So, you’ve decided to take the plunge and add creatine to your supplement routine. But one of the most important factors to consider is when to take creatine to suit your goals.
If you’ve researched creatine before, you’ve likely come across “creatine loading” and “creatine cycling”, but some of the information on them can be a little confusing. We’re here to sort through the confusion, and help you figure out how to make creatine work for you.
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…
- Creatine Loading
- Benefits of Creatine Loading
- Creatine Cycling
- Pulse Loading
- Multiple Dosing
- When Should You Take Creatine?
The idea behind creatine ‘loading’ is to increase the body’s stores as quickly as possible. For a loading phase you’d consume multiple doses per day for about 5-7 days to maximize the amount in your muscles. After this time, you can take a maintenance amount to keep your levels high over time.
The loading phase can mean consuming up to 20-25g per day in multiple 5g doses; however, the research shows that consuming more than 25g does not show any significant impact.1
So, overloading might just be an expensive way to have to urinate more… 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 to their max levels
- Research shows an increase in power (repetitions at max effort with less recovery)2
- Increased production of energy and resynthesis of phosphocreatine, to get you ready for your next workout2
A ‘loading’ approach does also inevitably lead to weight gain, ~2kg in the first 5 days of creatine monohydrate (CrM) supplementation. This immediate gain will mainly be due to water retention as the body absorbs more water; recent research has begun to suggest that over a longer period (when combined with resistance training) this may be maintained as muscle mass.1 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’s 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.2
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.
The other option often banded about gyms is creatine ‘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 it says. 12 weeks supplementation of 6g per day, 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.3 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.2
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’s 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 is another form of creatine cycling that involves a 3-5 day load of 20-30g.d, taken in 4-6 servings, spread 3 hours apart. This is repeated 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 in this type of creatine cycling before levels return to baseline.4 So, 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 seems impractical for the average gym-goer, and more relevant for pro athletes.
When should you take Creatine?
The short answer is that as of yet there is no certain ‘best’ time to take creatine. The most important component of a creatine regimen is consistency in your approach to maximize and maintain your levels.
On training days, however, in and around training is considered optimal. This is where we begin to see the contrast. While recommendations vary around whether to take it before or after a workout, it’s often recommended in multiple small doses and can easily be included in your pre and post workout regimens.
What is agreed is that creatine intake, combined with carbohydrates, enhances the efficiency of skeletal muscle uptake. Adding it to your pre or post workout shake can be beneficial.
Want more info on when to take creatine? Read this next:
Take Home Message
A new creatine user should focus on a loading phase to first maximise their muscle stores, and then maintain their stores with a lower dose on a regular basis. Creatine cycling can be done in a variety of ways, but it’s most important to be consistent to keep your muscle stores at their max levels to see the greatest benefits. While consuming creatine with carbs can help with absorption, it’s up to you whether you take it before or after your workout.
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).2