So you know about supplementing with creatine… But have you considered cycling your creatine intake? In this blog I discuss how creatine can be cycled and the benefits of following a creatine cycle.
Most trainers recommend cycling creatine in some manner, but the interesting question here is really, why cycle creatine at all? Let’s take a step back and look at what creatine is and move onto how to cycle creatine and what the benefits might be.
What is creatine and what does it do?
Creatine is a molecule that is produced from amino acids in the body and can be found in some meats and fish. Creatine plays an important role in energy production in the body. Creatine stores high energy phosphate groups in the form of phosphocreatine which are given to ADP. The body then uses this to create more ATP which is the primary energy carrier in the human body.
Why is creatine so important?
The importance of creatine comes in when we’re talking about improving physical performance and building muscle mass. Creatine's role in energy production is key to keeping the body fuelled when under conditions of high energy demand such as intense physical or mental activity.
Creatine cycling: Let’s begin
Creatine has been used for decades and is arguably the most researched supplement with undoubted benefits to trainers, whether a professional athlete, or those looking to simply improve muscle mass for aesthetic purposes, yet there is still some debate over the correct way to cycle this supplement and why.
The Most Common Creatine Cycle
Let’s look at a common creatine cycle:
- A loading phase of 5-7 days of 20-30g per day, split into separate doses
- A maintenance phase of 3-5g per day, lasting for 4-6 weeks
- Followed by a time off phase, lasting from 2 – 4 weeks, before considering starting another whole new cycle again.
Let’s unpack the phases of the cycle step by step to explore what is going on here.
Supplementing with Creatine - The Loading Phase
Making its way to the muscles
Whilst creatine has a relatively short plasma (blood) half-life of around 3 hours after ingesting, this isn’t the full story. After ingestion, some of that creatine will make its way into the muscles and stay there, which is where this supplement needs to be to do its thing!
In fact, contrary to the short plasma half-life, a study has shown that only 46% of ingested creatine will be excreted after around 24 hours (1) with creatine levels (after following a full loading phase) only dropping down to pre-supplementation levels after 30 days.
Regarding the reasons for the loading cycle, the other part of the equation is muscle saturation. There is only so much supplemental creatine that the muscles will hold, regardless of how much is consumed, which will be determined by genetics, amount of lean muscle mass and other factors.
However, for optimal benefits, ideally the user would want to get full muscle saturation of creatine as soon as possible… right? Absolutely!
The goal is to hit peak muscle saturation quickly
Obviously, once you’ve got your high quality creatine on your supplement shelf or in your gym bag, you want it to be improving your training as soon as possible… and this is exactly the intent of the loading phase of the creatine cycle - by hitting peak muscle saturation in the shortest time.
At this point, some creative readers may be thinking “hey, can I speed up the whole process by taking 50… 100… or maybe even the whole 150 grams of the loading phase in one go and save 5 days before hitting peak gains?”
The short answer is no.
The technical reason is that in broad terms, creatine uptake to the skeletal muscles is limited, so most of the creatine will hit a metabolic traffic jam and not be going anywhere productive.
And at a more discernible and quite literally, visceral level, most users will find the reason not to experiment frivolously with the loading phase dose is gastro-intestinal distress ie: nausea and perhaps vomiting, instead of the expected hard training – which if you’re browsing the Bulk Nutrients site, you would obviously be more excited about the latter than the former!
How much creatine can the body absorb?
Most users will find their experiences mirror common knowledge here and the most creatine they can absorb is about 20-30 grams for 5-7 days, before hitting their muscle saturation point.
A fair question here is how would a lifter know they have indeed hit full muscle saturation of this supplement? Without access to complex equipment, daily urine samples and perhaps muscle biopsies, it would be difficult to know, but before anyone starts googling for local lab supplies… the real answer here is that it really doesn’t matter.
Users beginning a creatine cycle will find their bodyweight will initially increase due to creatine’s water retaining properties and plateau off at this level, regardless if the loading phase is continued or dose increased. This is likely a good enough indication that the trainer is close enough to the highest muscle concentration of creatine they can achieve and there are plenty of other aspects of training for lifters to concern themselves over, apart from worrying about if they have achieved optimal creatine saturation.
Ok, so after discussing the loading phase, the next phase is relatively the simplest to unpack, the maintenance phase…
Supplementing with Creatine – The Maintenance Phase
Here the user can ease off the tedium of frequent doses of creatine and coast on the more relaxed regime of 1 (or perhaps 2 at max) doses a day for a total of 3-5g daily.
Some choose to have this with their pre-workout protocol, others have it post work out (combined with a high GI (glucose index) drink, coupled with protein to aid protein synthesis and recovery - and some may even choose to do both.
In terms of purely creatine concentration of the muscles, the loading phase here has done its job and the intent here is to keep the levels coasting close to optimum, without letting them drop precipitously by having too little, or alternatively wasting precious supplements by dosing beyond the body’s ability to absorb them.
The subject of pre, post or even intra workout nutrition is a complex subject of highly personal preference and one we will leave for another day. From a creatine supplement standpoint, if you’re having creatine at some point during the day, the muscles will be staying close to their saturation point and you should be getting benefit from your creatine.
