Creatine: Can It Build Muscle? Is It Safe?

bodybuilder

Creatine is one of the most popular and effective sports supplements available.  

Despite rumors and myths that it is dangerous, it has shown to be a safe and effective way to improve performance and increase lean muscle growth.

If you are wanting to build more muscle and strength then creatine is the your best bet. It should be a staple of any supplement stack. Weightlifters, bodybuilders, and athletes know the performance benefits that can be gained from creatine.

We must first know the risks and benefits that come with creatine, like any supplement, before putting it into our bodies.  No worries though, this isn’t some gateway drug to steroids.  You won’t be injecting steroids with your pals anytime soon like Jose Canseco claims he did with Mark McGwire.  

There are hundreds of scientific studies that show supplementing creatine can benefit strength, power, and muscle growth…but by how much?

What Is Creatine?

According to Examine.com, creatine is a molecule produced in the body. It stores high-energy phosphate groups in the form of phosphocreatine.1 Phosphocreatine releases energy to aid cellular function during stress. This effect causes strength increases after creatine supplementation, and can also benefit the brain, bones, muscles, and liver.

Foods such as beef, salmon, or tuna contain high sources of creatine monohydrate.  If your diet consists of a lot of red meats and fish then you may already be receiving the recommended amount of creatine.

Typically you would have to be on a high protein diet consisting of meats to reach recommended daily levels which is why supplementation is usually required to see the benefits.  A typical omnivorous diet will result in around 1 gram of creatine taken in per day, which is not enough to see the benefits that you would see from supplementation.

Creatine Powder

How Does It Work?

Creatine regenerates a molecule in the body called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which transports chemical energy within cells for metabolism.  Supplementation replenishes ATP directly without having to go through the normal process of breaking other molecules down into ATP.

Is Creatine Safe?

Again, there have been many rumors to how creatine can be dangerous and have serious side effects.  Just remember, these are just rumors.  It has been extensively researched and no adverse side effects have been discovered. It has also shown to be safe for both men and women.

The only area of slight concern is that creatine could increase the rate of balding in men with Male Pattern Baldness but the data isn’t conclusive. Supplementation has shown to increase the rate of conversion of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone (DHT).  DHT is what seems to be a major factor with Male Pattern Baldness.  Higher circulating levels of DHT is associated with higher rates of hair loss.

Again, this could be a concern if Male Pattern Baldness runs in your family or if you are already beginning to lose your hair as it could increase the rate of hair loss. Does it matter though?  Dwayne Johnson shaves his head and looks sharp. So do a lot of guys who are losing their hair. Get ripped and shave the rest!

Why Should I take Creatine?

Creatine allows you to work harder and get more reps in.  That extra work will help you build more muscle.  With creatine, your muscle cells draw more water into the cells, which boosts protein synthesis.  

It also increases ATP pools which can give more energy during high-intensity activities.  This is what allow you to work harder and get more reps in.  The additional work will also build more muscle and strength.  Creatine also has shown to assist with recovery from high-intensity workouts.

Studies have shown these benefits from creatine:

  • Improved Performance2 3
  • Greater Increases in Strength2
  • More Energy5
  • Increased Lean Body Mass (Muscle Growth)6
  • Average 8% gain in maximum strength & 14% increase in the number of repetitions done.7

Quick Muscle Growth

Creatine monohydrate is the most effective safe and legal supplement in the world for building muscle during training and increasing high-intensity exercise capacity.8 There are hundreds of studies that backup these claims.

Running

Improves High-Intensity Cardio

In one study on swimmers performing six repeated sprint swimming bouts, it found that creatine supplementation greatly improved anaerobic performance.9

Another study showed that supplementing creatine boosted performance during high-intensity cycling by reducing blood lactate production.10

How To Take Creatine?

The cheapest and most effective form of creatine is creatine monohydrate. Other forms, such as micronized creatine monohydrate, do mix better with water which is a bit easier to take.

