Want to get bigger and stronger—and get that way faster?
Creatine works. Lifters know this, professors know this, the marketers who sell the stuff know this.
But nobody should put anything in their body without weighing the benefits and risks first. That goes for everything from beer to marshmallows to the amazing amino acid called creatine.
It’s not anything scary. It’s not a Barry Bonds starter kit.
Creatine—typically bought in flavored powders and mixed with liquid—increases the body’s ability to produce energy rapidly. With more energy, you can train harder and more often, producing faster results.
It’s as simple as this: “If you can lift one or two more reps or 5 more pounds, your muscles will get bigger and stronger,” says Chad Kerksick, Ph.D., assistant professor of exercise physiology at the University of Oklahoma.
Research shows that creatine is most effective in high-intensity training and explosive activities. This includes weight training and sports that require short bursts of effort, such as sprinting, football, and baseball.
There is less support to indicate that creatine improves endurance performance and aerobic-type exercise.
One thing is almost certain: If you take creatine, you’ll gain weight.
It’ll happen quickly, says Paul Greenhaff, Ph.D., professor of muscle metabolism at the University of Nottingham in England. While the initial gain is water (about 2 to 4 pounds in the first week of supplementation), subsequent gains are muscle due to the increase in the workload you can handle.
Because creatine is an “osmotically active substance,” it pulls water into your muscle cells, which increases protein synthesis, Kerksick says.
Studies in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that muscle fibers grow when a person takes creatine.
The catch: This only happens if you take advantage of the boost in energy and hit the gym. Otherwise, it is just water weight.
Nobody argues with any of this. But there are some questions about creatine that lots of guys have.
Any guy mixing his first glass of creatine powder has hesitated. Is this the right move? His questions include:
Will creatine mess with my kidneys?
Researchers are constantly studying creatine—for effectiveness and safety. That’s why many trainers and health experts support the use of creatine: Studies indicate it’s safe.
“Creatine is one of the most-researched sports supplements out there,” Kerksick says. “And there’s no published literature to suggest it’s unsafe.”
Greenhaff has been studying creatine for about two decades, and says he never encounters the cramping that is sometimes reported. “I’m not saying people don’t experience cramps, but I don’t believe it can be very common,” he says. “If there were any major adverse side effects, we would have seen them by now.”
But there have been anecdotal reports of kidney damage, heart problems, muscle cramps and pulls, dehydration, and diarrhea, in addition to other negative side effects. The key word here: anecdotal.
Some of these conditions can be caused by consuming too much of certain vitamins, says Tod Cooperman, M.D., president of ConsumerLab.com. “Too much vitamin C can cause diarrhea, and too much iron may lead to stomach problems,” he says.
To be safe, he recommends using creatine only if you are healthy and have no kidney problems. That’s because your kidneys excrete creatinine, a breakdown product of creatine.
So there’s no downside?
Not so fast, Biceps-Brain. If you can get big without it, there’s no reason to use creatine.
“I feel it would be better for no one to use creatine even though it’s shown to increase some strength and muscle mass,” says Jim King, M.D., president of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
“I wouldn’t recommend doing anything that would show minimal improvement and possible risk. Weigh the negatives and the benefits before you try it.”
Kids under age 18 should avoid creatine, King says, because few studies have been done on children using creatine as an exercise enhancement.
There have been reports of overexertion causing torn muscles. That can mean permanent damage. “Children are still in a growing phase, and we’re not sure what impact creatine may have on muscles and bones as they grow,” he says. “I feel very strongly that middle and even high schoolers shouldn’t use it.”
Will it transform me?
Here’s one thing all the experts can agree on: It’s impossible to say.
Creatine has different effects on every individual. Some people just don’t respond to creatine—it’s a genetic thing.
You should know in about a week—if your training volume increases, it’s working for you. If not, you’re probably a “nonresponder”—taking the powder isn’t going to help you.
Diet is important. Meat, especially herring and beef, has high levels of creatine, so vegetarians usually see a greater response, while those whose diets are highly carnivorous may see less change.
Of course, a healthy diet is key to anyone’s muscle-building plan. “If your diet is junk, there’s no point in adding creatine,” Kerksick says. “It’s better to eat good sources of carbohydrates and lean protein.”
In the end, creatine alone will not make you a bigger man.
“Only when combined with exercise does it improve the quality of training,” Greenhaff says. “You still have to do the work.”
What kind of creatine should I take?
Powder is the way to go. Studies show that liquid creatine and creatine ethyl ester (CEE) are unstable and break down in your blood system. Don’t bother with them.
Kerksick recommends 100-percent pure creatine powder. Some companies add electrolytes and other ingredients, but tests indicate those do little to improve performance.
“Save money and buy creatine powder and [mix it with] fruit juice,” Kerksick says.
Fruit juice? That’s right—the sugar in the juice raises insulin levels, which helps increase creatine uptake into the muscle.
You need about 70 grams of simple sugars for every five grams of creatine, Greenhaff says. He suggests looking for a drink or supplement with 60 grams of carbs per 100 grams of product.
To ensure your body maximizes the benefits of creatine, buy the best stuff you can afford. It’s your body—this isn’t the time to get cheap.
You’ll know the powder is of poor quality if it’s hard to dissolve and there’s residue at the bottom of your glass after you drink it. You want the powder in your muscles, not in the glass. If this happens, try a different brand.
