(Last updated on October 28, 2018) Once upon a time, I was 23 years old and 130 pounds at 6 feet tall. I was dangerously skinny and clinically underweight, with a BMI of 17.6. I stood hunchbacked from all my time spent hunched over my desk studying graphic design. I was not a beacon of health.
My roommate and business partner, Shane, was in a similar situation, so we made a pact to change our skinny ways. We called it Muscle May and spent much of April preparing for it. But even before I started lifting weights or eating more food, my body was already transforming.
In preparation for the start of Muscle May, I had started taking creatine monohydrate a week early. I wanted to load up on creatine beforehand so that my levels were optimized for my first workout in the gym.
I would mix in 5 grams of Allmax Creatine into blueberry Fruitopia juice. The creatine was grainy at the bottom of the dark purple juice, but it was tasteless. Unless you count taking some multivitamins as a kid, it was the first supplement I ever took.
Every morning I’d faithfully drink my grainy purple drink. And by the end of the week…
I had gained 8 pounds. I hadn’t even started working out. I hadn’t changed what I was eating. And I had gained 8 pounds of totally lean weight. I couldn’t believe it. It was crazy.
If you’re a skinny guy and you’ve struggled to gain weight, this might sound incredible—maybe even unbelievable—but this is a common “side-effect” of creatine. It draws more water and sugar (glycogen) into your muscles, making them look bigger and fuller, giving them extra strength and endurance, and, in my case, adding 8 pounds to the scale.
This initial success with creatine is what set the stage for our transformations. In our four-month experiment, I had gained over 30 pounds. Shane gained 25. We had such extreme results that random people on BodyBuilding.com were commenting that our transformations were either photoshopped or that we were using steroids. Neither of which was true. Oh boy.
Obviously eating a bulking diet and lifting weights were the keys to building rapid amounts of muscle (see our how-to article about gaining weight here), but creatine played a meaningful supporting role.
So, what exactly is creatine? How can it help build muscle easier—faster? How much does it improve our strength and muscle-building potential? Perhaps the skeptic in your head says that anything this effective and this cheap must ultimately be bad for us, right? Is that true? And if you do decide to try it, how exactly should you take it?
First things first. How do you pronounce creatine?
KRAY-ah-teen or KREE-uh-teen?
We go with the first one, but we’re Canadians, eh? So it’s your call if you want to trust us when it comes to pronouncing things. But Merriam Dictionary says that the origin of the word comes from the Greek word kreas (kray-as), so now we’re pretty sure it’s “kray,” or at least, it should be pronounced that way. But language evolves so if everyone in your area says “kree,” go for it. You’ll notice that even the scientists pronounce it both ways.
What Is Creatine & What Does It Do?
Creatine is a substance that our bodies produce naturally in our kidneys, liver, and pancreas. Our bodies make this creatine from three amino acids: arginine, glycine, and methionine. While our body can make what we need to live, providing it has the other building blocks it needs, we can further increase our creatine storage in our body through diet or supplementation.
But why would we want to increase our creatine levels? Well, creatine comes with a ton of benefits! In fact, in studies creatine has been found to be the most effective supplement when it comes to building muscle. Nothing else even comes close.
In the short term, it will improve our strength by 5-15%, it helps us increase the total amount of working out that we can do, and it generally just enhances our sports performance.
In the long-term, creatine can radically improve our muscle-building results, allowing us to 5-15% more muscle. In studies, people taking creatine often gained an additional 2-4 pounds of muscle over those who weren’t taking it. And those results were just in a few weeks of training! Imagine how those extra gains could accumulate!
Creatine goes beyond muscle, too. Creatine seems to have benefits for those of us who seem to just keep getting older. It could help protect us from Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, and may have some small benefits with Alzheimer’s if taken early enough. It could also help with improving blood sugar control in type-2 diabetics (study). And since creatine is inside bone and cartilage, it could also help with osteoarthritis (study).
How is it so effective? How does creatine work?
Even though creatine is one of the most-studied supplements around, researchers are still trying to figure out the exact way that supplementing with creatine helps us to build muscle faster and make us stronger.
Faster Regeneration Of Energy In Your Muscles
One way that it could work is that by increasing the creatine levels inside a muscle, there may be an increase of phosphocreatine (PCr) in muscle tissue. That allows for a faster rate of generating more adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
ATP is a lot like gasoline in a car. It’s the energy that makes your muscles contract. So supplementing with more creatine is like upgrading your car with a bigger gas tank and a bigger motor with more horsepower.
