You’re killing it at the gym. Your diet is disciplined. And now, you’re looking for that extra boost so you can experience even more gains.
When you search for supplements, a million choices come up. It can be hard to know what to choose, or which one is best for your goals.
If this is your first rodeo with supplementation, I’d suggest you start with creatine. It’s the most thoroughly studied supplement and has given everyone from Olympians to everyday fitness buffs the gains they desire.
In this article, I’ll go over everything from how much creatine to take to how to combine creatine with other supplements.
Why Should You Take Creatine?
Creatine, or creatine monohydrate, is an amino acid that occurs naturally in your muscles.
Through cellular synthesis, it facilitates the cycling of ATP, which is where energy is produced in the cells. Creatine works with tandem other amino acids like glutamine to keep your muscles working.
It’s been shown to directly support high-intensity exercise performance, speed up muscle recovery and growth, and may lower blood sugar. (1)
To incorporate creatine in your diet, try mixing it with a high-sugar drink such as juice or a smoothie.
The sugar will help increase absorption. Glycogen, creatine, and fatty acids all support the creation of ATP for muscle exertion.
Supplementing with creatine can increase storage of creatine in the muscles, providing more available energy, and allowing you to exercise longer, more easily, and more effectively. Current recommendations suggest that taking creatine every day in low amounts is effective in improving muscular strength and recovery.
Dr. Naomi Albertson
Sports Medicine, and Family Medicine Physician
When Is the Best Time to Take Creatine?
1. Before working out
Taking creatine soon before working out will help you exert the energy you need. This dietary supplement will help you exert more power, lift more weight, and help you complete a more challenging workout. Of course, this all leads to more muscle building.
2. After working out
If you take creatine soon after working out, your muscles are ‘primed’ and ready to absorb your post-workout snacks or meals, like protein and carbohydrates. From this perspective, they’d also be prepared to absorb creatine.
3. Anytime you want
There are some people that argue that it doesn’t really matter when you take creatine since creatine is already hard at work in your body - just in lesser amounts.
So, so long as you’re increasing the amount of this substance, your muscles will figure out how to use it to improve your fitness.
Overall, I’d suggest taking it either soon before or soon after working out.
Research says that people who consume creatine supplementation 30 minutes to an hour before or after their exercise had greater improvements in their physical strength and muscle mass than those who took it several hours before or after their workout.
You can also watch this video by Tom Johnson from Myprotein where he explains his routine in taking creatine.
How Much Creatine Should You Take?
If you have dietary restrictions, especially if you’re vegan or vegetarian - creatine dosing can especially help. Those on plant-based diets usually have lower stores of creatine, since the only source of creatine is in animal proteins.
Placing people on a Lacto-ovo vegetarian diet for 26 days causes a significant decrease in muscle creatine. In vegetarians, creatine supplementation may have significant benefits. These include improvements in physical performance and improvements in brain function. Many of these effects are stronger in vegetarians than meat eaters.
Dr. Atli Arnarson
Ph.D. in Nutrition, BSc in Biology
When deciding how to take creatine, there are two main methods to choose from: the loading phase and the maintenance phase.
1. Loading Phase
This form of creatine loading has you taking in a high amount in a short time so that you can quickly saturate your cells.
From there, you’d shift into the maintenance phase, which is how you’d maintain that high level of creatine.
To start creatine loading, you’ll need around 15-25 grams each day for one week. By the end of the week, you’ll be pumped with creatine.
Continuing the loaded phase for longer than this is like overwatering a plant – you won’t see more gains past this point. The main benefit of loading is to see the benefits of creatine more quickly.
2. Maintenance phase
This phase can either be done after loading or on its own.
Loading can have some mild side effects such as bloating or upset stomach, so many people prefer to saturate their creatine levels over a longer period of time.
This phase will require a creatine dosing of about 5-10 grams a day. You should reach peak-creatine intake at around 3 to 4 weeks.
After this amount of time, just continue at this level of intake.
Are There Side Effects When Taking Creatine?
You may experience a few side effects while using creatine. For most people, the effects are relatively mild and can be comfortably ignored.
However, if you have any special health considerations, it’s worth giving this list a look over. Wellness and safety should be your first priority.
1. Weight gain
Some people experience weight gain from creatine supplements but not to worry – the source isn’t fat.
Creatine causes water retention, meaning you’ll see it balance out with some weight loss once you cycle off. (2) I wouldn’t necessarily count this as a side effect because in this case, water retention actually supports hypertrophy.
If your sport requires a strict or preferred weight, such as boxing or running – this might be something you want to monitor.
2. Kidney and liver problems
Although creatine synthesis primarily occurs in the kidneys and liver, current research says that using creatine doesn’t cause harm.
The reason there is speculation around this is that creatine raises the amount of creatinine in your blood. Creatinine is a form of creatine and is often used as a measure to diagnose kidney or liver problems. (3)
No published study has results that suggest creatine harms these organs in healthy individuals.
Although current research says that there’s nothing to be worried about – I’d recommend talking to your doctor if you have any (or if your family has any history of) liver or kidney problems.
3. Digestive problems
At the end of the day, most supplements are changing your internal chemistry – so it makes sense that your GI tract might feel different.
Too much creatine might cause digestive issues. Usually, this risk can be avoided you take the no more than the recommended amount of creatine.
The recommended serving is 3-5 grams. Even when you’re doing creatine loading, you should be consuming your 20 grams over the course of 4 or 5 meals and snacks.
