Study after study confirms Creatine as one of the safest, most effective supplements available for increasing strength and building muscle. However, for many of us, it just plain doesn’t seem to make a difference – research be damned. Now we finally have some answers, as well as tips to boost creatine’s effectiveness.
The latest research on “creatine non-responders” went back to the earliest studies on creatine's effectiveness in search of answers. This review found that much of the original research was done with populations outside the United States whose diet does not include as much red meat (naturally rich in creatine) as the average American's does.
When adjusted for diet, the biggest gains were seen in groups that didn’t eat much red meat, while the steak-eating crowd featured a higher percentage of “non-responders”.
Interestingly, how you take your steak may tell you if you’ll benefit from creatine supplementation. Cooking steak reduces its natural creatine content in a linear fashion (the rawer, the more creatine), so individuals who eat their steaks medium, medium well, or well done are more likely to see good results from adding a creatine supplement. People who frequently eat very rare steak have a higher chance of being creatine non-responders.
That isn’t to say creatine doesn’t work for red blooded, meat eatin’ Americans. Most American participants still experience an increase in strength and torque, and very few Americans consume so much red meat that they would get no benefits from taking creatine.
If you’re vegetarian/vegan athlete, you will benefit tremendously from adding creatine. Frankly, it’s virtually guaranteed you are deficient. There just isn’t a plant-based way to dietarily get enough creatine to maximize muscle performance.
For the rest of us carnivores, it appears creatine’s effects are influenced by how much creatine-rich meat we consume, but most people will still see results.
One final word on why creatine may or may not have worked for your goals, straight from the cutting edge of science – it may depend on exactly what (or where) your goal was.
Just this fall, a team of researchers examined the effects of creatine in a group of 43 bodybuilders and found that the muscles of the upper body gained significantly more mass due to creatine supplementation than the muscles of the lower body.
Upper body muscles (fast twitch fiber dominant) grow more with creatine than lower body muscles.
Creatine is a particularly effective fuel source for fast twitch fibers, which are more prevalent in the muscles of the arms, shoulders, chest and back. The researchers theorized that creatine storage and use is higher in muscles with greater concentrations of fast twitch fibers, hence it’s greater effect on upper body size and strength. (Nunes, Ribeiro, Schoenfeld, et al. "Creatine elicits greater muscle hypertrophy in upper than lower limbs..." 2017)
If you were hoping creatine would help you finally grow those wheels or boost your squat numbers, this uneven effect could explain why it underwhelmed. Alternatively, if you’re trying to add weight to your bench press or turn shoulders into boulders, creatine could be just what the doctor ordered.
Our recommendation is to give creatine a(nother) shot – but to make sure you get your money’s worth, we have some research-tested/gym-proven tips to help you squeeze every last drop of performance out of whatever creatine supplement you use – including one trick that makes creatine nearly 70% more effective.
Don’t be tricked into buying an expensive creatine product. Literally none of the research done by the unsponsored scientific community has seen an advantage to using any of the rainbow of "designer" creatines out there (Kre-alkalyn, Hydrochloride, etc.). At best, they’re as effective as Creatine Monohydrate; at worst, they are, well... worse.
Tip: Stick to Creatine Monohydrate, micronized if possible, as the smaller particles make it easier to digest and may boost its effectiveness.
A legit Creatine Monohydrate product should be around 10 cents per serving – it’s a dirt-cheap insurance policy to add to a stack, just in case you are deficient and would benefit. It’s also possible to find protein powders that have added creatine monohydrate in them. Most of these products are effective, and generally reasonably priced.
Research on whether it's necessary to use a “loading phase” with mega-doses (as high as 10 to 20 grams) in the early days of supplementation is split down the middle. It certainly doesn’t hurt to load, and it may get results faster… but you’ll get results within a week or two either way, with or without loading.
Tip: Use a product that provides at least 3 grams per serving, with 5 or 6 grams being ideal.
Many products include creatine in their ingredients, but at a tiny dosage, or worse, as part of a “proprietary blend” that keeps the exact amount of creatine secret. Pass on any product that doesn’t tell you what, and how much, you’re putting in your body.
Creatine works best when taken post-workout, when muscle cells have depleted their creatine stores and are primed to absorb and store more. Despite being marketed as such, creatine isn’t actually a very effective pre-workout ingredient. Its effects are cumulative, building up gradually over time. In the short-term, immediately after use, it can even briefly decrease performance. For many, creatine causes temporary digestive discomfort. If you’ve ever tried to deadlift with a case of the bubble guts, you know why it’s something to avoid.
Tip: Use creatine after training, when the receptors on muscle cells open up for superior up-take.
Need another reason to move creatine to post-workout and skip pre-workouts that include it? Stimulants like caffeine anhydrous (ie, nearly all pre-workout supplements) interfere with creatine absorption when the two are taken at the same time (within 30 minutes of one another). Using creatine with or as a part of a pre-workout, when it’s less effective, may also account for many of the creatine non-responder cases out there.
However, don’t swear off pre-workout and go it alone with creatine. The trick lies in how (and when) the two are used.
Taken the right way, pre-workout can skyrocket creatine gains.
A recent study (Jerônimo, Diego Pereira, et al. "Caffeine Potentiates the Ergogenic Effects of Creatine." 2017) drilled down deeper on the Caffeine/Creatine issue and identified exactly how and when stimulants stop blocking, and actually start boosting, creatine.
Pereira’s study found that if both were taken separately, in the correct order – with caffeine anhydrous used pre-workout and creatine used post-workout -- creatine’s effect on muscle performance increased by 68%.
Tip: To boost creatine gains by 68%, use a creatine-free pre-workout containing caffeine anhydrous before training, then take creatine immediately after training.
We left creatine out of our pre-training product, UNTAPPED, so that athletes can reap the full benefits of using creatine when it’s most effective (post-workout).