When you think “bodybuilders” and “gaining muscle,” creatine is often the first supplement that comes to mind.
And with good reason…It’s long been used to gain glorious lean muscle.
Because of creatine’s popularity, it’s been studied extensively and is one of the more researched supplements out there.
So the good part is quality creatine is safe for use by just about everyone. BUT that doesn’t mean it will benefit you…at least in terms of gaining muscle.
Often too, the people that fear using it the most, such as women who fear it will make them bulky, are the ones that can reap the most benefit!
What is Creatine?
Creatine is a mixture of 3 important amino acids glycine, arginine, and methionine and does exist naturally within our bodies.
The supplement is often a flavorless powder that you mix with water during your workout.
It can be consumed through high protein foods such as red meat and fish so you can get enough through diet alone.
It is meant to help fuel our muscles and produce energy quickly, which is why it most often used to boost performance in the gym.
Creatine is best taken with a carb source to raise insulin levels and optimize creatine uptake into the muscles and can be taken pre or post workout, but is most often recommended to be used within one hour of exercise.
Part of the reason for potential weight gain with creatine is water retention. It is key you drink enough water to ensure proper cellular hydration.
So if you can easily get enough through food, why would you benefit from supplementation?
I mentioned that often the groups that need creatine supplementation the most are the last ones to use it, such as the elderly, vegetarians and even women.
While it has been proven to help with gaining muscle and boosting performance, there are lots of health benefits that aren’t as frequently discussed by the “bros” in the gym.
Creatine Can Help...
- Increase strength and power
- Increase work capacity
- Help improve body composition (lower body fat)
- Reduce the amount of muscle mass lost as we get older
- Reduce bone loss significantly
- Improve signs of depression
- Reduce fatigue
- Improve metabolic health
- Improve brain functioning
Creatine can improve strength and power because it serves as an energy reserve for the body during short, intense bouts of exercise. It literally increases energy levels in your muscles by increasing phosphocreatine, which leads to an increase in ATP production. And ATP is the energy supply you need to work harder and increase your strength and power output.
It can also increase your work capacity, which means you can not only get more work done in less time aka get more out of your workouts (and maybe even not have them feel as hard)!
Because your power and strength and work capacity see improvements with creatine, you can trainer harder and get more out of your training AKA see greater muscle gains and therefore body composition changes.
One study found an extra 2-4 pounds of muscle gained during 4-12 weeks of training.
And interestingly too, men tend to see bigger increases in lean body weight gains while women don’t see a statistically significant weight gain.
Actually women may see more body fat LOST from creatine supplementation. So that fear ladies that creatine may make you bulky!?…well it may actually do the opposite!
Because creatine can improve muscle growth and strength, it also helps us retain lean muscle as we get older AND stay stronger.
This muscle retention due to creatine supplementation may also be why it can help prevent bone loss as we get older. BUT it is key that the creatine supplementation is combined with weight training if we want to see results.
Creatine can also help lower levels of depression by improving levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. The creatine supplementation was paired with an anti-depressant in studies and showed it augmented the positive effects of the medication.
And for brain proper brain functioning, creatine can also be especially valuable for vegans and vegetarians who may not get enough in their diet alone.
Before you supplement with creatine it is key to know that often WEIGHT GAIN is associated with taking creatine.
And not just because you’re gaining muscle but also because WATER WEIGHT is often also gained during supplementation. This is actually part of the process that HELPS you gain muscle and fuels your workouts.
NOTE not fat gain…just weight on the scale…So if you are going to be bothered by the weight on the scale and fluctuations due to water weight, this supplement may not be right for you.
Another common fear with creatine use is whether or not it will negatively impact the kidneys. Studies have refuted this although if you do have kidney issues, it may be best to avoid supplementing with creatine.
Same goes for the fear that creatine may cause diarrhea or cramping. While this is not common, you will just want to watch for stomach issues and watch your water intake.
You may also want to avoid a loading period if you do tend to have stomach issues and are sensitive and easily bloat.
And it also always comes back to “Do you really need it if your diet is dialed in?”
If you’re eating a high protein diet and aren’t in a huge deficit nor really changing up your training or competing, you may just simply not find it worth the money!
It is also very important to note that NOT ALL CREATINE SUPPLEMENTS ARE CREATED EQUAL!
Creatine Monohydrate is the most studied so may be the one to go with.
Should YOU Use Creatine?
If you are a vegan or vegetarian, I would definitely consider a creatine supplement if gaining muscle is part of your goal and you struggle to increase dietary protein.
Also, if you are training hard but struggling to gain muscle or have found your workouts suffering, maybe even from being in a calorie deficit, creatine supplementation may help.
For older adults looking to prevent muscle loss and stay young and healthy, creatine may be the boost you need as well.
If you are looking to lose weight though, I would not necessarily recommend spending money on creatine. While it can help with fat loss, it won’t make as much of a difference and the “bloat” that can be associated with it may slow the results you see and be discouraging.
Also, because creatine supplementation can be confusing, it isn’t a change I would make until your diet is 100% dialed in.
There are different theories on whether or not you need a loading phase.
If you choose to do a loading phase, you may choose to supplement with 20 grams of creatine for 5 days or even only 10 grams for 10-14 days, if you find you retain more water, or want to avoid a more sudden increase.
With the loading phase, you may want to break up the doses instead of taking all 20 grams together.
Once the loading phase is done, which is meant to fully saturate the muscles, you can drop to 2-3 grams per day. Some people will prefer to keep their supplementation at 5 grams per day although that amount is probably not needed if you do consume red meat (actually if you eat red meat regularly, you may find creatine supplementation does little to nothing to benefit you).
Vegetarians who do not get potentially enough dietary creatine, may choose to keep their dose at 5 grams per day.
You can even choose to just supplement at 5 grams for a month and do no loading phase whatsoever.
Remember though if you do choose to use creatine, it isn’t a magic fix if your diet isn’t dialed in. And you should track to see how the supplement affects you and adjust your supplementation accordingly!
References/Further reading on creatine: