Need more reasons to take creatine? It’s one of the most-researched dietary supplements for building strength and body mass. And, despite an overwhelming amount of published research, some confusion remains regarding how to supplement creatine for maximum gains. Many athletes start a loading phase for creatine, taking up to five times the standard dosage, during their first week of use. The goal of a loading phase is to build up creatine stores faster and see the benefits of the supplement sooner.
You can curl, lift, and squat all day, but without the right nutrients, you’ll never bulk up to your full potential. Muscle needs a specific pool of amino acids and macronutrients to properly repair itself and come back bigger. There are countless products out there filled with vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that claim to help you build muscle—and science does show some of them will give you small gains and help you stay energized while working out.
But we’re looking for the big guns—the supplements with the strongest science behind them, the ones proven to help you build bulk. And if you think protein is all there is to getting chiseled, listen up: Creatine is the LeBron James of supplements, says Rehan Jalali, certified sports nutritionist and president of the Supplement Research Foundation.
This article will explain what the loading phase for creatine is and whether or not you need to load creatine in the first place using evidence-based information regarding its potential benefits, whether creatine is safe, any undesirable side effects, the best time to take creatine, and more.
What Does Creatine Do?
“It’s the most research-proven sports supplement on the market today, with hundreds of clinical studies showing that it can enhance lean body mass, increase strength, enhance energy levels, and increase muscle size,” Jalali says.
Creatine can be thought of as an “energy shuttle.” Energy in the body is known as adenosine triphosphate (ATP), and after this energy is used, one phosphate will be lost to create adenosine diphosphate (ADP).
ADP cannot be used as energy in the body until it’s converted back into ATP. Supplementing with creatine increases ATP stores by providing another phosphate group for ADP to form ATP.
In short: Creatine works by helping to produce energy for your muscle tissue to use to churn out those last few reps.
Benefits of Creatine
One study published in the journal Nutrients, found 30 athletes who supplemented with creatine while undergoing a complex four-week training program experienced improvements in body fat percentage, jump height, and jump peak power compared with that before training.
Boost Athletic Performance
In that same study mentioned above, researchers concluded creatine can help athletes enhance maximal muscular strength and peak power in areas like half squats, plyometric jumps, and 30-meter sprints during the off-season, while reducing the muscle damage caused by complex training.
Because creatine produces more energy for muscles, it helps athletes train for a longer period at a higher intensity—more work, sets, and/or reps—which can lead to increased strength, muscle mass, and performance due to greater quality and volume of training.
While research shows that creatine can help you lose fat (thereby showing off your muscles better), keep in mind the level of bulk benefit varies greatly from person to person, says Brian St. Pierre, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S., director of Performance Nutrition at Precision Nutrition. A 2022 meta-analysis published in Nutrients, confirms creatine is an effective supplement for increasing muscle strength, muscle mass, and athletic performance in young, healthy populations in a variety of dosage strategies and forms of fitness. However, evidence-based research on the benefits of creatine supplementation in muscle growth for the elderly or patients with muscle-related diseases is not substantial enough to make comparable comparisons.
Similar to findings with muscle mass, an analysis of 22 creatine supplement studies in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found results to be highly individualized when it comes to gaining strength. On average, though, the paper found those who took creatine were 8 percent stronger on their max load and able to complete 14 percent more reps.
Improve Cognitive Function
In addition to the physical benefits, studies continue to suggest that creatine may play a role in improving cognitive function. Specifically, research is ongoing to determine what effect, if any, creatine has on sleep. A few human studies have shown creatine to improve mood, balance, and reaction time after periods of sleep deprivation. At this time, more research is needed to determine any direct effects of creatine on sleep markers, such as quality of sleep.
Is Creatine Safe?
After more than three decades of intense research on creatine supplementation, the International Society of Sports Nutrition states, “Creatine monohydrate supplementation is not only safe, but has been reported to have a number of therapeutic benefits in healthy and diseased populations ranging from infants to the elderly.” So, yes, creatine is safe as is the loading phase for creatine.
How to Use Creatine
Using creatine is simple: If you’re taking a powder form, just mix and dissolve it in any liquid to drink. If you’re taking a capsule form, consume it with water like any vitamin.
Research shows that a daily serving of 3 to 5g of creatine monohydrate leads to the most effective results. For most athletes, larger servings provide more creatine than the body can absorb. That surplus passes through your system and literally gets flushed down the drain.
Creatine can be consumed at any point in the day, even on an empty stomach. If you also take a powdered protein supplement, the creatine can be mixed in. Despite being composed of amino acids, creatine does not have the same effects as consuming dietary protein after a workout and does not replace protein powder supplementation.
When to Take Creatine
Emerging evidence suggests greater benefits when creatine is consumed after exercise compared to taking before. A study published in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition found that men gained more muscle and lean mass when taking the supplement after the gym instead of before. Note there are only limited studies—some with conflicting data—and further research is needed for a solid conclusion.
Do I Need to Load Creatine?
Do you need to load creatine? If you want the fastest results, then yes. At the standard 3 to 5g daily dose, it takes about a month to fill an athlete’s creatine stores. The theory behind the loading phase for creatine is that by taking a significantly larger dosage at the beginning of supplementation, the body’s creatine stores will be filled faster and an athlete will see the benefits sooner.
“[Loading] supersaturates your muscle creatine stores,” says Mike Roussell, PhD, a nutrition consultant. “You could not load, but it would take a lot longer to reap the maximum effectiveness of creatine.”
The ISSN supports the loading phase for creatine as the quickest method of increasing creatine stores in the muscles.
How Do I Load Creatine?
Supporting studies use 0.3 g/kg of body weight daily (~20 to 25g/day) of creatine monohydrate for the first five to seven days of use and shift down to 3 to 5g daily. However, the most important aspect of taking creatine is continuing to take 3 to 5 g/day to maintain full creatine stores.
The larger dosage for a creatine loading phase should be broken up throughout the day with no more than 10g at a time to avoid potential GI distress. If you can’t load creatine, ingesting the smaller maintenance dosage of creatine monohydrate (i.e. 3 to 5 g/day) will still fill an athlete’s creatine stores over a longer, 3–4-week period.
Should I Work Out During a Creatine Loading Phase?
There’s no reason to skip exercise during the creatine loading phase. By itself, the supplement isn’t going to cause you to pack on slabs of muscle, says St. Pierre. In order for creatine supplements to be effective, exercise is necessary.
When used with resistance training, creatine can help increase the number of reps you can do, building strength and spiking muscle growth.
Research suggests that creatine stores can remain high if creatine supplementation is skipped here and there, but it’s not recommended to miss a day. Even on rest days, creatine should still be taken to maintain creatine stores in the muscles.
Are There Creatine Loading Phase Side Effects?
Some adverse effects of the creatine loading phase have been reported. Doses of creatine greater than 10g per single serving have been linked to GI distress, such as diarrhea. Risk of unwanted GI side effects could be mitigated if individuals take more frequent smaller doses (e.g., four or five 5g servings per day) in a loading phase. Continued research has also shown no link between normal creatine use and increased fat mass, increased water retention or dehydration, renal damage, or hair loss.
One of the first supplements on the market, creatine is still among the most effective. Is loading creatine necessary? It’s not absolutely essential to building muscle and boosting performance, but it will certainly yield better results in half the time.