Normally, as you’re working out in the gym, you’re burning gasoline (ATP) to keep your motor running. When you run out gas, you stop being able to do more reps, and you’re forced to re-rack the weight. But with higher levels of creatine, it’s like you’re driving a truck with 420 HP hauling a huge trailer, and there’s a much bigger gas tank. The extra horsepower allows you to haul more weight and the gas tank allows you to haul that weight further. So you keep flooring the pedal, pushing the motor to its limit.
So if you supplement with creatine, you can lift more reps per set, and do more sets per workout, allowing you to get in more weekly volume. Lifting heavier weights (greater mechanical tension) and lifting it for more sets (greater volume) will cue your body to add even more muscle to your frame. This means that you’ll gain more muscle more quickly while using creatine.
Creatine And Better Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS)
The second proposed way that creatine could work is that creatine supplementation increases the amount of fluid stored in muscle. That could help increase muscle-protein synthesis—which is a fancy way of saying that it will help you build more muscle tissue.
Creatine Side Effects—The Dangers of Creatine
Is creatine safe?
Creatine is something our own bodies can create, we need it to live, and we eat it regularly in meat and fish. As far as supplementing with it, creatine is one of the most well-studied supplements around. Examine.com, a supplement review website, now has reviewed 735+ academic papers on creatine. There’s an insane amount of research on it.
The Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition published their official stance of creatine, after reviewing all the literature, saying that it’s not only safe but possibly even more safe to be taking it since it’s beneficial in preventing injuries (meta-analysis).
So if you’re the kind of guy who doesn’t chase fads, and only wants to try the most thoroughly examined muscle-building supplement, creatine is the one you’re looking for.
What about those rumours I keep hearing?
There are rumours surrounding creatine, so it’s important we talk about those. There are concerns specifically about:
- Renal distress and kidney damage
- Cramping and feeling bloated
Studies have repeatedly shown a lack of evidence for creatine harming kidney and liver function, from youth to older adults. The studies found that people using creatine were at no higher risk of these problems than any other regular non-supplementing person.
So where did this rumour come from? Well, a case study from 1998 described a man supplementing with creatine and said it was negatively affecting his renal glomerular filtration rate, which was due to his previous kidney disease (link). This started the rumour that creatine could dangerously affect our kidneys. Even though in reality, the man already had kidney disease—that’s why he wasn’t able to filter out the extra creatine.
Creatine And Feeling Bloated?
If supplementing with creatine makes you feel bloated, try drinking more water. Creatine pulls fluid into your muscles, which is great, but it means that you need to be drinking enough water. You might also want to try having more electrolytes. More electrolytes might help with creatine absorption, and it’ll also help with restoring some of those electrolytes from pissing out the extra creatine.
Milk is one of the best drinks for hydration on the market (even better than Gatorade), not to mention great it is for helping you reach your daily calorie and protein goals (study).
Who Should Take Creatine?
Not everybody has the same body—understatement of the century. So there’s an important question to ask: is creatine right for you when trying to build muscle?
Are you a skinny guy trying to build muscle?
Creatine is an extremely effective supplement for bulking up. Creatine can help you lift heavier weights, lift those heavier weights more times, and reduce your risk of injury while doing it. Given that its main “downside” is bulkier muscles, well, this isn’t even a problem for skinny guys—it’s a benefit. So it’s only upsides for us. This is why it’s one of our core Beastly supplements, at the top of our list of recommended bulking supplements. (Here’s our article about the other best bulking supplements and how to take them.)
Do you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet?
The richest sources of creatine are red meat and fish, so those eating a plant-based diet tend to have lower creatine levels, meaning that supplementation has a greater effect (study). Studies have found that your strength is correlated with how much creatine is in your muscles, so going from lower-than-average to higher-than-average can have a profound impact. Since your diet is lower in creatine, that also means that your body must pick up the slack by trying to synthesize extra. Supplementing could thus ease that strain on your body (study).
The great news is that Creapure creatine—the best type of creatine on the market—is a fully plant-based, vegan supplement.
On a side note, if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, taking creatine may have other general health benefits, such as improved memory (study)!
Are you a teen athlete?
