Creatine is one of the most effective and science-backed supplements on the market. Bodybuilders use it as part of their supplement stacks to bulk up, while strength athletes lean heavily on creatine for its effects on strength gain.
Despite its insane popularity and thorough documentation in the scientific community, there are still a few unanswered questions about the supplement and how to best benefit from it. Creatine comes in different forms, with numerous protocols for dosage and timing. At the center of the conversation is one big question — do you need to “load” your creatine?
Like any nutritional supplement, creatine comes with its own misconceptions and common concerns, ranging from hair loss to digestive issues. Beyond that, there’s the ever-present debate about the merits (or malaise) of loading your creatine.
Luckily, science can light the way and help you determine if you need to load your creatine to reap the benefits it provides.
- What Is Creatine?
- How Does Creatine Work?
- Do You Need to Load Creatine?
- Benefits of Creatine
- Creatine Myths & Misconceptions
- Who Should Use Creatine
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before beginning a new fitness, nutritional, and/or supplement routine. None of these supplements are meant to treat or cure any disease. If you feel you may be deficient in a particular nutrient or nutrients, please seek out a medical professional.
What Is Creatine?
Alongside being packaged and sold as a nutritional supplement, creatine is actually a naturally-occurring substance found in your body. Creatine is a nitrogenous organic acid — it’s predominantly stored in your skeletal muscle tissue, where it acts as a recycling agent for adenosine triphosphate (ATP), one of the major energy sources your body uses when you contract a muscle.
As a supplement, creatine is renowned for its well-researched benefits to everything from in-the-gym performance to cognitive function. Most creatine supplements are sold as a mixable powder, though you can get ahold of it in capsule form as well.
How Does Creatine Work?
Each skeletal muscle cell is filled with proteins that attach and pull on each other to create muscular contractions, like a longboat full of rowers paddling along. Between each turn of the oar, some of these proteins need to be reset to their original position, which requires adenosine triphosphate, or ATP — the “energy currency” of your muscle cells. (1)
ATP can be produced through different channels, but the phosphocreatine (PCr) system is the fastest way to replenish ATP during times of extremely high energy demands. Supplementing creatine expedites this process, in the way that putting the right type of gas in your car helps it run more efficiently.
While your body does produce scant amounts of creatine to speed this all along, you can also ingest it via eating certain foods or, especially, with supplementation. (1)(2) Creatine monohydrate is the most effective supplemental form due to its high bioavailability.(3)
Do You Need to Load Creatine?
A creatine “loading phase” is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of taking the standard five-gram dosage per day (whether mixed into your protein shake or ingested on its own), the idea behind loading aims at rapidly accumulating sufficient amounts of creatine in your muscles to aid performance.
What the Science Says
Most loading protocols last between five and seven days and require you to ingest 20 to 25 grams of creatine in total, broken up across several servings. After you’ve “caught up”, you’d return to a standard five-to-seven-gram single-serving dosage. (3)
Alternatively, bulk dosing can be based on your body’s weight, with a loading phase dosage set around 0.3 grams per kilogram of body weight per day and reduced to 0.1 gram per kilogram of body weight per day. (3)
Most literature agrees that loading your creatine in bulk isn’t strictly necessary for it to take effect long-term. That said, it could be useful in certain conditions, such as if your baseline creatine levels are extremely low, or you take too little on a daily basis. (1)
Exceptions to the “Rule”
If you’re in a hurry to maximize your stores, a loading phase of 20 grams per day has been shown to elevate muscular concentrations by 20% in just six days. It could take as long as 28 days to achieve this while using a a three-to-five gram daily dose. (3)
If you’re using less than 5 grams of creatine per day, a loading phase might be necessary for you to see improvements in upper body strength. When it comes to lower-body strength improvements, you might need a combination of both a loading phase and doses higher than 5 grams per day.
Interestingly, some evidence suggests that it’s better to calculate your required dose based on your body’s weight rather than relying on the “standard” five-gram dosage. (1)
Benefits of Creatine
Creatine does much more than simply delivering phosphate groups and shuttling various metabolites around. It could enhance muscle contractions by increasing calcium concentrations in the muscle cell, leading to more proteins attaching and pulling (a bit like adding more rowers to the boat.)
There’s also evidence that creatine supports muscle growth and reduces muscle protein breakdown by modifying both protein synthesis, inflammation, and oxidative stress. It’s also thought to facilitate glucose uptake, providing muscle cells with another source of energy during exercise or enhancing glycogen storage post-workout. (1)
Because of its capacity to power intense exercise and facilitate recovery, creatine supplementation is one of the most popular and widely-researched sport supplements. Research shows that it can improve power output, increase the number of reps you can pump out before reaching failure, and even make you faster on the field or court.
All of which translate, in real-world terms, to better athletic performance, more exercise volume in the gym, and potentially greater gains. (1)(2)(4)(5)(6)
Creatine Myths & Misconceptions
Even the most thoroughly-research supplement on the market is prone to misinformation. The rumor mill churns day and night, and poorly-sourced claims or baseless allegations may negatively impact your perception of a perfectly innocuous supplement like creatine.
