I’m not sure how it happened, or why, but at some point creatine—an amino acid your body stores and uses as an energy source—became colloquially related to severe strength and athletic performance substances, like anabolic steroids. If you know creatine, you know this couldn’t be further from the truth, but I’d suggest that’s the core of creatine’s PR problem—very few people know what it is, what it does, and why a person might take it.
To learn more, I took creatine for three months—and read way too much about what it might or might not do for my body. Here’s what you need to know about taking it yourself, including: how much creatine should you take, how long it takes creatine to work, and before and after creatine data—weight gained, athletic improvements, and more.
Why Trust Us
Hone Health is a team of health-obsessed journalists, editors, fitness junkies, medical reviewers, and product testers. Before writing this story, I spent three months supplementing creatine, making note of shifts—large or not—in weight, energy level, and workout output. Since this story’s original publish period, I’ve continued to supplement creatine for another six months.
I’ve been reviewing tech, fitness, wellness, and health products for nearly a decade now, and have a team of fact-checkers and medical reviewers helping me sift through the relevant research.
What Is Creatine?
Creatine is a substance stored in your body—most of it is in your muscles, with smaller amounts in your brain and testes—that help your body produce more adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is effectively gasoline to your cell’s internal combustion engine. ATP is an energy-carrying molecule that allows cells—muscle cells, brain cells, etc.—to do what they do. Thus, supplementing your creatine stores daily effectively provides the cells that carry creatine—again, mostly your muscle cells—with more energy.
Why take creatine?
You likely put two-and-two together already, but providing your muscle cells with more energy is a surefire way to train harder. It’s more difficult to find a sport or physical activity that would not be improved by creatine supplementation than the reverse. It is one of the best muscle-building supplements there is, and remains an affordable supplement option to boot.
A commonly cited research analysis from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (1) provides a quick list of “sport events that may be enhanced by creatine supplementation”: basketball, sprints, cycling, swimming, field hockey, ice hockey, soccer, football, lacrosse, volleyball, skiing, handball, tennis, bodybuilding, powerlifting, rugby, combat sports, water sports, and surely whatever other niche sport comes to mind.
You’ll note that there is a mix of power-driven and fitness- or cardio-driven activities in that list. That’s because creatine, though often thought of as a supplement purely for muscle-building, does a hell of a lot more than juice your lifting sessions. Here’s a short list from a 2011 study in the Journal of Exercise Nutrition & Biochemistry (2):
- Increased single and repetitive sprint performance
- Increased work performed during sets of maximal effort muscle contractions
- Increased muscle mass & strength adaptations during training
- Enhanced glycogen synthesis
- Increased anaerobic threshold
- Possible enhancement of aerobic capacity via greater shuttling of ATP from mitochondria
- Increased work capacity
- Enhanced recovery
- Greater training tolerance
Is creatine safe?
Yes, creatine is safe to take. Creatine is perhaps the most studied workout-boosting supplement available, and researchers have almost unequivocally deemed it safe. Pick a common critique of creatine supplementation from a hat and this 2021 paper (3) has likely picked it to pieces.
Does creatine supplementation cause baldness? No. Does taking creatine cause kidney issues? No. Will creatine cause cramps or muscle discomfort? It will not. But taking creatine is bad for younger people, right? Limited research suggests the exact opposite.
Ingested at reasonable levels, creatine poses no threat to your health.
How much creatine do you need to take?
For the vast majority of people, 5g daily should suffice. Traditionally, those new to creatine supplementation go through a “loading” phase, which usually looks like taking 20-25g daily for a week or so, before settling into the usual 5g. It should be said, though, that recent research suggests this loading phase may not be necessary—”…accumulating evidence indicates that you do not have to ‘load’ creatine. Lower, daily dosages of creatine supplementation (i.e. 3-5 g/day) are effective for increasing intramuscular creatine stores, muscle accretion, and muscle performance/recovery.” (3)
How long does it take creatine to work?
The answer to this isn’t entirely knowable for a specific person, but generally, a range of 1 to 4 weeks of supplementing is required for a person to reap the benefits (4). The cause of that wide range is thought to be based on an individual’s current creatine stores, which is dependent on diet (meat and fish deliver most of the creatine in our bodies) and genetics.
Creatine: Before & After
Establishing a baseline: I decided to start taking creatine because, as far as I can tell, the mountains of research on the substance suggest supplementing in a safe dosage range is a pure upside (with somewhat rare exceptions, such as folks with renal diseases). I’m not a scientist, but in order to gather information that at least resembled something scientific, I set out to keep everything about my lifestyle the same in the three-month test period—no change in diet, gym sessions, or routine. I was running a hybrid push-pull-legs lifting setup before supplementing with creatine, and I continued that same program for the three-month period. The same goes for my calorie intake—about 2,400kcals daily—and my sleep schedule.
What’s the best creatine? Shopping for creatine is relatively easy as the options are many and there really isn’t much functional difference between the more premium creatine monohydrates and the bargain bin options. I started with Thorne’s creatine powder, which goes for $40 ($2.50 per ounce), then switched to Optimum Nutrition’s $55 tub of creatine powder ($2.57 per ounce), then tried Nutricost’s $25 creatine ($1.39 per ounce). The consistency of all is a very fine white powder and they all dissolved into a glass of water the same. My two cents: buy the cheap stuff that says “micronized creatine monohydrate” on it. Creatine monohydrate is the substance you’re looking to supplement, and micronized just means the powder is extremely fine, allowing it to dissolve more easily into a liquid. If you don’t like mixing powders into your drink for whatever reason, you can get creatine gummies.