There have been no studies showing any downsides or side effects unique to young athletes. One of the most respected journals in the sports industry, The Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition (JISSN), published a public position on creatine, writing that creatine can be recommended safely if the young athlete is past puberty, and seriously or competitively trains, is eating well, uses a quality brand of creatine, the recommended dosage is not exceeded, and they have the approval and supervision of a parent, trainer, coach, doctor, etc. (review)
On the other hand, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Council on Sports Medicine & Fitness, another widely respected organization, published a guide for professionals working with children (guide). Instead of giving an overview of the evidence on creatine, they asked the question “why bother?” (Given the many proven benefits of creatine, and the fact that it’s the healthiest and most powerful muscle-building supplement ever found, there are many reasons to bother.) Interestingly, they cited a 2012 survey in the USA showing that 18% of guys in grade 12 had taken creatine, 11% in grade 10, and 3% in 8th grade. Evidently many teens were bothering.
Are you a bit older and you want to get into lifting weights?
Creatine is a great supplement for building muscle, and building muscle is great for people as they get older. Unfortunately, as we age—especially after age 65—our bodies slowly lose muscle mass and strength. This loss of muscle is called sarcopenia, and it can wreak havoc on your independence by making you weaker and less mobile. An academic review of the research shows that older adults (between 57–70) who do resistance training and supplement with creatine were not only able to fight of sarcopenia, but also build new lean muscle mass. The meta-analysis showed an average of 1.4kg increase in muscle mass compared to those just getting the placebo doses.
Creatine could help reduce injuries and also speed up rehabilitation after injuries have already taken place, especially in those who are older (study, study, study, study). There’s also the other quality of life benefits that creatine could bring to someone a little older, such as the brain-protecting effects (including a possible reduced risk of Alzheimer’s) and joint pain reduction.
As for creatine being safe for older people, in keeping with the studies of creatine supplement safety among other ages, this meta-analysis showed that the creatine supplement had no harmful or adverse effects on the kidneys or liver.
Are you a strapping young lad who eats lots of red meat and fish?
You should probably try supplementing with creatine anyway, but if you don’t notice any improvements in size of strength, you might be one of the fabled creatine non-responders, where your creatine levels are already so high that you might experience minimal benefit from extra creatine supplementation. Sorry.
How To Use Creatine
Popular Types of Creatine
Creatine pills (tablets) or powder?
Creatine powder is cheaper for manufacturers to make, as there’s no need for bonding agents—it’s just pure creatine in a bin. However, tablets are often easier to take, and there’s no real downside to ingesting the bonding agents. Choose whichever you prefer. There’s no wrong choice.
Creatine monohydrate is what you should buy
Creatine monohydrate is the most extensively studied type of creatine. It’s safe, and it’s just as effective as all the other newer types. In fact, it’s sometimes even more effective than the fancier types of creatine. For example, creatine ethyl ester performed worse.
Creatine monohydrate is also the cheapest form of creatine. Not that cheapness should play a role in how you should select the supplements you’ll be ingesting, but it when the most effective type of creatine also happens to be the cheapest, it’s definitely worth mentioning.
In this 2017 review, they said there are some safety concerns with creatine orotate, creatine phosphate, and magnesium creatine chelate.
Get creatine monohydrate. If you want to read about the studied differences in more depth, check out the Formulations & Variants section on Examine.com (link).
What is Creapure®?
Creapure is a brand of creatine monohydrate that is produced by AlzChem Trosterberg GmbH in Germany. They then sell it to sports nutrition companies. So if you see that logo on the package, your creatine would have been made in Germany by AlzChem.
Creapure is plant-based, making it suitable even for the strictest of vegans, because it’s created through chemical synthesis. Raw materials and intermediates are not made from animal or herbal products. It’s also listed as being both Kosher and Halal certified (link).
We’re no chemists, but according to the manufacturers of Creapure, they say that there are many methods to manufacture creatine and their approach is the best and safest. There are potentially two undesirable byproducts when making creatine (dicyandiamide and dihydrotriazine) which they specifically minimize the risk of and aim for a 99.99% purity. Most experts seem to agree that this brand is the highest quality.
2 of the 5 top scoring brands, which included metrics such as purity, were using Creapure as their source of creatine.
Micronized creatine—is it better?
Micronized means to break something into very fine particles. Creatine monohydrate is known as being a bit grainy, and some of it can stick to your glass. So breaking it down further could potentially help it mix better into water.
But there are no studies that we could find on micronized creatine being better or worse than non-micronized creatine, it seems that the only example is how well it mixes into a drink. It shouldn’t make any difference, so we’d recommend just sticking to the top brands (down below) and worry less about if it’s micronized or not.
How much do I take?
Some people do a loading phase, and others just take enough daily and slowly build their creatine stores. Ultimately the result will be the same.
