Scientists have known that creatine supplements can improve athletic performance since the early 20th century. But it wasn’t until 1992, when several gold medal winners at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona credited the supplement with playing a role in their success, that creatine really went mainstream. Numerous controlled trials proving its efficacy followed, and by the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, an estimated 80% of athletes who competed reported using creatine.
Today, creatine is hugely popular with everyone, from elite athletes to weekend warriors. But as this supplement has soared in popularity (and gobbled up a large share of the sports nutrition market), companies have developed dozens of different types of creatine, each fancier and more scientific-sounding than the last.
So what do these different types of creatine mean for you? We sifted through the research and broke down the basics of everything you need to know before adding creatine to your supplement arsenal, including the benefits, the differences in formulations, and the study-backed dosage to improve performance.
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?
Creatine is a naturally occurring nitrogenous organic acid found in most vertebrates. In humans, the liver, pancreas, and kidneys can produce about one gram of creatine a day. Food sources include animal products, including red meat, seafood, milk, and eggs. Most omnivores consume an average of one gram of creatine a day. Vegetarians and vegans may especially benefit from supplementing with creatine since they’re not consuming most dietary sources of creatine. (1)
About 95% of the body’s creatine is stored within skeletal muscle tissue, where it is used to recycle the main source of cellular fuel, adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This effect helps delay the onset of muscle fatigue, allowing you to push through high-intensity activities such as weight lifting and sprints longer and harder, leading to strength gains and increases in endurance and overall power over time.
The other five percent of creatine is mostly found in the brain, where it aids in energy metabolism for neurons. This effect has shown potential for helping to improve cognitive function. (2)
What Are the Benefits of Creatine?
Creatine is one of the most extensively researched sports supplements out there. One review looked at upwards of 300 studies evaluating the effect of creatine on resistance training. The review found that 70% of these studies showed that creatine supplementation resulted in statistically significant strength gains. (3)
There’s also evidence that creatine may have cognitive benefits. Some studies have shown creatine supplementation to be useful in improving short-term memory and sharpening thinking, particularly in older adults. (8) The biggest cognitive benefits are seen among vegetarians and other people who don’t consume creatine in meat. (9)
Different Types of Creatine
As creatine has grown in popularity, supplement companies have developed new chemical formulations designed to optimize bioavailability, combat digestive issues, and improve functionality. Here’s a breakdown of various creatine supplements.
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The most common and cost-effective kind of supplemental creatine is creatine monohydrate, made by bonding creatine to a water molecule. It’s considered the default option, the O.G. It’s also the most widely and well-researched type of creatine, with the most recent review of the safety and efficacy of creatine in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition declaring creatine monohydrate as having more physiological impact on intramuscular levels of creatine than other forms. (10)
Creatine Ethyl Ester
In this form, creatine is bound to ester salts, which are thought to make the creatine more bioavailable. A 2009 study compared creatine ethyl ester supplementation to creatine monohydrate supplementation and a placebo over a 47 day period. The results? Creatine ethyl ester did not produce any additional benefit to increased muscle strength or performance. (11)
Creatine Hydrochloride or Creatine HCL
This variety is made by binding creatine to parts of hydrochloride molecules (technically, the creatine molecule is bound to a hydrochloride “moiety”). One notable effect is that it lowers the pH, making the creatine more acidic.
“HCl” is more soluble in water, but some believe that it also absorbs more efficiently in the body. That’s why most creatine HCl products have a serving size of under one gram, as opposed to the standard five grams for monohydrate. Some folks get stomach cramps from creatine monohydrate, and anecdotally, creatine hydrochloride doesn’t have that effect as often.
This is creatine with a higher pH than regular creatine monohydrate, making for a more alkaline or basic product. Usually, it refers to Kre-Alkalyn®, but a competitor called Crea-Trona® buffered with sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate, which may further increase the alkalinity.
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Buffered creatine is sometimes promoted as more effective and results in less creatine breaking down into creatinine, a less useful byproduct. However, the only large study comparing it with monohydrate showed no difference in performance or muscle creatine content. The study found pretty similar increases in creatinine between the two. (12) That said, buffered creatine, like creatine hydrochloride, may be easier on the stomach for athletes who experience cramps with monohydrate.
