Everything You Need to Know About Using Creatine to Maximize Your Gains!


Creatine is one of the most researched sports performance supplements out there, with over 700 scientific studies backing up its safety and efficacy.

Before we get into all of the benefits of creatine and how to take it, let's first clarify exactly what it is.

Over the past several decades there has been a great deal of hype, as well as plenty of misconceptions, around this popular sports performance supplement.

This makes sense, as creatine was essentially the first sports performance supplement to actually provide significant benefits.

First things first, creatine is not a steroid.

Creatine is an amino acid that is found mostly in your muscle cells in the form of phosphocreatine.

Small amounts of it are stored in the brain as well.

Your body does have the ability to naturally synthesize it using the amino acids glycine and arginine.

As a supplement, the main function of creatine is to help your body regenerate energy at a faster rate, allowing you to pump out more reps in the gym and lift heavier weights.

How does creatine work?

**If you don't give a shit about the science and just want to know what the benefits of creatine are and how to take it, feel free to skip ahead. However, I do believe that being educated on how any supplement works is truly important, since you are putting it into your body.**

To understand how creatine allows your body to regenerate energy, we're gonna have to take a trip back to high school biology class.

Remember learning about cellular respiration?

If you do, you'll recall that this is the way the cells produce ATP, the energy currency of the body.

Wait, scratch that.

Cellular respiration is only one way that your body produces energy.

In total there are three major energy pathways in the body: aerobic, anaerobic, and the phosphagen pathway.

In the case of our good friend creatine, we are going to be looking at the phosphagen pathway.

The phosphagen pathway is responsible for providing energy in short (5-10 seconds), high-intensity bursts of activity.

Any sort of activity you can think of to fit the bill?

If you ask me, that sounds a lot like lifting weights!

So, as I mentioned just a minute ago, ATP is the energy currency of the cell.

In order to provide us with usable energy, ATP is converted into ADP and an inorganic P molecule.

Here's where creatine comes in.

In our cells, the creatine you supplement with is stored as phosphocreatine, a creatine molecule with a phosphate group attached to it (Cr-P).

With the help of an enzyme called creatine kinase, the phosphate that is attached to creatine is used to phosphorylate (science speak for "stick a phosphate group onto") ADP.

What do we get?

ATP.

What does that mean?

That means more usable energy that can go towards squeezing out that last rep of a bench press, PR'ing on your squat, pushing through those last couple seconds of a 100m sprint...

Hold on a second...

If creatine is a natural compound that your body can synthesize on its own, and the phosphagen energy system is inherently active in our body (back in the day if a lion was chasing you, you'd better hope your phosphagen energy system was active, lol), and you can obtain creatine from your diet...

Why the hell should you even bother supplementing with creatine?

The thing is, while you can get creatine through your diet and your body's own biosynthesis of it, it is very difficult and not practical to get the amount needed to fully saturate (fill up) your muscles with creatine.

Just to put it into perspective, let's take a look at red meat, a primary source of creatine in the diet. Beef has about 5 grams of creatine for every 2.5 pounds of meat.

I don't know about you, but I'm definitely not eating two and a half pounds of meat on a daily basis.

What about biosynthesis?

While your body can synthesize its own creatine, again it's not enough to saturate the muscles. Your liver and kidneys produce roughly 1 gram of it per day.

So, unless you're eating a s*** ton of meat on the daily, your muscle creatine stores likely are not saturated.

In order to maximize the benefits of creatine, the goal is to essentially top off your muscles' creatine stores, allowing for maximum regeneration of ATP like we discussed earlier.

We'll get into exactly how to go about doing this in a bit, but for now let's get into the many benefits of creatine.

Benefits of Creatine Supplementation

1. Creatine enhances strength and your ability to perform high intensity work.

Time and time again, studies have shown that creatine has improved strength in test subjects of a wide range of ages (from college-aged young adults to the elderly).

This ability of creatine to enhance strength stems from the mechanism that we talked about earlier in this blog! The more phosphocreatine you have available in your muscles, the more ATP you are going to be able to generate. The more ATP you are able to generate, the more energy you will have to put into your set of lifting.