When you start taking creatine monohydrate you will need to go through a loading phase where intake is higher.  For the first 5 days, you will take on average between 20 to 25 grams per day. The intake is based on your body weight which is 0.3 grams per kilogram of body weight. This will allow you to see the quickest benefits from taking creatine.

After the 5-day loading phase, you can drop your intake down to 5 grams per day which is considered the maintenance phase.

Make sure to drink plenty of water with creatine as insufficient water intake could lead to stomach cramps.

When To Take Creatine?

This is quite a debated question in the fitness community as for whether you should take it before a workout, after a workout, or whenever it’s most convenient.

Creatine Before a Workout

Some argue that taking it before a workout is more effective since it makes more ATP available to the muscles which will give you more power in the gym.  

Creatine After a Workout

Some in the fitness community argue for taking it after a workout because it will help replenish your depleted muscles since they are ready to soak up any nutrients available.  

In one study researchers compared the results of taking creatine before or after workouts.  Nineteen male recreational body builders were split into two groups, pre and post workout, and trained for 4 weeks.  The study showed that lean muscle gains and 1RM increased more by taking creatine post workout than pre-workout.  Body fat also decreased more than the group that took creatine pre-workout.  Although the numbers were not considered significant it still shows some benefit.11

Creatine when Convenient

Since the results of that study were not significant there isn’t any specific time that is optimal for taking creatine.  You can take it whenever as long as you are getting your daily intake.  It may be helpful to take it with a meal as that will at least help prevent the possibility of an upset stomach.

Should I Cycle Creatine

No.  There is no reason to cycle creatine.  The body doesn’t build up a tolerance to it like it would to caffeine where the effects do lessen over time. There aren’t any adverse effects from taking it for long periods of time and there is no known creatine sensitivity to be worried about.  

In one study athletes supplemented creatine for 21 months and there were no known adverse effects.12 Keep taking it and enjoy the gains.

Increased Water Weight for Increased Performance

You will add some water weight from creatine due to increased levels in muscle. This will make muscles look fuller and tighter while will not giving you a bloated look. Hydrated muscles do help with endurance and performance.  

In one study comparing hydrated and dehydrated cyclists, the hydrated group completed their 5-KM ride 5.8% faster.13

Increased water weight from creatine can increase body weight, which could be a problem for people needing to be in a certain weight-class for competition.  If this is the case you should stop taking it 4 to 6 weeks before a competition.

Will Creatine Help Me Burn Fat?

There aren’t any studies that show that creatine directly helps burn fat.  Although you may burn more calories since creatine will help you work harder by increasing power and performance.  It also helps you gain lean muscle which can give a slight increase in your overall metabolic rate making it an indirect fat burner.

Any Other Benefits To Creatine?

Anti-Depressant Properties

Research has shown that creatine taken with selective reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), otherwise known as antidepressants, has greatly improved the anti-depressive effects of the SSRI medication.14 There have been other studies that have shown anti-depressant properties, mainly in women, but the above study was the first to be statistically significant.

Blood Pressure

Cardioprotective Properties

Creatine is a cardioprotective agent as it can strengthen heart cells by providing them with energy while also protecting against plaque buildup in the heart’s arteries.15

Creatine can reduce cramping and injuries

A study examined the effects of creatine supplementation on the incidence of cramping and injury observed during one season of NCAA IA football training and competition. It found that creatine users had significantly less cramping, dehydration, muscle strains, and total injuries than non-creatine users.16

Support Against Neurological Diseases and Aging

A part of the aging process is due to reduced levels of creatine and phosphocreatine, especially in regards to skeletal muscle.  After age 30, phosphocreatine regeneration rates fall roughly by 8% each decade after age 30.17

Supplementation has shown in athletes to increase creatine content by 10 to 30% and phosphocreatine stores by 10 to 40%.18

Physically inactive people can lose as much as 3% to 5% of their muscle mass each decade after age 30.19 Even those who are active will see some muscle loss. Creatine can help build and maintain muscle as we age which can help reduce the aging process.

