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Creatine: How Much to Take and When

One of the most important decisions for an athlete is determining the right
amount of creatine to take. Your daily dosage needs to be high enough to
achieve the benefits you seek, yet should not be so high as to overload
your body’s ability to assimilate this nutrient. Clearly, there is no
advantage to consuming so much creatine that part of your dose winds up
flushing out of your plumbing. At the same time, creatine usually has no
side effects when taken in moderate amounts, so there isn’t any particular
reason (other than cost) why you couldn’t include a modest margin for error
in your daily dose.

In the past, recommended dosages for creatine were simple. Athletes were
told to take so many grams for so many days or weeks to load up on the
nutrient, then take a lower maintenance dose of so many grams from that
point on. While these recommendations had the advantage of simplicity, they
also resulted in some athletes getting too much creatine for their needs,
while others wound up taking too little to achieve the maximum possible
gains. Therefore, in this book we are providing you with tables for loading
and maintenance that take into consideration the two most important
variables: bodyweight and exercise intensity. This will allow you to
fine-tune your creatine supplementation to your particular muscle mass and
workout schedule.

Foods That Contain Creatine

One way to get part of the creatine you need is to consume the skeletal
muscles of other animals. Just as human muscle contains creatine, so does
the muscle of most mammals and fish. As you can see in Table 1, the amount
of creatine in most meats is relatively constant, staying within a narrow
range of four to five grams per kilo (2.2 lb). Cod has a lower amount
because of its high water content. While it seems logical that chicken and
turkey also contain creatine, the precise quantity of the nutrient in these
meats is currently not known.

While you can get some of the creatine you need from these protein sources,
you shouldn’t dramatically increase your meat and fish consumption in order
to pump your muscles full of this nutrient. Remember that meats and fish
contain a lot more than creatine. All animal flesh contains relatively high
amounts of cholesterol, which has been associated with hardening of the
arteries (atherosclerosis). Also, most meats, especially beef and pork,
contain high quantities of saturated fats. For example, one kilogram (2.2
lb) of raw round steak contains only four grams of creatine, but 119 grams
of fat. Porterhouse steak has a bit less creatine, but 325 grams of fat per
kilo! You won’t live to see your 90s if you clog your arteries with the fat
and cholesterol from all the meat you’d have to eat to get enough creatine
to improve your strength and power. Moreover, this fat content can
dramatically increase the total number of calories you consume each day.
Unless your exercise intensity and volume increase at the same rate, you
will wind up gaining unwanted pounds of body fat. A far better solution is
to take the non-fat, non-cholesterol supplement known as creatine
monohydrate.

The Loading Phase

The concept of a loading phase came from the scientific studies done in the
early 1990s. A 1992 study by Harris found that a low dose of creatine
monohydrate (one gram) produced only modest increases in the blood level of creatine and no appreciable increase in muscle. Other studies with low
dosages had similar results. On the other hand, Harris discovered that five
grams given four to six times per day resulted in a sustained rise in blood
levels and a significant accumulation of creatine in the muscle fibers. It
was therefore determined that higher creatine levels in muscle could only
be achieved if there were a consistent elevation in the amount of creatine
in the blood stream over a prolonged period of time.

The question then became how long this loading period had to be. It turns
out not to be that long at all. Harris gave his study subjects 30 grams of
creatine per day, which by today’s standards is a very high dose, even for
the loading phase. Study participants weighed around 80 kg (175 lb) and
engaged in only light exercise during the course of the study. Harris found
that the muscles could only absorb so much creatine. After the maximum
level had been reached, the excess amount was converted into a waste
product called creatinine and excreted in the urine. Harris discovered that
on the first day of supplementation 40 percent of the administered dose was
excreted. This amount rose to 61 percent on the second day, and 68 percent
on the third day. So by Day Three, two-thirds of the creatine consumed was
wasted!

An unpublished study referred to by Dr. Balsom in his review article shows
the effectiveness of the loading and maintenance concept. In this study,
participants received 0.3 grams of creatine per kg of bodyweight every day
for 6 days. (For a 70 kg person, this would be 21 grams per day.) That dose
produced a significant increase in total creatine levels in skeletal
muscle. Creatinine excretion was not measured. After this loading phase,
the amount of creatine was reduced to 0.03 grams per day per kg, which is
roughly equal to 2 grams per day for a 70 kg person. On this low dose,
muscle creatine levels were maintained at the high level originally brought
about by the loading phase. Unfortunately, this study did not reveal how
much the participants exercised, if at all. Nevertheless, this study
demonstrates that high loading dosages do not need to be continued over a
long period of time.