Creatine “loading”: A creatine “loading” phase refers to the first couple weeks of supplementing with creatine in which you take significantly more per day than you would normally. Typically, it’s described as a five- to seven-day period when you’ll take about 25g of creatine daily—taken in 5 or 10g doses at different times of the day. The idea that the loading phase is necessary likely stems from a 1992 clinical trial that showed the loading phase definitively increases stores of creatine in the skeletal muscles (5). But a 1985 study (6) had already shown that loading with creatine doesn’t result in more creatine stored in the muscles; it just gets there faster—participants taking 3g per day for 28 days showed the same increase (roughly 20 percent) in muscular creatine levels than those who took 20g per day for 6 days.
So what gives? You can “load” creatine or start with the usual 5g daily—the former is more likely to net you gains more quickly, but some people report ingesting that amount of creatine can cause stomach discomfort. I went with a loading phase and didn’t experience any issues.
One month in
Creatine isn’t Michael’s Secret Stuff from Space Jam. It doesn’t make you feel infinitely stronger. And, despite a loading phase and never missing a day, I didn’t see a lick of progress for about four weeks. That four-week mark is when the needle started to move.
The shift first manifested when I wrapped up my usual back- and biceps-focused session. I was usually destroyed by back-focused training, but I felt like I had a few more sets in me. It’s not necessary to feel like your muscles are going to fall off at the end of a gym session, but the change was apparent to me—and would be apparent to anyone who’s spent some time in a gym. This timeline matches what most research says about the time it takes for creatine to “work”—one to four weeks depending on current muscular creatine levels, genetics, and diet (4).
Naturally, more energy for your workouts creates the opportunity to push for heavier (or more) sets—either option is an obvious boon to your gym goals.
Stats after three months
I recorded my body weight, bench press, deadlift, and squat numbers throughout the three-month creatine test period. I did this to gauge strength gains as well as weight gain, which is a common concern would-be creatine users ask about. Gains were had across the board—here’s how it shook out.
|After creatine (3 months)
As an intermediate weightlifter who enjoys the exercise rather than lives by it, these are big jumps for me. I wouldn’t usually see significant movement in my lifts without an accompanying bodyweight bulking phase, which I haven’t done in five-plus years. All lift numbers are for reps and sets (typically 3×6), not single-rep maxes.
Per a frequently cited 2003 study on expected strength gains from supplementing creatine (7), my results err on the high side of the normal strength gain range:
“For example, short-term creatine supplementation has been reported to improve maximal power/strength (5-15%), work performed during sets of maximal effort muscle contractions (5-15%), single-effort sprint performance (1-5%), and work performed during repetitive sprint performance (5-15%). Moreover, creatine supplementation during training has been reported to promote significantly greater gains in strength, fat free mass, and performance primarily of high intensity exercise tasks.”
Ultimately, you get out what you put in at the gym, but if your goal is strength or muscle growth and you’re looking for reasonable means to boost your capacity for either, creatine is probably a safe bet.
Should You Take Creatine?
If you agree with any of the following prompts, you should consider taking creatine.
I want to lift more weight at the gym
As we’ve covered, the majority of available creatine-related research focuses on its application as an ergogenic substance—or a workout booster to build more strength and muscle. Most evidence suggests it is a perfectly safe (3) and effective (7) supplement for this purpose.
I want to recover more quickly from workouts
Lots of athletes and gym goers now know that recovery is just as—if not more—important than training. Through a boatload of studies, and summed up well in this 2017 meta analysis of creatine supplementation research (1), we know the substance provides a significant boost to workout recovery in general.
“These findings suggest that creatine supplementation can help athletes tolerate heavy increases in training volume. Therefore, there is strong evidence that creatine supplementation can help athletes enhance glycogen loading; experience less inflammation and/or muscle enzyme efflux following intense exercise; and tolerate high volumes of training and/or overreaching to a greater degree thereby promoting recovery.”
I’m vegetarian or vegan
The vast majority creatine we consume comes from animal protein—chicken, beef, fish, pork, lamb, and so on. So if you’re on a non- or low-meat diet, your creatine stores are likely on the lower end. Nearly all commercially available creatine monohydrate supplements are vegan- and vegetarian-friendly—just avoid capsuled creatine as they’re occasionally made from gelatin, which may be made with animal product. Though limited, research suggests that non- or low-meat diets—and especially strict vegans and vegetarians—may benefit more from creatine supplementation than their meat-eating peers (8).
I want to reduce the risk of neurological diseases
If you read carefully, you may remember that apart from the muscles and to a lesser extent the testicles, the brain is the only other part of the body where creatine is found. Hence why creatine for brain health makes up a good amount of new research into creatine supplementation.
Generally, creatine supplementation has been linked to “enhanced performance on memory and intelligence tasks” (9) as well as relatively nascent—but still promising—links to clinical applications for treating various neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and even Alzheimer’s.
The Bottom Line
For roughly $15 a month (depending on the brand you buy), creatine is an extremely easy, safe, and effective means to boost workouts and perhaps even buffer your brain health. Double check with your doctor if you’re worried about potential side effects, or how supplementing creating may affect any preexisting conditions you may have.