Creatine is a popular supplement which helps to improve your maximum strength, gives your muscles a fuller appearance, and promotes faster recovery times and better muscle growth. There is a bewildering array of supplements on the market at the moment, but most of them are a waste of money. Creatine is one of the few supplements that has a huge evidence base supporting its effectiveness.
How to Use Creatine
One thing that a lot of people don’t really understand is how to take creatine to get the best results. A lot of older lifters in the gym will tell you that you need to take 20 to 25g of creatine a day for 7 days as a loading phase, to “fill your muscles up” with creatine. Then, after that loading phase, you can drop back to 3-5g of creatine per day for six weeks or so, before you need to stop taking the supplement for a while because “your body got used to it”.
The Loading and Cycling Myths
While there is some truth to the idea that you need to boost your creatine stores to get the best results, a seven-day loading phase is excessive. Studies show that small doses of creatine (2-3g per day) taken over a long period of time do very little to help exercise performance.
A weeklong loading phase, however, is excessive. Recent studies suggest that your body takes up the largest amount of creatine during the first couple of days after you start taking it. So, you should be able to get good results by taking a large dose for 3 days, then taking doses of 5g/day for a longer period.
Healthy people who take moderate doses of creatine and have good hydration habits are unlikely to experience any health issues from taking creatine for extended periods of time. Cycling creatine will not augment the anabolic effects of the supplement. The International Society of Sports Nutrition considers creatine to be safe for long-term use, so there is no need to stop using it unless you would train a sport with ‘seasons’ and you wind down your supplement use during periods where you are not training hard.
Loading and Cycling Just Sells More Supplements
If you are loading for a week, taking lower doses for five weeks, then come off the supplement only to do the loading phase again a few weeks later then you are going to get through tubs of creatine at an alarming rate! Of course, the supplement manufacturers aren’t exactly eager to dispel the myths that loading and cycling aren’t strictly necessary, because they sell more supplements when people are loading at 5 or 6 times the daily dose on a regular basis.
How and When to Take Creatine
If you want to get the most out of creatine, then it’s a good idea to take micronized creatine, dissolved in a drink of your choice. Another common myth is that you should not take creatine with some fruit juice because the juice is acidic and will cause the creatine to break down before it does you any good.
Stomach acid is far more acidic than fruit juice, so if this were true there would be no point taking creatine orally at all. It is true that creatine breaks down more when it is dissolved in a liquid, but it takes a long time for this to happen. As long as you mix your drink and then consume it within a few hours it doesn’t really matter what type of liquid you are dissolving creatine in.
One study published in the American Journal of Physiology in 1998 found that creatine uptake is affected by insulin. This means that it could be a good idea to take creatine after a meal that contains a moderate amount of protein or carbohydrates.
On days that you are exercising, you should aim to take your creatine supplement shortly after, exercise to promote the best uptake into your muscles. A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism in July 2015 found that taking creatine after a workout produces slightly better strength gains than taking creatine before a workout. The difference in results is minimal, however, so if you are the sort of person who does better following a routine you would not be losing out too much if you always followed the habit of taking your supplements first thing in the morning, for example.
Is Creatine Safe for Everyone?
Creatine is generally considered to be safe, however, it is known to interact with nephrotoxic drugs (medications which can harm the kidneys). This includes NSAIDs, as well as cyclosporine, gentamicin, and tobramycin. Talk to your doctor if you are taking prescription medications, or anti-inflammatory painkillers of any kind before you start taking creatine or other supplements.
The use of creatine is not recommended for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding, those with bipolar disorder, or those with kidney disease. While creatine by itself is thought to be safe with Parkinson’s disease, there is a possibility that creatine plus caffeine could cause the condition to get worse more quickly.
As a general rule, consult your doctor before trying any new supplement, especially if you have a pre-existing medical condition.