Creatine: To Load or Not to Load?

Creatine: To Load or Not to Load?

Creatine: To Load or Not to Load?

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By Jonathan Kelly

This is a question that has been uttered many times (maybe not in such a Shakespearean tone) and the internet is often quick to answer. The problem with the internet is that it’s the number one place in the world to try to sell something. This means that it’s very easy to hide advertising and incorrect information, tricking innocent people into buying more than what they need or things they don’t need at all. I’ve googled this question to see what the internet recommends and I wasn’t shocked to notice that the most popular answers were also the most expensive options.

Here I’ll have a look at what the science suggests and let you decide what’s right for you.

Creatine: To Load or Not to Load?

Hold up, what is creatine?

Creatine IS NOT an essential supplement, meaning we do get it from our diets. However, supplementing it can greatly improve the body’s total muscle creatine, leading to improvements in physical performance and physical appearance. It is one of the most heavily researched dietary supplements on the market and has decades of literature behind it. There’s evidence it works in the recreational [2], the elderly [4], bodybuilders [1] and team sport athletes [9].

Food (per 100g) Creatine Content (in g)
Beef 0,45
Pork 0,50
Cod 0,30
Herring 0,65-1,0
Salmon 0,45
Shrimps in trace amounts
Tuna 0,40
Milk 0,01
Cranberries 0,002

Chart 1: Adapted from [12], S. 386.

Simplified, Creatine resynthesizes ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate)the energy currency of the body. To perform a muscular action the body must utilise and break down ATP. However, once an ATP molecule has been used it is temporarily useless in the form of ADP (Adenosine Diphosphate). A Phosphate atom has ‘left’ the ATP molecule and needs to be reattached to enable another muscular contraction. This is where Creatine comes in. Once absorbed via the bloodstream some of the Creatine combines with Phosphate to create Creatine Phosphate, this can now rephosphorylate the ADP via the Creatine Kinase reaction to resynthesize ATP [6]. Theoretically, supplementing creatine increases the volume of Creatine and Creatine Phosphate in the muscle, allowing for a greater rate of Creatine Kinase reactions and an increased work capacity in the muscle.

A Further use of an increased Creatine storage is the reduced acidity of the muscles as Hydrogen Ions (H+) are used in the Creatine Kinase reaction. This reduced acidity allows for a greater build-up of lactic acid before you reach the point of ‘Fuck me, this burns, I have to stop’. Ultimately, Creatine supplementation allows for longer high-intensity bursts [6].

Finally, more aesthetic than performance based, is the increased water intake of the muscle cell via osmotic changes [11]. As well as an increased cross-sectional area (CSA) the added water content is a stimulus for muscle protein synthesis and prevents muscle breakdown.

Creatine is used for ATP Resynthesis

Creatine-Phosphate + ADP: Used for ATP-Resynthesis to fuel muscle contraction during physical exertion. (Source: Wikimedia.org / CFCF ; CC Licence)

To load or not to load?

Creatine supplementation was first used in Eastern Europe in the 60s and 70s as a performance enhancement aid. The research properly began in the 90s, with the main aim of Creatine supplementation being ‘How quickly can we see improvements’. Very, is the answer.

Richard Kreider was a leading figure in Creatine research during the 90s and was regularly reported that a loading phase (20g per day for 2-7 days) can increase Creatine content in the muscle by 10-30% [8][9][10], requiring a further maintenance of 5g per day. Hultman et al. also reported the same loading phase resulted in a similar increase in muscle Creatine content, with a maintenance of 2g per day [7]. Based on the Biochemistry lesson above this means that within a week of supplementing Creatine your performance may have increased significantly.

This is true. However…

During this loading phase you’ll notice a sharp increase in body mass and a noticeable reduction in toilet visits, this is due to your body retaining water. One subject with Powers et al. reported a 4.8kg increase in body mass during the loading phase [11]. This may not be comfortable for everyone and can deter users from using Creatine long term and reaping its benefits. Don’t fret, there are alternatives.

To combat this mega-dosing protocol suggested by early researchers, modern day researchers suggested a standard daily dose, with no loading period. This wasn’t a new concept, Hultman et al. did find that 3g per day for 28 days also increases muscle creatine content by 20%, the same as a loading phase [7]. However, taking 28 days to see the results you’d see in 7 just isn’t sexy, so the idea was swept under a rug for some time. In a multi-billionare dollar industry you can see why, somebody loading with Creatine will see the bottom of their tub sooner than somebody using 3g per day. Resulting in a buying a new tub much sooner. Can you see where I’m going with this? Although the loading phase gets you quick results, with patience those results will come regardless, and save you some cash in the long run.

Loading & Maintenance with Creatine or Placebo

Group and Measurement Presupplementation (mean ± SD) Day 7 (mean ± SD) Day 28 (mean ±SD)
Creatine
Urinary creatine (mg/dL) 14.09 ± 35.62 454.09 ± 290.74*† 331.26 ± 272.34*†
Muscle creatine (mg/kg dm‡) 123.18 ± 11.78 146.99 ± 25.63*† 143.58 ± 18.84*†
Body mass (kg) 75.54 ± 17,67 76.29 ± 18.04* 76.86 ± 18.07*†
Total body water (L) 41.98 ± 11.78 43.35 ± 12,19*† 44.02 ± 12.37*†
Intracellular water (L) 24.44 ± 7.40 25.39 ± 8.03 25.57 ± 8.66
Placebo
Urinary creatine (mg/dL) 8.12 ±7.52 14.22 ± 48.83 6.15 ±5.98
Muscle creatine (mg/kg dm‡) 127.99 ± 13.20 124.28 ±13.65 126.50 ±19.02
Body mass (kg) 72.94 ± 15.72 73.61 ± 15.92 73.28 ± 16.05
Total body water (L) 41.34 ± 8.93 42.21 ±9.08† 42.23 ± 9.11†
Intracellular water (L) 24.00 ± 5.59 24.08 ± 6.19 23.70 ± 7.16

Chart 2: Adapted from [11] (*Significantly greater than Placebo group (P <.05); †Significantly greater than presupplementation (P <.05); ‡dm indicates dry mass)

In more recent times, Hickner et al. examined the effects of 3g per day for 28 days on road cyclists. Creatine muscle content increased by 24.5 ± 10% [5], very similar to the earlier findings by Hultman et al.