We recommend taking 5g of creatine monohydrate every day.
Why don’t we recommend creatine loading? Well, you need to drink a lot of water when taking creatine to avoid cramping, diarrhea or nausea. So when people do the loading phase, say around 20-25g a day for a week, it’s pretty easy to run into those kinds of problems.
We find it’s easier just get into the habit of taking one 5g scoop or pill daily and skip the risk.
I love supplements—I don’t want to take too little
5g is all you need. That is more than your body can use, and it will slowly build up your creatine levels in your body. Loading with more hasn’t shown any additional benefits and would just increase the chances of the downsides.
Now, if you’ve been training diligently for several years and are quite muscular, you could theoretically increase your daily serving, since you have more muscle mass, you could get benefits from even more creatine. Examine.com says if the trainee has a lot of muscle mass, they could try doing two daily 5g doses, so 10g total split up across the day.
I’m tepidly excited—I don’t want to take too much
Taking 5g will build up your creatine levels. Creatine, being so valuable to the body, is normally recycled through the kidneys and put back to work. But when you’re supplementing, once your body has reached peak creatine levels, it won’t need to recycle any of the creatine, and it will just remove the excess creatine through urine. So that’s why staying hydrated is key. So there’s no problem with staying with the most studied dose of 5g (link).
With or without Food? When do I to take creatine?
Take it once every single day and on an empty stomach or wait an hour or two after eating before taking it. The less food in your stomach, the better the chance that the creatine can be absorbed before getting broken down. If creatine spends too long in the stomach, more of it will be broken down into creatinine to be flushed out by the kidneys.
Don’t worry about it too much though. Even if you do take creatine with lots of protein and carbs, less than 10% would be lost by being converted into creatinine, which is broken down creatine and needs to be pissed out. So it’d still help you get more creatine into your diet. (source credit by Adel Moussa)
It doesn’t need to be before or after a workout or any specific timing. Just once daily—on rest days and on gym days.
Frequently Asked Questions About Creatine:
Does creatine make you bald or make balding worse?
There’s a lot of worry and controversy over creating and balding. Here’s why. One study from 2009 (study) on rugby players found that when supplementing with creatine, there was a rise in dihydrotestosterone (DHT) but not testosterone.
Increasing DHT could theoretically make male pattern baldness worse based on your own individual genetics (study).
Since then, the outcomes of this study have never been reproduced in another study.
There has been published critical commentary on the study. The main criticisms of the studies were that there are many variables to consider, such as the possibility of the supplement being contaminated. One research review (AARR) writing on this topic said that even a 0.00005% contamination could potentially skew the results.
Examine.com also reviewed this study, saying that even if creatine did bump up DHT, the level of DHT was still well within the normal DHT range. So presumably hair loss would still happen at the same rate (link).
On top of that, DHT is a byproduct of testosterone, and creatine has had 10 studies on its relationship with testosterone, and it doesn’t seem to affect it at all (more on that below.)
In fact, research reviewer Adel Moussa, makes an excellent point that even playing football will double your DHT levels for a short time. Are we willing to give up moving and/or playing sports? (study)
So, right now there’s no real evidence that creatine could make balding worse. Instead, if you’re worried about balding, it may make sense to focus your efforts elsewhere.
You could just take creatine and then use low-level light therapy (study), stop smoking if you smoke (link, link), work on your cardio and sit less (link, link), and work on becoming healthier (study, study, link). Or, according to one new hypothesis yet to be proven, gravity also may play a role (link), so you could sign up for Elon Musk’s plan to colonize Mars (nearly 3x less gravity!).
But as always, it’s your call.
Does creatine affect your testosterone?
The short answer is no. The longer answer is to go read this excellent recap on the evidence here on Examine.com.
Examine.com writes that 3 randomized controlled trials are at the source of this question. The first study is the one we just discussed with hair loss that found no difference in testosterone, but that it raised dihydrotestosterone (DHT). This is the only randomized and controlled trial on creatines effect on DHT. Two other studies followed 40 guys in total that found a small bump up in testosterone.
But since then 10 other randomized controlled trials, studying over 5 times the amount of guys, had all reported that creatine had no effect on testosterone. Creatine helps you build muscle, but likely not through affecting your testosterone. If naturally increasing your testosterone is something you want to do, you can check out this guest article on our website with Dr Bhavsar. There are simple actions like improving your sleep and fixing vitamin deficiencies like with vitamin D drops that are easy to do.
What happens after you stop taking creatine?
