by Monica Brink Zone
Creatine is one of the few dietary supplements that have a very solid scientific support for its efficacy in increasing strength, explosive performance and muscle mass. So the question in not whether it is effective, but rather how to supplement it to reap maximal effectiveness?
There are several theories on how to take creatine; some say your should load and then lower the dose, while others say you can get good results by a low dosage regimen without loading. Yet others say you should cycle the creatine and take breaks from it in between cycles. And then we have the issue of dosages and how to ingest it. In addition there is a lot of confusion about the myriad for creatine forms that claim to be superior over the golden standard creatine monohydrate. Are the new fancy creatine-super-duper formulations really worth their price? Let’s review it all here and see what the research is saying.
When creatine first came out on the market it was creatine monohydrate. This is also the form of creatine that has been used in all the scientific studies that showed its performance enhancing and muscle growth stimulating effects. Because creatine rapidly became so popular, manufacturers came up with different creatine variants and started to make specific claims that their creatine formula is superior. Not so! Don’t let yourself get fooled and ripped off! Stick to the golden standard creatine monohydrate.
For more info on different creatine forms and formulation, check out
Will Brink’s article “The Creatine Grave Yard”
Creatine supplementation protocols
There are basically three creatine supplementation protocols. Here’s an overview of them with recommended effective dosages:
Loading followed by Maintenance protocol
Loading phase: Supplement with 0.3 g creatine/kg body weight/day (0.14 g/lb/body weight/day) for 5-6 days to maximize muscle creatine stores.
Maintenance phase: Supplement with 0.03 g creatine/kg body weight/day (0.014 g/lb/body weight/day) thereafter to maintain elevated muscle creatine stores.
Supplement with 3-5 g creatine per day for at least 8 weeks to increase muscle creatine stores.
Load/maintain for 12-16 weeks, and then take a break for 3-6 weeks. After the break, start another cycle with the loading phase followed by a maintenance phase followed by a break for a desired numbers of cycles.
Most studies that have shown performance enhancing effects used the creatine loading protocol. The purpose the creatine loading is to maximize creatine storage in the muscles. The magnitude of the increase in muscle creatine content is important because studies have reported that performance improvements are dependent on the increase in muscle creatine (1, 2). In a typical creatine loading phase, a dose of 20-30 g creatine (5-6 g taken four times per day) is taken during 5-6 days (3, 4).
To find out your optimal loading dose, multiply your body weight in pound (lb) with 0.14 (or multiply your body weight in kg with 0.3). Thus, for a male weighing 220 lb (100 kg) and a female weighing 140 lb (63 kg), the appropriate loading dose is 30-31 g (220×0.14 or 100×0.3) and 20 g (140×0.14 or 63×0.3), respectively.
Thereafter,a maintenance dose is taken with the purpose to maintain the elevated muscle creatine stores. A maintenance dose corresponding to 0.03 g/kg/body weight/day (0.014 g/lb/body weight) is enough to maintain elevated muscle creatine levels (4).
To find out your optimal maintenance dose, multiply your body weight in pound (lb) with 0.014 (or multiply your body weight in kg with 0.03). Thus, for a male weighing 220 lb (100 kg) and a female weighing 140 lb (63 kg), the appropriate maintenance dose is 3 g (220 x 0.014 or 100 x 0.03) and 2 g (140 x 0.014 or 63 x 0.03), respectively. Some people might prefer a slightly higher maintenance dose of 5 g per day. Cessation of creatine maintenance doses after loading causes muscle creatine stores to return to baseline within 4-6 weeks (4-8).
An alternative supplementation protocol is to ingest 3-5 g creatine per day (with no loading phase) for at least 28-30 days (4, 9). Studies have shown that this method can increase muscle creatine levels as effectively as the creatine loading (4). However, this low-dose creatine supplementation will result in a more gradual and slower increase in muscle creatine levels compared to the more rapid loading protocol, and it will therefore take longer before any performance enhancement will be noticeable. Thus, the constant low-dose creatine supplementation protocol is only beneficial for people who cannot do the loading phase because of for example a busy working schedule. Also, while loading dosages of 20-30 g creatine per day are well tolerated in the majority of individuals, some can experience gastrointestinal upset (for example diarrhea) when large daily dosages of creatine are consumed(10-12). For those people, the constant low-dose creatine supplementation protocol is the way to go. Some discomfort can occur if creatine is incompletely dissolved before ingestion (12). Thus, make sure to dissolve the creatine powder properly, especially if you are taking larger doses.
Listen to Will Brink’s take on loading versus not loading.
Finally, we have the cycling protocol of creatine supplementation (13-15). One argument behind creatine cycling is that it will keep the body’s ability to synthesize creatine, intact. However, while the body’s endogenous synthesis of creatine (which amounts to about 1 g per day (16, 17)) is decreased during creatine supplementation (8), cessation of creatine supplementation merely causes the creatine levels in the body to return to baseline (4, 5). If creatine supplementation were to permanently decrease the body’s capability to synthesize creatine, the creatine levels in the body would have dropped below baseline (pre-supplementation) levels, which would have caused an increased fatigue and loss of strength. This does not happen (5, 6, 8, 14, 18, 19). Thus, cycling of creatine supplementation has no scientific foundation and is completely unnecessary. It confers no advantage over loading + chronic maintenance. Continuous creatine supplementation without cycling actually might confer multiple health benefits (which I will cover in a separate article).
For more check out Will Brink’s great video on creatine cycling.
The Importance of dissolving your creatine before ingestion
This is the most common mistake people who take creatine do; they put it in their protein shakes and scoop it down. However, this isn’t a very smart thing to do because creatine has to be dissolved in order for the body to absorb all of it. This will also prevent stomach upsets. And to dissolve creatine, it has to be put into warm (not boiling!) water and stirred. If you cannot get really warm water from the tap (or if you are drinking bottled water), heat up the glass in the micro and then dissolve the creatine in it. I personally dissolve my creatine like this before going to the gym (I add in beta-alanine as well) and drink it when I get back home from the gym. By then it has cooled down to room temperature. I mix in 2 packets of stevia for flavor, as I don’t like to drink plain lukewarm water. Of course, you can mix in some protein powder if you want (just don’t put it in the fridge, see below).
Will has done a great video on the importance of dissolving creatine.
Usually, 5 g creatine should dissolve in about 2/3 glass of water. if you take more creatine, you have to add more water.
Note that you cannot put the glass with your dissolved creatine in the fridge, as it will cause the creatine to precipitate, which ruins the whole point of dissolving it in the first place. The reason for this is that, stated in scientifically terms, the solubility of a solute (creatine) is a function of the temperature of the solvent (water). Thus, dissolve your creatine AND drink it dissolved.
When supplementing with creatine I therefore recommend the classic loading / chronic maintenance supplementation protocol. To get maximal effects ingest your creatine with high GI carbs and protein (13, 20). Also, take the majority of your creatine during the loading phase after your workouts, and during the chronic maintenance phase take the whole 3-5 g dose in the meal right after your workouts. The reason for this is that co-ingestion of creatine, protein and carbohydrates increases muscular retention of dietary creatine (13, 20). And when creatine is ingested after workouts the uptake of creatine into muscles is further increased, and results in even greater muscle thickness (3, 21-23). And remember to dissolve your creatine before you ingest it, which will prevent stomach upset and help your body absorb more of it.
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