFit as well, since it’s almost like a sprint with weights, depending on the event. This would translate to being able to perform your WODs slightly faster with maybe a few more reps, versus before maybe you weren’t able to pull those reps outta the tank previously. 

The Nitty Gritty – Mechanisms by Which Creatine Works Beyond ATP

Let’s switch gears and talk more about what creatine does to elicit some of its positive effects. I’ve been all but beating a dead horse about its actual benefits, but let’s dive further into mechanism beyond faster ATP regeneration. 

Intramuscular Hydration

The first thing it does is hydrate muscle cells, so this has implications for performance, hypertrophy, and resistance to dehydration. Some folks are actually blaming creatine for dehydration, which simply isnt the case. Let’s get into how it’s actually doing this. 

Creatine supplementation has been shown to be able to increase lean body mass directly after a loading phase. Creatine, much like sodium, is osmotic in nature, meaning it has a tendency to draw water with it wherever it goes. Therefore, when creatine gets taken up into the muscle cell, so does water, and therefore by supplementing creatine, you’re hydrating muscle cells to a greater extent. This means your increase in intramuscular water is gonna be one of the things responsible for the gains in lean body mass. 

This increase in muscle size from hydration isn’t the only thing that’s happening, and it’s not only aesthetic, either. There’s actually significant evidence that a well hydrated muscle performs anabolic signaling much more efficiently. This may be another mechanism by which we see more hypertrophy over time, as well as increased exercise recovery in general. 

Not only that, but researchers took this idea and tested whether or not creatine can help maintain or increase performance in hot environments by delaying dehydration, and lo and behold, this effect was seen. In one study, researchers reported that creatine supplementation reduced thermo regulatory and cardiovascular response to prolonged exercise. Translating that to metrics, it kept heart rate, rectal temperature and sweat rate down compared to those who didn’t supplement. Besides the fact that the subjects had to get a thermometer shoved where the sun don’t shine, the creatine users were in much better shape. 

Glycogen Storage

We also see increased glycogen storage, so this is another one that both facilitates immediate performance but also more hypertrophy over time. For example, mechanistically, a creatine loading protocol of 20 grams over five days, even without any resistance training, showed an upregulation of the glucose transporter, GLUT4, which is basically the door that lets carbohydrates into the muscle. The mechanism is there in theory,  but then we have many studies actually looking at glycogen storage capacity and glycogen storage levels in athletes and other subjects. 

For example, one study looked at two groups of resistance trained individuals who completed a glycogen depleting workout. One was supplementing with creatine and one was not supplementing with creatine.

During the subsequent carbohydrate and glycogen loading protocol, the group supplementing creatine had significantly higher glycogen levels than those that didn’t supplement, and even more than that, groups that supplemented creatine also saw less glycogen depletion overall during a longer high intensity lifting protocol.

Interestingly enough, it was recently found that even a modest decrease in glycogen on the order of about 38% from max storage significantly decreases performance. You don’t need to be near depletion for your performance to suffer. 

Summing this up, creatine allows you to store more glycogen and maintain glycogen at higher levels during exercise, both of which aid in performance and are probably adding to strength and hypertrophy over time. 

Reduced Muscle Damage and Oxidative Stress

Finally, we also consistently see reduced markers of muscle damage and oxidative stress in response to exercise when supplementing with creatine. The mechanism is probably a mix of everything we’ve already talked about, but these are definitely more direct metrics that show an increase in overall recovery capacity  compared to not supplementing with creatine.

That wraps up the exercise benefits. What we see fairly instantly after stores are saturated is an increase in the amount of work that’s able to be performed, whether that’s a few more reps on sets, slowly increasing your volume, maintaining a running or sprint speed for a little bit longer, or completing your WODs a little bit faster.

The acute increased lean body mass from intramuscular water storage and glycogen, which then leads to better recovery, maybe getting a little bit better pump, and ultimately means more strength and more hypertrophy over time. 

