If there’s one supplement that has truly passed the test of time, it’s creatine monohydrate.
It’s been the subject of hundreds of scientific studies, and the evidence is clear. Creatine monohydrate . . .
What’s more, it does it all naturally and safely.
When it comes to losing fat, building muscle, and getting stronger and more athletic, creatine monohydrate is basically all pros and no cons.
Chances are you already knew much of that, though, which is why this article is going to go even deeper.
You’ll learn exactly how creatine monohydrate can help you tackle your fitness goals faster, how to take it for maximum benefits, what the most common side effects are, how it compares to other kinds of creatine (like creatine HCL), and more.
Table of Contents
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Creatine is a natural compound made up of the amino acids L-arginine, glycine, and methionine.
Creatine monohydrate is creatine with one molecule of water attached to it (“mono” meaning one and “hydrate” meaning a molecule with water attached to it).
Creatine monohydrate is mostly popular with athletes and weightlifters because its biggest benefits relate to physical activities that involve short, powerful bursts of effort.
One of the unique properties of this molecule, though, is that it can also significantly benefit higher-rep training by increasing the number of reps you can complete before reaching failure (the point at which you can’t do another rep with good form). There’s also some evidence it may improve endurance performance, too.
Let’s take a look at the science.
There are two ways creatine increases muscle growth:
- It allows you to lift heavier weights for more reps, which gives your muscles a stronger stimulus to grow.
- It increases the water content of muscle cells, which promotes muscle growth in a few different ways.
Evidence for the first point comes to us from a study conducted by scientists at Pennsylvania State University
They found that resistance-trained men who took 5 grams of creatine per day and followed a strength training program increased the sizes of their muscle fibers by 35% on average, whereas the men taking a placebo only experienced a 10% increase in muscle fiber size.
The men taking creatine also increased their squat one-rep max by 32% in 12 weeks, whereas men who took a placebo only increased their squat one-rep max by 24%.
Another study conducted by scientists at Skidmore College found that untrained men who took creatine and lifted weights gained four pounds of lean mass in one month, whereas men who took a placebo didn’t gain any lean mass to speak of.
Now, most of this “lean mass” wasn’t muscle, but increased water retention. While this might sound like a letdown, it’s actually a good thing.
The primary way creatine increases muscle growth is by increasing the water content in muscle cells. This makes the muscles bigger, of course, but also positively impacts nitrogen balance and the expression of certain genes related to muscle growth.
Thus, while most of the weight you gain while taking creatine is “just water,” this increased water weight can boost muscle growth slightly over time.
Other research suggests that creatine also has anti-catabolic effects (reducing muscle breakdown) and may even increase the activity of satellite cells, which could further magnify long-term muscle gain.
The bottom line is that even when you account for the increased water retention, people supplementing with creatine will generally gain muscle faster than those who don’t.
One of the primary benefits of creatine monohydrate is its ability to increase strength.
A good example of this is a review study conducted by scientists at Bloomsburg University, which analyzed 22 of the highest quality studies on creatine and strength gain. They found that on average, people who took creatine monohydrate were able to lift 20% more weight when doing 1, 3, or 10 reps, whereas people who took a placebo only improved their strength by 12%.
Curiously, creatine monohydrate was particularly helpful for increasing bench press 1RM, with increases ranging from 3 to 45%.
The researchers concluded that, “there is substantial evidence to indicate that creatine supplementation during resistance training is more effective at increasing muscle strength and weightlifting performance than resistance training alone, although the response is highly variable.”
So, if you want to get strong as fast as possible, you want to take creatine monohydrate.
“Power” refers to how quickly you can move a certain amount of weight, whereas “strength” is the absolute amount of weight you can move (regardless of how quickly you move it).
Power isn’t all that meaningful if you just want to get big and strong, but it’s important in many sports.
Some research shows creatine may also improve neuromuscular signalling—allowing the brain to “fire” your muscles faster and more efficiently. For example, one study conducted at the University of Rome Foro Italico found that a single large dose of creatine improved neuromuscular function and increased power output within 24 hours—too quickly for it to have accumulated in muscle tissue.
Plant-based diets tend to be very low in creatine because the best food sources of creatine are meat, poultry, and fish. Thus, plant-based eaters can benefit greatly from creatine supplementation, because they get very little from their diets.
There isn’t much research on how creatine affects recovery, but it does appear to enhance it.
Many people think of creatine as a supplement only for increasing strength and power, but it’s also proven to increase muscular endurance.
For example, one review study found that people taking creatine were able to bench press 26% more reps after taking creatine compared to just 12% for the people taking a placebo.
Creatine supplementation also seems to reduce fatigue during endurance exercise.
Scientists from the University of Nicosia and the University of Oklahoma found that creatine supplementation significantly reduced perceived effort (how hard exercise feels) during an intense cycling workout.
In one of these studies, though, only people who had relatively low levels of muscle creatine before supplementing experienced these benefits. It’s possible that those of us starting with normal levels may not notice any benefits.
Yeah . . . getting swoler than Broseidon, keeper of protein shake seas.
Most people experience no side effects from taking normal doses (3 to 5 grams) of creatine.
When people take much more than this (20+ grams) at once, though, they can sometimes experience diarrhea. If you’re loading creatine, then, it’s often best to split take creatine in two smaller doses throughout the day, such as 10 grams in the morning and 10 grams in the evening.
