Creatine: The Power-Packed Supplement for Enhanced Performance

Written by: Christine VanDoren, nutritionist

Fact checked by: SaVanna Shoemaker, MS, RDN, LD

Creatine: The Power-Packed Supplement for Enhanced Performance

Creatine is a non-protein compound naturally produced by the kidneys, liver, and pancreas. You can find it in small amounts in meat and fish. It helps to supply energy to muscle cells, especially during high-intensity exercise.

When creatine is available in the tissue, it can enhance cellular metabolism, particularly when oxygen availability is compromised. 

Athletes and others who desire to improve their physical performance and overall health usually take creatine supplements since they can be used as performance enhancers.

What is Creatine?

Creatine is an amino acid derivative that can be stored in the muscles as phosphocreatine, which then acts as a readily available energy source for short-burst activities like sprinting and weightlifting. It plays a crucial role in the adenosine triphosphate and phosphocreatine (ATP-PCr) energy system, the primary energy production mechanism for short periods of high-intensity exercise. This is because muscles require energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in order to contract.

During the first few seconds of high-intensity exercise, ATP is rapidly broken down to adenosine diphosphate (ADP) to release energy for muscle contraction. In the ATP-PCr system, phosphocreatine donates its phosphate group to ADP, regenerating ATP and allowing continued muscle function. This promotes sustained energy production during intense bursts of activity.

Types of Creatine

Creatine Monohydrate

Monohydrate is the most researched and widely used form of creatine because it is easily absorbed, cost-effective, and has been effective in improving strength and muscle mass. However, it requires a loading phase of roughly one week to saturate muscle stores. Unlike other forms of creatine, users typically experience fewer side effects with creatine monohydrate.

Buffered Creatine

Buffered creatine is an alkaline creatine with a higher pH than the regular creatine monohydrate. Buffering helps to enhance the stability of creatine, improve its effectiveness, and reduce stomach discomfort.

Creatine Hydrochloride

Unlike creatine monohydrate, creatine hydrochloride does not require a loading phase and is more soluble in water. It may be easier on the stomach and more effective at increasing creatine muscle stores than other creatine forms. 

It is made by binding creatine to hydrochloride (HCl) molecules to form a moiety. However, this lowers the pH level of creatine and makes it more acidic. So, people usually take it in serving sizes below one gram, which is much smaller than the standard five-gram monohydrate serving size.

Creatine Nitrate

Creatine nitrate is a new form of creatine that is made by combining regular nitrates with creatine, which may help improve blood flow and cardiovascular health, as well as improve exercise performance and boost nitric oxide production. It allows a higher concentration of creatine to be absorbed by the body, even if you consume half of the standard 5-gram serving size.

Creatine Ester

Creatine ester is made by binding creatine to ester salts to increase its bioavailability. It has a longer half-life than the regular monohydrate because it is fat-soluble. Despite this, it has not shown significant benefits over monohydrate and may cause stomach discomfort and reduce the amount of creatine in the body.

Creatine Malate

Creatine malate is made by binding creatine to malic acid, commonly found in fruits, to provide better absorption, improve stamina, and reduce side effects. It is easily dissolvable in water, but there have yet to be scientific studies that corroborate its effects.

Benefits of Creatine

Athletic Performance and Endurance

During high-intensity, short-duration activities such as weightlifting or sprinting, the ATP-PCr or phosphagen energy system comes into play. This system relies on the rapid regeneration of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy currency of cells. Creatine enhances atheltic performance and endurance by donating a phosphate group to ADP, replenishing ATP levels, and delaying the onset of fatigue.

Muscle Growth and Strength

Creatine's role in promoting muscle growth and strength is a key reason for its popularity among athletes and fitness enthusiasts. It does this by increasing the availability of ATP and stimulating muscle protein synthesis. This leads to enhanced muscle mass and strength gains, which support greater training intensity and volume.

Cognitive Health and Brain Function

Beyond its benefits for physical performance, creatine can help maintain optimal energy levels that the brain needs to function. It can also improve cognitive performance, especially in tasks demanding higher levels of working memory.

Although the brain responds to creatine supplementation, creatine uptake in the brain is usually limited, unlike that of the muscles. Therefore, one may have to take creatine for an extended time period before it produces notable effects in the brain.

Improved Recovery and Reduced Muscle Soreness

Creatine has also been associated with accelerating the recovery process, especially during intense physical activity, when the muscle tissues may experience microtrauma and cause soreness and inflammation.

This is due to its properties, which can modulate immune responses and reduce oxidative stress. These effects, coupled with creatine's role in maintaining cellular energy balance, create an environment conducive to quicker recovery and less post-exercise discomfort. 

However, note that this benefit is particular to individuals engaged in frequent or intense training sessions.

How Creatine Works

One of the reasons for creatine’s effectiveness is the ATP-PCr system. It is an energy pathway that provides the initial burst of energy used when muscles contract. During high-intensity exercise, these muscles rapidly break down ATP, the primary energy currency of cells, to fuel the contractions and enable athletes to maintain peak performance.

This breakdown of ATP occurs in the absence of oxygen, a condition known as anaerobic metabolism. However, the supply of ATP within muscle cells is limited, and its depletion can lead to muscle fatigue and impaired performance. This is when creatine starts to function.

When stored in muscle cells as phosphocreatine, it acts as a readily available energy reservoir, causing the phosphocreatine to quickly donate its phosphate group to ADP (the broken-down product of ATP) to regenerate ATP and allow muscles to continue contracting.