Now let’s move to the brain gains. Outside of just what’s going on in terms of muscular hydration and reps in the gym, we also have potential cognitive benefits that we need to look at as well.

Cognitive Benefits of Creatine

As we mentioned earlier, five to 10% of our body’s creatine is in the brain and actually in disorders where creatine synthesis is inhibited, we see concurrent developmental disorders such as mental retardation, autism, learning delays and seizures, so we obviously know that it’s pretty important.

The question is if we actually see cognitive benefits from supplementing creatine, and the answer is yes, although not necessarily across the board, but in certain contexts. Context is key here, which is frequently the case in nutrition, workout, and supplementation programming. 

In a nutshell, we see benefits with creatine supplementation on cognition in two broad situations. 

One, Those who are probably creatine deficient. The second would be in situations of rapid or altered brain ATP turnover, such as during complex cognitive tasks, deep problem solving, hypoxia (low brain oxygen; so sleep apnea, altitude, etc), sleep deprivation, traumatic brain injuries, and some neurological conditions.

Creatine Deficiency

To address the first point, the groups of individuals that are likely to have lower brain creatine would be vegans, vegetarians, and the elderly. 

Vegans and vegetarians are prone to lower creatine because of two reasons: They’re not really eating any foods that contain creatine, and then when you’re a vegan or vegetarian,  you have to plan very well in order to eat enough protein, so this population is more likely to be protein deficient. Since creatine is synthesized from a combination of amino acids, the creation of creatine would be down regulated if protein intake was not adequate as well. 

When vegans or vegetarians supplement with creatine, we see an increase in working memory, focus ability, and IQ, so all the vegans and vegetarians out there should have creatine as a staple, if not for the performance benefits, then the cognitive benefits. 

The second demographic, the elderly, could most likely benefit from creatine supplementation in any context. Once you’re older, many things from a physiological perspective start to down-regulate and degrade. In addition, food intake has a tendency to go down, and digestion and absorption also has a tendency to take a dive as well, all of which could potentially lead to a deficiency of creatine.

Data on Cognitive Benefits

Let’s talk about tangible, quantifiable benefits here with some studies and data. In one particular study looking at creatine’s effects on cognitive function, they supplemented 20 grams per day for seven days in elderly participants. What they found was that creatine supplementation significantly improved performance on random number generation tasks, forward spatial recall, and long-term memory tasks.

Many of the studies that looked at cognitive function in the elderly used much larger doses like this, potentially ongoing and not just for loading. Creatine uptake by the brain is limited, which has spurred on the interest of creatine precursors for the interest of  increasing brain creatine. 

One of these precursors is called GAA, and a recent study suggested that GAA supplemented at three grams per day increased brain creatine content to a greater degree than creatine monohydrate alone, so keep a lookout for more studies on GAA for brain health.

Combine the cognitive benefits with the fact that creatine has been shown to have large effects even in the daily life of the elderly: increased daily function, less fatigue, increase time to exhaustion in walking tests, and increase muscle strength (without even having to lift weights); you can make an argument that creatine should be a staple supplement in elderly populations.  

Literally just adding it as an adjunct to their day to day life without an exercise routine can have very noticeable effects. Obviously, adding an exercise routine will get one much farther, but some folks need baby steps.

Sleep Deprivation

Now let’s switch gears and talk about some studies in sleep deprivation. Once again, in this study, the treatment group was dosed at 20 grams per day for seven days. I’m not saying that you have to go and do that, but this is also usually if they’re loading people; maybe they haven’t been taking creatine before, versus maybe you’re chipping away at five grams per day and that’s your regular. 

They pre-loaded the 20 grams a day for seven days prior to being sleep deprived. The results demonstrated significantly less decreases in performance in running speed, reaction time, balance, and mood state after sleep deprivation in those that supplemented vs. those that didn’t.