One study investigated what happens after you stop taking creatine (study). The authors found that stopping creatine supplementation had no effect on their strength, endurance, or loss of lean tissue mass. One might presume that after a while your creatine stores would go back to a normal level. So it could be that creatine can help you get your gains faster and do better training, and then those adaptations that your muscles make are yours to keep should you decide to stop taking creatine.
What are some natural sources of creatine in foods?
Our bodies can create creatine by having enough of the three amino acids: arginine, glycine, and methionine. But if you eat creatine from meat or fish in its final form, it’s much more available to our bodies. So we can increase our storage of creatine.
The best sources of creatine in foods are fish, beef, pork, turkey, and chicken. But here’s a much more exact chart:
A couple thoughts.
Fish is a great source of creatine—just watch out that it’s not over-processed
One source put Cod at 7g per 100g of meat, and the other at 4.41g per 100g. Why the discrepancy? Well, it’s possible that each fish that we eat is unique and a little bit different.
Plus, the processing methods can affect creatine. In the Rehbein study, they said the intensity of the washing and processing can change the creatine levels in a fish. Either way, fish seems to be one of the top sources of creatine.
Skip the shellfish
The second thing to note is that its standard advice to say that seafood is a good source of creatine. But that’s wrong. The word seafood includes shellfish and things like shrimp, crab, mussels, and even squid were all poor sources of creatine. It’s better to stick to fish and skip the shellfish if you’re aiming to eat more dietary creatine.
Cooking & preserving meat—does it affect creatine levels?
One final thing to keep in mind is that creatine is broken down a little bit by cooking. So eating a rare steak would net you more creatine than eating a well-done steak. What’s neat is that in this study it mentions that the highest levels of creatine were found in preserved dried meat or dried fish. So perhaps eating more jerky or biltong could be smart.
The 5 Best Brands of Creatine
Labdoor is an independent company that uses FDA-approved laboratories to test the labeling accuracy, product purity, nutritional value, and the projected efficacy of supplements. You can buy reports from them for a deeper look but they provide their full rankings for free.
As of September 2018, the top 5 creatine brands listed on their website were:
- Muscle Feast Creapure, Score: 93.9
- Bulk Supplements Creatine Monohydrate, Score: 92.3
- Myprotein Creatine Monohydrate, Score: 92.2
- Allmax Nutrition 100% Pure Micronized Creapure Creatine*, Score: 91.1
- Primaforce CreaForm Creatine Monohydrate, Score: 91.9
Just a heads up that those are Amazon affiliates links should you like to use them.
*We personally used the Allmax Nutrition 100% Pure Micronized Creapure Creatine. We’ve re-bought it several times but they last for a long time. Judging from recent reviews on Amazon, Allmax may have switched away from Creapure, which is what Labdoor had tested and scored. So although we enjoy Allmax as a brand, if you’re looking for Creapure you may want to double-check it or go with another brand.
Summary & Warning
- Our bodies naturally make and use creatine, but we can top off our levels of creatine with a supplement.
- Supplementing with creatine can improve our maximum power and strength by 5-15%.
- Creatine will reliably help you build more muscle, making it the best muscle-building supplement on the market.
- When you stop taking creatine, you keep your gains. You can safely stop taking it anytime.
- Creatine could have other health benefits especially for those who are aging or don’t eat meat.
- Creatine has no side-effects so long as you stay adequately hydrated.
- Young guys who are genetically gifted and eat lots of meat might have naturally optimal levels of creatine and thus be “non-responders.” The supplement won’t help or harm them.
- Take creatine monohydrate, which is the most studied and cheapest type. Ignore the other formulations.
- You can take tablets or powder, whatever is easier for you.
- Take 5 grams once a day, every day, in between meals, with water.
- Creatine more than likely doesn’t affect male pattern baldness.
- Creatine does not affect your testosterone.
- Natural sources of creatine include fish, beef, pork, turkey, chicken.
- Jerky or biltong could potentially be the best source of creatine due to the way they’re preserved through drying.
Our website is for guys—ectomorphs, skinny guys, and hardgainers—in particular. But we want to be clear—women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not be taking creatine. There is creatine in breastmilk and there isn’t enough research to know if supplementing could affect the levels of creatine that make it into breastmilk.
As always, talk to your doctor or a licensed professional before taking any supplements, especially if you’re on medication. This isn’t just a disclaimer, it’s a genuinely good idea.
Alright, moving on. Have you ever tried creatine? What did you think of it? And if you haven’t tried creatine, why not?
Leave a comment below and fill us in.