Why, How, and When to Take Creatine to Maximize Strength and Muscle Gains

If you are like most people, you want to get the most out of your time, energy, and money.  Effectiveness is especially important when you are taking supplements.  Here we will discuss why, how, and when to take creatine for the maximum benefits.

First: Why You Should Take a Creatine Supplement

Creatine is needed to recycle Adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the fundamental source of energy your muscle cells use. Supplementing with creatine is shown to enhance weight lifting, cycling, jumping, sprinting, and swimming (1,2).  Also, most creatine in your body is in your muscles, and it also is in high concentrations where there is a high demand for energy, such as eyes, brain, skin for healing, and sperm.  Just because your body uses creatine doesn’t mean you need to supplement with it.  But there are some excellent reasons why you should take creatine.

Creatine is Naturally Produced by Your Body

Creatine is a molecule that your body produces naturally. Specifically, it is made in the kidneys and completed in the liver.  Consequently, your body needs thee by three amino acids: glycine, methionine, and arginine. As a result, these amino acids combine into creatine phosphate and phosphocreatine which is then stored in the skeletal muscles and used for energy. However, your body produces creatine in small amounts and excretes creatine regularly. Accordingly, most people will see benefits from consuming a creatine supplement, since your body can use more than it can produce.

Creatine May Also be Naturally Found in Your Diet

Creatine is the highest in red meat, pork, poultry, and seafood. There is a lot less in dairy products, eggs, and shellfish. Accordingly, it is found mainly in muscle fibers, and you lose a lot when cooking your meat.  By no means am I suggesting that you consume raw meat.  I enjoy sushi a lot, but I also enjoy not getting Salmonella.  So cook your meat when you eat.

Your Food Loses Creatine When Prepared

Cooking degrades creatine by breaking down the amino acid chains. The amount of creatine lost when you cook meat varies.  But the longer and more you cook the meat the more creatine will break down.  It generally takes one to two pounds of beef per day to yield the 3-5 grams of creatine that dietitians will recommend for building muscle. For that reason, many of us can consume enough creatine naturally to see the benefits and do not need to supplement.  Because you may be on a diet that restricts the consumption of meat or doesn’t allow meat; you should consider supplementing creatine if you are trying to build muscle or gain strength.

Most Creatine Supplements Are Synthetic and Vegan-Friendly

Manufacturers make Creatine monohydrate supplements with the amino acid sarcosine and organic compound cyanamide. They are generally combined in a reactor with other catalyst compounds.  Then the reactor is heated and pressurized to form creatine crystals. The product is spun in a centrifuge to separate unwanted compounds and then vacuum-dried. It is milled into an excellent natural powder to boost dissolvability usually. Finally, creatine monohydrate is milled to around 200 mesh, producing an extremely fine powder that can dissolve quickly in water.

Vegan Note:

Most companies don’t disclose the origins of the products used to produce creatine, so you can’t guarantee they are vegan-friendly.  If you take creatine in powder form, it is likely vegan-friendly.  When you take it in capsule form, most capsules are not vegan-friendly unless specifically stated.

Second: How You Should Take Creatine

Now if you have decided you should supplement with creatine, you will likely want to know how to take it.  Most supplements will state right on the label to mix with water or juice.  Though you shouldn’t consume creatine with water and not eat.  Because your body will absorb creatine the best through your natural digestive process, you should take creatine with food or a shake.

You will find it way more cost-effective to buy creatine in powder form.  But if you want the convenience of taking capsules, you will pay for that convenience.

Creatine Monohydrate vs. Other Creatine Compounds

If you are looking for different kinds of creatine, stop and stick to creatine monohydrate.  Monohydrate is the most widely researched and cheapest source of creatine.  You may consider creatine nitrate and creatine HCL, both of which you can get similar benefits.  Consequently, creatine monohydrate is regarded as the purest form of creatine and other sources usually are only effective when taken with monohydrate.

When To Take Creatine: Pre or Post Workout? | Myprotein

How Much Creatine Should You Take

The most debated question for creatine is how much you should take.  You will likely fit into one of three camps: loading, no load, or cycling.  When you are just starting out taking creatine, you will benefit from loading; you will also benefit from not loading.  But, there is no way to tell if you will benefit more from loading or not loading.  If you are on a diet that has restricted the amount of creatine your body has stored then loading would likely be more effective.  Consequently, if your diet is high in foods that contain a lot of creatine already, you will probably not benefit as much from loading.

What is Creatine Loading

Loading creatine is consuming a higher amount of creatine initially to raise the level of stored creatine in your body.  Once your stores reached their limit, your body will excrete the unused creatine.  During loading, you will take up to five times the “maintenance” dose of creatine for 5-7 days.  The maintenance dose is usually 3-5 grams for most individuals if you are over 200lbs and athletic you can take up to 8 grams during maintenance dosing.  Specifically, the average woman taking creatine would likely need around 3 grams, and the average man about 5 grams.  Remember you are taking creatine to help your body produce more ATP for energy.  Consequently, if you are burning a lot of ATP, you should take more creatine.

Why You Should Load Creatine

There is no definitive reason not to load creatine.  The only reason to not load is that you may not have any additional benefits from not loading.  Though this is true, it is also true that you may see more gains from loading, and there are very few if any dangers.

Why Not to Cycle

Cycling is not necessary unless you are cycling your workouts.  The real goal is to give your body the exact amount of creatine it will use and no more.  Since this is too complicated to determine most people will continue to use the same amount of creatine every day including rest days.  Although you may not need as much creatine on rest days if your body has already replenished the amount of creatine used during your workouts.  Because most cycling protocols involve a loading phase a maintenance phase and a pause phase, there are more dangers with increasing loading phases.  But, if you want to cycle the amount of creatine you use you may find it beneficial to reduce your maintenance dose on rest days to as little as half.

Dangers of Creatine

Taking creatine can be dangerous, some side effects are:

  • Dehydration
  • Cramps
  • Weight Gain
  • Muscle Damage
  • Kidney Damage
  • Digestive Problems

Most of these side effects occur for two reasons.  You take too much creatine for an extended amount of time, and you don’t drink enough water.  Though you can take up to 5 times the maintenance dose during the loading phase, indeed there is not a lot of benefit from taking more than twice your maintenance dose to load.  If you are consuming more than 10 grams of creatine a day for an extended time, you will cause your kidneys to work hard to remove the excess creatine from your body.  Really you don’t want to take more than your body can use.

Don’t Forget to Drink More Water

Most importantly creatine is stored in your muscles in water, causing your body to need more water in your muscles.  So when you take creatine you need to consume more water to store it.  Additionally, your body needs water to get rid of excess creatine. Thus the more creatine you take, the more water you need or you will get dehydrated.

How to Use Creatine Effectively: 6 Things You Need to Know

Third: When to Take Creatine

Well if you have decided you should supplement with creatine, now you need to know when to take it.  When to take creatine is probably the most straightforward question to answer.  Take it with food or shake when you would typically eat.  Specifically, there is research that shows taking it after a workout is better than before.  Taking creatine before exercise is likely less effective due to your digestive system slowing down when you exercise.  You should also not take more than 5 grams at a time.  Because the only time you need to take more than 5 grams is if you are loading.  When you are loading spread your creatine consumption across your regular meals.  Your body can only absorb creatine so fast.  Most importantly don’t forget you need water when you take creatine.

If you are trying to build strength or muscle you should read Building Muscle: Hypertrophy vs. Strength and How to Have Both.

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