Out of all the supplements out there, creatine is one of the few that's actually been consistently well-backed by research.
Several studies have proven its effectiveness in helping slightly improve the rate of strength and thus muscle gains while also improving other factors like anaerobic capacity and power output.
Therefore, there’s no question that it can be slightly beneficial for strength and muscle gains in those that respond to it.
But what’s less well known is how exactly to take it to maximize its effectiveness and whether there are any potential side effects. In fact, as you'll learn in this article, you can significantly increase creatine's effectiveness in order to get the best bang for your buck.
So in this article, we’ll cover exactly how to do so and go over whether creatine supplementation has any side effects.
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Creatine is a molecule that is naturally found in the body. Some individuals have naturally higher levels than others do. It's also found in a variety of food sources such as steak, fish, and eggs.
Although creatine is naturally found in the body and in various protein sources, we can increase our creatine content by supplementing with it.
But why would we do this?
Well, simply put, when we lift weights we use ATP which is the main energy source for our muscles. As we lift, we deplete these ATP stores to the point where we fatigue. This is part of what prevents us from performing more reps after we reach a point of exhaustion.
This is where creatine comes in. It improves strength gains by enabling a faster regeneration of ATP.
This ultimately allows us to perform that extra rep or two when we’re lifting weights. This may not sound like a lot, but in the long run this can lead to slightly better strength and muscle gains which is important for us natural lifters!
It’s also important to know that the literature has found that there are responders and non responders to creatine.
Some people respond well to creatine, whereas others don’t respond at all.
Research seems to suggest that responders typically have a high percentage of type 2 muscle fibers and a low initial creatine content. Conversely, non-responders typically have a low percentage of type 2 muscle fibers and a high initial muscle creatine content.
This implies that there is an upper limit with regards to creatine and its effects since further increasing creatine content was not beneficial for non-responders.
As for whether to tell if you’re a non-responder or not, in a non-clinical setting it’s pretty difficult to do. But if you are a responder, studies show that your weight should increase more than usual after a month or so of supplementation due to the water retention effects of creatine in the muscles.
So I would suggest trying it out and monitoring how your strength and weight changes over the next few months. Subjectively assess if this increase is greater than usual.
Now that we understand how and why creatine works, let’s take a look at how to use creatine in order to maximize its effectiveness.
Despite all the marketing gimmicks out there claiming that different forms of creatine are more effective, research has concluded that this simply isn’t the case.
As stated by Kreider and colleagues:
"Claims that different forms of creatine are degraded to a lesser degree than creatine monohydrate in vivo or result in a greater uptake to muscle are currently unfounded."
This simply means that creatine monohydrate is the most effective (and the cheapest as well might I add) form out there despite what supplement companies or Popeye's salesmen might tell you.
One exception though is something called polyethylene glycosylated creatine which was found in one study from the Journal and Strength and Conditioning Research to provide the same effects as creatine monohydrate in terms of strength gains but with 75% less of the dose needed. This indicates that it’s more efficiently absorbed by the body than creatine monohydrate.
But despite its potential, more research is needed to clarify this finding.
Long story short; save your money and stick to creatine monohydrate.
The only case I’d recommend experimenting with a buffered form like creatine HCL or a micronized version is if the monohydrate version upsets your stomach (albeit this is unlikely) since these other versions might help with that.
This is where it gets interesting. Although you’ll hear a lot of people say that it doesn’t matter what you take creatine with, the literature seems to prove otherwise.
As seen in the following graph from a study by Kreider and colleagues:
"Muscle creatine levels are elevated to a much greater extent when creatine is taken with carbohydrates or with carbohydrates and protein than when taken alone."
In fact, you can see how taking it with carbs and protein almost doubles absorption when compared to taking creatine alone.
This study by Steenge et al. found the same and thus recommends taking creatine with around 47g of carbs and 50g of protein for enhanced creatine retention.
So ideally, you want to take it with a fairly large meal consisting of adequate carbs and protein for the the most benefit.
Again, most people seem to think it makes no difference but research (slightly) opposes this view.
They found that there was a slight, yet non-significant, benefit to taking creatine post-workout rather as opposed to pre-workout in terms of strength and muscle gains.
Based on this and the fact that people tend to have a large post-workout shake or meal consisting of the adequate carbs and protein needed to enhance creatine uptake, I’d advise that you take it post-workout for the possible additional benefits.
Research regarding the benefit of taking creatine before AND after a workout would be interesting, but is yet to be done. So until new research emerges, I'd stick to taking it post-workout.
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There's generally 3 protocols for taking creatine.
1) You can load creatine by first taking around 20g per day for 5-7 days. And then you ingest 3-5 grams a day after that to maintain the elevated creatine stores.
2) You can take 3-5 grams of creatine everyday right from the start.
3) You can cycle on and off creatine for a few weeks at a time.
Research shows that both of the above protocols 1 and 2 provide the same effect in terms of raising muscle creatine content. However, the loading protocol does it faster. Therefore, a loading phase might be best since it provides faster ergogenic effects. But it's really up to you.
The third option doesn’t appear to be superior to the other methods. Nor is it necessary since research shows that your natural creatine stores don’t seem to be decrease or compensate in anyway with long-term supplementation of creatine. Thus, don't waste your time cycling!
Finally, let’s talk about potential side effects. With all the benefits of creatine there must be a catch, right?
Since creatine became a popular supplement in the 1990’s, there’s been over 1,000 studies.
In all of these studies, including studies where subjects of all ages took high doses of creatine daily for up to 5 years, the only consistently reported side effect from creatine supplementation has been weight gain due to water retention in the muscles.
This was true in subjects of all ages - ranging from infants to the elderly.
However, researchers have noted that in some individuals, stomach cramping can occur when creatine is supplemented without sufficient water. They also noted that diarrhea can occur when too much creatine is taken at once. Although these cases were rare, I’d still suggest ensuring you are staying hydrated and that you space out your creatine intake throughout the day (especially during the loading phase) if you experience any stomach discomfort.
Now for the big question as to whether it can cause hair loss or not.
This whole idea came about from one 2009 study that showed creatine supplementation increased the levels of the hormone DHT in male rugby players.
Since DHT can accelerate hair loss in those with a history of male pattern baldness, it’s hypothesized that creatine may accelerate baldness in those who are susceptible.
But this whole idea is based on just this one study which is yet to be replicated or even shown to have an effect on male pattern baldness at all.
So in my opinion, those without a history of male pattern baldness don’t need to worry about this at all. Whereas those who do, it’s something you might want to consider but again the evidence really is inconclusive at the moment.
All in all, creatine has been proven time and time again to be an effective and safe supplement for those of all ages. However, I'd suggest checking with your doctor if you're concerned about any potential side effects.
So to sum the article up, here are they key takeaways:
However, one thing I want you to keep in mind is that supplements are only one very small piece of the puzzle. Your science based diet and training should always be your focus. And as a beginner, you shouldn't even be worrying about supplements at this stage. Understand and optimize your nutrition and training, and then worry about supplements further down the road.
Anyways, I hope this article helps you guys out and clears up a lot of the BS you've probably heard regarding creatine. Save your money and get the best results by following the advice in this article.
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