Upon making the decision to supplement with Creatine, it’s important to address what dosage and which protocol best suits your goals, as well as the best time to take it.
Whether ‘cutting’, ‘lean mass gaining’ or simply in search of performance or health enhancement, creatine has its place, but what is the best way to elicit these adaptations? Let’s take a look…
‘Loading’ is the most common form of supplementation. This entails a 5-7 day ‘load’ of 20-25g a day, taken in 4-5, 5g doses, 3 hours apart.
There is no point to supplementing with any greater load, numerous studies have been conducted into >25g per day ‘loading’ and these have found no greater adaptations with increased intake when compared to the more traditional 20-25g load.
Overloading, therefore, is simply an increasingly expensive way to urinate! This initial loading phase is then followed by a 3-5g per day maintenance dosage.
Benefits of Creatine Loading
There are many benefits to the ‘loading’ protocol:
- Muscle stores increase from baseline 125 mmol.kg to their max 160 mmol.kg in a very short period (3-7 days).
- Peak Power Output is improved, an increased ability to repeat maximum efforts requiring a shorter recovery period is seen.
- Increased ATP (energy) and Phosphocreatine (PCr) resynthesis.
However, a ‘loading’ approach will inevitably lead to weight gain, ~2kg in the first 5 days of creatine monohydrate (CrM) supplementation. This immediate gain will mainly be due to fluid retention; recent research has begun to suggest that over a longer period (when combined with resistance training) this may be maintained as muscle mass. Therefore, careful consideration must be taken for any athletes involved in weight making sports (Boxing, MMA, physique competitors, etc.).
‘Loading’ is currently held up as the optimal approach, believed to induce the greatest adaptations, however, it is worth noting that this is more than likely linked to the fact there are far vaster quantities of research into ‘loading’ compared with other protocols.
…What if weight gain is an issue though?
The Steady Approach
Although ‘loading’ is proclaimed as the gold standard when studies have compared it to a steadier approach (5g.day) the differences are actually minimal beyond the initial 28-day phase. This is due to the steady 5g.d intake taking ~28 days to maximise muscle stores at 160mmol.kg.
Undertaking the steady approach has numerous positives; Gastrointestinal (GI) Distress, sometimes associated with ‘loading’, is very rarely seen in a more conservative dosage, adaptations are similar to loading, although it takes 28 days to fully maximise stores so planning for this is required.
Competitor needing to make weight?
The real bonus to be found with a steady intake though is the greater control over body mass gain for those with weight considerations. Provided caloric intake is controlled (in relation to personal goals) any body-weight gains should be negated.
5g per day is maintained throughout. Intake should not drop <3g.d as this will be insufficient to elicit optimal adaptations. This because of body daily Creatine excretion (Urea) which is around 2g.d.
But are there any other approaches?
The other option often banded about gyms is ‘cycling’. Broadly speaking there are 2 protocols: ’12 weeks on, 2 weeks off’ and ‘Pulse Loading’.
12 weeks on, 2 weeks off
Pretty much exactly what is says. 12 weeks supplementation of 6g.d, followed by a 2 week ‘washout’ period. This theory is more in tune with earlier studies into Creatine, where cycling was advocated to allow the kidneys a ‘rest’ from increased Creatine levels. More recent and longitudinal studies have disputed the need for cycling and current recommendations are that sustained intake is not detrimental to health in healthy individuals.
The major issue here is a lowering of stored PCr and Creatine levels in the muscle during the 2 week ‘washout’. Although, levels will not quite reach baseline it is worth considering that it takes ~28days to maximise muscle stores when not following a ‘loading’ phase, so ~1/3 of supplementation may simply be ‘refilling’ muscle stores.
However, if you feel more comfortable cycling then there is no significant detriment to adaptations, merely allow a longer timeframe to achieve them.
Pulse loading involves a 3-5 day load of 20-30g.d, taken in 4-6 servings, spread 3 hours apart. This is undertaken every 3-4 weeks, aiming to maximise skeletal muscle PCr and Creatine stores.
Research has found that a 4-6 week window of elevated stores exists following a load, before levels return to baseline. Therefore, by spiking Creatine every 3-4 weeks, a return to baseline is not seen at any point.
Although levels will remain elevated, the infrequency of intake means stores will inevitably drop. As such this method is seen as less than optimal.
One relatively new approach is to load with 20 x 1g doses, taken every half hour for 5-7 days.
Recent research has linked this with a more rapid muscle uptake of PCr and Creatine. This approach is still in its infancy and requires further investigation.
Additionally, although potentially exceptionally efficient, it would seem to be impractical for all those except professional physique competitors.
So that’s dosage sorted, but when should I take it?
The short answer is that as of yet there is no certain ‘best’ time to ingest CrM. Studies argue left, right and centre as to the best approach and there is no definitive answer. Analysing literature trends begin to appear though. On non-training days it is generally agreed that ingestion timing is less important, basically whenever suits the individual.
On training days, however, in and around training is considered optimal. This is where we begin to see the contrast. Depending on which study you look at, will influence your decision. There is evidence to support both pre and post training (if in a loading phase do both!).
Having examined previous research and reviews, it can be tentatively proposed that fractionally more studies support post-workout supplementation.
What is agreed is that CrM intake, combined with carbohydrate enhances the efficiency of skeletal muscle uptake.
Take Home Points
- A ‘loading’ phase of 5-7 days of 20-25g.d, taken in 4-5 doses, spread 3 hours apart is currently recommended for those with no weight considerations, followed by a 5g.d maintenance
- If bodyweight is an issue a steady intake of 5g.d will achieve a similar adaptation >28days.
- Post-training supplementation may offer greater benefits
- CrM supplementation taken with carbohydrates elicits a greater muscle creatine uptake
- There are no current recommendations to cycle intake for health reasons
However, it does seem sensible to take a break if for example, you’re on holiday, and training, nutrition, etc. has been relaxed
No adverse effects have been found on renal function or endocrine enzyme activity in healthy individuals (those with no underlying/prior illnesses).