If you’re not using creatine, you should be.
In this comprehensive article I’m going to reveal the various benefits of creatine supplementation for muscle growth, strength improvements, and in-gym performance.
Many people have unanswered questions regarding the safety, the effectiveness, and the proper dose they need to take to unlock maximum results, so we will cover all those (and more) today.
Whether you are an experienced lifter, or brand new to the gym, this step-by-step guide will tell you all you need to know about “the world’s #1 selling bodybuilding supplement”.
(Not a typo – it really is #1!)
WHAT IS CREATINE?
When you eat protein your body breaks it down into amino acids.
These little bad boys have various tasks (including the building of new muscle). Creatine is formed by a combination of three amino acids in particular – arginine, glycine, and methionine.
Here’s a list of all the amino acids (look out for the bold ones):
- L-Aspartic Acid
- L-Glutamic Acid
WHAT DOES CREATINE DO?
To fully understand how creatine helps us to build more muscle, we must first take a look at how the body works.
Your body uses three different energy systems during exercise:
Of the three, the ATP-PC system is responsible for short bursts of intense activity lasting between 10-60 seconds. It is powered by creatine phosphate. Most of our ATP reserves are gobbled up in the first 6-10 seconds, which is why you’ll notice a steep decline in explosiveness from this point on (Example: sprint as fast as you can for as long as you can).
However, a three minute rest period is enough to recover by as much as 85%, so providing you get enough rest between sets, we have the potential for multiple high intensity bursts
Unfortunately, our natural reserves of creatine are very limited. So while there is huge potential in this energy system, we are unable to reap those rewards because we just don’t produce enough of the stuff.
This is why top athletes supplement additional creatine into their diet, eliminating the problem above.
So how does creatine help you build muscle?
Well, imagine being able to perform many more short bursts of maximum intensity than you can right now, because you have the reserves to do so. Put that into a gym context and you should already be seeing the potential benefits on offer.
More intense workouts = more muscle growth, more strength, more calories burned, and BETTER RESULTS.
HOW EFFECTIVE IS CREATINE FOR BUILDING MUSCLE AND IMPROVING STRENGTH?
Let’s take a look at some studies showing the kind of results you can expect from using creatine.
There are many health benefits to creatine supplementation, but I want to focus on the three you’re likely most curious about;
- Building muscle!
- Gaining strength!
- Looking ripped!
And you’re in good hands, too, because as well as being the best-selling bodybuilding supplement of all time, creatine is also the most well-researched! There’s literally DECADES of academic research showing us how it can be applied to bodybuilding programs for best results.
Instead of drowning you in data, I’d like to draw your attention to a 2010 review study. A review study looks at the results of the entire body of research on a particular topic (in this case, creatine!).
Combining the results of 22 peer reviewed trials, researchers in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that creatine supplementation increases strength gains by about 8%, combined with a 14% improvement in the number of reps performed to failure.
Trainees also saw their one rep max on the bench press rise between 3-45%, and their one rep max on the barbell squat rise between 16-45%! (1)
So what is this data telling us?
Well, with creatine supplementation you’ll be able to lift heavier weights, and you’ll be able to perform more reps, too.
This gets back to what I mentioned about energy systems earlier. By having adequate reserves of creatine, we are able to increase the number of high intensity bursts we can do – so you get MORE STRENGTH & MORE MUSCLE GROWTH!
Creatine also has another interesting side effect in that it forces water into your muscle cells, giving them a fuller, harder appearance.
This side effect is responsible for the “newbie gains” you often hear about regarding creatine supplementation, with some users reporting gains of 2-4lbs in the first 2 weeks of use. (15, 16)
But while the gains you make in size & strength are 100% real, this water-based side effect is not. You see, if you were to cease using creatine your body would immediately flush this water from your muscle cells. Before we move on, it’s also worth knowing that because creatine forces water into muscle cells, you should make an effort to drink more H2O in order to keep the rest of your body hydrated. A dehydrated muscle can lose upto 20% contraction force. Screw that.
IS CREATINE BAD FOR YOU? IS CREATINE LINKED TO ANABOLIC STEROIDS?
Given the crazy benefits you’ve seen above, creatine can seem “too good to be true.”
So this is a question I’m regularly asked by concerned gym members.