When muscle creatine runs out, it is supplemented through creatine loading and maintenance. Creatine loading involves consuming higher-than-usual doses of creatine, typically 20 grams daily, for five to seven days. This rapid intake aims to saturate muscle creatine stores quickly and maximize the availability of creatine for phosphocreatine synthesis.

After the loading phase, creatine supplementation shifts to a maintenance phase, which involves the ingestion of three to five grams of creatine per day. It helps to replenish creatine stores gradually as they are utilized during exercise and maintain optimal levels for continued performance benefits.

Side Effects and Risks

Creatine is generally considered safe when taken at recommended doses by healthy adults. However, potential side effects exist, and they include the following:

  • Weight gain: Creatine can cause water retention in muscle cells, leading to a slight increase in body weight. This is typically not a concern for athletes and individuals seeking to increase muscle mass.
  • Muscle cramps: Some individuals may experience muscle cramps, particularly during the initial loading phase. Adopting proper hydration and electrolyte balance is a way to promote blood circulation around your muscles and prevent cramping. 
  • Digestive issues: Creatine can cause mild and temporary discomfort, such as bloating, loose stools, and abdominal pains, in some individuals.
  • Kidney concerns: There have been rare reports of kidney problems associated with creatine use, particularly in individuals with pre-existing kidney conditions. Therefore, it is recommended that individuals with kidney issues consult their healthcare provider before using creatine.

While creatine is generally safe for healthy adults, individuals with diabetes should monitor their blood sugar levels closely and consult with their healthcare provider before using creatine, as it may slightly affect blood sugar control.

Pregnant or breastfeeding women should avoid creatine supplementation. Individuals with pre-existing medical conditions, such as kidney or liver complications, must consult with their healthcare provider before using creatine.

Choosing and Using Creatine Supplements

When it comes to creatine supplements, there are several factors to consider, and one is the different forms of creatine. Powdered creatine is, perhaps, the most popular form of creatine because it can easily be measured, mixed with water or a preferred beverage, and consumed. This makes it easy to control the taste, texture, and amount of creatine you consume per dosage.

On the other hand, pills provide a convenient and portable option for individuals who are always on the go because they can easily consume them. However, each pill has a fixed dosage that you cannot adjust.

Finally, there is the liquid creatine, which is often available in pre-mixed solutions for individuals who prioritize convenience or have difficulty swallowing pills or taking powdered mixes. Its stability depends on the manufacturers, and some formulations may be less resistant to degradation over time.

The recommended dosage is three to five grams daily, and the actual amount depends on the individual needs. Some people may choose to undergo a process known as creatine loading.

Creatine loading involves taking a higher dose of creatine (typically around 20 grams per day) for a short period (usually five to seven days), followed by a maintenance phase of three to five grams daily to sustain the elevated creatine levels.

People believe this method can saturate your muscles with creatine in a shorter period. However, it is not necessarily for everyone, and consistently taking the maintenance dose can lead to the same creatine saturation level over time.

Just like the maintenance phase, cycling can also help to manage creatine intake. It involves several periods of consistent supplementation followed by breaks. The rationale behind the phase is to allow the body to maintain some autonomy in creatine production during non-supplemented phases. However, research indicates that continuous use is well-tolerated and may eliminate the need for cycling in several cases.

More importantly, choosing a high-quality creatine supplement is almost equal to enjoying its benefits, so you must only buy from reputable brands whose products have been tested by third-party labs for purity, potency, and quality assurance. Also, avoid supplements with proprietary blends because the exact amounts of ingredients in these blends are undisclosed.

Myths and Misconceptions

Contrary to popular opinion, creatine is not a steroid. 

Steroids are synthetic hormones that mimic testosterone and promote muscle growth and strength but usually have severe side effects. On the other hand, creatine is a naturally occurring substance that increases energy production within muscle cells, leading to performance and growth benefits without the adverse effects of steroids.

Also, some people worry that taking creatine supplements can harm their kidneys. However, research has shown that creatine does not cause kidney damage in individuals who don’t have a pre-existing medical condition.

A review of studies found no link between creatine supplementation and kidney damage in healthy individuals. Hence, individuals with pre-existing kidney conditions should consult a healthcare professional before starting any new supplement regimen, including creatine.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Is there an optimal time to take creatine for maximum effectiveness?

A: No, there is no optimal time to take creatine to improve its effect. You can take it before or after a workout, depending on your preference. As long as you take your supplement daily, you should see benefits.

Q: Can creatine be combined with other supplements?

A: Always consult a healthcare professional before adding any supplements to your routine. Typically, creatine pairs well with various supplements, like protein powders and energy gels, as well as pre and post-workout formulas, which may enhance muscle protein synthesis. 

Q: How can creatine support my training? 

A: Creatine supplementation can enhance athletic performance by increasing energy production within muscle cells. This can improve strength, power, and endurance, allowing you to train harder and longer.

Q: Can creatine be taken on an empty stomach?

A: Yes. You can take creatine on an empty stomach without compromising its effectiveness.


Creatine has been shown to enhance muscle mass, strength, and exercise performance. It’s also gaining attention for its potential benefits in brain health and cognitive function. If you find creatine supplementation a suitable choice, it may help you exercise for an extended period and build muscle mass.

However, while creatine is generally considered safe for most people, it’s always a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional before starting a new supplement regimen, especially if you have a pre-existing medical condition.


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