If you keep taking high doses of creatine after your muscles have been
loaded, you’re basically unloading; that is, unloading your cash. Your
money is being flushed down the toilet. It’s also likely that you’re
putting stress on your organs of elimination, such as your liver and
kidneys. They will have to work harder to get rid of all that excess
creatine, and that’s not healthy.

Our recommendations for the loading phase are indicated in Table 2. As you
can see, the total amount of creatine per day ranges from 12 to 20 grams,
depending on your bodyweight and exercise intensity. A rounded (not
heaping) teaspoon is equal to five grams, so your loading dose would be two
to four rounded teaspoons. There are also five-gram plastic scoops on the
market which allow for more precise measurement, but they are currently not
provided in creatine containers. Hopefully, at least some of the supplement
companies will seek competitive advantage by providing consumers with a
convenient measuring scoop in each container of creatine, just as the
industry already does with protein powders. For now, you may have to use a
teaspoon and guess a bit in your measurements.

Your loading dosage should be divided into two to four servings. Servings
should generally not be greater than five grams since larger doses can
produce diarrhea in some instances. You should also drink a half-liter
(pint) of water with each dose. The loading phase should last from five to
seven days if you are a meat-eater, and seven to nine days if you are
vegetarian. (Vegetarians have lower initial levels of creatine stored in
muscles.)

These recommendations are based on two major factors. First, the total
amount of creatine storage capacity in your body is directly related to
your muscle mass. Ninety-five percent of the body’s creatine is found in
skeletal muscles. There is no creatine in bones or bodyfat, and only small
amounts in the heart, brain and testes. Also, while there are some
variations in the creatine content of individual muscles, on average every
kilogram of muscle (2.2 lb) has around four grams of creatine in it. As a
result, the more muscle you have, the greater the quantity of storage space
available. This increases the amount of creatine you need to load
proportionally.

Second, the amount of creatine you need for your loading phase depends on
your exercise program. Even a sedentary 70 kg (155 lb) person uses up two
grams of creatine each day. Rates of creatine metabolism for active
individuals are much higher. Consequently, you will be “burning” part of
your creatine dosage even while you are loading it. This means that not all
of your loading dose goes into your muscles’ storage bins. Part of it gets
used up for fuel during your workouts. The amount consumed, of course,
depends on the workout level of your exercise routine, which is a
combination of its length, intensity and frequency. That is why the loading
dosage for a 70 kg athlete varies from 12 to 16 grams and the dosage for an
athlete over 100 kg (more than 225 lb) ranges from 16 to 20 grams per
day.

Base your loading dosage on your present bodyweight. Don’t think “I want to
weigh 225, so I’ll load at that level.” While creatine will help you to
gain muscle mass, taking too much too soon can definitely set you back,
particularly if you wind up getting diarrhea from overdose. (Try putting on
weight if you have the runs!) Start out with the appropriate loading dose
based on your current weight, and then change your maintenance dose over
time as you gain size. This approach will keep your creatine stores full at
all times and will minimize the amount of nutrient (and money) you waste.

The Maintenance Phase

The maintenance phase is the period of time after your loading phase. Once
you have filled your muscles with creatine to their maximum capacity, you
only need to consume enough creatine to keep your storage bins full at all
times. It’s similar to topping off the tank of your car’s gasoline supply.
That way you can gain all of the benefits of creatine supplementation
without placing undue stress on your kidneys.

Maintenance dosages are also related to your exercise level and bodyweight.
As we noted earlier, both of these factors influence the amount of creatine
you need. The higher your workout level, the more creatine you will
metabolize during your physical activity. Also, the more muscle you have,
the more storage capacity you have to keep full. The recommended dosages
are shown in Table 3. Your dosage should ideally be divided into two or
three servings. Servings should be no more than five grams, since larger
doses have caused diarrhea in some athletes. You should also drink a
half-liter (pint) of water with each dose. If you eat more than a half-kilo
(about a pound) of meat each day, you should reduce these dosages by a gram
or two depending on your consumption. If you are a vegetarian, you should
increase these dosages by the same amount to account for the lack of
dietary creatine.

The Best Way to Take It

Creatine monohydrate is a white powder that resembles table sugar. It is
odorless and virtually tasteless. If you notice an odor when you open the
container, or if you are able to taste something bitter in the liquid you
drink it with, this indicates the presence of an impurity. Your creatine
has either been cut with another less expensive ingredient or there has
been a mistake in labeling at the supplement factory. In either case, you
should return the unused container to the manufacturer and demand a
replacement. Please note, however, that such impurities are quite rare. We
just want you to be prepared in case the unusual happens.

