Creatine is the most popular, and safest, supplement for improving both performance in the gym and increasing quality of life.
Creatine provides explosive energy. One study in 2003 demonstrated that creatine works to increase phosphocreatine stores in your muscle tissues (3).
This energy transfer pathway provides large amounts of energy for very short duration physical activity, such as snatching a barbell or starting a sprint.
Creatine can help you gain lean muscle mass. One study in 2000 examined 23 men over the course of six weeks to determine the effects of creatine supplementation.
After 6 weeks of training, the group with creatine supplementation during arm flexor strength training lead to greater increases in arm flexor muscular strength, upper arm muscle area, and fat-free mass than strength training alone (4).
Another study (1999) showed that creatine supplementation in combination with weight training almost tripled the amount of muscle fiber growth compared to just weight training alone over 12 weeks of use (5).
A large meta-analysis done in 1985 examined 250 supplements to determine their effects on muscle growth. The study found the creatine was the single most effective natural supplement for adding muscle mass (6).
Creatine enhances cell signaling. Supplementing with creatine is seen to increase your levels of satellite cell activity so that nearby muscle tissues will help with repair and commence new muscle growth.
However, it is not done on its own. A study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine showed that creatine supplementation in combination with resistance exercise was needed to increase cell signaling (7).
Without exercise, the creatine exerted no enhanced signaling within the cells.
Creatine raises your levels of anabolic hormones. Research illustrates that while supplementing with creatine, you will see a significant rise in anabolic hormones, such as IGF-1 that leads to faster muscle growth. (8)
One study published in 2005 showed that creatine supplementation increased the expression of growth factors and the phosphorylation of anabolic signaling molecules (9)
Creatine significantly boosts cell hydration. 2 studies (1993 & 2010) demonstrated that creatine not only enhances cell hydration but also stretches the muscle cells which helps with repair and growth (10, 11).
Creatine can reduce protein breakdown. A 2001 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed that muscle cell breakdown is significantly reduced with creatine supplementation (12).
Creatine lowers levels of myostatin. Myostatin is a catabolic regulator of skeletal muscle mass – meaning it is responsible for slowing down- or blocking- new muscle growth. A study in 2010 showed that creatine supplementation can directly lower myostatin levels and as a result significantly increase muscle growth potential (13).
In the elderly, one study (2003) over 14 weeks showed that adding creatine to resistance exercise significantly increased both leg strength and muscle mass (17).
Another 14-week study of the elderly found that adding creatine to a weight training program significantly increased leg strength and muscle mass (18).
In athletic populations, a 12-week study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed that creatine supplementation increased muscle growth two to three times greater than weight training alone. The increase in lean body mass doubled as well as the one-rep max for the subjects’ bench presses (19).
A meta-analysis compared the evidence of the most popular supplements available and discovered that creatine is the most effective supplement for adding muscle mass (20).
Fortunately, taking creatine for as little as one week is seen to boost your lean body mass and muscle size significantly.
Specifically, one study consisting of a six-week training program showed an increase of 4.4 lb. During creatine supplementation compared to subjects who didn’t take creatine (21).
One 12 week study in 2008 showed the effect of creatine on blood sugar levels after a high-carb meal (24).
The positive response in short-term blood sugar response to a meal is highly correlated to the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, showing that creatine supplementation can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes in subjects.
Combining creatine and exercise produce even greater control of blood sugar levels compared to exercise alone (25).
Creatine improves both strength and performance in exercise. A review of the research shows that adding creatine to training programs increases key performance factors.
Specifically, strength was increased by 8%, weightlifting performance by 14% and bench press one-rep max by up to 43%, compared to the results from training alone (26).
The effects are similar in well-trained athletes as well. One study in 1995 looked at a 28-day training protocol to increase bike sprinting. Creatine increased performance in the sprinting by 15% and bench press performance by 6% (27).
Creatine is also beneficial during when athletes push the boundary into overtraining because one study showed that during intense over-training blocks strength, performance, and muscle mass were either maintained or increased (28).
Supplementing with creatine increases phosphocreatine levels in the brain. Like muscle tissue, the brain requires plenty of ATP to work (29).
Supplementation with creatine has been suggested to improve Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, ischemic stroke, epilepsy, brain or spinal cord injuries, motor neuron disease, and memory and brain function in the elderly (30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38).
Although there is an arsenal of research showing the potential of creatine to treat neurological disease, most of this research is confined to animal studies.
One human study in 2008 showed that during six months of creatine supplementation with children who had a traumatic brain injury, resulted in a 70% reduction in fatigue and 50% reduction in dizziness (39).
Vegetarians react positively to creatine because they have a lower dietary intake of creatine.
One 2003 study examining vegetarians showed that those who supplemented with creatine saw a 50% increase in memory and 20% improvement in intelligence based on testing (42).
Unfortunately, the effect of creatine in increasing brain function in those not low in creatine is not significant (43).
In addition, mice with Huntington’s disease given creatine showed 72% of their brain’s phosphocreatine pre-disease levels compared to the mice in the control that only saw 26% of their brain’s phosphocreatine recovered (44).
Creatine has been shown to have beneficial effects on Parkinson’s. Parkinson’s disease is caused by a reduction in brain levels of dopamine that leads to brain cell death as well as several symptoms including tremors, loss of muscle function and speech impairments (45).
