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Building Muscle

The Creatine Loading Phase: What is it and is it Really Necessary?

When it comes to workout supplements, creatine is easily one of the most popular and well known supplements in the world.  And for good reason, it’s been extensively studied and there’s plenty of evidence that it can help to enhance your workout in multiple ways.  

Even so, there are still a lot of myths and misconceptions about what exactly its uses and effects are, especially when it comes to creatine “loading”.  While some people swear by it, others argue that loading creatine is simply unnecessary.

In order to get to the bottom of things, we’re going over all of the relevant findings surrounding the whole loading vs non-loading creatine debate. But before we dive too deep into the details, let’s first discuss what creatine actually is and how loading it works.  

What is Creatine and What Are The Benefits?

Creatine is naturally produced in your liver, kidney and pancreas and it is also consumed in your diet. Meats have the highest concentration of creatine and as such, pure vegetarians tend to have significantly lower levels of creatine in their systems. 

The vast majority (95%) of the creatine stored in your body, is stored in your skeletal muscles. Supplementing with creatine will increase the amount that is stored and thus increase the quantity in your muscles. 

creatine loading

Creatine Benefits 

Creatine has been noted to have a variety of effects on human physical performance. This includes increases in strength, lean muscle mass, anaerobic exercise, muscle hypertrophy, aerobic exercise, improved recovery from injury, neurologic and cognitive function, and recovery from concussion. 

Maximum effects with creatine use are noted in individuals using creatine daily and when combined with exercise.  When creatine is used only on training days, the effects are blunted. 

Creatine is thought to work via a number of mechanisms. First, it increases the amount of ATP available in the muscle for muscle fiber contraction.  ATP is a high-energy molecule that drives these biochemical reactions. The greater the availability of ATP, the more the muscle can work.

Second, creatine supplementation increases muscle satellite cell proliferation. Muscle fibers have associated muscle stem cells called satellite cells that can grow into new muscle fiber cells. This satellite cell proliferation is one reason why creatine helps muscle growth. Resistance exercise also promotes this growth. 

Creatine also increases IGF-1 signaling and myogenic transcription: the mechanisms of gene expression causing muscle growth.  

There are a few studies that do not show benefits to creatine supplementation and this is thought to be due to a population of individuals classified as non-responders. These are people with a preponderance of Type 1 slow twitch fibers and higher natural creatine stores. 

What is The Creatine Loading Phase and How Does it Work?

All of the original studies of creatine on physical performance used a 5-7 day loading phase followed by a daily dosing phase. Volek, in 1999 discussed this protocol in his seminal article. 

Loading consists of driving the muscle storage volume of creatine up rapidly by consuming 20-25 grams of creatine a day for 5-7 days. This is typically split into 4-5 separate doses to minimize the stomach upset that can occur. 

The athlete is then kept on a daily maintenance dose of between 0.03-0.05 gms/kg/day. This is typically 3-5 grams per day.

In addition, as it is known that insulin will help drive this organic molecule into the muscle cell, some sort of sugar (sucrose, maltodextrin, fructose) is also given to stimulate isulin release with each creatine dose. 

As such, most athletes would mix their creatine in with a sports drink for each dose.  During the loading phase, this would equate to consuming several Gatorades a day, which on top of the sugar load, would also load electrolytes.  This combination was responsible for water retention and mild increases in body weight reported in the above-mentioned studies.

Is Creatine Loading Necessary?

After years of successful studies using the loading phase, some studies began to evaluate if loading was necessary. The results of these studies found that though loading gets the athlete to a higher muscle creatine volumesooner, in the long run, it is unnecessary. 

Taking the normal daily maintenance dose of 00.3-0.05gm/kg/day yields the same creatine levels and athletic performance after a period of 3-4 weeks. 

An alternative loading phase was examined by Sale et al where they described taking a 1 gram dose every 30 minutes for 10 hours.  Though this is quite labor intensive, it results in a 13% increase in whole body creatine retention and greater weight gain.

Taking Creatine With Carbs

Creatine is typically purchased as a standalone powder though it is now often combined with other nutraceuticals as well. 

It is commonly recommended to take creatine with a carbohydrate. As discussed previously, many athletes add the powder directly into a sports drink.  Carbohydrates cause an insulin release from the pancreas and the insulin is beneficial in promoting intramuscular creatine levels. 

Creatine formulations using 96 grams of carbohydrate or 96 grams of a 50:50 mixture of protein and carbohydrate increased creatine retention by 25%.  However, the athlete needs to balance this macronutrient load with what their overall nutrition and athletic goals are.  

Forms of Creatine

The most commonly studied and least expensive form of creatine is monohydrate. However, there are numerous forms of creatine.  Many have been invented with the goal of producing 2 results: 1, providing patent protection for novel forms, and 2, increasing creatine absorption. 

These forms include creatine anhydrous which is creatine with the water molecule removed to salt forms such as pyruvate, citrate, malate, phosphate, croate, and magnesium creatine and Kre Alkalyn. Further, there are ester forms such as creatine ethyl ester and creatine gluconate. 

Though these forms are all novel, which offers benefits to their manufacturers, they have never been demonstrated to be consistently superior to monohydrate. Further, they require similar dosing. 

Safety and Side Effects

Studies have specifically evaluated kidney function and the safety of creatine supplementation. It is noted that although creatine does slightly raise creatinine levels,  there is no negative consequence to kidney function or health in healthy individuals using proper dosage recommendations. 

There are a few reported health disorders that occurred as a result of supplementation.  However, these are isolated reports in individuals with a prior history of kidney disease or taking other medications known to have potential risk to the kidney.

One long-term study evaluated individuals supplementing with creatine for up to 4 years and found no negative health effects. 

What Other Supplements Pair Well With Creatine?

Creatine has been added to numerous other supplements including protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, amino acids, and caffeine. 

For purposes of increased athleticism and muscular growth, we have combined creatine with pharmaceutical doses of HMB, HICA, phosphatidic acid, and beta-alanine.  In a study of professional athletes using this combination, we demonstrated an 18% increase in average power, an 18.9% increase in peak power, and a 4.5% increase in aerobic endurance. 

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Wrap Up

Creatine has been demonstrated to be a safe supplement and very effective for improving strength, muscle mass, endurance, and speed development. 

Though creatine loading decreases the time interval necessary for creatine to exert its actions, training should be a long-term endeavor, and using a daily maintenance dose will result in similar outcomes in the long run. 

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