Supplementing with Creatine - Time Off Phase
Even today, after decades of research, this phase is still the one that is the most debated and contentious. After experiencing the benefits of creatine for 8-12 weeks, such as increased training intensity and muscle mass, sadly it seems, all good things must come to an end.
Once again, our more inquisitive readers at this point might rightly chime and ask “… well do they?”
The answer to this is far more complex than the initial question regarding merely tweaking the loading phase.
Potential health issues with continued use of Creatine
The obvious concern is negative health consequences of prolonged creatine supplementation. When using a common dosing regime, no significant issues to the renal, hepatic or the cardiovascular system (ie: the kidneys, liver and heart) have been found to date (3) , which would be the areas of primary concern, but the important thing to note here is that by far, the majority of the research subjects were only using creatine for a relatively short time, using commonly accepted doses. The average length of studies is often the duration of the conventional creatine cycle, which shouldn’t be a coincidence to those paying attention or health conscious individuals.
The importance regarding the short time frame of most studies cannot be overstated. Put simply, few studies have been done regarding large doses of creatine for longer periods of time. Given that all things in medicinal research are highly subject to individual variation as well, the user going off the well-marked track here, may, through no intent of their own, put themselves in harm’s way and experience some extremely rare side effect or exacerbate an underlying (and undiagnosed) health issue, although it is worth noting in the cases of those who have purportedly done this, there is some debate if creatine was actually the culprit (2).
Remember, it’s a real achievement being 1st on the podium at your chosen sport or having best physique at the beach party, but no-one really wants to be known for being the 1st individual recorded for some hitherto, unknown side effect from gobbling down as much creatine as possible for an extended length of time!
Performance effects of continued Creatine use
The second issue regarding ignoring the time off phase, which is more to do performance rather than health, is regarding down-regulation or accommodation.
The bro-science theory is that if your body is exposed to supra-natural doses, for sustained periods, the body will eventually lose the ability to make this important amino acid for itself or obtain it from normal diet, simultaneously coupled with the trainer experiencing less positive effects from supplementation due to your body “getting used to it”.
Whilst this has been prefaced here (somewhat disparagingly) as being merely bro science, there is broadly, some merit to this theory. Almost every substance the body is exposed to, will in fact cause some sort of accommodation, whether it be the worker chugging down copious amounts of coffee experiencing tolerance (which everyone agrees is a negative) to those living at high altitudes getting better blood oxygen transportation to cope with the thinner atmosphere (which is an effect which some endurance athletes will try to take advantage of).
More broadly, the body will usually try to retain its equilibrium – often referred to as homeostasis.
At this point it should be noted that this effect hasn’t been demonstrated in any creatine supplementation studies to date.
General training with continued use of Creatine
The 3rd point of discussion isn’t about nutrition science at all, more so about training in general.
Every sport or activity will usually lend itself to an ebb and flow over the course of the year. Bodybuilders are a great example here, who will go through an offseason bulk and then cut up in time for show season. Powerlifters will periodise their training between high volume cycles and lower volume / higher intensity leading up to competition, followed by some time off for a well-earned rest… and even the average gym goer will invariably have times where they have more free time and more motivation, opposed to other times due to life stresses where they may struggle to get to the gym at all, which can happen to all of us.
Being aware of these times and phases is where the seemingly annoying task of cycling creatine will naturally fall into place anyway. The similarity between bodybuilders and powerlifters (will desire their body to hold as little water as possible on stage or at weigh in (at least not those who compete at super heavy weight!), aren’t likely to be using creatine at this point anyway, due to its water retaining effects. Dialling this back to a trainer just lifting for fun, health and aesthetic reasons, there will still be times when time off creatine will naturally make more sense as well, after all, who wants to be packing creatine in their daypack for their Whitsundays snorkelling session?
Take away points.
Yes, you are probably advised to cycle creatine.
Front loading isn’t crucial, but desirable to start experiencing the benefits of using creatine, to avoid a tedious ramp up period before the benefits of creatine supplementation are experienced.
Large maintenance doses beyond those cited in studies, are likely a large waste of money better spent on other supplements or equipment.
Possibly no need to fret unnecessarily if considering using creatine slightly longer than well documented cycles, if perhaps you are still in the midst of a high volume training protocol and still making good improvements, but consider periodising your training to keep the high volume and high intensity work, to when you are in your 4-6 week creatine cycle, is probably a better idea in future. Additionally, extra time “on” should probably be balanced by extra time “off” however.
(1) Burke DG, Smith-Palmer T, Holt LE, Head B, Chilibeck PD. (2001). The effect of 7 days of creatine supplementation on 24-hour urinary creatine excretion. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 2001 Feb;15(1):59-62.
(2) Hile, A. M., Anderson, J. M., Fiala, K. A., Stevenson, J. H., Casa, D. J., & Maresh, C. M. (2006). Creatine supplementation and anterior compartment pressure during exercise in the heat in dehydrated men. Journal of Athletic Training, 2006; 41(1): 30–35.
(3) Kim HJ, Kim CK, Carpentier A, Poortmans JR. (2011). Studies on the safety of creatine supplementation. Amino Acids, 2011 May;40(5):1409-18.
(4) Jeffrey R. Stout, Jose Antonio, Douglas Kalman, eds. (2008). Essentials of Creatine in Sports and Health. Humana Press, 2008 Jan; ISBN 978-1-59745-573-2