Interestingly, Antonio and Ciccone also used a steady 5g per day with a group of bodybuilders either before or after exercise [1]. They found that the group consuming creatine post-exercise gained (on average) 0.4kg more body mass, 1.1kg more fat free mass and 1kg more weight on a bench press 1RM than the group who supplemented pre-exercise. This links to similar findings by Candow et al. who found post-exercise consumption to be more effective that pre-exercise consumption [3].

Other methods of dosing are apparent in the literature, most notably a grams per kilo method. Candow et al. used 0.1g/kg on their healthy older adults [4]. This was a standardising method, to ensure everyone had the same amount proportional to body mass. However, it may suit you if you’d like to see the same increases in lean body mass, strength and limb thickness that the group of subjects did in this study. Just be aware you may be consuming more Creatine than is necessary and will therefore be buying a new tub much sooner.

Take home message

Life is about creatine yourselfTraditional Loading

  • 20g per day for 5-7 days.
  • Muscle Creatine content increases by approximately 20%.
  • Maintenance is as little as 2g per day thereafter.
  • Physical performance and appearance may significantly increase within a week.
  • Feeling bloated and less frequent toilet visits are potential unwanted side effects.

Modern Loading

  • 3g per day from the start will see the same increase in muscle Creatine content after 28 days as 5-7 days of Traditional Loading.
  • Bloating less noticeable.
  • Performance and physical size increase a steady rate over the course of the 28 days.
  • It is more effective consumed post-exercise as part of a general recovery plan.

Relative to Body Mass

  • Increases muscle Creatine content in a similar way to Traditional and Modern
  • An 80kg male would consume 8g per day, far more than necessary given the literature.
  • Similar to Modern loading it is best consumed post-exercise.

Applying this to everyday life

From a practical point of view, 3g of Creatine can be added to a post-workout protein shake very easily. Within 28 days you’ll notice improvements in size, strength and muscular endurance and any potential bloating will go unnoticed due to the steady nature of your loading. Life shouldn’t revolve around supplements, they are an addition to your diet and should work around you, not the other way around.

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Picture sources: Flickr / Jason Lengstorf ; CC Licence

About the Author – Jonathan Kelly

Jonathan is a strength and conditioning coach working in professional rugby league in the UK. With a history of evidence based writing and an increasing library of published journal articles he enjoys translating written theoretical science into a practical environment, applying a ‘science versus reality’ approach to training, nutrition and supplementation.

The versatile nature of his job allows him work prescribe training across the whole exercise spectrum including strength training, bodybuilding, injury prevention and conditioning. To give his athlete’s the competitive edge he is also well versed in the prescription of effective and scientifically proven supplements.

References (Click to Expand)

[1] Antonio, J. / Ciccone V. (2013): The effects of pre versus post workout supplementation of creatine monohydrate on body composition and strength. In: J Int Soc Sports Nutr. URL: http://www.jissn.com/content/10/1/36.

[2] Becque, MD. / Lochmann, JD. / Melrose, DR. (2000): Effects of oral creatine supplementation on muscular strength and body composition. In: Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10731009.

[3 Candow, DG., et al. (2015): Strategic creatine supplementation and resistance training in healthy older adults. In: Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25993883.

[4] Candow, DG., et al. (2014): Comparison of creatine supplementation before versus after supervised resistance training in healthy older adults. In: Research in Sports Medicine. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24392772.

[5] Hickner, RC., et al. (2010): Effect of 28 days of creatine ingestion on muscle metabolism and performance of a simulated cycling road race. In: J Int Soc Sports Nutr. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20609257.

[6] Hoffman, J. / Stout, J. (2008): Performance enhancing substances. In: Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Baechle, /. Earler, R. eds. Champaign, Il: Human Kinetics, 2008. URL: http://goo.gl/F9Eycm.

[7] Hultman, E., et al. (1985): Muscle creatine loading in men. In: J Appl Physiol. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8828669.

[8] Kreider, RB. (2003): Effects of creatine supplementation on performance and training adaptations. In: Molecular and cellular biochemistry. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12701815.

[9] Kreider, RB., et al. (1998): Effects of creatine supplementation on body composition, strength, and sprint performance. In: Medicine and science in sports and exercise. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9475647.

[10] Kreider, RB., et al. (1996): Effects of ingesting supplements designed to promote lean tissue accretion on body composition during resistance training. In: International Journal of Sport Nutrition. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8876343.

[11] Powers, ME., et al. (2003): Creatine Supplementation Increases Total Body Water Without Altering Fluid Distribution. In: J Athl Train. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC155510/.

[12] [3] Kraemer, WJ., et al. (2013): Physiological Basis for Creatine Supplementation in Skeletal Muscle. In: Bagchi, D. / Nair, S. / Sen, CK. (2013): Nutrition and Enhanced Sports Performance. Academic Press. S. 386. URL: http://goo.gl/fpZGSQ.


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