They needn’t worry, as creatine is perfectly safe. (2, 3, 4, 5)
However, like any supplement, you’ve still got to be careful. Avoid misusing it (see my advice on the recommended dosages below), and watch out for these potential side effects:
- Dizziness – Creatine forces water into your muscle cells, so it’s important to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. This may seem like common sense, but many gym users use caffeine, another diuretic, so don’t be a d**k.
- Weight gain – Not fat gain. It’s just water weight, it doesn’t matter.
- Diarrhea – If you take too much.
- Cramps – If you don’t drink enough water.
Another thing I’m regularly asked is, “Is creatine steroids?”
With some studies showing strength gains of up to 45% I can totally understand why it often gets this label. But the answer is NO. Creatine has no connection to anabolic steroids.
As I mentioned earlier, creatine is the combination of 3 amino acids (l-arginine, l-glycine, and l-methionine). It has more in common with a multivitamin. You’ll find it in several food sources (red meat, tuna, salmon), but you’d need to eat an awful lot of food to obtain a clinical dose so it makes ,pre sense to supplement it instead.
Finally, “Is creatine safe for teens?”
I’m often asked this by worried parents of gym-going teenagers, so let me put your mind at rest with a comprehensive YES. It’s perfectly safe for teens.
A 1996 study from Canada reported zero negative side effects in a group of young adults using creatine over a two year period, with some participants using double the dose required for maximum results. (6)
The following year, a second study published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition tracked the effects of creatine supplementation with young competitive swimmers. Once again they found that the male & female trainees reaped the performance benefits while experiencing zero negative side effects. (7)
WHAT IS THE BEST TYPE OF CREATINE TO USE?
There are many different types of creatine on the market, so which one works best?
For convenience, I’ve limited this list to the best performing blends.
Creatine Monohydrate – This is the original form of creatine made available over 30 years ago.
Creatine Ethyl Ester – CEE was the first of a “new breed” of creatine supplements, hitting the market in 2005, It’s creatine monohydrate with ester, aimed at increasing the absorption.
Creatine Magnesium Chelate – Also known as MagnaPower, this form of creatine arrived shortly after CEE and once again claimed to have a superior absorption rate to the original.
Creatine HCL – Creatine HCL is creatine monohydrate with an added hydrochloric acid molecule, aimed at improving solubility and absorption.
Creatine Citrate – This is creatine bound with citric acid, to help with solubility and absorption.
Creatine Nitrate – This is creatine bonded to a nitrogen base. This is the latest trendy creatine supplement, with claims of increased solubility and better uptake into muscle cells.
So which type of creatine is best?
This may be surprising news, but CREATINE MONOHYDRATE is best. Yes, the original form of creatine; over 30 years old, and cheap as f**k!
You may have noticed all the newer creatine formulas claim to have better absorption than the original formula, and this is why they cost upto 8x as much. Despite these fancy claims, none of them have outperformed creatine monohydrate in a clinical trial. (13)
If you were to use any of the others on the list, creatine HCL would be the best choice. You see, it can produce the same results as creatine monohydrate in a much smaller dose, so if you experience any digestion issues with creatine then this is the way to go. (14)
The rest are a f**king waste of money.
HOW TO TAKE CREATINE FOR MAXIMUM RESULTS
Talke a look at how much you’ve learned so far!
You know what creatine is. You know how it can help you to build muscle and improve strength. You know about its safety and potential side effects. You know what the best type of creatine is.
You’re more clued up than most gym-goers!
So now we take a look at how to use it on a daily basis to get the best results.
There are a few myths out there in regards to optimal supplementation methods, and some of the “old school” advice has been debunked in recent years. It’s important to remember how quickly creatine took over the bodybuilding world, it happened quite literally overnight, after sprint coaches mentioned teir athletes using it in preparation for the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. So a lot of the early guidelines on recommended usage were put in place due to their being no scientific data. Many people are still following these guidelines, and they needn’t.
What I’ll show you here is the very latest information on optimal creatine supplementation, using the 30+ years of academic research we now have available. We’ll cover a few things, including:
- Creatine loading
- How to cycle creatine
- Optimal dose for best results
This is an example of the “old school” advice I mentioned above.
If you look at the packaging of any creatine supplement, you’ll see it advises you to “load” for the first week. This means you’ll take a higher dose (sometimes up to 20g per day) for the first 7 days, before switching to a standard dose thereafter.
However, new research shows we don’t need to do this.
