With about a quarter-century of clinical testing in the lab and field-testing in gyms around the world, creatine has withstood the test of time and the rigor of science better than any other muscle-building supplement. Even though it’s naturally synthesized in the liver from three amino acids (arginine, methionine and glycine) and found in high concentrations in meat and fish, creatine remains the ideal supplement for strength and power athletes — or anyone interested in improving strength, power, speed or muscle size.
When taken supplementally, creatine is rapidly absorbed and stored in muscle, where it provides muscles with the building blocks that form ATP (the energy source that allows muscles to contract). In the end, having elevated creatine stores in muscle promotes dramatic increases in strength and power during explosive and extended workouts — and lets the body work harder longer, with less time needed for rest.
Increased creatine levels also reduce muscle acidity, which occurs when you perform high-repetition exercises or engage in sports in which you go all out for extended periods. When lactic-acid levels get too high, muscles experience a loss of power. Lucky for anyone who takes creatine, the acidity-lowering effect of the supplement allows energy production to go at top speed even when you’re going all out, thus enabling you to perform longer at max intensity.
Creatine as an Anabolic Agent
Beyond creatine’s dramatic effects on strength and athletic performance through increased energy production, we have uncontested proof via scientific research that it has very positive effects on protein synthesis and muscle growth.
One proposed mechanism for creatine’s muscle-building benefit is its ability to create what’s called an “osmotic gradient” in muscle cells. That’s science talk for driving water into muscle cells, thereby making those cells bigger. This not only makes creatine-loaded muscles appear larger, but the “stretching” that it promotes also triggers anabolism and protein synthesis — resulting in muscle growth.
Support for creatine as an anabolic agent is highlighted by a study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism in August 2008 that showed that creatine supplementation increases levels of the growth-promoting compound insulin-like growth factor-1 in resistance-trained muscle. In a more recent study published in Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology in April 2010, it was reported that subjects who weight-trained while using creatine had twice the reduction in myostatin compared to those training with the placebo. (What’s myostatin? It’s a compound that inhibits muscle growth. Therefore, less is better if you’re looking to build muscle mass.) In the same study, it was found that subjects using creatine had greater increases in upper- and lower-body strength and lean body mass than those who took a placebo.
Creating the Best Creatine
As with most products, supplement companies are constantly trying to improve the digestibility, bioavailability and potency of creatine. This focus has led to the development of several forms of this great supplement. Here is an exhaustive list of the innovative compounds and products that have been developed over the past few years in the quest to make this super supplement better.
Creatine monohydrate is so named because it contains one molecule of water bound to each molecule of creatine. This was the first form of supplemental creatine to be created, and therefore it’s the most studied and scientifically supported form. Creatine monohydrate provides great benefits for most and is generally well-tolerated as a micro-ionized powder. Early versions of creatine were not micro-ionized, which caused some users to feel bloated and develop cramps, and even gave some individuals diarrhea.
Creatine monohydrate is likely the most affordable form of creatine on the market, but be aware that there are substandard products out there. That said, buy from reputable and well-established companies for assurance that you’re getting uncontaminated pharmaceutical-grade micro-ionized creatine monohydrate.
This relatively new player is simply a compound of creatine and hydrochloric acid. Presently, there hasn’t been an abundance of research using this form of creatine, but ProMera Sports (which owns the brand Con-Cret) recently had two major universities conduct a double-blind, placebo-controlled, balanced crossover trial to compare the absorption of Con-Cret vs. creatine monohydrate and other forms of creatine. The researchers reported Con-Cret was absorbed more than 60 percent better than creatine monohydrate, which means you can take much less creatine HCl and get the same (or better) effects as creatine monohydrate. Many claim this form of creatine is better tolerated and results in less bloating compared to other forms.
Creatine AKG is creatine bound to alpha-ketoglutarate. This form is supposed to be better absorbed into the blood than other forms of creatine. This is because it’s digested high up in the digestive tract. Users who commonly get cramps and diarrhea from creatine monohydrate claim that creatine AKG is easier on their systems.
This nitrate-salt form of creatine was developed to increase creatine bioavailability. Although data is limited, studies presented at the Presentations at FIP Pharmaceutical Sciences World Congress 2010 in New Orleans suggest that this form of creatine is more soluble (dissolvable in water) and stays in solution better than other forms of creatine. Increased solubility may help with taste, but it’s not known whether it makes creatine nitrate better than other forms.
This is the same as creatine monohydrate, except that it has been dehydrated. Thus, you get a little more creatine per gram when you buy the anhydrous form (about 5 to 6 percent), and its effects are comparable to creatine monohydrate.
Di- and Tri-Creatine Malate
This is a compound that’s formed by bonding two (di) or three (tri) creatine molecules to malic acid. Malic acid is an organic substance that serves as an important intermediate in the energy cycle in the body. This form of creatine was developed based on the hypotheses that it would boost ATP (energy) production greater than creatine monohydrate and that it would be better tolerated by the body because it’s highly dissolvable in water. There is little to no research to support creatine malate as a superior form of creatine, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s well-tolerated in those who cannot take creatine monohydrate because of gastrointestinal problems.
Creatine citrate is a compound made by binding creatine to the important energy-cycle intermediate, citric acid. Based on the importance of citric acid in the production of ATP, the rationale behind formulating this compound was that creatine citrate might provide greater muscular energy compared to creatine taken on its own. In addition, this compound readily dissolves in water, making it easier to digest. At present, there have been no peer-reviewed articles to substantiate creatine citrate as superior to creatine on its own. Also, it should be noted that because this product is formed by binding a single creatine molecule to a single citric-acid molecule, there is less total creatine provided per gram (about 40 to 50 percent less) than in creatine monohydrate or anhydrous.