In mice, creatine is seen to prevent 90% of the drop in dopamine levels seen in Parkinson’s (46).
A conventional treatment approach for Parkinson’s is to promote weight training to negate the loss of motor control.
Studies in humans show that combining creatine with resistance training improved strength and daily function significantly more than training alone (47).
Creatine supplements may also reduce fatigue and tiredness. One of the most extensive studies on energy and creatine followed brain injury patients over six months. Patients that supplemented saw a 50% reduction in dizziness compared to the control group (48, 49).
Additionally, only 10% of the patients suffered from fatigue, or low energy, compared to 80% of the subjects in the control group (50).
A similar study showed that creatine reduced fatigue during sleep deprivation (51).
Creatine can reduce muscle cramping. Contrary to popular belief creatine can actually have protective effects against muscle cramping. In one study it showed that creatine actually reduced the likeliness of muscle cramps by 60% (54).
Creatine can cause temporary IBS like symptoms. While being generally safe, a few side effects pop up from time to time including upset stomach, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and weight gain (55).
In very high, long-term doses, creatine can cause kidney damage. Creatine may also react negatively with caffeine and certain medications.
Creatine is not regulated or evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Creatine, like any supplement, can be processed and contaminated with other potentially dangerous supplements. Always confirm that you’re buying your creatine from a reputable company, ideally with third-party certifications.
After about 2 weeks, the water retention usually disappears, and any left overweight is almost always extra muscle mass.
Creatine can interfere with certain medications. You may also wish to avoid creatine supplements if you are taking any medications that affect liver or kidney function.
Such medications may include cyclosporine, aminoglycosides, gentamicin, tobramycin, anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and numerous others (58).
Creatine can help improve blood sugar management, so if you are using medication known to affect blood sugar, you should discuss creatine use with a doctor (59).
Creatine can increase the likelihood of Rhabdomyolysis. Rhabdomyolysis is a condition where muscle breaks down and leaks harmful proteins, is also said to increase with creatine. This myth originated because a marker in the blood called creatine kinase increases with creatine supplements (60).
However, this slight increase is quite different from the copious amounts of creatine kinase associated with rhabdomyolysis. Interestingly, some experts even suggest creatine may be protective against this condition (61, 62).
Despite all this, the International Society of Sports Nutrition regards creatine as extremely safe and concludes it is one of the most beneficial sports supplements available (63).
One study investigated 52 health markers, taking blood samples before and after 21 months of creatine supplementation. They found no adverse effects (64).
Creatine can be loaded up by taking 5 grams four times per day (totaling 20g/day) for one week. Following that, taking 3-5 grams of creatine a day to maintain.
However, you don’t need to load creatine to get the benefits. It may even be more convenient to take a smaller dose anyways. A simple dose of 5g per day will still get you to full muscle saturation in a week or two.
The most researched form of creatine is creatine monohydrate. While other forms may be labeled as superior, by the manufacturer, there is no evidence that other forms of creatine work better (65).
Take creatine with carbohydrates. Absorption of creatine is marginally improved with the release of insulin from carbohydrates or proteins eaten with creatine (66).
You do not need to “cycle” creatine on and off. In general, there is no benefit to cycling creatine because it is safe to consume for a long time. Be sure to consume water with creatine as creatine pulls water into muscle cells.
Take it immediately before or after exercise on workout days. One 10-week study provided a dietary supplement containing creatine, carbs, and protein to adults who weight trained.
Participants were divided into two groups. One group took the supplement soon before and after exercise, while the other group took the supplement in the morning and evening, so not close to exercise.
At the end of the study, the group that took the supplement close to exercise gained more muscle and strength than the group that took the supplement in the morning and evening (67).
Q: Is creatine a steroid?
A: Creatine is not a steroid—it’s an amino acid that’s naturally found in muscle and in red meat and fish, though at far lower levels than in the powder form sold on bodybuilding websites and at your local GNC.
Q: Is creatine or whey protein better?
A: Both are different supplements for different purposes. It is not right to say that which one is better. They both play roles in improving body composition and health markers.
Q: Does creatine cause kidney damage?
A: Numerous long-term studies have confirmed this to be a myth.
Q: What foods are high in creatine?
A: Creatine is most abundant in red meat, pork, poultry, and fish.
Q: Do you take creatine before or after your workout?
A: Creatine should be used either before or after a workout for maximum effect. You can also split the doses, taking half pre-workout and half post workout.
Q: Is creatine banned in sports competitions?
A: Creatine use is not prohibited in sports. However, in the United States, the NCAA recently ruled that colleges could not provide creatine supplements to their players, though the players are still allowed to obtain and use creatine independently.
Q: Will creatine make your hair fall out?
A: For those who are genetically prone to hair loss, creatine might expedite the process. However, the research is inconclusive.
Q: Which form of creatine is the best?
A: Creatine monohydrate is the most used and most studied form of creatine.
Q: How long is it safe to take creatine for?
A: Most people take creatine for 30-90 days, then cycle off of it for a month before resuming again. However, there are no conclusive studies that provide any benefits to cycling creatine on and off.
In addition to the wide range of benefits included with creatine supplementation, creatine is seen to be one of the most inexpensive and safest supplements out there.
Creatine has been researched for over 200 years and seen safe for long-term use – up to 5 years in healthy individuals (68).
Ultimately, creatine is a useful supplement with powerful benefits for both sports performance and lifelong health.