The job of a loading phase is to saturate the muscles cells with creatine, but your muscles will still reach the same saturation point with a regular dose, it’ll just take a little longer. All this really does is make you run out of product sooner. Also, some people struggle with the super high doses of a loading phase, which can lead to some of the unpleasant side effects I mentioned earlier.
So here’s the facts…
Research shows that if you begin supplementing with a much smaller daily dose of creatine your muscle cells will still reach that same saturation point (it’ll just take slightly longer) and you will still reap 100% of the benefits from creatine. (8, 9)
HOW TO CYCLE CREATINE
The simple answer here is DON’T.
I often hear people in gyms talk about how you should only take creatine for 6-8 weeks, before taking at least 4 weeks off, to prevent your body from being unable to product is own creatine.
That’s not how it works.
But this advice dates way back to when creatine first hit the market, when it quickly became a huge seller and there wasn’t any scientific data to answer questions regarding the safety of long-term use.
Originally, some people believed that taking a break would elevate results as it would prevent adaptation (like caffeine). However, as you now know, when you stop using creatine your body will begin to flush water from muscle cells. Upon restarting usage, you’ll once again push water back into those cells. This can create an illusion that taking time off “kick-started” results, when that’s not really the case.
And, of course, then there were safety concerns.
Given its ability for boosting strength and power, it’s not surprising comparisons were made to anabolic steroids at the time. Many people worried that continued use of creatine may have a negative impact (i.e. the way continued use of steroids will damage the body’s ability to produce its own testosterone).
We now know that there are no such issues.
A 2005 study published in the European Journal of Nutrition looked at the effects of long-term creatine usage in a group of basketball players who supplemented without any breaks for three whole seasons, noting that they experienced zero negative side effects, and it actually helped with avoiding injuries. (10)
These results were re-confirmed in a 2017 meta-analysis published in the International Society of Sports Nutrition, which looked at a total of 269 clinical studies on creatine, concluding that there are zero negative side effects to long-term use, and it doesn’t impair the body’s ability to produce creatine. (11)
Simply put; the only reason to stop using creatine is because you’ve decided you’re tired of seeing awesome results!
OPTIMAL CREATINE DOSE FOR BEST RESULTS
How much creatine should you take per day to build muscle and achieve ALL of the strength benefits creatine offeres?
It’s less than you’d think.
Just 5 grams (one teaspoon) of creatine monohydrate per day will do the job. If you’re over 200lbs and carry a large amount of muscle mass you may benefit from increasing it to 10 grams.
Also, it doesn’t seem to matter when you take creatine, just that you do.
Many supplement companies argue that creatine should be part of your pre workout, with others claiming it works better when consumed post-workout, but there is very little evidence to suggest either party is correct. In fact, one meta-analysis published in the Journal of Exercise and Nutrition found that research is inconclusive, with a slight lean towards post-workout being superior. So just take it whenever you want to take it. (12)
ARE YOU READY TO START BUILDING MUSCLE WITH CREATINE?
I hope you’ve reading this creatine guide!
Creatine is truly a wonderful bodybuilding supplement. So much so, that the International Journal of Sports Nutrition had this to say:
“Creatine monohydrate is the most effective ergogenic nutritional supplement currently available to athletes in terms of increasing lean body mass during training.”
Praise doesn’t come higher than that!
In this comprehensive creatine guide, we have covered several aspects from optimal dosage, to loading and cycling, to the best type of creatine overall. Now it’s over to you, to use all of this new knowledge to POWER UP your results!
Leave me a comment down below if you have a question which isn’t covered in the article.
Who Is Russ Howe PTI?
Russ has been a personal trainer in the UK since 2002, and provided both training advice and full programs on this website since 2011.
His work has been featured in Men’s Fitness magazine, and the content on this website led to him being voted one of the world’s top 50 fat loss coaches by HuffPost.
Russ’ days are spent coaching men and women in the legendary Powerhouse Gym, and creating new content for the 109,246 followers of his popular free weekly e-mail, which you can join below!
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- Miller D. et al. Oral bioavailability of creatine supplements: Is there room for improvement? Annual Meeting of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. (2009)
- Butts J., et al. Creatine Use in Sports. Sports Health. (2018)
- Jatoi L., et al. A double-blind, placebo-controlled randomized trial of creatine for the cancer anorexia/weight loss syndrome (N02C4): an Alliance trial. Ann Oncol. (2017)