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The Creatine Loading Phase | Is It The Best Way To Gain Muscle?

If you’ve heard anything about creatine, then you’ve probably heard about starting out with a creatine loading phase. From there, you probably went on to wonder many other things, such as what exactly this means and how much more you should take and for how long… The list is endless. Before you get wrapped up in mountains of research, we’ve got the essentials, so that you can focus on reaching your goals.

For anyone looking to pack on muscle, sprint faster, recover better, or add some extra weight to their lifting, creatine is one of the most effective supplements available.1 So, here’s everything you need to know about loading.

 

Benefits of creatine

1. Increased muscle mass

When combined with resistance training, creatine supplementation has been repeatedly shown to be a very effective way to increase muscle mass4 and there is evidence to show those who supplement with it can gain twice the amount of muscle mass compared to those who don’t.1

The main way in which creatine can help you increase your muscle mass is by the increased amount of quality training work you are able to perform when you creatine stores are full.

Having full creatine storage can help you complete more reps and sets at the same weight. Over time this will leader to greater training adaptions and ultimately more muscle mass.

One particular area of your body that creatine can help with is your upper body.5 This is because your upper body muscles, such as your shoulders and chest, contain more type 1 muscle fibres (the kind used in fast, powerful movements such as weightlifting) than lower body muscles.

Evidence has shown that type 1 fibres respond better to creatine supplementation because they have uptake more creatine than lower body muscles.

Due to lack of meat and fish in the diet, the main sources of creatine intake, vegetarians may well respond better to supplementation as their storage will be lower initially.

In a study that looked at the difference between meat eaters and vegetarians who were following a resistance training plan combined with creatine supplementation showed that vegetarians gained 2.5g more muscle mass.

2. Athletic performance

The benefits of creatine supplementation on strength performance have been well documented.3 In both short-term and long-term studies, strength performance has been reported to raise performance by 5% to 15%.1

For those looking to enhance upper body strength, creatine can be particularly beneficial. As well as increased muscle mass in the upper body area, creatine supplementation has been shown to significantly boost bench press performance, a key lift when looking to build upper body strength.

This is supported by a study investigating the effects of creatine supplementation bench press performance which showed an increase of up to 45%.7

Any athletes competing in sports who require quick recovery from repeated sprints may find creatine supplementation especially helpful.

In a study looking at the performance of highly trained football players, those who followed a 6-day loading phase reported an improved recovery after 15m sprints with 30s rest.8

3. Recovery

Creatine can help your body to replenish its glycogen (energy) stores. During a resistance training session, your muscle’s glycogen stores can be depleted by as much as 40%, depending on the duration and intensity of your session.9 The ability to restore glycogen is an important aspect of recovery as it will allow you to return to training at the same high intensity sooner.10

Supplementing with creatine will also help when looking to load up on glycogen for an exhaustive bout of exercise such as a marathon. A study involving marathon runners showed that creatine supplementation helped reduce the amount of fatigue experienced following a 30km run.11

If you’re preparing for a competition and going through an overreaching phase, creatine can also help your body cope with all the extra volume.12 This may be particularly applicable if you’re preparing for strength sports such as weightlifting, powerlifting, and strongman.

 

Pros of creatine loading

1. Instant results

With a creatine loading phase, you will be able to start adding extra quality work to your training sessions in as little as a week. This is important as it’s the work in the gym that turns creatine supplementation into increased muscle mass, strength, and power.13

A study looking into the effect of creatine loading on bench press performance showed a significant increase after 7 days of loading. Those supplementing with it were able to perform more reps during each of the 5 sets .13

2. Sustainable

Following a loading phase, if you drop down to a maintenance dose, you’ll sustain the muscle mass and strength gains made. Your body typically uses 1-2% of your creatine stores on a daily basis, so a daily maintenance dose of 3g-5g will be enough to make sure your stores stay full and your performance in the gym stays high.1

3. Better pump

As well as all the extra reps and heavier sets, full creatine stores will help you to perform better as creatine has osmotic properties.14 This means it will draw water into the muscle cell, causing a swelling effect. This will lead to a better pump, with your muscles also looking fuller. This swelling effect could have other potential benefits too. It may also be the case that this will lead to the triggering of muscle protein synthesis, which is the process where your body builds muscle.15

 

What does creatine do?

In your body, creatine combines with the chemical compound phosphagen to form phosphocreatine (PCr), which is used for muscle contraction. During explosive exercise, such as a heavy set of squats or a 60m sprint, the body uses ATP, which is the body’s main energy carrier.3

Your ability to perform at a high intensity is reliant on your muscles having a supply of ATP. PCr helps your body generate this vitally important ATP, enabling you to perform at the required intensity for longer.3

During explosive movements, such as weight training or sprinting, your body also uses PCr as fuel. By boosting your body’s available PCr stores, you can hit those all-important extra reps.3

This increased quality of work over a long period of time will lead to greater training adaptations such as increased muscle mass, greater strength, and faster sprint times.1

 

What is creatine loading?

This means taking a larger amount of creatine than the maintenance dosage (3g) for several days, which will enable you to maximise your creatine storage as quickly as possible.2 This results in faster training gains and improved performance compared to what a normal dose for maintenance would give you.2

The process enables you to saturate your body’s creatine stores as quickly as possible. For those eating a typical diet containing meat and fish, creatine storage ranges between 60-80% full.

A typical loading strategy would be to consume 20g creatine a day (5g x4) for 5-7 days.2 This will be enough to ensure your muscle creatine stores are fully saturated and you’re ready to start making increased training gains.

The following article will discuss the effectiveness of a loading phase and look into various ways in which creatine supplementation can benefit your physique and performance levels.

