Creatine: Thumbs Up or Down?
We’ve covered a lot of creatine topics in this series and have finally come to the end. Here, we’ll take a look back and summarize all the areas in which creatine is potentially helpful and give a final recommendation on whether or not it’s worth taking.
One of creatine’s most popular benefits is improving strength. In this article, we found that the vast majority of evidence supports creatine use for strength gains. Two meta-analyses looking at over 1,300 subjects found creatine caused significant improvements in strength.
Read more: Does creatine make you stronger?
While creatine does improve strength, its effect on cardio is less clear cut. There is however, a good deal of research looking into whether creatine improves performance in aerobic activities. Some of the research did show improved running performance, however, there was also evidence to suggest creatine did not improve cardiovascular performance. If you’re trying to improve aerobic activities, creatine is probably not the best supplement to use.
Read more: Does creatine improve cardio?
While creatine does not appear to improve endurance activities, sprints force the body to utilize an energy system which is aided by higher creatine levels. Unfortunately, the research we reviewed here was also somewhat negative on creatine use to improve sprinting performance. There was one study showing improved performance in longer and repeated sprints. Researchers believe weight gain caused by the supplement may have counteracted any performance gains.
Read more: Does creatine help with sprints?
The studies we reviewed on creatine use for high intensity interval training were not positive. Neither of the two studies found any performance gains in those taking the supplement while engaged in HIIT. The only positive was an increase ventilatory threshold in creatine users. This can be a sign of increased exercise capacity. Still, creatine did not seem to significantly increase performance in high intensity activities.
Read more: Does creatine help with HIIT?
This was another bright spot for creatine use. All four studies we looked at showed a significant increase in muscle mass with creatine use.
Read more: Can creatine help me gain muscle?
Decrease Body Fat
The research on this claim was somewhat mixed. While creatine definitely increases muscle mass, it might not directly lead to body fat reductions. Still, creatine increases strength and muscle mass, which may also indirectly lead to body fat reductions.
Read more: Does creatine decrease body fat?
Decrease Muscle Damage
A supplement that decreases muscle damage has the potential to improve post-workout recovery and increase performance. On this claim, the research was again mixed.
Read more: Does creatine decrease muscle damage?
A better measure to look at than muscle damage is whether or not a supplement improves recovery. Both of the studies we looked at on recovery showed that creatine was effective. Creatine use has the potential to speed up recovery and improve the healing process in some sports related injuries.
Creatine loading describes the process of starting off with a “loading” dose of creatine for about a week, followed by a decreased “maintenance” dose thereafter. It’s a popular dosing strategy that is unnecessary and wasteful. There are plenty of studies showing low doses of creatine work just as good as higher doses without some of the negative side effects. Loading creatine at 20 grams per day for a week is unnecessary. The evidence suggests starting off with 2-5 grams per day from the start yields the same positive benefits.
Read more: Is creatine loading necessary?
Creatine cycling is the process of using creatine for a given number of weeks followed by a break. Creatine is not a steroid! There are long term studies on creatine’s health effects. Two of the studies we looked at tracked athletes taking creatine for five years and did not find any negative issues. The International Society of Sports Nutrition stance says creatine use of 30 grams per day for as long as 5 years does not have any detrimental effects on healthy individuals. On and off creatine use is unnecessary.
The Bottom Line
Creatine is a somewhat rare supplement in that there is plenty of evidence that backs its use. It improves strength, enhances recovery, and increases muscle mass. It does not however, work on every activity. The evidence on creatine use to improve aerobic activity, high intensity exercise, sprints, and decrease body fat is at best, mixed.
There are various forms of creatine on the market. Creatine monohydrate is the cheapest, easiest to get, most widely studied, and arguably, most effective. Other forms are much more expensive and largely untested.
Effective creatine doses range from 2 to 30 grams per day. When using this supplement, start with a smaller dose as it may be just as effective as larger doses. Creatine can cause unwanted weight gain and gastrointestinal discomfort; avoid taking it right before exercise. Creatine has been shown to be safe and effective for upwards of five years; cycling it on and off is not necessary.