Other studies we see include having someone do mentally demanding tasks for 60 to 90 minutes, like math problems, or something like LSAT logic games, which is the test you have to take to get into law school.  In any case, they put individuals through a long series of mentally demanding tests to induce cognitive fatigue, and then they subsequently tested performance on other tests in that mentally fatigued state. Folks supplementing creatine had better performance on the test after the mentally demanding tasks, suggesting that they had a little bit better resistance to that mental fatigue. 

This could have some big implications. For all of my self-employed folks, my entrepreneurs, and my coaches out here who are running your own businesses and like to crush it with a lot of daily deep work, creatine may actually be acting as a nootropic in these situations.

There was also a study that was conducted on RU rugby players who were sleep deprived and then they assess the effects of creatine on rugby passing skill tests.  The sleep deprivation had a tendency to reduce passing accuracy, whereas creatine actually reversed the effect of the sleep deprivation, which is pretty cool.

Creatine’s Effects on the Lungs

There are also some possible beneficial effects on the lungs as highlighted by this review. Most of these studies are pretty much relegated to animal models for now, however, so significantly more studies would need to be done in humans to adequately address and assess these effects. In mouse models, however, creatine actually has positive effects on the lungs and in reducing lung inflammation. 

For one example, in an animal model where the mice were genetically engineered to have inflammation in their lungs, creatine supplementation actually helped open their airways. 

There’s one single human study that I know of looking at this. Individuals with asthma that did endurance exercise at moderate to high intensities saw decreased severity of their asthma symptoms when supplementing with creatine. The data is super preliminary; it definitely exists mostly in animal models, but could be very promising if you have asthma, work with a client that has asthma, or even just have loved ones with asthma.

With all that you know now, if you aren’t supplementing with creatine, you have to ask yourself: Why wouldn’t I be?  It’s cheap and it’s effective. It has several applications for a variety of contexts, whether you are 20 years old or pushing 90 years old. 

Although there are a few myths and concerns that exist out there, as well as confusion around how and when to take creatine, so let’s go ahead and dispel some myths. 

Myths About Creatine

The most important thing to understand is that science is on your side. When it comes to creatine, there are a lot of myths and misconceptions. That’s largely because it’s been in the bro science world, the fitness world, the fat loss world, and the bodybuilding world for well over a decade now. Remember when you were a kid and you played the game of telephone?  It’s like that, and that’s not driven by researchers or by evidence-based sports scientists. It’s driven by most likely well-meaning, but misinformed folks in the gym, in forums, and on social media. So let’s get into it. Most of these myths and the cited studies lie in this review here

  1. Creatine supplementation can harm the kidneys.  

Basically in 20 years of research into creatine supplementation on kidney function, they haven’t found adverse effects in the kidneys. The origin of the myth probably comes from a generally poor understanding of creatinine metabolism.

Whatever creatine isn’t absorbed into the muscle breaks down into creatinine. Creatinine levels in the blood are generally used as a proxy for kidney function. Creatinine is actually quite a poor marker of kidney function in a fitness population, because higher muscle mass, a high protein diet, creatine supplementation, and working out alot can all benignly elevate creatinine on serum lab work.  The better marker for kidney function in populations like this would be Cystatin C. This study looks at the potential issues of creatinine as a marker of kidney function. 

Since the kidney’s clear creatinine, and the traditional thinking is that if clearance is reduced, so is kidney function. This could potentially lead to a misdiagnosis of kidney disease or reduce kidney function. 

  1. Creatine supplementation drives male pattern baldness.

The vast majority of speculation regarding the relationship between creatine supplementation in hair loss or baldness stems from a single study that occurred in college-aged male rugby players. Kind of odd that many of these creatine studies are done in rugby players, but that’s besides the point. 

These guys supplemented with creatine, 25 grams per day for seven days, followed by a five gram per day  dosing for an additional 14 days. The treatment group experienced a “statistically significant” increase in serum dihydrotestosterone, or DHT. DHT is a typical culprit when it comes to male pattern baldness (MPB), but it’s not quite as simple as that. 

