Ultimate Guide to Creatine: Everything You Need to Know
Over the last few years, creatine has become one of the most popular supplements for serious gym-goers. It has also been the subject of a lot of research, proving its effectiveness as a sports supplement. This has seen creatine products become much more widely available.
However, if you’re new to supplements, a specialist product like creatine may seem intimidating. Get the most from it by paying close attention to how much you take and when. And, if you take too much, you run the risk of undoing a lot of your hard work.
Here we look at what creatine is and how it works. We explore how creatine is used by the body and why people choose to boost their creatine levels. We also go over how you should choose and use a creatine supplement.
What is creatine?
Creatine is an important amino acid that helps fuel muscle growth. It occurs naturally in the body and is produced by the liver combining other amino acids (glycine, methionine, and arginine). It’s generally stored within muscle cells and is used as fuel during times of intense activity (e.g. during workouts).
In fact, around 95% of the body’s creatine can be found in muscle tissue, stored as phosphocreatine. Phosphocreatine plays a key role in the production of the body’s ‘energy currency’, Adenosine 5'-triphosphate (ATP). The remaining 5% of the body’s creatine is found in other critical organs, like the liver, brain, and kidneys.
As it does not need to be taken in through your diet, creatine is considered a non-essential amino acid. However, as your natural creatine levels can be affected by a range of factors, many consider it conditional. As such, many people choose to use creatine supplements to boost their natural intramuscular creatine levels.
What does creatine do for the body?
While creatine has been shown to provide a wide range of health benefits, it’s most known for boosting athletic performance. Specifically, creatine has been found to help increase both strength and stamina during high-intensity exercise. Understandably, this makes it extremely popular with weightlifters and athletes alike.
One study found that supplementing with creatine was consistently shown to improve strength by an average of 8%. The same study also concluded that creatine boosted weightlifting performance by 14% and bench press one-rep max by up to 43%. This reinforces the results of another study, which found that regular creatine supplementation improved bike-sprinting by 15% in well-trained athletes.
What’s more, creatine is also believed to play a role in stimulating muscle growth. Studies show that creatine supplementation can increase muscle mass in a wide range of people – from elite athletes to the obese. In fact, one major scientific review found that creatine monohydrate was the most effective nutritional supplement for promoting muscle growth.
Other potential health benefits provided by creatine include:
- Aiding muscle repair: Creatine has been shown to improve satellite cell signalling, which is critical to muscle repair. This further reinforces the important role creatine plays in stimulating muscle growth.
- Protecting muscle mass: In addition to stimulating muscle growth, creatine has also been shown to prevent muscle breakdown. This is particularly important if you’re restricting your caloric intake (e.g. trying to lose weight or burn fat).
- Increasing intra-muscular hydration: Creatine has been shown to boost the water content of muscle cells, which is believed to assist with muscle growth.
- Increasing anabolic hormone levels: Studies have shown that creatine supplementation can boost the production of important hormones like Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1). These hormones are linked to protein synthesis, further reinforcing creatine’s muscle growth credentials.
- Reducing myostatin levels: Myostatin is a protein that can restrict, or completely stop, the growth of new muscle. Creatine helps suppress the production of myostatin, further enabling potential muscle growth.
- Improving brain health: Supplementing with creatine also increases the level of phosphocreatine in the brain. This has been shown to help keep the brain healthy and is even believed to protect against neurological disease.
How much creatine should I be taking?
To get the most from your body’s creatine supply, you need to optimise your intramuscular creatine levels. However, because creatine is naturally occurring within the body, a specialised supplementation approach is usually recommended.
Generally, this starts with a loading phase where a greater daily dose is taken for around five days. This is designed to quickly increase the levels of creatine stored in the muscles. The daily dose is then dropped back to a maintenance level for the remainder of the supplementation period.
Exact dosing amounts will vary from person to person, but an effective creatine supplementation plan often looks like this:
- Loading phase (Day 1 – 5): 20g per day split over four servings:
- 5g first thing in the morning
- 5g pre-workout
- 5g post-workout
- 5g just before going to bed
- Maintenance (Day 5+): 3g – 5g per day taken pre-workout.
It’s important to note here that, while most people choose to do a loading phase, this is not a necessity. If you would prefer to just start with a maintenance amount, you should still see some benefits. However, it may take up to four weeks for you to reach your optimal intramuscular creatine levels using this approach.
There’s also evidence to suggest that the body absorbs creatine more easily when it’s taken with protein or carbs. As it increases intracellular water levels, keeping well hydrated when taking creatine supplements is also important.
Is there such a thing as too much creatine?
Because of its popularity, creatine is one of the most tested sports supplements in the world. Despite this, there has been no real evidence of any potential negative side-effects from creatine supplementation. Given many of these studies have taken a long-term view of creatine use, it’s reasonable to say creatine supplementation is safe.
That being said, there will always be talk about the potential dangers of certain products. Here we address some of the most commonly heard myths about creatine supplementation:
- Creatine does not need to be cycled: Because creatine is naturally occurring, some believe that creatine supplements cannot be taken long-term without impacting the body’s natural production. As such, they think these products should only be taken for short periods (up to three months). However, multiple studies have shown that creatine supplements can be safely taken for years without negatively impacting the body.
- Creatine does not cause cramps or dehydration: Because creatine draws water into muscle cells, some believe that it reduces the body’s overall hydration. It’s also said that, as a result, people taking creatine supplements are prone to muscle cramps. However, research suggests creatine can actually reduce the risk of dehydration and cramps when doing endurance training at high temperatures.
- Creatine supplements do not cause liver or kidney damage: Because creatine is naturally present in both the liver and kidneys, some believe supplementation can create issues for these organs. However, many studies show that normal doses of creatine supplements will not negatively impact the liver and kidneys. That being said, if you have a liver or kidney condition, you should consult a doctor before taking creatine supplements.
Some also believe that creatine supplementation stimulates the production of the hormone DHT, which is linked to hair loss. However, there is currently minimal research supporting this claim.
Choosing a creatine supplement
Thanks to its broad appeal, creatine supplements are now widely available. While this is generally a good thing, it can make it hard to pick the right product for you. It can also be difficult to work out if a product is high-quality, as most use the same ingredients.
When researching creatine supplements, you will notice you have three main options:
- Pure creatine products: These are designed to provide the maximum dose of protein and little else. This makes them quite affordable and means they are a great option if you want to carefully control your dose. Many studies have also identified creatine monohydrate as the most effective option for creatine supplementation.
- Blended creatine products: There are a number of different types of creatine, and these products bring together several of them. Some believe this creates a more well-rounded supplement that delivers a broader range of benefits. Because of this, blended creatine products are generally a little more expensive than pure creatine products. If you’re interested in trying a blend, we recommend MAX’S Creatine X8.
- Supplement blends that contain creatine: These are “all-rounder” options that combine multiple popular ingredients (e.g. whey protein, BCAAs, etc.) into one easy-to-use product. They are a great way to get a wide range of benefits without having to carefully consider your dosing. They are also a good option if you have specific training goals – for example, MAX’S SuperSize ULTRA has been especially for those looking to put on serious mass quickly.
When choosing a creatine supplement, you should consider what you want to achieve and how much you want to spend. You should also think about how the product will fit within your existing supplement stack. For example, if you’re happy with the current products you use, pure creatine could be a cost-effective option. Alternatively, if you want to completely overhaul your supplementation approach, you might want to consider a supplement blend.