Creatine Must Be Taken Before a Workout
Contrary to popular belief, there are no clear advantages to taking creatine at any specific time, whether it be prior to, during, or after a workout. Caffeine intake might reduce the ergogenic effects of creatine, (7) so if you caffeinate before you hit the gym, it might be best to take your creatine after your workout (and you could reap the added benefit of enhanced glycogen replenishment.)
On the other hand, taking creatine about two hours before your workout could potentially enhance its uptake rate. When it comes to performance and gains, however, the results are far more similar than they are different regardless of timing, so it’s probably best to simply take your creatine at whatever time is convenient and consistent. (2)(7)
Creatine Causes Hair Loss
This misconception is based on a single study that observed elevated levels of dihydrotestosterone (DHT) in college-aged rugby players after three weeks of creatine supplementation.
Though DHT has been linked to hair loss in some cases, the higher concentrations found in this study were still within normal physiological ranges, and the significant differences were due to changes from different baseline levels.
No studies have actually reported hair loss or baldness as a direct result of creatine supplementation. (3) If you’re particularly worried about shedding your hair, you may want to steer clear of creatine, but as of now the evidence linking creatine to hair loss is quite thin.
Creatine Causes Bloating
In high doses (think greater than 10 grams at once), creatine can cause gastrointestinal distress or bloating-esque symptoms. Creatine might lead to higher water retention in muscle cells, but there’s no evidence that it causes water retention elsewhere, so it’s unlikely to lead to abdominal water retention and stomach bloating. (3)(5)
Creatine Leads to Weight Gain
Creatine can lead to some weight gain initially as a result of your muscles holding more water, and over time, it could support muscle growth, which could also lead to weight gain.
Research has demonstrated that initial weight gain from creatine does correlate with improvements in power output, which might indicate that individuals who notice some weight gain are also likely to notice some benefits as well. (2)(3)(5)
Who Should Use Creatine
No supplement is universally-applicable to everyone and their needs, but as they come, creatine gets really close. As a supplement, creatine monohydrate checks just about every box regarding efficacy, affordability, and safety.
Bodybuilders can use it to volumize their muscles and train a bit longer in the gym. Strength athletes can rely on creatine to augment their training and add pounds to their barbells. CrossFitters, track & field athletes, or cardio-based sport athletes can also count on creatine to boost their performance as well.
There are a few rare cases in which you may want to forgo creatine supplementation. If you’re on a tight budget, you don’t necessarily to purchase creatine powder or pills for your training to be effective — it’s not a make-or-break supplement by any means.
And, while the evidence behind creatine’s supposed link to hair loss is weak, there’s still enough corollary data that you might want to pass it up if you’re unwilling to risk your luscious locks in any capacity.
Remember, though, that conventional wisdom currently suggests you have very little to worry about in this area if you choose to use creatine.
The Case for Creatine
When it comes to the many benefits of creatine supplementation, the science is solid. When it comes to loading phases, timing, hair loss, bloating, and weight gain, there’s unfortunately more science fiction out there than science fact.
While a loading phase can be useful in some situations, it isn’t necessary, and could cause gastrointestinal distress if done improperly. Fortunately, maintenance doses aren’t associated with unpleasant side-effects, and no dosing protocol has been credibly linked to hair loss. Whether you choose to front-load your creatine or take it as prescribed, you’re going to reap the benefits in the gym either way.
1. Forbes, S. C., Candow, D. G., Ostojic, S. M., Roberts, M. D., & Chilibeck, P. D. (2021). Meta-analysis examining the importance of creatine ingestion strategies on lean tissue mass and strength in older adults. Nutrients, 13(6), 1–14.
2. Mills, S., Candow, D. G., Forbes, S. C., Neary, J. P., Ormsbee, M. J., & Antonio, J. (2020). Effects of creatine supplementation during resistance training sessions in physically active young adults. Nutrients, 12(6), 1–11.
3. Antonio, J., Candow, D. G., Forbes, S. C., Gualano, B., Jagim, A. R., Kreider, R. B., Rawson, E. S., Smith-Ryan, A. E., VanDusseldorp, T. A., Willoughby, D. S., & Ziegenfuss, T. N. (2021). Common questions and misconceptions about creatine supplementation: what does the scientific evidence really show? Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 18(1), 1–17.
4. Feurebacher, J., & Schumann, M. (2021). Short-Term Creatine Loading Improves Total Work and. Nutrients, 13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8001551/
5. Bogdanis, G. C., Nevill, M. E., Aphamis, G., Stavrinou, P. S., Jenkins, D. G., Giannaki, C. D., Lakomy, H. K. A., & Williams, C. (2022). Effects of Oral Creatine Supplementation on Power Output during Repeated Treadmill Sprinting. Nutrients, 14(6), 1–14.
6. Doma, K., Ramachandran, A. K., Boullosa, D., & Connor, J. (2022). The Paradoxical Effect of Creatine Monohydrate on Muscle Damage Markers: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine, 52(7), 1623–1645.
7. Candow, D. G., Forbes, S. C., Roberts, M. D., Roy, B. D., Antonio, J., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Rawson, E. S., Gualano, B., & Roschel, H. (2022). Creatine O’Clock: Does Timing of Ingestion Really Influence Muscle Mass and Performance? Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, 4(May), 1–8.
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