Creatine is one of the most widely studied dietary supplements in the world.
Your body naturally produces this molecule, which serves a variety of important functions, including energy production (1).
In addition, some foods contain creatine, particularly meat.
Despite the presence of these two natural sources, consuming it as a dietary supplement can increase your body’s stores (2, 3).
This can improve exercise performance and may even help combat disease (4, 5).
Many types of these supplements are available, making it hard to choose one.
This article reviews the research on the six most studied forms and makes a science-backed recommendation on which is best.
What Is Creatine?
Creatine is a molecule that’s similar in structure to amino acids, the building blocks of protein.
Because meat is a primary dietary source of creatine, vegetarians typically have lower amounts of it in their bodies than non-vegetarians (6).
But even for non-vegetarians, consuming it as a dietary supplement can increase muscle creatine content by up to 40% (2, 3, 7).
Its use as a dietary supplement has been extensively studied for many years, and it’s consumed worldwide (8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13).
Its effects include improved exercise performance and musculoskeletal health, as well as potential benefits for brain health (4, 5, 8).
Summary: Creatine is a molecule found in the cells of your body. It plays a critical role in energy production, and supplementing with it can increase its content in your cells.
How Does It Work?
Creatine, in the form of creatine phosphate, plays a critical role in cellular energy production (14).
That’s because it’s involved in the formation of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is a major source of cellular energy.
There’s strong evidence that these supplements can improve exercise performance (8, 15, 16).
Some research has found that they may increase strength gains from a weight training program by about 10%, on average (17).
Others have stated that improvements in strength are about 5% for chest exercises like bench press and about 8% for leg exercises like squats (15, 16).
Overall, exercise scientists widely agree that supplementing with creatine can improve strength and power production, or how much force can be produced in a certain amount of time, during exercise.
Furthermore, some research has reported that it can improve sprinting and swimming performance, but other research has failed to demonstrate consistent benefits (12, 18, 19, 20).
Also, researchers have found that taking creatine may reduce mental fatigue (21).
These health and performance benefits are typically experienced when the creatine phosphate content in your cells is increased after supplementing with it.
However, several different forms of the supplement are sold, which can make choosing one confusing.
The remainder of this article will help you learn which form is best.
Summary: Consuming creatine supplements can increase the amount of it in your cells. This can aid energy production and improve exercise performance.
1. Creatine Monohydrate
The most common supplement form is creatine monohydrate. This is the form that has been used in the majority of research on the topic (8).
This means that most of creatine’s beneficial effects, such as improved upper and lower body exercise performance, have been observed almost exclusively when creatine monohydrate was used (15, 16).
This form is made up of a creatine molecule and a water molecule, though it can be processed in a few ways. Sometimes, the water molecule is removed, resulting in creatine anhydrous.
The removal of water increases the amount of creatine in each dose. Creatine anhydrous is 100% creatine by weight, whereas the monohydrate form is about 90% creatine by weight.
Other times, the creatine is micronized, or mechanically processed to improve water solubility. In theory, better water solubility could improve your body’s ability to absorb it (22).
Despite these minor differences in processing, each of these forms is probably equally effective when equal doses are given.
In addition to increasing strength, creatine monohydrate can increase water content in muscle cells. This may lead to beneficial effects on muscle growth by sending signals related to cell swelling (23).
Fortunately, a large amount of research indicates that creatine is safe to consume, and no serious side effects have been reported with its use (24, 25).
When minor side effects do occur, they typically involve an upset stomach or cramping. These side effects may be relieved by consuming several smaller doses, rather than one larger dose (26).
Because it’s safe, effective and affordable, creatine monohydrate has long been the gold standard for this supplement.
Any new forms need to be compared to it before they can be recommended (27).
Summary: Creatine monohydrate is the most studied and most commonly used form. A large amount of research indicates that it’s safe and effective, and new forms of the supplement should be compared to it.