 

When should you take creatine, and is a loading phase necessary?

A creatine loading phase isn’t strictly necessary.1 Evidence shows that supplementing with a smaller dose will have the same effect, but it’ll just take a bit longer to maximise creatine storage, which can be achieved by a daily dose of 3-5g.

So, to achieve the same benefits when taking creatine without loading, you’ll have to wait around 3 weeks longer. If you have a competition looming or are eager to start seeing muscle gains as quickly as possible, you could miss out on 3 vital weeks of training at your full potential that would otherwise be provided by optimised creatine storage.

 

Types of creatine supplements

There are a number of different types of creatine on the market. Some of these include:

  • Creatine monohydrate
  • Creatine ethyl-ester
  • Micronized creatine
  • Creatine kre-alkalyn

Whilst all provide slightly different benefits, creatine monohydrate is the most heavily researched.1 There’s very little evidence to show any other form of creatine is more beneficial and, with it being the cheapest form, it may well be the best choice for most.

Creatine can come in powder or tablet form. Neither makes a difference when it comes to effectiveness, so this choice is down to personal preference.1 A powder can be mixed into a pre-workout shake, whereas tablets are easy to take when on the go.

 

Take home message

Creatine is a highly effective supplement for building muscle and increasing strength and power. It’ll also help you to recover and enable you to handle the high training volumes needed to make progress.

A creatine loading phase of 20g a day for 7 days should be enough to fully maximise your storage and help to improve your performance in the gym.

Our articles should be used for informational and educational purposes only and are not intended to be taken as medical advice. If you’re concerned, consult a health professional before taking dietary supplements or introducing any major changes to your diet.


  1. Buford TW, Kreider RB, Stout JR, Greenwood M, Campbell B, Spano M… Antonio J (2007). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: creatine supplementation and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 4:6.
  2. Hultman, E., Soderlund, K., Timmons, J., Cederblad, G. and Greenhaff, P. (1996). Muscle creatine loading in menJournal of Applied Physiology, 81(1), pp.232-237.
  3. Antonio, J., Kalman, D., Stout, J., Greenwood, M., Willoughby, D. and Haff, G. (2014). Essentials of sports nutrition and supplements. [NY]: Humana Press.
  4. Kreider RB, Kalman DS, Antonio J, Ziedenfuss TN, Wildman R, Collins R…. Lopez H. (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 14:18
  5. Nunes JP, Ribeiro AS, Schoenfeld BJ, Tomeleri CM, Avelar A, Trindade MC, Nabucco HC..Cyrino ES. (2017). Creatine supplementation elicits greater muscle hypertrophy in upper than lower limbs and trunk in resistance-trained men. Nutr Health. Dec;23(4):223-229
  6. Burke DG, Candow DG, Chilibeck PD, MacNeil LG, Roy BD, Tarnopolsky MA, Ziegenfuss T: Effect of creatine supplementation and resistance-exercise training on muscle insulin-like growth factor in young adults. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 2008, 18:389–398.
  7. Rawson ES, Volek JS. (2003). Effects of creatine supplementation and resistance training on muscle strength and weightlifting performance. J Strength Cond Res. Nov;17(4):822-31
  8. Mujika I, Padilla S, Ibanez J, Izquierdo M, Gorostiaga E. Creatine supplementation and sprint performance in soccer players. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2000;32:518-525.
  9. Vandenberghe M, Goris P, Van Hecke M Van Leemputte L, Hespel P. (1997). Long term creatine intake is beneficial to muscle performance during resistance training. J Appl Physiol. Dec;83(6):2055-63.
  10. MacDougall JD, Ray S, Sale DG, McCartney N, Lee P, Gamer S. (1999) Muscle substrate utilization and lactate production during weightlifting. Can J Appl Physiol 1999; 24(3):209-215.
  11. Santos, R., Bassit, R., Caperuto, E. and Costa Rosa, L. (2004). The effect of creatine supplementation upon inflammatory and muscle soreness markers after a 30km race.Life Sciences, 75(16), pp.1917-1924.
  12. Volek, J., Ratamess, N., Rubin, M., Gomez, A., French, D., McGuigan, M., Scheett, T., Sharman, M., Hokkinen, K. and Kraemer, W. (2004). The effects of creatine supplementation on muscular performance and body composition responses to short-term resistance training overreaching.European Journal of Applied Physiology, 91(5-6), pp.628-637.
  13. Volek JS, Kraemer WJ, Bush JA, Boetes M, Incledon T, Clark KL, Lynch JM: Creatine supplementation enhances muscular performance during high-intensity resistance exercise. J Am Diet Assoc 97: 765– 770, 1997
  14. Bird SP. (2003) Creatine supplementation and exercise performance: A brief review. J Sports Sci Med. 2(4): 123-132.
  15. Kreider RB. (2003. Effects of creatine supplementation on performance and training adaptations. Mol Cell Biochem. 2003;244(1–2):89–94.


Liam Agnew

Liam Agnew

Sport and Performance Nutritionist

Liam is a certified sport nutritionist with the International Society of Sport Nutrition and is enrolled on the British Dietetics Association’s Sport and Exercise Nutrition register. He has a Bachelor’s of Science in Sport and Exercise Science and is graduate of the ISSN Diploma in Applied Sport and Exercise Nutrition.

Liam is an experienced personal trainer, helping clients reach their health and fitness goals with practical, evidence informed exercise and nutrition advice. In his spare time Liam has competed in numerous powerlifting competitions and enjoys hill walking, football and expanding his recipe repertoire in the kitchen.

Find out more about Liam's experience here.


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