Creatine has been found to increase phosphocreatine in the body which has been found to afford levels of neuroprotection against Parkinson’s disease symptoms.16 21 The increases in phosphocreatine levels may help reduce or slow disease progression.

There is promising evidence that creatine may be an effective therapy for patients at an early stage of Alzheimer’s disease by offering certain neuroprotection that prevents deteriorations that affect learning and memory.22 But more studies are needed to find out how beneficial it is as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

Lower Blood Sugar Levels After Meals

According to research studies, creatine supplementation can help lower blood sugar levels.23 24 25

One study compared a group that only exercised and one that exercised and supplemented creatine.  The group that combined both had better glucose tolerance (blood sugar).25

Although current research hasn’t determined the effects of long-term supplementation it does show some promise for blood sugar control and reducing diabetic symptoms.

Knowledge

Creatine Improves Brain Function

Oral creatine monohydrate supplementation improves brain performance.27

Research has shown that the brain uses significant amounts of ATP, adenosine triphosphate, energy when performing difficult tasks.27 As discussed earlier, creatine increases ATP energy which can help with brain function.

Typically red meat is the best source of creatine outside of supplementation. Vegetarians typically have low levels of creatine in their bodies since they do not eat meat. In one study vegetarians were supplemented creatine and were shown to improve memory and intelligence tests by 28 to 50%.27

Another study showed that cognitive performance in elderly individuals improved with creatine supplementation. With just two weeks of supplementation it showed significant improvement in the participants’ memory and recall abilities.30

A review of other research studies shows that creatine supplementation can be remarkably beneficial for the elderly.  Benefits include improved brain function, maintaining muscle mass, and delaying the onset of neurodegenerative diseases associated with aging.31

Reduced Fatigue and Tiredness

There is some evidence that creatine can help reduce fatigue and tiredness.32

Another study found that creatine can lessen the negative effects of sleep deprivation by improving mood and reducing fatigue.33

The research found that creatine is able to help athletes delay exercise-induced fatigue during a cycling test.34

It’s Time To Start Taking Creatine

The listed research above is a good sample of benefits that can come from creatine supplementation, although there are more potential benefits that do require more study.  

The research shows that creatine is a safe, effective, and cheap supplement to build more muscle, increase athletic performance, slow aging, and offer a slew of other health benefits.  These are strong reasons why anyone who wants to build muscle or stay healthy should be supplementing creatine every day.