2. Creatine Ethyl Ester
Some manufacturers claim that creatine ethyl ester is superior to other forms of the supplement, including the monohydrate form.
Some evidence indicates it may be better absorbed than creatine monohydrate in the body (28).
Additionally, due to differences in muscle uptake rates, some believe that it could outperform creatine monohydrate.
However, one study directly comparing the two found that it was worse at increasing creatine content in the blood and muscles (29).
Because of this, using the ethyl ester form is not recommended.
Summary: Creatine ethyl ester may have different absorption and uptake rates than other forms. However, it does not appear to be as effective as the monohydrate form, and it’s not recommended for use.
3. Creatine Hydrochloride
Creatine hydrochloride (HCl) has gained considerable popularity with some manufacturers and supplement users.
Initial excitement about it was probably due to reports of its superior solubility.
Because of its superior solubility in water, it’s speculated that a lower dose can be used, reducing relatively common side effects like an upset stomach.
However, this theory is only speculation until it is tested.
One study found that creatine HCl was 38 times more soluble than the monohydrate form (30).
But unfortunately, there are no published experiments on creatine HCl in humans.
Given the large amount of data supporting the effectiveness of creatine monohydrate, the HCl form can’t be recommended as superior until the two have been compared in experiments.
Summary: While the HCl form’s high water solubility is promising, it needs to be studied more before it can be recommended over other forms.
4. Buffered Creatine
Some supplement manufacturers have attempted to improve the stability of creatine in the stomach by adding an alkaline powder, resulting in a buffered form.
Supposedly, this could increase its potency and reduce side effects such as bloating and cramping.
However, a study directly comparing buffered and monohydrate forms found no differences in regards to effectiveness or side effects (31).
Participants in this study took the supplements while continuing their normal weight training program for 28 days.
Bench press strength and power production during cycling increased, regardless of which form was taken.
Overall, while buffered forms weren’t worse than monohydrate forms in this study, they weren’t better either.
Since there isn’t any good evidence that buffered forms provide unique advantages, creatine monohydrate is the winner.
Summary: Although a very limited amount of research indicates that buffered forms could be as effective as monohydrate forms, there isn’t enough information to recommend them.
5. Liquid Creatine
While most creatine supplements come in powdered form, some ready-to-drink versions have already dissolved the supplement in water.
The limited research examining liquid forms indicates that they’re less effective than monohydrate powders (32, 33).
One study found that the work performed during cycling was improved by 10% with a monohydrate powder, but not with a liquid form (32).
Additionally, it appears that creatine may break down when it remains in liquid for several days (32, 34).
This doesn’t happen immediately, so it’s no problem to mix your powder with water right before you consume it.
Most research has used powders that are mixed soon before use. Based on the research, this is the recommended way to consume creatine supplements.
Summary: Liquid forms of the supplement appear to break down and become ineffective. They do not seem to improve exercise performance or produce other benefits.
6. Creatine Magnesium Chelate
Creatine magnesium chelate is a form of the supplement that’s “chelated” with magnesium.
This simply means that magnesium is attached to the creatine molecule.
One study compared bench press strength and endurance between groups consuming creatine monohydrate, creatine magnesium chelate or a placebo (35).
Both the monohydrate and magnesium chelate groups improved their performance more than the placebo group, but there was no difference between them.
Because of this, it seems that creatine magnesium chelate may be an effective form, but it isn’t better than standard monohydrate forms.
Summary: Some evidence shows that creatine magnesium chelate is as effective as the monohydrate form. However, limited information is available, and it doesn’t appear to be superior.
The Bottom Line
Based on the scientific evidence, creatine monohydrate is the recommended form.
It’s backed by the strongest research, with studies demonstrating its effectiveness at increasing your body’s stores and improving exercise performance.
While several other forms exist, most of them have minimal research examining their effectiveness.
Additionally, the monohydrate form is relatively cheap, effective and widely available.
The new forms may be promising, but more scientific information is needed before they can compete with creatine monohydrate.