Creatine and Loading
So far in our creatine series, we’ve looked into the research of a wide variety of creatine claims including strength, cardio, and body composition. Researchers in these studies used a mix of creatine protocols to test whether creatine is effective. Some studies use a loading protocol in which subjects took high doses of creatine for a week before tapering off to a maintenance level. Other studies eliminated the loading phase altogether in favor of starting off at the maintenance level. In this article, we’ll examine the results of each method.
There is research demonstrating that consuming 20-30 grams of creatine per day for up to a week increases muscle creatine stores 20-40%, enhances recovery, and improves exercise performance. Some research has suggested that the amount of performance increase is positively related the amount of creatine stores in the muscle; more creatine means more gains. Research also shows that small doses of creatine, as low as 2-3 grams per day, can maintain or even increase levels of muscle creatine2.
What does the research say about creatine loading?
Study 1: The Effects of Low-Dose Creatine Supplementation Versus Creatine Loading in Collegiate Football Players1
The first study looked at how different dosing strategies affected NCAA football players. Twenty five subjects were divided into three groups: 1) creatine supplement of 3 grams per day, 2) creatine supplement of 20 grams per day for 7 days followed by 5 grams per day, 3) placebo. All subjects also participated in an off season conditioning program.
During the study, strength and body fat were measured at specific intervals to gauge progress. Results showed:
- All three groups showed significant strength increases:
- low dose group: +11%
- loading group: +5%
- placebo group: +5%
- All three groups saw decreases in body fat:
- low dose group: -2.8%
- loading group: -6.5%
- placebo group: -5.7%
- Change in fat free mass:
- low dose group: +3.6%
- loading group: +0.2%
- placebo group: +1.3%
The differences between the groups show that more creatine, at least in this study, did not lead to all around better results.
Study 2: Creatine Supplementation: A Comparison of Loading and Maintenance Protocols on Creatine Uptake By Human Skeletal Muscle2
The second study compared the effects of different creatine doses on whole body creatine levels. Eighteen subjects participated in two separate phases of this study. The first phase compared three creatine loading strategies on creatine levels. The second phase compared two creatine maintenance doses after a loading protocol on muscle creatine levels.
First Phase (loading phase): Subjects were assigned to three groups: 1) 5 grams of creatine 4x per day for five days, 2) 5 grams of creatine 4x per day in a sugary solution, 3) 5 grams of creatine 4x per day plus 60 minutes of cycling each day. The first phase lasted 5 days. The first and second group did not exercise during the first phase.
Second Phase (maintenance phase): After completing 5 days of loading in the first phase, subjects were re-assigned to three groups: 1) 2 grams of creatine per day for 6 weeks, 2) 5 grams of creatine per day for 6 weeks, 3) no creatine.
First Phase: Loading Phase Results – after 5 days of loading
Changes in total body creatine stores after the loading phase:
- creatine only group: +15.7%
- creatine plus sugar: +25%
- creatine plus exercise: +18%
Second Phase: Maintenance Phase Results – after 6 weeks of maintenance
Changes in total body creatine stores after the maintenance phase:
- no creatine group: -10.1%
- 2 grams of creatine per day group: +0.07%
- 5 grams of creatine per day group: +2.5%
This study shows that a loading phase significantly increases whole body creatine levels after only a week. It also shows that a relatively small dose of 5 grams per day can increase, though at a much slower pace, creatine stores.
Study 3: Low-dose creatine supplementation enhances fatigue resistance in the absence of weight gain3
This study looked into the effects of low dose creatine on body composition, muscle function, and creatine levels. Twenty subjects were assigned to either a creatine or placebo group. The creatine group consumed 0.014 grams of creatine per pound of body weight. The range for all subjects was 1.7-2.9 grams of creatine per day.
In the creatine group, creatine levels increased 182% after 6 weeks. There was no difference in body fat or strength between the two groups, however, the creatine group saw a significant reduction in muscular fatigue during a multi-set leg extension test.
The Bottom Line – Is creatine loading necessary?
The evidence outlined above suggests creatine loading may not be necessary for the vast majority of individuals. In the first study, the low dose group saw slightly better results than the loading group. The second study did show that a loading protocol significantly increased creatine levels very quickly, however it also showed that a dose as little as 5 grams per day could increase creatine levels, though at a much slower pace. The final study looked at the effects of a very low dose and found a very large increase after 6 weeks.
Creatine loading definitely increases whole body creatine levels much quicker than lower doses. This quicker increase, however, may not lead to better results, as illustrated in the first study. Unless you have a very specific need to quickly increase your creatine levels, a smaller dose should suffice for most. Quick increases in whole body creatine levels does not necessarily mean better performance results.
Creatine Dosing Recommendations
- Use creatine monohydrate
- A loading phase is unnecessary as it uses larger amounts of creatine for similar performance gains as smaller doses
- A small dose of 2-5 grams per day yields great results
- Adding a small amount of simple carbohydrate (such as Gatorade or Powerade) helps increase creatine levels beyond creatine alone
- Wilder, N., Deivert, R. G., Hagerman, F., & Gilders, R. (2001). The Effects of Low-Dose Creatine Supplementation Versus Creatine Loading in Collegiate Football Players. Journal of Athletic Training, 36(2), 124-129.
- Preen, D., Dawson, B., Goodman, C., Beilby, J., & Ching, S. (2003). Creatine Supplementation: A Comparison of Loading and Maintenance Protocols on Creatine Uptake by Human Skeletal Muscle. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 13(1), 97-111. doi:10.1123/ijsnem.13.1.97
- Stec, M. J., Miles, M. P., & Rawson, E. S. (2011). Low-dose creatine supplementation enhances fatigue resistance in the absence of weight gain. Nutrition, 27, 451-455. doi:10.1016/j.nut.2010.04.001