  1. Examine.com. https://examine.com/supplements/creatine/
  2. Becque, M. D., Lochmann, J. D., & Melrose, D. R. (2000). Effects of oral creatine supplementation on muscular strength and body composition. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 32(3), 654-658. doi:10.1097/00005768-200003000-00016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10731009
  3.  Volek, J. S., Kraemer, W. J., Bush, J. A., Boetes, M., Incledon, T., Clark, K. L., & Lynch, J. M. (1997). Creatine Supplementation Enhances Muscular Performance During High-Intensity Resistance Exercise. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 97(7), 765-770. doi:10.1016/s0002-8223(97)00189-2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9216554
  4. Becque, M. D., Lochmann, J. D., & Melrose, D. R. (2000). Effects of oral creatine supplementation on muscular strength and body composition. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 32(3), 654-658. doi:10.1097/00005768-200003000-00016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10731009
  5. Balsom, P. D., Söderlund, K., Sjödin, B., & Ekblom, B. (1995). Skeletal muscle metabolism during short duration high-intensity exercise: influence of creatine supplementation. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, 154(3), 303-310. doi:10.1111/j.1748-1716.1995.tb09914.x. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7572228
  6. Buford, T. W., Kreider, R. B., Stout, J. R., Greenwood, M., Campbell, B., Spano, M., . . . Antonio, J. (2007). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: creatine supplementation and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 4(1), 6. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-4-6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2048496/
  7. Rawson, E. S., & Volek, J. S. (2003). Effects of Creatine Supplementation and Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Weightlifting Performance. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 17(4), 822. doi:10.1519/1533-4287(2003)017<0822:eocsar>2.0.co;2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14636102
  8. Buford, T. W., Kreider, R. B., Stout, J. R., Greenwood, M., Campbell, B., Spano, M., . . . Antonio, J. (2007). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: creatine supplementation and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 4(1), 6. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-4-6 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2048496/
  9. Aaserud, R., Gramvik, P., Olsen, S. R., & Jensen, J. (1998). Creatine supplementation delays onset of fatigue during repeated bouts of sprint running. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 8(5), 247-251. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0838.1998.tb00478.x. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23715246
  10. Balsom, P. D., Ekblom, B., Söerlund, K., Sjödln, B., & Hultman, E. (2007). Creatine supplementation and dynamic high-intensity intermittent exercise. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 3(3), 143-149. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0838.1993.tb00378.x. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1600-0838.1993.tb00378.x/abstract
  11.  Antonio, J., & Ciccone, V. (2013). The effects of pre versus post workout supplementation of creatine monohydrate on body composition and strength. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10(1), 36. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-10-36. https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-10-36
  12. Kreider, R. B., Melton, C., Rasmussen, C. J., Greenwood, M., Lancaster, S., Cantler, E. C., . . . Almada, A. L. (2003). Long-term creatine supplementation does not significantly affect clinical markers of health in athletes. Guanidino Compounds in Biology and Medicine, 95-104. doi:10.1007/978-1-4615-0247-0_14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12701816
  13.  Logan‐Sprenger, H. M., Heigenhauser, G. J., Jones, G. L., & Spriet, L. L. (2015). The effect of dehydration on muscle metabolism and time trial performance during prolonged cycling in males. Physiological Reports, 3(8). doi:10.14814/phy2.12483.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4562569/
  14. Lyoo, I. K., Yoon, S., Kim, T., Hwang, J., Kim, J. E., Won, W., . . . Renshaw, P. F. (2012). A Randomized, Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Trial of Oral Creatine Monohydrate Augmentation for Enhanced Response to a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor in Women With Major Depressive Disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 169(9), 937-945. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2012.12010009. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22864465
  15.  Patel, K. (2013, November 19). Creatine and SAMe. Retrieved January 13, 2018, from https://examine.com/nutrition/creatine-and-same/
  16.  Greenwood, M., Kreider, R., Greenwood, L., Earnest, C. P., Farris, J., Brown, L. E., . . . Byars, A. (2002). Effects Of Creatine Supplementation On The Incidence Of Cramping/injury During Eighteen Weeks Of Collegiate Baseball Training/competition. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 34(5). doi:10.1097/00005768-200205001-00811. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14608430
  17.  Kreider, R. B. (2003). Effects of creatine supplementation on performance and training adaptations. Guanidino Compounds in Biology and Medicine, 89-94. doi:10.1007/978-1-4615-0247-0_13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12701815