When to take creatine and how much to take
Natural dietary sources of creatine are skeletal muscles like beef and pork. One pound of beef contains 2 grams of creatine. But it’s tough to get the quantity you need by loading up on red meat. So most athletes opt to get it in supplement form. It’s an odorless, virtually tasteless, white powder that looks like sugar.
Loading Phase (first week of use)
The accumulated data from studies and anecdotal reports suggest a loading phase of creatine which will saturate your muscles with creatine. Most manufacturers recommend about 15 to 25 grams per day for 1 week. Some users will skip the loading phase. Studies have shown just taking the maintenance dose of about 5 grams a day will accomplish the same result as loading except that it will take 3-4 weeks for your system to reach saturation levels as opposed to only 1 week when you load. So the benefit to loading is quicker results, not greater results. A small percentage of people will not do the loading phase if they notice some gastric distress at the higher 15-25 gram a day loading dose.
Maintenance Phase (after first week of use)
The second or maintenance phase keeps your muscles saturated with a much smaller daily dose. A maintenance dose is about 5-10 grams a day.
When Should I Take Creatine?
Typically, you take only 5 grams at a time. If you’re in a loading phase, space your 5 gram servings evenly throughout the day. Competitive bodybuilders vary dramatically in the timing of their creatine consumption. Ideal times are before and after a workout! The reason for the varied timing of taking creatine is that it works almost any time of day. Just as it takes a week to load up in your system, one study showed it remained effective even for several weeks after stopping creatine. So take it when it’s most convenient for you. If there is a preference among users, it would be right after a workout along with your high carb post workout shake.
How Long Should I Take Creatine For?
Most people take creatine for 1 1/2 to 3 months, then go off of it for a month before resuming again. However, there are no conclusive studies that say you should cycle it or go off of it.
How Much Should I Buy?
Figure you need about 175 grams for the first week and about 70 grams a week thereafter. At this consumption rate, 500 grams will last about 1 1/2 months and 1000 grams will last about 3 months.
The Creatine Dose Table below shows how much you might need depending on your weight and how hard you train. Body Weight Loading Dosage
* The low side of the range represents 1 hour training, two to three times per week at a low level of intensity. Mid range is 1-1/2 hours training three to four times per week at a medium level of intensity. High range is 2 hours training five to six times per week at a high level of intensity.
Reference adapted from: Creatine: Nature’s Muscle Builder by Ray Sahelian, MD, p. 49, 53.
What should I mix it with?
Studies during the loading phase have shown creatine to be up to 36% more effective when taken with high glycemic index carbohydrates. That means you should take it with a carbohydrate rich meal. It’s theorized that raising insulin levels by consuming simple sugars helps to better transport creatine and protein into muscle. After interviewing the author of one of the premier creatine books on the market, he concluded from his research that taking it with a baked potato (which is about 100 grams of high glycemic sugar) works great for him. Another national champion we interviewed takes it with the carbs in his meals.
Probably the most popular method has been to mix it with grape juice. However, half the sugar in grape juice is very low glycemic and won’t spike insulin levels. If you’re watching your carb intake, your wasting precious carbs from the grape juice with no benefit to raising insulin levels.
For reference purposes, fructose-some of the sugar found in grape juice rates a 20, table sugar rates a 59, honey is 87, a baked potato is about 97 and dextrose and glucose are 100. But if you are hypoglycemic (get low blood sugar) or your energy levels crash about a half hour after eating sugary foods, then just take the straight creatine and avoid the carbs. It still works fantastic and is the way athletes took creatine for years until the new study showed ways to make it even more effective.
I’ve hit a plateau on my bench press. Can creatine help me punch through it?
This is the one exercise that studies show creatine really works. After one month of taking creatine, the average bench press for one rep max went up 18 pounds from 278 pound to 296 pounds. The placebo group went down 6 pounds on their bench press.
Creatine works by extending the ATP energy production cycle. You typically can go all out on a sprint or weight lifting set for about 5 seconds before your effort or strength drops off. That’s because your body’s ATP stores are depleted. It takes several minutes to recycle from spent energy (ADP) back to useable energy (ATP). Creatine helps extend the ATP energy cycle by several seconds (some say up to 5 seconds). This means you can put more effort into a few more reps in a set. More stress on your muscles means you can get stronger, faster. That’s why creatine works well for athletes requiring short bursts of energy. It’s ideal for weight training. However, if you do not train hard, then creatine will do little for you.
I don’t seem to notice any results from creatine?
Provided you’re taking our German Creatine brand so that we know you’re getting the real thing, then you may be one of the small percentage of people who are termed, non-responders. A creatine study revealed that many of the non-responders already had higher circulating levels of creatine compared to the others in the study who got better results.
I’m in a dieting down stage and want to get that real shredded vascular look. Should I be taking creatine during this stage?
When you take creatine, there is a certain amount of water weight gain that goes along with it. That water gain can help smooth over those abs you’ve been working so hard to bring out. That’s why most bodybuilder’s heading into the final weeks of contest preparation drop creatine from their regimen. You don’t want to retain water if you want that washboard ab look. In a bodybuilding contest, strength is not important. It’s the look that counts. Most of those guys on stage are probably the weakest they’ve been in months.