2. Creatine increases lean body mass.

When it comes to optimizing muscle growth and really getting the most out of your training, creatine is a great tool to have in your tool box (of course, it isn't necessary to see gains by any means, but it can definitely help to enhance them).

Over the first several weeks of creatine supplementation, it is typical to see an increase in bodyweight of roughly 5-7 pounds.

Some (misinformed) people tend to scoff at this and say that this doesn't matter simply because it's water weight.

While a lot of this mass increase does come from water, it is important to note that this is intramuscular water retention, not subcutaneous water retention (the kind that makes you looked and feel bloated.

This intramuscular water retention actually gives your muscle a "full" look, which is what we're after!

While the initial bodyweight increase is due to this intramuscular water, after a few weeks, creatine will aid in increasing muscle size via other ways as well.

The most obvious is that creatine increase strength and muscular endurance, so you'll be able to lift heavier weights for more reps in the gym. When you lift heavier weights and perform more reps, you are increasing the total volume of your training. When you increase volume, this is a key driver in muscle growth!

3. Creatine can enhance regeneration of energy during high intensity activities such as sprints or team sports.

Creatine isn't simply for meatheads looking to get jacked; it also has application in non-weight-lifting activities, such as sprints and team sports which require intermittent sprinting/jumping throughout competition (basketball, football, soccer, rugby... you name it).

Think about it; in the same way that phosphocreatine resupplies the cell with ATP during short, intense bouts of lifting, it will do the same during short, intense, bouts of sprints lasting ~10 seconds.

In that case, the application to track and field is obvious. But what about the team sports that I mentioned?

Let's use basketball as an example, since that is a realm that I am quite familiar with.

During games, the typical pattern is sustained, moderate intensity running broken up by short intense bouts of sprinting and explosive movements like jumping (attempting to dunk, block a shot, drive to the basket, stay in front of your man on defense, etc.).

During the more moderate, sustained activity, carbohydrates are going to be your primary source of fuel (side note: athletes, eat your carbs! That's a topic for another post, but just wanted to throw that out there.).

What about when you have to "turn on the jets" to chase down an opposing player on a fast break?

Creatine-phosphate system, to the rescue!

Saturating your muscles' creatine stores will enable you to generate more usable energy during those high intensity situations and allow you to more successfully chase down your man and save you from being yanked from the game by an upset coach, lol.

Creatine supplementation will also allow your phosphocreatine stores to be regenerated at a higher rate during a recovery period (while you're standing at the free throw line or walking the ball up the court, for example), so you are able to generate that quick, explosive energy effectively on demand the next time you need it.

4. Creatine may enhance muscle recovery.

Several studies have also looked at creatine and examined its effect on muscle recovery from intense exercise.

One of these studies looked at the effects of creatine supplementation on force production in subjects recovering from exercise. The subjects supplementing with creatine were able to produce significantly more force than the placebo group, indicating that the rate of muscle recovery was higher in the experimental group.

Another study examining marathon runners found that those who loaded with creatine prior to the race saw a decrease in several inflammatory markers compared to those who didn't.

There are a number of other studies that came to similar conclusions, but I think the message is clear. Creatine supplementation can be an effective method of aiding in muscle recovery over the course of periods of intense training or competition.

5. Creatine has been shown to improve mental performance and have a neuroprotective effect.

Told you creatine isn't just for meatheads looking to get jacked!

For a long time, creatine was thought of simply as a supplement to use in the weight room for lifting heavier and getting bigger, faster.

However, multiple studies have been emerging lately that indicate that creatine may actually help bolster your brain as well!

I mean, it makes sense. Your brain uses quite a bit of ATP to function and think properly. Creatine helps to regenerate ATP at a faster rate. Creatine is also stored in the brain. Starting to connect the dots?

By supplementing with creatine, we are essentially allowing our brain to regenerate ATP at a faster rate, allowing us to think longer and harder on more complex concepts.

As far as its neuroprotective effect, studies have indicated that creatine is likely effective in mitigating damage caused by traumatic brain injury (TBI), such as concussions.

The reason I say "likely," is that a lot of the studies were done on rats, since it isn't quite ethical to give humans a concussion for the sake of a study...

Okay, now that we've gone over the laundry list of benefits when it comes to creatine supplementation, let's go over exactly how to use it!

