Creatine is one of the safest and most-researched muscle building supplements around.
But despite its popularity, many trainees remain confused about the advantages, disadvantages, and potential side effects thanks to the amount of poor information which has been written over the years.
Some of that misinformation is excusable (i.e. when creatine first hit the scene in the early 90s and there were initial concerns about how it worked), but much of it is inexcusable (like supplement manufacturers literally making things up to sell more products).
This article will show you 9 of the biggest myths about creatine (from baldness, to steroids, and more!) and reveal the science behind each one.
Table of Contents
- Myth 1: “Creatine Causes Weight Gain”
- Myth 2: “Creatine Causes Bloating”
- Myth 3: “Creatine Causes Muscle Cramps”
- Myth 4: “Creatine Causes Hair Loss”
- Myth 5: “Creatine Causes Kidney & Liver Damage”
- Myth 6: “Creatine Causes Gastrointestinal Distress”
- Myth 7: “Creatine Is Unsafe For Adolescents”
- Myth 8: “Creatine Is A Steroid”
- Myth 9: “Creatine Is Just For Men”
- Who Is Russ Howe PTI?
Myth 1: “Creatine Causes Weight Gain”
Technically this is true because creatine use does come with a slight bump on the scales, but it’s not fat gain.
Creatine pulls water into muscle cells, giving them a fuller, leaner look, and properly hydrates your muscles which will lead to better in-gym performance. This may result in a small weight increase, but it’s not body fat. On the contrary, studies show us that long-term creatine supplementation actually leads to improvements in lean body mass, and reductions in fat mass. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
Myth 2: “Creatine Causes Bloating”
Nobody likes to feel bloated.
I fucking hate it.
And supplement companies know it, too, so when they were dreaming up ways to make people pay over the odds for creatine, they came up with the
misleading as fuck genius marketing strategy of claiming that the original form of creatine (creatine monohydrate) causes water retention and bloating, and the only way to avoid it is by switching to a newer, more expensive product.
We now know this is nonsense.
Any water retention which occurs is due to creatine pulling water into your muscle cells (intracellular water). Creatine has no effect on extracellular water, so it will not create a layer of liquid between the muscle and skin. This myth was finally squashed by a 2020 study published in International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. (6)
Myth 3: “Creatine Causes Muscle Cramps”
Creatine pulls water into your muscle cells and keeps them hydrated, but muscle cramps are a sign of dehydration.
There’s no research to suggest that creatine causes muscle cramps, and I believe the only way this situation might happen is if a trainee wasn’t drinking enough water in the first place – in which case that’s the issue, not creatine. (7, 8)
Nevertheless, this myth rumbled on for decades until a two-year study from Arkansas State University put it to rest. Worked alongside a group of college footballers throughout a three-year period, the researchers wanted to see if long-term creatine supplementation would lead to an increase in either injuries, muscle cramps, dehydration, muscle tightness, illnesses, or muscle pulls of any kind. They concluded that it did not. (9)
Myth 4: “Creatine Causes Hair Loss”
Maybe I should let someone else take this one, considering I’m bald?!
Seriously, though, it just runs in my family.
I can remember the exact moment I knew the game was up for my hair. I was 20 years old, and my Dad smirked, “Enjoy it while you’ve got it. My dad went bald at 25, and so did I!” Sure enough, by the time my 23rd birthday arrived my glorious Bon Jovi-eqsue hair (yep) was no longer with us, and I became the Russ you know today.
Anyway, back to creatine! The link between creatine and hair loss stems from one 2009 study where Dutch researchers noticed that trainees who had the highest levels of DHT (dihydrotestosterone; a hormone which causes hair loss) also had high levels of creatine. Was it just a coincidence? They weren’t sure at first, so there have been several more studies since then which aimed to replicate the results – and none did. (10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 1)
Finally, a 2021 meta-analysis declared:
“The current body of evidence shows that creatine supplementation does not increase total testosterone, free testosterone, DHT, or cause hair loss/baldness.”
Myth 5: “Creatine Causes Kidney & Liver Damage”
This one is caused by the confusion between creatine and creatinine.
Creatinine is one of the markers which will show up on a blood test. It doesn’t cause kidney dysfunction, but people who have kidney dysfunction all have unexplained higher-than-normal levels of it, so it’s a useful marker for a doctor.
Here’s where the confusion happens; when you take creatine, part of it is broken down into creatinine, which therefore increases your creatinine levels. With that in mind, if a fitness enthusiast visits a doctor he/she could expect their bloodwork to show higher-than-normal levels of creatinine. The key word is unexplained – as soon as the doctor knows you are using creatine, your higher-than-normal levels of creatinine are no longer a mystery.
