Creatine is a rare thing in the world of workout supplements: It actually works, plus it’s cheap and safe. If you’re trying to build muscle or lift the heaviest things around, you might want to get into the habit of taking creatine every day — but there are, of course, some caveats.
What does creatine do?
Creatine supplies quick energy in your muscles for short, intense bursts of power.
You may have heard of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which stores energy in our cells. (One main reason you eat food: To be able to make ATP.) When our muscles use ATP, it gets split into ADP and a free phosphate. Creatine can hold onto an extra phosphate, and immediately stick that phosphate onto the ADP so it can become ATP again.
That means that the more creatine you have in your muscles, the better you’ll be at movements that require a short, intense use of muscles. Lifting weights is the main thing creatine helps with, but sprinters may benefit too.
If you can lift a little more weight, for a few more reps, you’ll ultimately be able to get just a little bit stronger. Creatine likely has a few other effects that help muscle growth as well.
Bottom line, it can provide a small but non-zero increase in strength and muscle size for most people. For more basic information on creatine, check out this summary of evidence from Examine.com.
Who is it for?
Nobody needs to supplement with creatine. You can work out just fine without it, and you won’t be passing up huge gainzzz. It just provides a tiny boost for many of us. If your main sport is cardio, creatine won’t help. If you lift weights or are trying to build muscle through strength training (for example, you’re into bodybuilding), it could help.
How much it helps will depend on how much creatine you already have. Our bodies produce plenty of creatine on their own, and then we also get some through our diet, especially if you eat meat. Vegetarians and vegans are usually lower on creatine to start with, so they stand to benefit more.
And then some of us are non-responders. “Some people walk around with (just about) fully topped-off muscle creatine saturation, so they obtain no benefit from creatine supplementation,” sports nutrition researcher and bodybuilder Eric Trexler writes at Stronger by Science.
“In reality, being a non-responder is great news. You were genetically pre-selected to win a lifetime supply of free creatine!”
What are the downsides?
As supplements go, creatine is pretty safe. There are no scary side effects, and the most common downside people notice is that it can cause gastrointestinal distress, especially in large doses and/or on an empty stomach.
In terms of cost, creatine is also one of the cheaper supplements, especially if you buy it in powder form as creatine monohydrate. For example, it isn’t too hard to find a package with 100+ servings for $30. If you prefer your creatine in capsule form, it tends to be a bit more expensive.
Any supplement comes with the caveat that nobody at the TGA is verifying that they contain what they say they contain. It’s always best to do your research on supplement brands, using tips such as the ones here.
How to take creatine
Unlike most drugs, where the effects wear off in a matter of hours, creatine is stored in our muscles for a fairly long period of time.
If you start taking the recommended dose of 3 to 5g per day (larger people should go with the larger dose and vice versa), it will take about a month to fully load up your muscles with creatine. Or, you could get the process over with more quickly by using a “loading dose” of, say, 20g a day.
After that, just take the usual dose once a day; exact timing doesn’t seem to matter. If you want to stop taking creatine, it will probably take a few weeks for your creatine levels to return to normal.
That extra creatine in your body will also cause your muscles to retain more water, which is fine and may even help contribute to muscle growth. But if you need to worry about weight classes for your sport, or if you psychologically have a hard time watching your weight on the scale creep up, you may want to decide whether you’re OK with that or not.
(Weight class athletes sometimes stop taking their creatine in the weeks leading up to the competition, in an effort to lose some water weight.) On the bright side, gaining a kilogram or two when you start creatine is a way you can know that it’s working.
So far creatine has been studied more often in untrained people than in experienced athletes, and in men more than women. We still don’t know exactly how many people are non-responders, and research is still ongoing into the details of all its risks and benefits.
But if you want to try one of the rare supplements that actually does what it says it does — usually — consider giving creatine a try.