How much creatine should you take per day?

As a baseline, ~5 grams of creatine per day seems to be the agreed upon amount for a typical, maintenance dose of creatine.

A recent study has emerged showing that 3g per day may be enough to elicit the benefits of creatine supplementation, however for now I recommend sticking with the tried and true dose of 5 grams of creatine per day.

To load or not to load?

A common practice in creatine supplementation is what's called "loading."

Loading with creatine is when you take a higher dose of 20g per day for 5-7 days before transitioning into a maintenance dose of 5g/day.

Why do this?

The reasoning behind this is that by loading, you will achieve the benefits of creatine supplementation faster than if you simply take 5g/day.

However, if you do elect to go with 5g/day, you will still see all the benefits of creatine supplementation, it simply takes a couple of weeks for your muscles to become fully saturated and the effects to really become tangible.

Now, I know what you're wondering.

"Why would I go with the 5g/day if it's slower?"

Valid question.

While side effects of creatine are few and far between, the loading phase is when most people will experience them.

In some people, taking too much creatine at once will upset their digestive system and cause bloating.

For those people, it is better to simply be patient and go with the maintenance dose.

It's also cheaper to start on the maintenance dose, since you won't be blowing through as much creatine as quickly.

There has been some speculation that the loading phase is simply another marketing gimmick promoted by supplementing companies in order to get people to buy more creatine.

While I would not put it past them, it is important to acknowledge the science that has shown that loading does in fact speed up muscle saturation of creatine.

So, should you load or not?

My personal preference would be to go with the lower, maintenance dose to start simply because I know I have a sensitive stomach so I like to be a bit more cautious.

However, it comes down to the individual and in the end it will elicit the same outcome.

So, there really is no need to stress about whether you should load or not!

If you do decide to load, it is best to split the 20g per day up into multiple doses of ~5g, 4 times per day over that 5-7 day period.

What time during the day should you take creatine?

Regardless of when you take it, you will see increases in strength/size over time given that you take it on a consistent basis.

With that being said, there have been recent studies emerging that seem to indicate that taking creatine post-workout may be optimal for absorption and muscle creatine saturation.

For that reason, I would recommend that you take it shortly after you finish your workout.

On your off days, simply take it at a time that is convenient for you!

Do you need to take creatine with anything else?

Much like the timing aspect, you will see improvements regardless of if you take it with food or on an empty stomach.

However, studies have shown that taking creatine along with carbohydrates and protein seems to improve both absorption into the muscles and glycogen storage (glycogen is the form of carbs stored in your muscles).

So, it seems that creatine + carbs have a synergistic effect.

Given the emerging information regarding creatine timing and food combinations, a practical application of this would simply be to toss 5g of creatine into your post-workout shake.

That way you are taking creatine at the optimal time, as well as taking advantage of the presence of carbohydrates.

As far as how many carbs to consume along with it, 45-90g seems to be the optimal range.

Are there any side effects of taking creatine?

Creatine is safe, and you don't need to worry about any adverse health effects.

There is a common misconception that creatine is hard on your kidneys. However, the studies that have hinted at this being the case have tested creatine supplementation in populations that were already dealing with impaired kidney function. Those findings were blown way out of proportion by the media and that led to the popular misconception that creatine is bad for your kidneys.

With that being said, if you have any sort of kidney disfunction, definitely consult with your physician before taking creatine.

If you don't have any sort of kidney disfunction, creatine is a safe supplement for you to use without any concern.

Multiple studies have confirmed, over varying time periods and using various doses of creatine, that there are not any adverse effects that come along with creatine supplementation.

The one thing to pay attention to when supplementing with creatine is possible stomach/GI discomfort.

Now, if you are taking a typical dose and the creatine that you are using is simply creatine and not filled with other crap (more on this later), it is very unlikely that you'll have any issues with your stomach.

Like I mentioned earlier, if you are aware that you have a sensitive stomach, I would simply recommend skipping out on the loading phase and starting off with a maintenance dose of ~5g per day.

In the event that creatine persists in causing you stomach discomfort, simply be aware enough to listen to your body and discontinue use.

Creatine and hair loss?!?!

