Whether you're relatively new to the lifting scene or are a seasoned iron pumper at the local gym, the chances are… Other than BCAAs, the other top supplement you've heard about is creatine. 💪

Maybe you’re even thinking of experimenting with it yourself. After all, it’s supposedly able to boost your work capacity and muscle output – all of which naturally lead to good things for your athletic performance and physique.

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Then again, you’re worried about the potential side effects. Case in point: your mom fervently believes that creatine supplementation will cause your kidneys to fail!

To clear up the air regarding creatine once and for all, here’s everything you need to know about this popular performance-enhancer: what it is, its benefits, side effects, and even dosage information. Let’s get started.

What is creatine?

Alright, first up, here’s something you (and your well-meaning mom!) should know.

Creatine is not a synthetic compound; neither is it a steroid.

Instead, it’s a naturally-occurring amino acid – that is, the building blocks of protein – found in muscle tissue.  Your body naturally produces creatine in your liver, pancreas, and kidneys.

You can also obtain it from your diet; good food sources of creatine include red meat and fish. For reference: roughly 450 grams of raw beef or salmon provides anywhere between 1 to 2 grams of creatine.

What’s the point of taking creatine monohydrate?

Now… You might be asking: What's the point of supplementing with creatine if our bodies can synthesize it naturally?

Creatine powders aren’t exactly cheap, after all.

To understand the benefits of creatine monohydrate supplementation, you need first to appreciate how creatine works in your body.

All cells – and that means all organs, muscle tissues, etc. – in your body are powered by adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

Also commonly known as energy. So, when you're walking, you're using ATP. Squatting? ATP. Scrolling through social media while you're, um, doing your business in the toilet? That requires ATP too.

Without getting too scientific and technical, the bottom line is that your body can run out of ATP (i.e. energy) – particularly when intense, prolonged muscle use is involved (e.g. sprinting, lifting, and cycling at max effort).

This is where creatine comes in and saves the day.

Creatine is stored in your muscles – as phosphocreatine – and your body can quickly make use of its phosphate group to boost new ATP energy molecules' production.

In other words: creatine can provide your body with that burst of energy needed to sustain a period of intense work capacity.

Benefits of creatine supplementation

Ok… So one of the most noticeable benefits of creatine supplementation is enhanced athletic performance; you're able to go harder for longer when training. But what other benefits can we expect from creatine?

Boosts muscle growth: Impressively, research consistently shows creatine to be the most effective supplement for adding muscle mass. Admittedly, the initial rise in muscle size is due to creatine pulling water into your muscle cells – but it does promote muscle growth over the long term simply because of the increased work capacity you’re doing in the gym (i.e. work volume).

Promotes strength gains: Want to add more plates to the bar? Then supplementing with creatine is the way to go. That’s because of how creatine works – as a result of increasing phosphocreatine levels in your muscle cells, it’s able to increase your ATP energy production. And you’d notice strength gains. Although, it has to be said that most of the strength gains you’ll experience is also likely due to the increase in muscle growth.

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May improve brain function: Just so you know… Your brain also uses a ton of ATP when performing demanding tasks! That means creatine can also help your brain produce more energy, which may, in turn, boost brain function and even protect against neurological diseases (especially in older adults).

Creatine dosage

Given the plethora of benefits creatine supplementation can bring, you must be itching to get yourself a bottle immediately.

Also, just how many scoops should you take a day? If ATP production depends on phosphocreatine availability, that must mean that the more, the better… Right?  Not really. The truth is that you probably don’t need as much as you think you do.

That said, there are two schools of thoughts when it comes to creatine dosage:

Creatine loading: The first believes that you should consume 20 grams of creatine per day to ‘load’ your muscles – then continue with 3 to 5 grams of creatine per day afterward.
Equal dosage: The second believes that there is no need to creatine load. Just take 3 to 5 grams of creatine per day – and your creatine stores will be full in 3 to 4 weeks.