Creatine monohydrate dissolves easily in liquids. As with most powders, it
dissolves faster and more completely in warm and hot fluids, so heating the
liquid will leave less creatine on the bottom and sides of the glass. If
you have a microwave, heat the liquid for about a minute. Then add the
creatine and stir until the powder is dissolved.

Some liquids are better than others for creatine consumption. Glucose
polymer drinks or those with dextrose or maltodextrin are good choices.
This is because the shuttle system used to transport creatine into the
muscle fibers involves insulin, and these forms of “simple” sugars activate
this mechanism quickly. Fruit juices are also good options. Although juices
contain fructose, a sugar that is absorbed somewhat slower than glucose and
dextrose, juices are assimilated relatively quickly, so they are perfectly
acceptable as creatine vehicles. They may be more convenient, too. You
could also mix your creatine with a combination protein/carbohydrate drink,
although the protein content of the drink will slow the assimilation of the
creatine compared to glucose or fructose alone.

Athletes have sometimes been told to avoid mixing citrus juices such as
orange juice with creatine. The reason given is that the acidity in these
juices boosts the production of creatinine, which is the waste product of
creatine metabolism. However, creatinine is formed in the muscles, not in a
glass. Moreover, the citric acid in orange and grapefruit juices is
insignificant compared to the concentrated hydrochloric acid found in the
stomach. If creatine can make it through the stomach and into the body, a
little bit of OJ won’t hurt. Then again, most people don’t drink orange
juice warm, but if you enjoy it that way, don’t worry about the acidity.

On the other hand, one study by Vandenberghe shows that the benefits of
creatine are counteracted when it is consumed with large amounts of
caffeine (the equivalent of five cups of coffee). The study found that
while caffeine did not reduce the increase in creatine-phosphate levels
within the muscle fibers, dynamic torque production in caffeine/creatine
users was 10 to 20 percent lower than in test subjects who took creatine
alone. In fact, torque production for the caffeine/creatine users was no
different than the placebo group. Based on this research, you should stay
away from high-potency caffeine pills. Mixing creatine in caffeinated
drinks, at least according to this study, may also reduce or even
neutralize the performance-enhancing effects of this nutrient in the short
term. It’s better to take your creatine with a glucose- or fructose-based
drink that will stimulate your insulin response and facilitate the uptake
of creatine into the muscle fibers.

The Best Time to Take Creatine

Creatine remains in the blood stream for a period of one to 1 1/2 hours.
This is the window of opportunity that muscles have to draw creatine from
the surrounding blood vessels and store it in their cells. If these cells
are full of creatine, and the brain, heart and testes have all of the
creatine they need, the excess will eventually be processed to creatinine
and excreted.

Therefore, timing is important. You want to make sure that the maximum
amount of creatine is absorbed by your muscles and not wasted. This is why
we recommend that your loading and maintenance doses be divided into two to four servings, depending on the total amount of creatine you are
consuming.

The ideal times to take creatine are before and after your workouts. Taking
it before exercise allows the nutrient to circulate in the blood during
your routine, so your muscles can quickly replenish the creatine
metabolized during exercise. Consuming it after your workout improves
recovery and helps to stimulate additional protein uptake and synthesis in
the critical hour after the end of exercise. If you are dividing your daily
maintenance dose into only two portions, try taking at least one portion
before or after your workout. If you are loading, include these two times
along with others spread throughout the day. This will give your muscles
several windows of opportunity over a 24-hour period.

While these suggestions will help you to maximize the gains you get from
creatine, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Creatine is not a
nutrient that flushes out of your system in a short time. Unlike
water-soluble vitamins, which cannot be stored by the body, creatine
accumulates in your muscle cells. This means that the whole issue of timing
is not as critical as it is for other nutrients. You’re not dealing with an
all-or-nothing situation where a matter of hours can make the difference
between progress and stagnation. Once you load your muscles with creatine,
you’re basically topping the tank. Meanwhile, you can use the rest of the
tank as fuel for your muscle contractions. So don’t panic if you forget to
take a dose with your workout, or even if you skip a day. We promise that
you won’t shrink. As long as you make regular efforts to keep your creatine
stores full, you will achieve the gains reported in the scientific
literature.

Avatar Written by Dave Tuttle