One study found that creatine did increase the levels of DHT, a hormone that has implications in male pattern baldness.

Before you jump to conclusions and throw your tub of creatine out the window, let's dig a little deeper.

Notice how I emphasized one.

Only one study has found a significant increase in DHT following creatine supplementation, whereas multiple other studies observed no significant increase.

It's also worth noting that in the study that did indicate an increase in DHT, DHT still fell within the normal range.

As of right now, there simply isn't enough data to come to a true conclusion.

Really, unless you have a history of male pattern baldness in your family, there is no need to worry about creatine causing hair loss.

In the case that it does run in your family, it's still not something that is set in stone; however, it is definitely something that you want to consider.

Regardless, it's important that we don't get caught up in the click-bait media headlines saying that if you take creatine, you're gonna end up looking like Mr. Clean.

What type of creatine should you take?

Supplement companies love to take a popular supplement and then make a ton of useless versions of it.

This is exactly the case with creatine.

When it comes to creatine supplementation, simply take creatine monohydrate.

The other forms that supplement companies try to sell are mainly just marketing gimmicks (nothing new here, lol).

The vast majority of studies performed on creatine have been done on monohydrate.

It's been proven time and time again to be the most effective form, and it's also the cheapest!

I think you're getting the picture.

Don't feel for the marketing gimmicks and just stick with creatine monohydrate.

As far as the brand, there are several great brands out there, but there are also quite a few crappy ones as well.

Unfortunately, some brands put fillers, like maltodextrin, into the tub with the creatine monohydrate in order to save some cash.

The best way to ensure that you are getting a high quality product that is strictly creatine monohydrate is to check on the website labdoor.com.

Responders vs Non-responders

Now, when it comes to creatine supplementation, we can typically split people into two groups:

Responders and non-responders.

The names are pretty self-explanatory.

Responders are those that experience the performance enhancing effects of creatine, and non-responders are those that experience no true effect.

It is important to note that being a non-responder does not subject you to any side effects, it simply means that you see little to no effect when supplementing with creatine.

Because of this, there really isn't a reason not to try creatine. If it works for you, great! if not, now you know. No harm, no foul.

What could influence being a responder vs. a non-responder?

Typically, those with high levels of muscle creatine prior to supplementation will be more likely to be non-responders. This is simply because creatine stores in these individuals are more likely to be closer to saturation, and supplementation won't increase creatine stores by as much.

Who would likely have high levels of muscle creatine to begin with? Likely those that eat quite a bit of protein from animal sources, beef in particular.

Just as those with high levels of muscle creatine are more likely to be non-responders, those with lower initial levels are more likely to be responders.

For this reason, vegans and vegetarians tend to be one of the groups that benefits the most from creatine supplementation!

Dietary creatine can be much harder to come by if you're not eating any meat, therefore, if you're vegan/vegetarian I would highly suggest looking into creatine supplementation.

Wrapping it Up

In conclusion, let's answer the question:

Should you take creatine?

Of course, it depends on the individual.

With that being said, most people can benefit from creatine supplementation, as there are plenty of proven benefits and no harmful side effects (if you experience bloating, I would suggest looking into what brand you are using, since some do contain fillers).

Of course, there's going to be responders and non-responders. But, you really don't know which camp you fall into until you do give creatine a go. And being a non-responder does not subject you to any negative side effects; it simply means that you don't experience the performance-enhancing effects of creatine much or at all. If that's the case, then at least now you know!

Here are a few key takeaways from this blog:

-Creatine increases strength by increasing the rate at which your body regenerates ATP via the phosphagen pathway.

-Creatine monohydrate is the most studied form, and has been shown to be effective and safe.

-Check on labdoor.com to make sure that the product you are buying is high quality and doesn't contain any unwanted ingredients, like fillers.

-Loading (20g/day for 5-7 days) is not necessary, but it will decrease the time it takes to fully saturate your muscles with creatine.

-After loading, or if you choose not to load, take a maintenance dose of 5g per day.

-Try to take creatine post-workout if possible.

Alright, that pretty much wraps it up! Thanks so much for taking the time to read, I truly appreciate it. As always, if you have any questions or feedback at all, shoot me an email or a DM on Instagram!