The same study didn’t see an increase in male pattern baldness, but the thinking is that this “increase” in DHT could potentially lead to it over time. 

When we look a bit closer at this study, however, more nuances come out and we can see the real story. Firstly, the increase in DHT and the DHT to testosterone ratio remained well within its normal clinical limits, so it wasn’t like supraphysiological levels of DHT by any means.  

Here’s the kicker though: The placebo group saw a decrease in DHT due to other unknown variables, so when we compare the treatment group, which had a tiny increase, to the placebo group, which had a moderate decrease, you see an artificial statistically significant “increase”. The creatine group’s DHT only minimally rose above baseline, but since statistical significance is gained by comparing what happened in the treatment group to what happened in the placebo group, we see this “increase”.

Let’s say the placebo group hadn’t gone backwards and they were just comparing baseline to normal baseline, or normal DHT to slightly elevated, it might not have been statistically significant.  

Combine that with the fact that many studies since then have tried to replicate these findings and no study has been able to. Basically, when we look at the whole body of research, no other study identifies increases in DHT, and no studies have shown increases in MPB. 

If you personally experienced an increase in MPB, or you actually test your DHT and noticed its elevated after taking creatine, then by all means, feel free to take matters into your own hands and test it by withdrawing creatine and re-testing your levels. 

Otherwise we shouldn’t be spreading myths and misconceptions based off of one study that has since not been able to be replicated, and whose findings were also largely affected by what happened with the placebo group.

  1. Creatine causes muscle cramping or dehydration.

In the early two thousands, there was some early limited data that came out that looked like it was showing this. As a result, the ACSM or American College of Sports Medicine recommended that individuals controlling their weight and exercising who are in hot environments should avoid using creatine because of the “dangers of dehydration”. The ACSM very much jumped the gun here, and is one of the reasons the myth sticks around today.

The physiological rationale suggesting that creatine supplementation may cause dehydration and muscle cramping was based on the premise that creatine is basically an osmotically active substance, meaning it draws water with it wherever it goes. 

Basically they were thinking, okay, if creatine is sucking up this water with it, and it’s primarily in skeletal muscle, then it must be altering overall fluid distribution by preferentially increasing intramuscular water uptake, and then decreasing water in other bodily compartments. 

However, every single controlled study that has tested creatine’s effects on dehydration has found the opposite.  

For example, in one study that looked at collegiate football players, creatine users actually had less cramping, less heat illness, less dehydration, less muscle tightness, muscle strains, and total injuries compared to non-users.

When we look at the totality of the evidence and data here, it’s really not supported to say that creatine is going to cause muscle cramping or dehydration, even if they were exploring that relationship previously. 

  1. To load or not to load? 

This is always a popular question in the industry,  but I’m here to confirm that the loading phase is pretty much optional. If you’re unfamiliar, a loading phase would be like taking 20 grams per day for seven days and then subsequently taking a maintenance dose to three to five grams per day. This saturates stores in about a week. The other option would just be to take three to five grams per day, which would saturate your creatine stores in about a month. It’s up to you in terms of how much you want to spend on creatine and if you actually wanna load it, since it can be inconvenient because we have to split loading into 3-4 daily doses to facilitate absorption and avoid GI side effects. 

Gastric tolerance is an issue during the loading phase because of the rate limiting step of absorption. Whatever isn’t absorbed tends to pass out the other end and can cause diarrhea. Therefore, a popular strategy when loading is to split your daily doses into 4 5-gram doses.  Determining which creatine strategy is gonna be preferred is probably going to depend on your goal. 

For example, if an athlete is hoping to maximize the potential sports supplement effects of creatine in a very short period of time, and they have less than 30 days to do it, adopting the creatine loading strategy might be advised. 