As the name suggests, creatine is packaged in a liquid, ready-to-drink formula rather than a powder. It’s marketed as being more convenient and potentially more easily absorbed in the body. Still, the limited research comparing the two supplements available suggests it may actually be less effective than creatine monohydrate. (13)
Creatine Magnesium Chelate
Often sold under the name MagnaPower®, this is creatine that’s been bound with magnesium. It’s not hard to find people claiming that this absorbs more effectively than monohydrate, but like hydrochloride and everything else on this list, there have been very few studies performed on it. The studies available aren’t particularly promising.
Creatine and Stomach Cramps
Though it’s not very common, creatine monohydrate can cause digestive issues like stomach cramps and bloating. This is where it may actually make sense to pay attention to different forms of the supplement.
“Once the creatine dissociates in water, the impact is virtually the same no matter what salt is chosen,” says Dr. Trevor Kashey, an Ohio-based biochemist. “At that point, it’s best to choose an option that agrees the most with your digestive tract.”
Choosing creatine that’s more ionic may help to remedy that because ionic versions are more water-soluble, he adds.
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“More ionic versions of creatine will be less likely to bloat,” says Kashey. “I take the position that the easier it dissolves in water, the less likely it will make you feel ‘heavy.’ So if a person feels crummy on plain old monohydrate, then an option that’s more water-soluble may suit them.”
Creatine hydrochloride, buffered creatine, and liquid creatine are considered more ionic than regular creatine monohydrates, making them better tolerated by people sensitive to creatine monohydrate.
How Much Creatine Should I Take?
The recommended daily dose of creatine is three to five grams daily. Creatine naturally accumulates in the muscles, so it does not have to be taken at a specific time or with other nutrients to aid in workouts. Rather, taking creatine is meant to eventually lead to muscles that are “saturated” — basically meaning “at capacity” — with creatine. Once you’re saturated, you should have improved power and muscle size no matter how you got there.
Does Creatine Work?
Bottom line: Yes. The research proves it time and again. The type you choose depends on your body and digestive tract, but for the biggest bang for your buck and power gains, five grams of the O.G. creatine monohydrate daily is the smart pick for increased power, better endurance, and faster strength gains.
- Burke, D. et al. Effect of creatine and weight training on muscle creatine and performance in vegetarians. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003 Nov;35(11):1946-55.
- Balestrino M, Adriano E. Beyond sports: Efficacy and safety of creatine supplementation in pathological or paraphysiological conditions of brain and muscle. Med Res Rev. 2019 Nov;39(6):2427-2459.
- Kreider RB. Effects of creatine supplementation on performance and training adaptations. Mol Cell Biochem. 2003 Feb;244(1-2):89-94.
- Hummer E, et al. Creatine electrolyte supplement improves anaerobic power and strength: a randomized double-blind control study. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2019 May 24;16(1):24.
- Izquierdo M, et al. Effects of creatine supplementation on muscle power, endurance, and sprint performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002 Feb;34(2):332-43.
- Lanhers C, et al. Creatine Supplementation and Lower Limb Strength Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses. Sports Med. 2015 Sep;45(9):1285-1294.
- Nunes JP, et al. Creatine supplementation elicits greater muscle hypertrophy in upper than lower limbs and trunk in resistance-trained men. Nutr Health. 2017 Dec;23(4):223-229.
- Rawson ES, et al. Use of creatine in the elderly and evidence for effects on cognitive function in young and old. Amino Acids. 2011 May;40(5):1349-62.
- Avgerinos KI, et al. Effects of creatine supplementation on cognitive function of healthy individuals: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Exp Gerontol. 2018 Jul 15;108:166-173.
- Antonio, J., et al. Common questions and misconceptions about creatine supplementation: what does the scientific evidence really show?. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 18, 13 (2021).
- Spillane, M.,. et al. The effects of creatine ethyl ester supplementation combined with heavy resistance training on body composition, muscle performance, and serum and muscle creatine levels. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 6, 6 (2009)
- Jagim AR et al. A buffered form of creatine does not promote greater changes in muscle creatine content, body composition, or training adaptations than creatine monohydrate. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012;9(1):43. Published 2012 Sep 13. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-9-43
- Gill ND, et al. Creatine serum is not as effective as creatine powder for improving cycle sprint performance in competitive male team-sport athletes. J Strength Cond Res. 2004 May;18(2):272-5.
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