How much creatine is optimal? See below for the quantity of creatine monohydrate you should be consuming per day, depending on bodyweight. This chart is based on the research conducted on creatine monohydrate; remember that some other forms (like creatine HCl) can be taken in smaller doses and might not require a loading phase. Furthermore, many athletes get their creatine doses via a preworkout and/or postworkout product, so when in doubt, consult the dosage recommendations on your favorite bottle.
*In the loading phase, take one dose 30 minutes before your workout and another 30 to 60 minutes postworkout, spreading the remaining doses throughout the day.
+During the maintenance phase, take one serving before workouts and another after. On rest days, take one dose in the morning with breakfast and one dose with dinner.
This is what you get when you bind creatine to pyruvate. Pyruvate supplies energy to the body during aerobic exercise. Data published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in 2008 indicates that this form of creatine might increase exercise endurance because of enhanced activity of aerobic metabolism. Other studies suggest that creatine pyruvate also helps buffer lactic acid during high-intensity exercise, which would enable you to push harder for even longer during training sessions.
This is another compound that shows promise in theory but has yet to be studied extensively. Creatine orotate is a compound formed by binding creatine with orotic acid. The purported benefits of this supplement over creatine monohydrate include increased levels of muscle phosphocreatine, free creatine and muscle carnosine. In theory, this supplement should increase muscular strength and endurance. In support, there are numerous studies illustrating orotic acid’s ability to increase muscle carnosine levels, which leads to increased muscular endurance.
This is another patented form of creatine. It’s reported to be “buffered creatine” that’s produced at a higher pH, which apparently blunts the conversion of creatine to inactive creatinine, leaving more creatine to be absorbed by the body. In addition, this form apparently doesn’t convert to creatine until it enters muscle cells, albeit there have been no clinical trials conducted to prove this. Thus, the founders claim it can be taken in much smaller doses with the same benefits as creatine monohydrate, and because doses are smaller, it’s taken in capsule form. Although there are no studies published on this supplement, numerous anecdotal reports support the benefits of taking this form of creatine.
As the name implies, this is creatine bound to phosphate, an essential step usually carried out in the body to “activate” creatine. This form of creatine was released soon after creatine monohydrate and quickly became popular; however, it was made obsolete when it was shown to be less effective than creatine monohydrate.
Also known as liquid creatine, this form is precisely what the name implies. The idea behind creating a liquid form of creatine was to increase digestibility and bypass the stomach’s acidic environment (known to degrade creatine). The problem is that creatine is very unstable in liquid form and thus should be taken immediately after dissolving in water. Because of the unstable nature of liquid creatine, early versions of this supplement were completely useless. However, several companies have been working on versions of liquid creatine that they claim are stable for years. There is still no published data to substantiate these claims.
Fast sugars spike insulin levels, which helps shove creatine into muscle. Thus, creatine absorption can be boosted up to 60 percent when consumed with sugar-based drinks. (This is part of the reason we always recommend consuming fast carbs postworkout.)
One thing to remember is that fruit juices are not ideal; in fact, most contain fructose, which is a slower-digesting sugar and doesn’t tend to spike insulin. The acid in citrus juices (orange or grapefruit juice, lemonade or limeade) also may render the creatine inactive by converting it to creatinine. Stick with high-glycemic-index (fast-digesting) sugar-based drinks that contain maltose, glucose or dextrose.
This form is the result of binding a creatine molecule with a molecule of tartaric acid. You rarely see this form used as a stand-alone supplement. However, because of its stability when formed in a solid, it’s usually included in products like energy bars, capsules, tablets or chewables. An interesting and disconcerting fact is that tartaric acid is a known muscle toxin at high doses.
This is a pH-shifted form of creatine that increases the solubility of creatine in water. The theory is that more dissolved creatine makes for easier digestion and greater bioavailability. Users report less bloating and great outcomes, although evidence is purely anecdotal at present.
Magnesium Creatine Chelate
Chelating (binding with a metal) creatine and magnesium together forms this compound. The rationale behind the development of this compound is the fact that magnesium is essential for the conversion of creatine phosphate to ATP for energy. In addition, chelation increases the stability of the compound. Scientific evidence proves that this form of creatine works better than taking a creatine and magnesium supplement separately. Researchers have reported greater increases in leg strength and cell volumization in those who took magnesium creatine compared to those who took creatine and magnesium separately.
This form comes from binding the amino acids taurine and glutamine with creatine. The basis for developing this supplement was to enhance muscle-cell volumization. This is a reasonable idea because all three of these are cell volumizers when taken individually. Furthermore, the amino acids in this combination may enhance recovery and strength gains.
This is what you get when beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate is bound to creatine. It’s well-documented that HMB speeds recovery, is anti-catabolic and aids in fat loss, especially in those who have just started heavy weight training. By binding HMB with creatine, the compound is more soluble and apparently less prone to degradation in the stomach. As a result, creatine HMB is speculated to be a more bioavailable form that gives you all the benefits of creatine and HMB supplementation. Studies that have used this compound are lacking, but users generally report good results.
Creatine Ethyl Ester
Also known as creatine ester or CEE, this is one of the newest creatine forms and is made by adding an alcohol and an acid to form creatine ethyl ester hydrochloride. The motivation for developing CEE was to provide a more bioavailable form of creatine. The addition of an ester to creatine theoretically increases the fat dissolvability of creatine, making it very easy for it to cross cell membranes, driving more creatine into muscle cells.