Anyway, I first heard this myth in the 90s, when the media printed a story about a young man who supposedly died as a result of poor kidney health caused by using creatine supplements. It created mayhem in the fitness world, so it’s worth knowing that this press release was absolute rubbish; it failed to mention that the trainee had been diagnosed with kidney damage eight years previously, and that it wasn’t from creatine use! (16)
You can rest assured that creatine supplementation is perfectly safe for your liver and kidneys, the only exception to the rule being if you already have kidney damage. (17, 18, 19, 20)
Myth 6: “Creatine Causes Gastrointestinal Distress”
A clinical dose is 5-10 grams per day, and you shouldn’t experience any issues from that.
Gastrointestinal distress might occur with a very large dose (20g+), but you’ll never need to use this much.
This myth first surfaced during the 1990s, when manufacturers believed that trainees had to begin their creatine cycle with a two-week loading phase, where the daily dose would be significantly higher in an attempt to saturate the muscle cells as fast as possible. Research now shows us that the loading phase is unnecessary; regular use of creatine at 5-10 grams per day will still yield maximum results, it just takes a little bit longer to fully saturate your muscle lcells. (21, 22, 23, 24)
If you are one of the small percentage of people who do experience gastrointestinal distress (even at 5-10 grams), I recommend switching to creatine hydrochloride (creatine HCL). This more recent version of creatine is slightly more expensive than standard monohydrate, but it can do the same job in a smaller dose, making it easier for your body to absorb. (25)
Myth 7: “Creatine Is Unsafe For Adolescents”
While there’s stacks of research showing that creatine is safe for adults, usage among adolescents remains a shady subject in most gyms.
Thankfully, it needn’t be.
In terms of athletic performance, an interesting 2009 study from Hungary showed that creatine dramatically improved the power output of highly trained elite junior swimmers, who were able to perform repeated bouts of faster sprint times and saw an increase to their anaerobic metabolism. (29)
On the whole it appears that the training benefits of creatine are slightly smaller in adolescents versus what we see in adults, but these benefits are still very noticeable, and the main thing is it’s safe.
Back in 2018, a meta-analysis published in Frontiers in Nutrition took an in-depth look at the current body of research on creatine supplementation in various adolescent athlete populations (15 years old and above) and found no adverse effects. This came after an earlier study from the legendary McMaster University (famous for the research which led to the popularization of HIIT) showed that creatine supplementation increased the muscle mass and strength of young adults with muscular dystrophy, and a study from Brazil showing that creatine supplementation had zero negative impact on kidney function, oxidative stress, or bone health in young adults. (26, 27, 28)
Myth 8: “Creatine Is A Steroid”
The first time I came home from the gym with this litlte tub of suspicious-looking white powder, my Dad yelled, “What the hell is that? Is it steroids or something?”, and proceeded to slap the lips off my face.
As I grew older I noticed that lots of other people have the same concern.
So rest assured that there is no connection between the two; anabolic steroids are a synthetic version of the hormone testosterone, whereas creatine is a combination of three amino acids (arginine, glycine, and methionine). Weirdly, creatine has more in common with a multivitamin than a steroid! (23, 30)
Supplement manufacturers are to blame for this myth; with tubs of creatine often coated with bold claims of gaining slabs of lean muscle in a matter of weeks, and images of sleeve-busting arms, so I’m not surprised people worry about it (especially parents).
While I’m busting myths, this steroids/creatine misconception somtimes makes people wonder if they need to cycle a creatine supplement to stay safe (i.e. two months on, one month off, like they would with certain steroids). The answer is no; you do not need to cycle creatine. Many athetes use it all year round and, considering the huge benefits it offers and the well-documented safety, cycling off it would be like quitting whey protein and vegetables for a month! (31)
Myth 9: “Creatine Is Just For Men”
Creatine is NOT just for men, not is it just for bodybuilders.
Any women reading my website (especially those who lift weights) can 100% benefit from creatine supplementation and see impressive gains to muscle mass, strength, and athletic performance.
The potential audience for creatine shouldn’t even be limited to just gym-goers, because it’ll also unlock a series of pretty interesting non-gym benefits including superior brain function and decreasing the likelihood of depression (especially for women). This elevates creatine into a cetegory that most other supplements cannot touch – it’s more than just a muscle builder! (32, 33)
- Antonio J., et al. Common questions and misconceptions about creatine supplementation: what does the scientific evidence really show? J Int Soc Sports Nutr (2021).
