By Awesome Supplements, Read time: 6 minutes
Many of the Awesome Supplements products contain creatine, one of the most popular and effective sports supplements on the market. Creatine is great, but there are a lot of questions raised about it, most likely because it’s the supplement that just about everyone has heard of, and subsequently it’s the one with the greatest amount of misinformation.
In this short blog we hope to answer all of your creatine questions, allowing you to make an educated decision around whether or not you will decide to include it in your supplement regime. We’ll start with the big one:
Does creatine cause water retention?
To answer this we need to very briefly explain how your body stores water because it is not stored in an arbitrary manner, but rather falls into two major compartments – intracellular and extracellular. Intracellular water includes all of the water, not surprisingly, within the roughly 37 trillion cells that make up your body, and the extracellular water is that found within your blood (plasma) and lymphatic fluid (the water that bathes your cells – when this gets too high, you end up bloated). Water storage levels within these areas is dictated primarily by the osmotically active solutes present, following concentration gradients.
This just means that many of the membranes separating intracellular and extracellular water are somewhat permeable so they can let water move in and out, and the water does so according to the relative concentration of certain solutes on either side – mostly sodium and potassium. Usually one side of the membrane has a bunch of potassium and the other has a bunch of sodium and this evens out, so water stays where it’s supposed to within your body and you don’t end up with too much extracellular water (bloating) or too little (dehydration). More detail than that isn’t really needed for the purpose of this piece, just remember that when the concentration of an osmotically active substance is higher on one side of cellular membranes, water crosses in order to dilute the concentration and even things out.
Creatine is generally stored within muscle cells as creatine phosphate, and supplementation with creatine simply increases these stores. This is important to keep in mind because it is not the case that creatine supplementation does something totally unnatural – rather it just increases the natural storage of something you always have anyway. Creatine is, however, osmotically active, and this means that when it is stored within muscle cells it draws additional water in with it. Creatine supplementation has been known for a long time to increase total body water within a few weeks (1), and studies analysing the location for this water have consistently found that the majority of the water weight gain is intracellular, though at times this has not been statistically significant (1).
From this you can see that while creatine does indeed cause you to store more water, most of it is intracellular, with only a little being extracellular. It is very unlikely that creatine will leave you looking ‘bloated’, instead resulting in a small increase in perceived muscle size. The one group who may need to be aware of this is weight-class athletes who start taking creatine in the offseason, because making weight may be more difficult with a greater amount of water weight – regardless of where it is!
Is creatine OK for women to take?
The short answer is yes. Creatine is non-hormonal and so there is no reason for it’s use to result in sex-specific side effects – and then as already mentioned it’s something you store anyway. Creatine will not result in virilisation or any other sides associated with certain ‘super-supplements’ and as mentioned, bloat is not likely to feature.
While some evidence exists to suggest that – due to endocrine-based differences in muscle physiology – men benefit more than women from creatine supplementation in terms of exercise performance, this is likely to depend highly on the specific stage of the menstrual cycle in which the particular woman finds herself because it is definitely the case that comparable benefits have been shown in randomised, controlled trials (2,3). On top of this, some evidence suggests a therapeutic benefit to creatine supplementation in women in terms of mental health and bone/muscle health in later life (3). As a final note, supplementation during pregnancy warrants further study and a ‘be safe not sorry’ approach is a good idea for now and avoidance may be a good idea (3).
Is creatine safe?
Almost certainly, despite some anecdotal evidence to the contrary from certain athletes who suffer problems that cannot be attributed to creatine alone on the evidence provided. There is no evidence of kidney or liver problems in healthy individuals (4), and although some markers of increased kidney strain do increase after a large dose (within the normal range) this is not associated with an increased risk of problems (4). It is a good idea for those with existing renal or hepatic issues to avoid creatine supplementation but a normal 3-5g dose in those outside of this narrow demographic will more than likely cause no issues.
The only possible risk that has been claimed but studied insufficiently to definitively debunk (or of course, support) is the idea that creatine supplementation increases the production of a carcinogen known as heterocyclic amines (4). The likelihood of problems here is almost insignificant, but we mention it for complete transparency.
Do I NEED to load creatine?
No. Creatine supplementation works by saturating your muscles with as much creatine phosphate as they can handle and so the amount you take doesn’t really matter so long as this is achieved. Supplementation with around 0.3g per kilogram of bodyweight per day for 3-5 days followed by a 2-5g per day maintenance dose is usually recommended (and loading is used in most creatine research), but supplementation with only the maintenance dose will achieve saturation in 3-4 weeks (5). The approach you use is primarily up to you, though we do recommend loading at Awesome Supplements because this method of supplementation has been far more widely researched (5).
Do I need to cycle creatine?
There is no reason to assume that this is the case, but at present no truly long term (ten years plus) research has been done and so we cannot say for certain. 5 year studies using very high doses have shown zero negative effects (6) and so it is a good bet that long term unbroken supplementation would be fine, but as this has not been studied those who wish to play it safe may opt to take a month off every 6-12 months or so, as a somewhat arbitrary recommendation. For what it’s worth, I don’t do this myself.
Is Creatine Ethyl Ester Better than Monohydrate?
No. In fact one study (7) concluded “Since creatine ethyl ester supplementation showed a large increase in serum creatinine levels throughout the study with no significant increase in serum and total muscle creatine content, it can be concluded that a large portion of the creatine ethyl ester was being degraded within the GI tract after ingestion. Furthermore, it appears that the skeletal muscle uptake of creatine ethyl ester uptake was not significant enough to increase skeletal muscle creatine levels without significant degradation to creatinine occurring.”. Interestingly, no difference in body water weight gains were seen between creatine types, either, despite this being one of the primary drivers for CEE supplementation in the first place.
Just about every study that has been performed on creatine uses monohydrate, and it is from these studies that the conclusion “creatine is good for high intensity training” has been drawn. Monohydrate works, and it’s cheaper to boot. It’s not often the cheapest and best version are both the same thing…
When do I take creatine?
There is some evidence to suggest that post workout consumption of creatine may be slightly more beneficial than pre workout consumption (8), likely due to the increased sensitivity that muscle cells have for absorbing things from the blood after a hard training bout. With that being said, the difference is very small and it is our view at Awesome Supplements that because of this, taking your creatine at a time you’re likely to remember to take it is the most important thing to think about. After all, most people don’t take a specific post workout shake – preferring food – and those that do, do so for convenience sake meaning that mixing a bunch of different powders defeats some of the purpose. Not only that, but most people don’t train every day and so only including creatine in a pre or post workout product isn’t the way to go.
This was the thought process when we developed Awesome Strength and Awesome Power. Power combines creatine with beta alanine, two highly effective ergogenic aids that work over extended periods of time to improve performance and thus need to be consumed daily to give you the effect you want.
Strength on the other hand contains creatine only. As Beta Alanine doesn't help improve performance if you don't perform for 60 seconds or less, those of you involved in sports like powerlifting may not benefit, while others simply prefer not to take Beta Alanine due to the tingles (though this is harmless and can be avoided by spreading your dose throughout the day).As a last note on this, creatine absorption seems to be aided by congestion with carbohydrates (5), so taking your Power or Strength alongside a meal is probably a good idea
Creatine is one of the most well-studied and well-supported supplements there is. It increases creatine phosphate in muscle cells reliably, and this in turn aids with intense exercise – as such anyone who engages in hard anaerobic training will more than likely benefit from it. It’s our hopes that this blog has answered most of the questions that most people have regarding it’s usage, but if there are any you feel we have missed please do get in touch! And if you want to use creatine, you can find it in Awesome Power and Awesome Strength (take both daily with food).