Just like with pretty much anything fitness or bodybuilding related, if you ask 10 guys at your local gym for tips on proper creatine supplementation and how to take creatine effectively for maximum muscle gains, you're bound to get 10 different answers, with many (most? all?) being totally off the mark. That's understandable though, as it's not like supplement companies or mainstream fitness magazines/blogs value straight-up truth, objective facts, and thoroughly educating the reader as a primary focus. It's likely they'd rather you stay a little silly and out of the loop so you can rely on them and gobble up whatever over-hyped (and oftentimes overpriced or straight-up useless/harmful) products that their advertisers shove down your throats.
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So what makes this article on how to take creatine and creatine supplementation best practices any different than asking some random guy at the gym who might have used creatine before? That's for you to decide, but if you've read around the site I have a strong BS radar and a strong, innate desire to focus on the science, the facts, the objective truth, and to only report something in this creatine guide that I've either thoroughly researched and thought-through, or actually tested myself with first-hand experience as I've had my fair share of experience using creatine supplements earlier in my fitness journey.
If you must know, I started using creatine supplements to break through a strength training plateau as an intermediate after my initial skinny to muscular transformation which took place over a few months using Sean Nal's well-known bulking program along with whey protein supplements to help reach my daily protein intake goal. I did see a little extra boost in strength from the creatine supplementation, but then I stopped using creatine after a while once I had significantly built-up my physique to a level I was happy with, because I never wanted to take it long-term (only short term as a little helper).
But even though I don't take creatine these days, I still do recommend it to beginners and intermediate trainers who already have all the basics covered, already are making gains with a good bodybuilding program that you either designed carefully yourself or are following from a proven expert, and you're looking for a a little extra natural 1-3% helping hand to fully max your strength in the gym (and therefore your muscle gains). Or to break a plateau of strength that you just cannot seem to break.
Creatine is 100% natural, a molecule that's actually produced by the human body, so everyone has at least some creatine within their system. Research has proven the supplement can effectively increase muscle mass gains and performance in sports/fitness activities that require short bursts of explosive energy, such as weight training. It has stood the test of time as being one of the best, proven muscle building supplements out there. When used properly it can really maximize your gains in the gym by increasing your strength. But like any supplement, remember it's not going to build you muscle on its own so you need to have the basics of a good training program and a solid nutrition plan in place first. Using creatine with an average diet and training routine is a waste of time and money.
Creatine is a peptide molecule manufactured by our bodies to supply our muscles with energy. It's derived from 3 non essential amino acids: glycine, methionine and arginine. It is found naturally in red meat, but in very small amounts. An an example of how small, there is approximately 7 grams of creatine in 12oz of red meat. It comes in various forms, with Creatine Monohydrate being the most popular, cheapest, and most effective. No other form has been scientifically proven to be more effective than Creatine Monohydrate, so that's what you should ideally use, especially if you want to save the most money too (see my current top recommended monohydrate creatine supplement later in the guide).
Creatine is used by the body to increase muscular anaerobic endurance and power, which in turn leads to an increase in muscle gain. Scientific studies prove that supplementing with extra creatine helps your body to build lean muscle mass, increase endurance, speed up recovery, and increase athletic performance. Such supplements are primarily used by bodybuilders and fitness/sports professionals, but there is growing evidence that creatine supplementation may be worth considering even as a normal person (as in, not someone who exercises rigorously).
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When creatine is consumed, it enters the bloodstream and travels to our muscles to be stored as a substance called creatine phosphate. What is creatine phosphate? It's a substance that is stored in your muscle cells to be used for power and energy when your body needs it. During intense activities such as heavy weight lifting and other sports that require short bursts of high-intense effort, your body produces a substance called Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) to perform these bursts of power. The thing is though, your body's supply of ATP runs out quite quickly, and that's where your creatine phosphate supply comes into play. When out of ATP your body will turn to its stores of creatine phosphate to convert into more ATP.
I'll give you an example to explain how this works. When you're performing a rep of a really heavy weight your body will start off by using ATP to power your muscles for the movement. If the rep takes longer than about 5-10 seconds, your body will most likely run out of ATP and will start converting creatine phosphate into ATP for continued power. Think of creatine phosphate as like a back-up power generator for your muscles, allowing you to continue with high intensity power and energy after your first power generator runs out of power.
Depending on how much creatine phosphate your muscle cells have stored, you may get an added 20 seconds or so of energy during short bursts of explosive energy movements. If you are supplementing with creatine, then you will obviously have more creatine phosphate stored in your muscles. Therefore, you will get more energy and power, and for longer periods of time. This is how creatine helps to build more muscle, by allowing your body to give more power in times of need. Creatine will increase your strength and the amount of work your muscles can do, but of course it's no magic pill and it should only be a SUPPLEMENT to an already solid base of basics.
There have been many studies undertaken on whether creatine supplementation has any negative effects on the body. But after all the studies, nobody has found any serious downsides to creatine usage. Creatine is a non toxic substance and has been proven to be safe. Although you should keep in mind that creatine supplementation has not been around all that long, so we can't be 100% sure that there are no negative creatine side effects. There are no full long-term studies completely clearing creatine of any bad effects, but the short and medium term consensus is that creatine is very safe to use.
You might hear things about kidney and liver damage being associated with creatine supplementing, but there is no proof of this at all. There has never been a study linking the two, so you can be fairly certain its not something you should be worrying about. As for the real creatine side effects, they are quite minor concerns and don't occur often at all. The best thing is they can all be prevented:
As you can see, there are no seriously bad (proven) effects of creatine so you can supplement confidently. Having said that, you still should follow all the guidelines on taking it correctly and safely. Don't go overboard with your dosages because as you should know, too much of anything can be bad for you.