On the other hand, let’s say there is an event that is weight restricted in nature and you’re gonna have to hop on a scale the day before or day of going in. So that could be wrestling, MMA, bodybuilding, powerlifting, etc, and you have a meet coming up and you haven’t been taking creatine. 

If you were to load it, you have a higher chance of seeing more intramuscular water retention and therefore weight gain. It’s not like you’re gaining fat obviously, but if you see a change or deviation and you’re working with a very tight window, that is something to consider. Athletes who are carrying out the creatine loading phase should emphasize smaller dosing strategies.

Some data indicate that 10 grams of creatine at a time throughout the day could still be absorbed well with little GI distress, but I’d still recommend splitting it into 5 gram doses.  You definitely run into the dangers of disaster pants if you take 25 grams of creatine at one time, which would be five scoops of five grams. 

  1. Which form is best? 

As creatine has become something that can be monetized due to the research that supports its use, different supplement companies have tried to come out with a number of different types in what’s basically a money-grabbing effort. Monohydrate, ethyl ester, creatine magnesium chelate, hydrochloride, etc. 

In short, monohydrate is the most studied form. It has no issues with uptake, and it saturates stores potentially even better than other forms. Marketing has mainly driven the interest in other forms, like the ethyl ester version; they try to market the “less bloat” or water weight gain, and these claims are largely unfounded.

In some cases, studies even found that there was less absorption from these other forms, and it was mainly just this marketing driven hype for novel forms of creatine. So for the most part, stick to creatine monohydrate. Creapure is a really great patented version of micronized creatine monohydrate.

  1. Best Way and Time to Take Creatine

A lot of people have confusion about whether to take it pre or post-workout, whether with or without food. If you look at all the evidence, it appears the best absorption in muscle occurs when taking creatine post workout, with a combination of carbohydrate, protein and a little bit of sodium.

However, this would probably only provide a marginal increase in uptake to the point where it’s probably splitting hairs. If you’re super anal, or someone who gets off on total optimization,  I would probably go this route and do it how I laid out above, but in the grand scheme of things, just getting your daily dose in and being consistent with it is going to give 99.9% of the benefit.

Summary 

As we summarize the main points, there’s no one that would not benefit from supplementing with creatine. I know that sounds extreme, but given all the research, safety data, etc, it seems like a no-brainer. If you’re an athlete, if you’re trying to gain muscle, if you’re trying to improve performance, if you care about cognition… The reason’s are endless. We’re killing way more than two birds with one stone here. 

It’s not to say that everyone derives the same benefit, but if we’re looking at cognitive effects, even if you’re not super into fitness or trying to set a huge 1-RM PR or wanting the increased work capacity, everyone gets poor sleep now and then, and everyone has high stress levels at different points in their lives, and many people have to do complex problem solving in their careers; especially the coaches who listen to this.

Creatine may be able to help you perform deep work and increase reaction times in those situations. If we combine that with the numerous levels of research to support the benefits for sports performance, strength, and hypertrophy, there’s no reason not to supplement. The cost to benefit ratio here is way more skewed towards the benefit. 

Creatine monohydrate is not only a good form to take, but possibly more efficacious and less expensive than other forms, and you can decide if you wanna load it or not and spend that extra money on the few extra scoops. Again, taking it post workout with a mixed meal might be a little bit better for muscle saturation, but it’s not a hundred percent necessary. Just get your creatine in and you should reap the benefits from that. 

Now, it’s not going to necessarily be an overnight game changer for some people. Maybe a subtle effect running in the background over time, but remember, sometimes with transformation, it can be a game of inches at a time and stacking different things that create momentum.

Having that 10% difference running in the background can help you break through different plateaus that you may experience. If it makes you feel better in the gym, if it keeps you consistent, you enjoy taking it, and you have no negative side effects from it, then just keep on taking it for as long as you feel you need (cycling isn’t necessary, by the way). 

References

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 Jul 20;9(1):33. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-9-33. PMID: 22817979; PMCID: PMC3407788.

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