  18.  Kreider, R. B. (2003). Effects of supplementation on performance and training adaptations. Guanidino Compounds in Biology and Medicine, 89-94. doi:10.1007/978-1-4615-0247-0_13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12701815
  19. Sarcopenia With Aging. (n.d.). Retrieved January 13, 2018, from https://www.webmd.com/healthy-aging/guide/sarcopenia-with-aging
  20.  Greenwood, M., Kreider, R., Greenwood, L., Earnest, C. P., Farris, J., Brown, L. E., . . . Byars, A. (2002). Effects Of Creatine Supplementation On The Incidence Of Cramping/injury During Eighteen Weeks Of Collegiate Baseball Training/competition. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 34(5). doi:10.1097/00005768-200205001-00811. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14608430
  21.  Matthews, R. T., Ferrante, R. J., Klivenyi, P., Yang, L., Klein, A. M., Mueller, G., . . . Beal, M. (1999). Creatine and Cyclocreatine Attenuate MPTP Neurotoxicity. Experimental Neurology, 157(1), 142-149. doi:10.1006/exnr.1999.7049. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10222117
  22. Bürklen, T. S., Schlattner, U., Homayouni, R., Gough, K., Rak, M., Szeghalmi, A., & Wallimann, T. (2006). The Creatine Kinase/Creatine Connection to Alzheimers Disease: CK Inactivation, APP-CK Complexes and Focal Creatine Deposits. Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology, 2006, 1-11. doi:10.1155/jbb/2006/35936. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1510941/
  23. Nelson, A. G., Arnall, D. A., Kokkonen, J., Day, R., & Evans, J. (2001). Muscle glycogen supercompensation is enhanced by prior creatine supplementation. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 1096-1100. doi:10.1097/00005768-200107000-00005. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11445755
  24. Iyer, L. M., Burroughs, A. M., Anand, S., Souza, R. F., & Aravind, L. (2017). Polyvalent Proteins, a Pervasive Theme in the Intergenomic Biological Conflicts of Bacteriophages and Conjugative Elements. Journal of Bacteriology, 199(15). doi:10.1128/jb.00245-17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11147785
  25. Gualano, B., Novaes, R. B., Artioli, G. G., Freire, T. O., Coelho, D. F., Scagliusi, F. B., . . . Lancha, A. H. (2007). Effects of creatine supplementation on glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity in sedentary healthy males undergoing aerobic training. Amino Acids, 34(2), 245-250. doi:10.1007/s00726-007-0508-1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17396216
  26. Gualano, B., Novaes, R. B., Artioli, G. G., Freire, T. O., Coelho, D. F., Scagliusi, F. B., . . . Lancha, A. H. (2007). Effects of creatine supplementation on glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity in sedentary healthy males undergoing aerobic training. Amino Acids, 34(2), 245-250. doi:10.1007/s00726-007-0508-1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17396216
  27. Rae, C., Digney, A. L., Mcewan, S. R., & Bates, T. C. (2003). Oral creatine monohydrate supplementation improves brain performance: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over trial. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 270(1529), 2147-2150. doi:10.1098/rspb.2003.2492. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1691485/
  28. Rae, C., Digney, A. L., Mcewan, S. R., & Bates, T. C. (2003). Oral creatine monohydrate supplementation improves brain performance: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over trial. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 270(1529), 2147-2150. doi:10.1098/rspb.2003.2492. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1691485/
  29. Rae, C., Digney, A. L., Mcewan, S. R., & Bates, T. C. (2003). Oral creatine monohydrate supplementation improves brain performance: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over trial. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 270(1529), 2147-2150. doi:10.1098/rspb.2003.2492. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1691485/
  30. Mcmorris, T., Mielcarz, G., Harris, R. C., Swain, J. P., & Howard, A. (2007). Creatine Supplementation and Cognitive Performance in Elderly Individuals. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, 14(5), 517-528. doi:10.1080/13825580600788100. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17828627
  31. Smith, R. N., Agharkar, A. S., & Gonzales, E. B. (2014). A review of creatine supplementation in age-related diseases: more than a supplement for athletes. F1000Research. doi:10.12688/f1000research.5218.1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4304302/
  32. Sakellaris, G., Nasis, G., Kotsiou, M., Tamiolaki, M., Charissis, G., & Evangeliou, A. (2007). Prevention of traumatic headache, dizziness and fatigue with creatine administration. A pilot study. Acta Paediatrica, 97(1), 31-34. doi:10.1111/j.1651-2227.2007.00529.x. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18053002
  33. Mcmorris, T., Harris, R. C., Swain, J., Corbett, J., Collard, K., Dyson, R. J., . . . Draper, N. (2006). Effect of creatine supplementation and sleep deprivation, with mild exercise, on cognitive and psychomotor performance, mood state, and plasma concentrations of catecholamines and cortisol. Psychopharmacology, 185(1), 93-103. doi:10.1007/s00213-005-0269-z. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16416332
  34. Smith, A. E., Walter, A. A., Herda, T. J., Ryan, E. D., Moon, J. R., Cramer, J. T., & Stout, J. R. (2007). Effects of creatine loading on electromyographic fatigue threshold during cycle ergometry in college-aged women. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 4(1), 20. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-4-20. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18039377