4. Muscle cramps
One theory on why creatine may cause muscle cramps is because of its water-intensive properties. It alters the way your body stores its water content, by moving it to your muscles.
However, no research currently backs this idea up.
Studies have shown that the amount of water that creatine shifts around is negligible.
One study took it to an extreme by having people exercise in hot weather, which is known for causing cramping and dehydration.
Even in this situation, the results showed that those on creatine didn’t experience anything different than those on a placebo.
Can You Take Creatine with Other Supplements?
Creatine can be taken with other supplements, but it’s important to do some research on what you’re trying to accomplish.
For example, creatine is often an ingredient in pre-workout supplements – meaning you wouldn’t be gaining much additional benefit.
One supplement that works well with creatine is whey protein. (4)
Creatine supports energy production during your workout, and whey protein can help with your muscle repair. Because they each play their own role, and therefore can work in harmony to help you reach your goals.
1. When should I take creatine on off days?
You should take one serving in the morning and one in the evening, on off days or rest days. This will help your body maintain your creatine levels throughout the day. Taking creatine on off days will help you maintain the amount in your body so you can reap the benefits the next time you work out.
2. How long should I be taking creatine to get results?
You should take creatine for around 6 weeks or up to three months, to get the results and then cycle off it for a month. Some people see or feel a difference in their performance in as early as two weeks.
There are different beliefs on if you should cycle on and off creatine. The main benefit of cycling off is that you’ll have fewer withdrawal symptoms than someone who has been on it for long periods of time. This depends person to person, so I’d recommend cycling off at least twice to see how you feel.
3. Is it safe to take creatine daily?
Creatine is safe to take daily for up to five years so long as you stick to the recommended doses.
There is less certainty around higher doses, since more than 3 to 5 grams per serving may be had on your liver, kidneys, and heart.
Once your creatine stores are saturated be sure to stick to the normal serving size. If you’re worried that you’ve taken too much, consider cycling on and off.
4. Is it okay to take creatine even if I’m not working out?
It’s ok to take creatine even if you’re not working out – it won’t do any harm. It’s one of the safest supplements out there, and it doesn’t impact your metabolism. If you’re trying to see if creatine will help build muscle without working out, the answer is no. No pain, no gain friends!
5. Is it okay to take creatine before or after a workout?
It’s okay to take creatine before or after a workout – in fact, that’s the best time. Try to take a serving of creatine within 30 minutes or an hour before or after your workouts. You could also split the serving into a pre-workout smoothie and post-workout snack.
6. Is it okay to take creatine with pre-workout?
It’s ok to take creatine with pre-workout supplements, so you’re prepared on all fronts to have a power-charged workout. Creatine is a muscle growth and strength building supplement, whereas pre-workout is usually a combination of supplements that enhances performance by increasing energy and endurance.
Double check the ingredients in your pre-workout don’t compete with creatine, such as caffeine or other stimulants. If they do, consider taking creatine separately post-workout.
7. Can I take too much creatine?
You can take too much creatine if you take more than the recommended amount (3-5 grams per serving).
Nothing bad will happen regarding your gains, but you might experience an upset stomach or other mild side effects. Your body can only hold around one gram of creatine per pound of muscle, so there’s no added benefit of taking extra creatine.
8. Can I take creatine on an empty stomach?
Most people can comfortably take 5-10 grams of creatine on an empty stomach without experiencing any GI trouble. Compared to other things, creatine is difficult for the body to absorb. To help yourself out, try to eat a quick protein bar or smoothie to boost absorption.
9. Can I take creatine with caffeine?
You can take creatine with caffeine, but this combination is best reserved for days you really need to perform, like a sports event.
Because caffeine increases your urine output, it competes with creatine for water. This can cause your creatine to be less effective. On days where you’re taking both, be sure to consume extra water. Ultimately, the science on this is conflicted on if these work well together.
10. What happens when you stop taking creatine?
You may notice some minor withdrawal symptoms such as sluggishness and muscle fatigue when you stop taking creatine.
Because your body has been saturated with the supplement, it might have slowed its natural production of creatine. It usually takes up to a month for your body to return to its normal level of production. You might also notice some weight loss since water retention would have decreased.
Overall, creatine can be a great supplement to your workouts.
Your two options on how to take creatine are loading and maintenance, which both have their own benefits.
Although muscle creatine exists naturally, you’ll see an improvement in the quality of your workouts.
Side effects are mild to none, making it a safe choice for beginners.
With careful diet and exercise, creatine can help increase your performance and build muscle mass.
Whether you’re aiming for bodybuilding goals or general mass, creatine can help you get there.
There are a variety of brands, flavors, and prices of creatine available, making it accessible to everyone. It can easily be found in any health aisle or at your fingertips online.
Most people start seeing a transformation in as little as 7 days – so wait no longer to reach your fitness goals.
1. Rudy Mawer, MSc, CISSN, 10 Health and Performance Benefits of Creatine, retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/10-benefits-of-creatine
2. Sarka-Jonae Miller, Retaining Water While Taking Creatine, retrieved from https://www.livestrong.com/article/518675-retaining-water-while-taking-creatine/
3. National Kidney Foundation, Creatinine: What is it?, retrieved from https://www.kidney.org/atoz/content/what-creatinine
4. Eric Brown, Can You Mix Creatine With Whey Protein?, retrieved from https://www.livestrong.com/article/410846-can-you-mix-creatine-with-whey-protein/