A popular way of creatine use that has been proven to work is that of "creatine loading". For the first few days of supplementing with creatine you "load up" with a very high dosage to saturate your muscles with creatine. The point of this loading phase is to get a lot of creatine to your muscles quickly so that your body can start using it faster. For loading you should be taking 20-25 grams per day split up into 2-4 servings, for the first 4-7 days of using a creatine supplement. For example if you choose to take 20 grams a day for your loading, you could take 4 servings of creatine throughout the day consisting of 5 grams.
But is loading with creatine really necessary? It's a constantly debated topic amongst bodybuilders. Some say you need to load up, and some say it won't help you. The good thing to know is that it doesn't really matter either way, as studies over the years have proved that both a loading and non-loading approach to taking creatine is effective. Creatine loading will speed up your body's ability to use that creatine, meaning faster results. However studies have shown that over a longer period of time such as a month or two, if you simply take a small creatine dosage daily and eliminate the loading phase you will get the same results.
So whether you load or not doesn't really matter in the end. You can save some bucks by not loading, but you won't experience results as fast. Take your pick. If you decide on doing a creatine loading phase, you'll need to eventually stop taking so much and then enter what's known as the creatine maintenance phase which is simply to lower the daily dosage to maintain the level of creatine in the body. It you decide against loading, then you would simply start your creatine supplementation with the maintenance phase. The typical recommended amount of creatine to take per day is 5-10 grams. 5 grams would be a good place to start if you have never supplemented with it before. Through trail and error you will eventually find out what creatine dosage works best for you, as everyone's body is different.
Some people will need more creatine than others, but you can't find this out without trying it out for yourself. Your weight should also play a part in deciding how much creatine to supplement with. Another popular debate is whether to split your daily dose into multiple servings throughout the day, or to just take your whole dose at one point in the day. Again, you should see what works best for you. One way to go about it is this: If you're taking 5g a day then just take it in one go, but if you're daily dosage is higher such as 10g then divide it up into 2 servings of 5g.
Yet another debated topic is when to take creatine for the best results. Should you take creatine before a workout? After a workout? When waking up? Before bed? Asking these questions to different people will get you a variety of responses, so it's hard to know who to listen to. One thing is for sure though, taking creatine immediately after your workouts is definitely beneficial and something I would highly recommend to anyone taking creatine.
Also, taking your creatine on an empty stomach will help absorption. So taking it immediately after waking up in the morning is effective too. This is how I personally do it. If I'm on a loading phase, I will take 5 lots of 5 gram servings which totals 25 grams a day. 5g immediately after waking up, 5g before my workout, 5g straight after my workout, and two other 5g dosages inbetween other meals during the day/night. I did this everyday for 5 days when taking creatine. Then I start my maintenance phase where I take 5g a day. If it's a workout day I will mix my 5g in with my pre workout shake, and on non-workout days I will take my creatine after waking up in the morning (just before breakfast).
Related: Is a Pre Workout Meal Important?
Ok, so you know how to take creatine properly, but what should you take it with? Firstly, you should be aware that there are two main types of creatine supplements out there. You've got plain creatine monohydrate powder, and then there's enhanced creatine products such as Cell-Tech and No-Explode. These modified creatine supplements are made to help absorption and effectiveness, but the truth is if you learn about proper creatine use then you can get the same effects with a plain creatine monohydrate powder.
So I would advise you to buy a decent quality creatine monohydrate powder. This will save you some bucks, as products like Cell-Tech and No-Explode can cost you quite a bit more and in my opinion aren't necessary are full of marketing hype (by all means go for them if you want though, I would just personally stick with plain monohydrate powder). Taking your creatine monohydrate with fast acting carbohydrates such as juice will help your body absorb the creatine more effectively. This is because the carbs release glucose into your blood stream when broken down, and this produces insulin which helps transport the creatine to your muscles.
When I used to take my creatine in the morning after rising I would sometimes mix it with a glass of grape juice, and when taking it just after a workout I mixed it with a sports drink or simply in my post-workout protein shake which included high-glycemic carbohydrates (which is crucial after a workout). Grape juice or a sports drink are a great choice to mix your creatine with. I would avoid mixing with orange juice as there is a theory that the citric acid in it will lessen the effect of the creatine. Nobody really knows the truth about this, but its better to be safe than sorry so just stick to grape juice or something else.
Also, and while this goes without saying as it's always important, when taking creatine supplements drinking plenty of water is crucial. Your muscles fill with more water during creatine supplementation, so your body needs more than ever. Plus, without enough hydration going on during your creating supplementation, you're giving the side effects mentioned above a whole lot more potential to materialize.
As for actually buying your creatine, like I mentioned above I would personally just get a plain creatine monohydrate powder as it works well and is the most economical option. You don't need a fancy (heavily-marketed) expensive pre-workout product that is filled with a load of extra stuff you don't need and may even be fairly unhealthy (don't fall for the hype).
Whilst I admittedly don't take creatine much these days as I'm past that initial skinny to muscular transformation phase which benefits greatly from such bodybuilding supplements, I still stand by it and recommend it, especially to anyone who needs a little extra edge to their mass gain program to break a plateau or to fully maximize results with a new bulking program.
If you combine effective creatine supplementation with a good weight training program that focuses on effective muscle building strategy, you're in a great position to truly get some amazing life-changing gains over the next few months if you stick with it and you'll be way ahead of most others in the gym who are not using an optimized training and supplement routine.
Supplements like Creatine are NOT necessary if you get your nutrition down right, train hard, maximize your natural testosterone, etc, but it can be a little handy helper. Just don't expect creatine, or any supplement for that matter, to be some sort of magic pill to amazing results as much as companies try to have you believe. No such thing as a magic pill in life; everything worth achieving is going to take some serious sweat equity. There's no shortcuts. Good luck, friend.