Creatine has earned a reputation for being the most powerful muscle-building supplement, and with good reason. It has thousands of studies proving its effectiveness. Still, most people don’t know how much extra muscle it will actually help them build. 5% more? 50% more?
One way to get an idea of how well it works is to look at before-and-after photos of guys combining weight training, a good bulking diet, and creatine supplementation. But that won’t tell you exactly how effective creatine is. That’s why we need to look at the research.
There are two big meta-analyses looking at how creatine affects muscle growth. The first tells us how much extra lean mass we can expect to gain. The second tells us how much extra muscle mass we can expect.
We don’t sell supplements. There are no affiliate links in this article.
How Creatine Works
When you lift weights, your muscles burn a fuel called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). When you run out of that fuel, you fail the rep, and your set is over. If you rest for a few minutes, your aerobic system can use the air you breathe to replenish that fuel, giving you the energy to do another set.
Supplementing with creatine allows you to produce more ATP, giving your muscles more fuel, thus allowing you to pump out an extra rep or two. That extra work stimulates extra muscle growth.
Creatine also causes your body to retain more fluid. At first, this is easy to understand. It dissolves into water, and your muscle fibres soak up that solution, making them bigger and stronger, as well as improving their ability to grow even bigger (study).
That gives us the two benefits of creatine:
- Being able to do more reps allows us to stimulate more muscle growth per set.
- Muscle fibres with more fluid in them seem to grow faster.
What’s confusing about creatine is that it seems to increase overall water retention and glycogen storage, especially at first. This can make people gain a surprising amount of lean mass, often causing them to overestimate the benefits of creatine. We have a story about this.
Before & After Creatine
Ten years ago, back when Jared and I were roommates, we decided to bulk up together. Jared wanted to take creatine, but he didn’t want the water retention to confound his weekly weigh-ins, so he spent a week loading up on it before starting his bulk. During that first week of supplementing with 20 grams per day, he gained 8 pounds.
After that, we started bulking. Jared gained 33 pounds during his first 3 months. You can see his progress photos above, showing him going from 130 pounds to 163 pounds at 6 feet tall. As far as we can tell, at least 8 of those pounds were from creatine alone. After that, it likely improved his ability to build muscle. More on that in a moment.
On the other end of the spectrum, I seem to be a creatine non-responder. I’ve never noticed any change in body weight, muscularity, or workout performance from taking it. Here are my before and after photos, gaining 25 pounds during those same 3 months:
In our experience, most people fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. They gain a few extra pounds during their first month of taking creatine. Mind you, it’s incredibly difficult to tell. Even though Jared and I were living the same lifestyle, eating the same foods, and following the same workout program, individual variation obscures the effects of any one intervention.
You can’t look at the differences between two people’s results and assume those differences are because of any one thing. That’s what randomly controlled trials are for. And fortunately for us, there are hundreds of those trials organized neatly into two enormous meta-analyses.
How Much Weight Will You Gain?
20 years ago, Branch and colleagues published a meta-analysis showing that supplementing with creatine caused people to gain 3 times more lean mass while simultaneously losing fat (study). This was an incredibly influential study, and the impressive results raised creatine up on the pedestal it still rests on today.
Gaining extra lean mass tends to make people look bigger and stronger. Not all lean mass is muscle, though. Remember, creatine also draws a few pounds of extra fluid into your body. Once your muscles are saturated with creatine, you’ll stop soaking up extra fluid, and the creatine will stop causing weight gain.
How Much Extra Muscle Will You Build?
A new meta-analysis by Burke and colleagues found that creatine increases muscle growth by around 33% (study). So, if you gain 10 pounds of muscle in the next 6 months from lifting weights and eating a good bulking diet, creatine might bump that up to 13 pounds.*
As we covered in the last section, creatine causes more than just muscle growth. You’ll also retain more fluid. Plus, bulking will make your bones denser and your tendons thicker. You’ll build new connective tissue, fill up your digestive system with more food, and probably gain a little bit of fat. By the time you gain 13 pounds of bonafide muscle, you might have gained closer to 25 pounds overall.
For example, here’s one of our members gaining 22.5 pounds in 5 months while lifting weights, eating an abundant bulking diet, living a good lifestyle, and supplementing with creatine:
As with the previous research on lean mass gains, this new meta-analysis suggests that the muscle-building benefits of creatine fade over time. Perhaps you’ll gain 33% more muscle during your first few months of supplementing with creatine, 25% more muscle during your first year, and 15% more muscle during your first decade. Don’t trust those numbers, though. I’m just recklessly speculating.
*Greg Nuckols from Stronger by Science helped me translate the results of this meta-analysis into a concrete number. As he explained it to me, the placebo groups increased their muscle mass by 0.33 standard deviations, and the creatine groups gained 0.11 standard deviations more than that, gaining 33% more muscle on average. If you want to take a deeper dive into the statistics, he has a great article on effect sizes.
Creatine is the most powerful muscle-building supplement on the market, tripling the amount of lean mass you gain when you first start taking it. However, most of that lean mass is fluid being drawn into your body. After you’ve gained a couple of pounds, your muscles will be saturated with creatine, and you’ll stop soaking up extra lean mass.
The real benefit of creatine is that once you’re in the habit of taking it, you’ll be able to stimulate more muscle growth and build muscle faster. It increases muscle growth by 33%, on average. So, if you would have gained 10 pounds of muscle without creatine, you might gain around 13 pounds of muscle with creatine.
Alright, that’s it for now. If you want more muscle-building information, we have a free bulking newsletter for naturally thin guys. If you want us to walk you through the process of building muscle, check out our bulking program. It includes a 5-month full-body workout routine, diet guide, recipe book, and one-on-one support in our online community. Or, if you want a customizable intermediate bulking program, check out our Outlift Program.