So, which dosing ‘protocol’ should you follow? Well… If you’re in a hurry to load up on creatine, go with the first. Just note that this option brings about the possibility of gastrointestinal issues (e.g. bloating, stomach upset, and diarrhea).

Does it matter when you take creatine?

Thinking if it matters whether you take creatine before or after a workout?

It appears that it doesn’t matter. The only thing that seems to matter is that you should try to take it somewhere close to when you’re training (i.e. right before or after you work out).

Otherwise, you just need to ensure that you’re hitting the daily recommended amount, which is 3 to 5 grams a day.


Are there any side effects I should know about?

Other than the potential gastrointestinal issues that come with creatine loading, there aren’t really any adverse side effects to creatine supplementation. That said… You should always pay attention to the type of creatine you’re buying.

Always get creatine monohydrate.

Study after study has consistently found that consuming creatine monohydrate for 2 to 5 years appears safe, with no adverse effects documented. (Yep, your mom is wrong!)

Creatine is not a magic potion!

Ultimately, you need to remember that supplements like creatine are not magic potions. Creatine will not make your muscles bigger – nor make you stronger – if you down it but fail to hit the gym for your training sessions.

You still need to work hard in the gym, and consistently at that, to see results.

And when it comes to motivating you to do that, there’s probably no better tool for you than GymStreak, the AI-powered app that designs training plans catered to your unique goals, physiology, and preferences.

Want bodyweight exercises? We’ve got plenty of those. Want to get stronger? We’ll get your numbers up. No more excuses now.

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References

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Cooper, R., Naclerio, F., Allgrove, J., & Jimenez, A. (2012). Creatine supplementation with specific view to exercise/sports performance: An update. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 9, 33. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-9-33

Deldicque, L., Theisen, D., Bertrand, L., Hespel, P., Hue, L., & Francaux, M. (2007). Creatine enhances differentiation of myogenic C2C12 cells by activating both p38 and Akt/PKB pathways. American Journal of Physiology. Cell Physiology, 293(4), C1263-1271. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpcell.00162.2007

Gann, J. J., McKinley-Barnard, S. K., Andre, T. L., Schoch, R. D., & Willoughby, D. S. (2015). Effects of a traditionally-dosed creatine supplementation protocol and resistance training on the skeletal muscle uptake and whole-body metabolism and retention of creatine in males. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 12(Suppl 1), P2. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-12-S1-P2

Hall, M., & Trojian, T. H. (2013). Creatine supplementation. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 12(4), 240–244. https://doi.org/10.1249/JSR.0b013e31829cdff2

Harris, R. (2011). Creatine in health, medicine and sport: An introduction to a meeting held at Downing College, University of Cambridge, July 2010. Amino Acids, 40(5), 1267–1270. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00726-011-0913-3

Häussinger, D., Roth, E., Lang, F., & Gerok, W. (1993). Cellular hydration state: An important determinant of protein catabolism in health and disease. Lancet (London, England), 341(8856), 1330–1332. https://doi.org/10.1016/0140-6736(93)90828-5

Kreider, R. B., Kalman, D. S., Antonio, J., Ziegenfuss, T. N., Wildman, R., Collins, R., Candow, D. G., Kleiner, S. M., Almada, A. L., & Lopez, H. L. (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14, 18. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0173-z

Nissen, S. L., & Sharp, R. L. (2003). Effect of dietary supplements on lean mass and strength gains with resistance exercise: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Physiology (Bethesda, Md.: 1985), 94(2), 651–659. https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.00755.2002

Rae, C., Digney, A. L., McEwan, S. R., & Bates, T. C. (2003). Oral creatine monohydrate supplementation improves brain performance: A double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over trial. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 270(1529), 2147–2150. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2003.2492

Smith, R. N., Agharkar, A. S., & Gonzales, E. B. (2014). A review of creatine supplementation in age-related diseases: More than a supplement for athletes. F1000Research, 3. https://doi.org/10.12688/f1000research.5218.1