- Kutz M. R., et al. Creatine monohydrate supplementation on body weight and percent body fat. J Strength Cond Res (2003).
- Bemben M. G., et al. Creatine supplementation during resistance training in college football athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc (2001).
- Antonio J., et al. The effects of pre versus post workout supplementation of creatine monohydrate on body composition and strength. J Int Soc Sports Nutr (2013).
- Becque M. D., et al. Effects of oral creatine supplementation on muscular strength and body composition. Med Sci Sports Exerc (2000).
- Ribeiro A. S., et al. Creatine Supplementation Does Not Influence the Ratio Between Intracellular Water and Skeletal Muscle Mass in Resistance-Trained Men. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab (2020).
- Sobolewski E. .J, et al. The Physiological Effects of Creatine Supplementation on Hydration: A Review. Am J Life Med (2011).
- Kern M., et al. Physiological response to exercise in the heat following creatine supplementation. JEP online (2001).
- Greenwood M., et al. Creatine supplementation during college football training does not increase the incidence of cramping or injury. Mol Cell Biochem (2003).
- van der Merwe J., et al. Three weeks of creatine monohydrate supplementation affects dihydrotestosterone to testosterone ratio in college-aged rugby players. Clin J Sport Med (2009).
- Vatani D. S., et al. The effects of creatine supplementation on performance and hormonal response in amateur swimmers. Sci Sport (2011).
- Arazi H., et al. Effects of short term creatine supplementation and resistance exercises on resting hormonal and cardiovascular responses. Sci Sport (2015).
- Cook C. J., et al. Skill execution and sleep deprivation: effects of acute caffeine or creatine supplementation – a randomized placebo-controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr (2011).
- Cooke M. B., et al. Creatine supplementation post-exercise does not enhance training-induced adaptations in middle to older aged males. Eur J Appl Physiol (2014).
- Rahimi R., et al. Creatine supplementation alters the hormonal response to resistance exercise. Kinesiology (2010).
- Pritchard N. R,. et al. Renal dysfunction accompanying oral creatine supplements. Lancet (1998).
- Persky A. M., et al. Safety of creatine supplementation. Subcell Biochem (2007).
- de Souza E., et al. Effects of Creatine Supplementation on Renal Function: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. J Ren Nutr (2019).
- Gualano B., et al. Creatine supplementation does not impair kidney function in type 2 diabetic patients: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, clinical trial. Eur J Appl Physiol (2011).
- Gualano B., et al. In sickness and in health: the widespread application of creatine supplementation. Amino Acids (2012).
- Harris R. C., et al. Elevation of creatine in resting and exercised muscle of normal subjects by creatine supplementation. Clin.Sci (Lond) (1992).
- Ostojic S. M., et al. Gastrointestinal distress after creatine supplementation in athletes: are side effects dose dependent? Res Sports Med (2008)
- Kreider R. B., et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine. J Int Soc Sports Nutr (2017).
- Hultman, E. et al. Muscle creatine loading in men. J Appl Physiol (1996).
- Miller D. et al. Oral bioavailability of creatine supplements: Is there room for improvement? Annual Meeting of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (2009).
- Jagim A. R., et al. Safety of Creatine Supplementation in Active Adolescents and Youth: A Brief Review. Front Nutr (2018).
- Tarnopolsky M. A., et al. Creatine monohydrate enhances strength and body composition in Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Neurology (2004).
- Hayashi A. P., et al. Efficacy and safety of creatine supplementation in childhood-onset systemic lupus erythematosus: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover trial. Lupus (2014).
- Juhasz I., et al. Creatine supplementation improves the anaerobic performance of elite junior fin swimmers. Acta Physiol Hung (2009).
- Kersey R. D., et al. National Athletic Trainers’ Association National Athletic Trainers’ Association position statement: anabolic-androgenic steroids. J Athl Train (2012).
- Schroder H., et al. Risk assessment of the potential side effects of long-term creatine supplementation in team sport athletes. Eur J Nutr (2005.
- Twycross-Lewis R., et al. The effects of creatine supplementation on thermoregulation and physical (cognitive) performance: a review and future prospects. Amino Acids (2016).
- Kondo D. G., et al. Creatine target engagement with brain bioenergetics: a dose-ranging phosphorus-31 magnetic resonance spectroscopy study of adolescent females with SSRI-resistant depression. Amino Acids (2016).
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!