You may have heard that creatine causes muscle cramps, but the evidence for this idea is shaky. The support for this notion is mostly theoretical, with some scientists positing that since creatine “traps” water in muscle cells, it won’t be able to be used for sweating or balancing electrolytes in the blood, which could lead to cramps.
While at least one study has found that participants thought creatine contributed to cramps, most studies have shown that it doesn’t. What’s more, most research shows that dehydration doesn’t lead to cramps, which is why most scientists don’t take the “creatine causes cramps” argument seriously any more.
Research shows that supplementing with 3 to 5 grams of creatine monohydrate per day is optimal for improving strength, power, and muscle growth and recovery.
Some studies show that when you first start taking creatine, you can see benefits sooner by “loading” it—taking around 20 grams per day for the first 5 to 7 days.
Other research shows this may be unnecessary, and that you can get similar results taking the normal, smaller dose. Since creatine monohydrate is relatively cheap, though, there’s no downside to loading it when you first start taking it.
For years, many people thought you needed to take creatine post-workout (and especially with a post-workout meal) to maximize its effects, but more recent research has found this isn’t the case. You can take creatine any time during the day and get the full benefits.
Creatine monohydrate is the most studied and least expensive form of creatine on the market, but it has many challengers to its throne.
Over the years, manufacturers have modified creatine in various ways in the hopes of making it more effective. Their main goal has been to chemically modify creatine or combine it with other substances in the hopes of improving its absorption.
Here are some of the most common variations.
- Creatine hydrochloride (HCL) is creatine bound with hydrochloric acid. Although creatine HCL does dissolve in water more easily than creatine monohydrate (it’s more water soluble), studies have shown that it isn’t any more effective than good ol’ creatine monohydrate for increasing strength.
- Creatine ethyl ester, or CEE, is a form of creatine monohydrate that has undergone a process called esterification to make it more absorbable by the body. That said, a direct comparison between CEE and creatine monohydrate shows that CEE can’t even duplicate, let alone surpass, the results seen with creatine monohydrate supplementation.
- Creatine nitrate is creatine bound with chemicals called nitrates. Some unpublished research indicated that it was more water soluble than creatine monohydrate, but no more beneficial, and there’s been little interest in it since then.
- Creatine citrate is creatine bound to citric acid. It’s also more water soluble than creatine monohydrate, but no more effective.
- Creatine pyruvate is creatine bound with pyruvic acid. It can produce slightly higher blood levels of creatine, but doesn’t increase muscle absorption of creatine or performance any more than creatine monohydrate.
The reason most of these “special” forms of creatine have gone nowhere fast is simple: your body already can absorb most of the creatine provided by creatine monohydrate, so slightly improving this doesn’t have any significant benefit.
What’s more, even if one of these “special” forms of creatine were slightly better absorbed than creatine monohydrate, they tend to be much more expensive. Thus, it would still be more affordable to simply take a little more creatine monohydrate every day.
Two other forms of creatine you may hear about are:
- Creatine magnesium chelate, which is creatine bound to magnesium.
- Creatine malate, which is creatine bound to malic acid.
Magnesium plays a role in creatine metabolism, so combining the two could theoretically improve its effectiveness. There isn’t much research on it yet, but one study found that creatine magnesium chelate is no more effective than creatine monohydrate.
Some research shows that malic acid can increase energy production in cells, which could work synergistically with creatine to further increase performance.
That said, the jury is still out on both of these forms of creatine, as neither of them have been proven to be significantly better than creatine monohydrate (and there’s little reason to think they would be).
It’s well established that caffeine increases performance, so taking it with creatine should have an additive effect.
That’s not always the case, though, as sometimes these two molecules don’t play nicely together.
We should note, however, that this study included just 9 subjects and the results haven’t been replicated by other research, so we shouldn’t draw any definitive conclusions from it.
So, at this point, we aren’t quite sure yet what to expect when you take creatine with caffeine before a workout, but most evidence indicates it’s probably not a problem.
If you want to play it safe, take your caffeine before training and creatine after (which is what most people do anyway).
When you supplement with creatine, it’s true that your body reduces its natural production.
That may sound ominous but don’t mistake creatine for steroids, which can shut down (and even permanently damage) your natural testosterone production.
And if you cease supplementation with creatine, your body resumes its normal production in short order.
One creatine monohydrate supplement is much like any other, so in most cases, “the best” creatine monohydrate supplement is whatever is cheapest.
That said, many people prefer to take micronized creatine, which has been processed to reduce the particle size of the powder and make it easier to mix with water. This doesn’t improve its absorption or effectiveness, but it does make it less gritty and easier to mix into smoothies, shakes, and other foods.
Although creatine is the most scientifically supported workout recovery supplement, there are other safe, effective substances that can increase muscle growth, improve recovery, and reduce soreness.
And if you want a post-workout supplement that gives you all of the benefits of creatine and more, try Recharge. It contains 5 grams of micronized creatine monohydrate per serving along with L-carnitine L-tartrate and corosolic acid to reduce exercise-induced muscle damage, improve muscle repair, and increase insulin sensitivity.
If you want to be able to push harder in the gym, recover better, and gain muscle and strength faster, try Recharge today.
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