In the world of sports supplements, there’s a long-standing debate around creatine HCL vs monohydrate.
Both contenders, HCL creatine and creatine monohydrate, have their loyalists, each swearing by the benefits of their chosen type.
But in studies comparing creatine monohydrate vs HCL, how do these types of creatine differ, what are their pros and cons, and which comes out on top?
Get evidence-based answers to these questions and more in this article.
Table of Contents
Creatine is a natural compound comprising the amino acids L-arginine, glycine, and methionine.
Your body produces creatine naturally, but it can also absorb and store creatine from foods like meat, eggs, and fish.
Taking creatine sports supplements greatly increases your body’s creatine stores, leading to increased muscle growth, improved strength and power, better anaerobic capacity, reduced fatigue, less muscle damage and soreness after exercise, modified gene expression relating to hypertrophy, and greater muscle retention after grueling workouts.
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Creatine monohydrate is creatine bound to one molecule of water (“mono” meaning one and “hydrate” referring to water).
It’s the most well-studied type of creatine available, and research repeatedly shows that creatine monohydrate supplements are safe and boost your athletic performance as much or more than other forms of creatine.
Over the years, manufacturers have modified creatine in various ways in the hopes of making a type of creatine that’s more effective than monohydrate.
Creatine hydrochloride (HCL) is one such type.
HCL creatine is chemically similar to monohydrate, only the creatine molecules bind to hydrochloric acid rather than water.
This distinction gives creatine HCL two potential advantages over monohydrate:
- Improved solubility: HCL is more “soluble” in water (it dissolves more easily) than monohydrate.
- Enhanced absorption: HCL moves through the gut wall more efficiently than monohydrate, optimizing the amount your body uses.
Some believe these potential benefits mean you need less HCL creatine to fill muscle cells, leading to less creatine excretion and stomach discomfort.
However, none involved human participants—scientists studied HCL and monohydrate solubility using lab equipment and assessed absorption using human cells, pig skin, and rat brains.
Given the differences in how various species store and process creatine, it’s uncertain if these findings would translate to living humans. Even if they did, the benefits might not be as significant as anticipated.
That’s because the few studies that pit creatine monohydrate vs. HCL show they’re similarly effective.
In one study published in the journal Food and Nutrition Sciences, researchers had weightlifters take creatine monohydrate or creatine HCL daily for 4 weeks while following a strength training program.
The results showed that all of the weightlifters gained comparable strength on the bench and leg press, but those who took HCL appeared to lose more fat and gain more “fat-free mass” (a proxy for muscle).
While this might seem like a victory for HCL, two points warrant caution.
First, the researchers determined the weightlifters’ body fat percentage using skinfold calipers, a method known for its inaccuracy. Hence, errors during measuring could easily have caused the changes in body fat percentage.
And second, the study noted that only those taking HCL saw a significant increase in fat-free mass even though the monohydrate group saw a larger increase (3.5 pounds vs. 3.7 pounds), a discrepancy the authors failed to explain.
In a subsequent study by the same research team, athletes taking HCL and monohydrate saw similar increases in lean body mass (another proxy for muscle) and strength, but only those taking HCL saw a decrease in fat.
Again, the scientists used skinfold calipers to determine these changes, which makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions from their findings.
In the last study to compare creatine monohydrate vs. HCL, researchers found that both HCL and monohydrate failed to improve athletic performance and anabolic (“muscle-building”) hormone levels in young men after one week.
These findings are unsurprising considering the time creatine takes to exert its effects and its minimal impact on hormone levels.
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Scientists developed creatine HCL to sidestep monohydrate’s most common side effects: water retention and weight gain.
These side effects typically affect people during a creatine “loading phase,” where you take higher doses for the first week of taking creatine monohydrate to accelerate its accumulation in your muscles.
Because of its chemical composition, HCL creatine is 38 times more soluble than monohydrate and potentially more “bioavailable.” As such, many believe taking HCL helps you avoid adverse side effects since you consume less water and creatine than when supplementing with monohydrate.
While these advantages sound promising, no evidence confirms them in humans, so you should think of them as “potential” rather than “proven” benefits until scientists confirm them with high-quality research.
Another reason not to get too jazzed about these potential “pros” is that loading creatine monohydrate is optional.
If you’re worried about experiencing side effects, you can simply skip the loading phase and take 3-to-5 grams daily instead. This approach may mean you have to wait slightly longer to experience creatine’s performance-enhancing benefits, but it won’t impact its long-term effectiveness.
In other words, there’s no guarantee HCL has any advantages over monohydrate. And even if it does, you can offset these advantages by taking less monohydrate when you begin supplementing.
A major drawback of choosing HCL over monohydrate is the cost.
In a systematic review by the University of Colorado, researchers found that most forms of creatine boost performance to a similar degree, but creatine monohydrate is significantly more affordable. According to their analysis, the average cost of a 5-gram serving of HCL is $1.10.
Meanwhile, a 5-gram serving of monohydrate costs just $0.29.
As noted earlier, HCL creatine may slightly reduce your risk of water retention, bloating, and temporary weight gain compared to creatine monohydrate.
That said, skipping the loading phase when using monohydrate can also mitigate these side effects.
Aside from these minor and usually short-lived side effects, supplementing with creatine is generally safe, even when taking large daily doses (30 grams per day) for several years.
Contrary to what some say, there’s no evidence it causes acne, headaches, or high blood pressure. Moreover, it doesn’t disturb sleep, almost certainly doesn’t cause hair loss, and provided you have healthy kidneys, it won’t harm kidney health, either.
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Research shows that creatine of any kind improves your athletic performance in numerous ways.
However, no type of creatine is as well-studied, safe, cost-effective, and reliable as creatine monohydrate.
Thus, monohydrate is the clear winner in a battle between creatine monohydrate vs. HCL.
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Creatine increases the amount of water held in muscle cells, making your muscles appear bigger.
There’s no “best time to take creatine.”
Research shows it works perfectly well when you take it at any time of the day.
The creatine stores in your muscles will gradually deplete, causing your athletic performance to dip.
This doesn’t happen overnight, though.
Provided your muscles are fully saturated when you stop, you can expect to hang onto approximately 80% of your stored creatine for up to 2 weeks, and it’ll take around a month of not taking creatine before your levels return to “baseline.”
Creatine isn’t a stimulant, so taking it before bed won’t disturb your sleep.
Thus, it’s possible (though highly speculative) that creatine could reduce your need for sleep and counteract the drawbacks of sleep deprivation.
For best results, follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
This usually means taking creatine with 8-to-12 ounces of water.
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