|December 7, 2023

Creatine Benefits: How This Supplement Works for More Than Muscle

By Stephen Sheehan
Reviewed by Emily Gonzalez, ND for Scientific Accuracy

Creatine Benefits: How This Supplement Works for More Than Muscle

  • Creatine is a popular dietary supplement that’s been used by bodybuilders for decades to support increased muscle mass and exercise performance.
  • Creatine increases energy production in your mitochondria. That extra energy can enhance cognitive function, muscle strength and athletic performance.
  • Learn more about the benefits of creatine, including how it can give your brain a boost. Plus, you’ll find answers to common creatine-related questions, too.

For years, the strength training and fitness communities have spoken openly about the benefits of creatine for gaining body mass and building muscle. Meanwhile, many people have used creatine in an effort to boost their athletic performance. Yet despite being one of the most commonly used nutritional supplements, there are still some misconceptions about creatine.

However, there’s plenty of research that supports the idea of adding it to your stack. In fact, although it’s often associated with muscle building, creatine offers potential benefits that don’t involve weight lifting or high-intensity exercise.

We’ll explore the science behind this supplement, including how it can support both your body and your brain. And while we can’t make any guarantees about your future gains, we can promise you’ll pump up your creatine knowledge to a whole other level.

What is creatine?

Creatine powder and pills on table

Before we delve into the benefits of creatine, it’s important to understand exactly what it is. While many associate creatine with sports supplements, it’s actually a naturally occurring compound made of three amino acids: arginine, glycine and methionine.

Produced predominantly in the liver and kidneys, creatine synthesis also occurs in the pancreas. There are actually two forms of creatine found in the human body, with the phosphorylated form comprising 60% and free form making up the other 40%. Your skeletal muscle contains 95% of your creatine stores, where it can be harnessed for energy.[1]

Our creatine phosphate system plays a major role when it comes to energy, especially during physical activity. And while consuming red meat is a sound way to increase your muscle creatine stores (uncooked muscle meat contains between 3-6 grams of creatine per kilogram), supplementing can also help unlock several science-backed benefits.[2]

Related: What is Collagen Protein? Your Complete Guide to Collagen Peptides

Benefits of creatine

Woman squatting barbell

Creatine is one of the most researched and utilized dietary supplements around. But as much as weightlifters and bodybuilders may benefit from it, you don’t need to have a body composition or muscle size goal in mind to make it a part of your routine.

Actually, as much as creatine supplementation can help your body, it can help your mind, too.

Supports cellular energy production

When you contract your muscles, the first energy supply your muscles dip into comes through the phosphagen system. This is the system you use when you need a quick surge of force—for example, you need to lift a dresser into the back of a truck. You get your energy from the small amount of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) that’s ready in your muscles.

When you use ATP for energy, it breaks down into adenosine diphosphate (ADP), which you don’t use as energy because it doesn’t have the right number of phosphates. ADP will eventually recharge into usable ATP, but it takes a while. That’s where creatine comes in. Your body stores creatine in your muscles as phosphocreatine,[3] which lends phosphate groups to recycle those used up parts (ADP) into a shiny new ATP.[4]

Furthermore, creatine improves mitochondrial function by increasing adenosine monophosphate kinase (AMPK) signaling. When your energy drops, AMPK activates glucose and fatty acid uptake for energy.[5] (If you’re in ketosis, this is the part where you burn lots of fat.)

One study showed that creatine activates AMPK and turns on genes that make new mitochondria, and also release enzymes that sweep away damaging free radicals.[6] Both processes protect your mitochondria from damage.[7]

Related: Is Beta-Alanine Worth It to Boost Muscle and Workout Performance?

Helps build muscle mass

Your limiting factors in the weight room are fatigue and failure, and both relate directly to how much energy your mitochondria can make. You use ATP faster than you recycle it, so using creatine to make this process more efficient will make your entire resistance training program more efficient. More energy means you can work out more intensely and get better results.

Energy aside, creatine activates several muscle-specific cellular pathways that can lead to muscle growth:

  • Combined with weight training, creatine increases myonuclei, the nuclei in muscle fibers. More myonuclei means more growth. The coolest part—you get to keep the extra myonuclei you make, even if you take a break from training and lose your strength.[8][9]
  • Supplementing with creatine while resistance training increases insulin-like growth factor, which stimulates muscle growth.[10]
  • Creatine activates protein kinases that assemble skeletal muscle-building proteins.[11]
  • Creatine supplementation can help increase lean tissue mass and upper and lower body muscular strength during resistance training of older adults. [12]

Boosts exercise performance

Man performing a kettlebell swing

Whether you’re doing endurance training or high-intensity interval training (HIIT), creatine can offer a significant boost. After all, increased exercise performance is one of its primary benefits.

A study conducted on 19 healthy, resistance-trained men showed increases in body mass, fat-free mass and physical performance over a 12-week period. Compared with placebo subjects, the creatine supplementation group had a significantly greater average volume lifted in the bench press—further supporting the use of creatine for getting the most out of your workouts.[13]

Increases cellular hydration

Creatine draws some criticism because it causes water retention. To some, that doesn’t seem beneficial since you haven’t actually increased your muscle mass. But the reality is that that extra water isn’t just for rounded, full muscles.

Hydrated muscle cells prevent protein catabolism.[14] And since many athletes and gym goers want to add muscle mass, having proper cellular hydration is a key factor that can get overlooked.

Supplementing with creatine monohydrate can increase not only the concentration within your muscles, but also total body water, with more fluid being drawn into the muscles.[15]

Related: What’s the Best Way to Stay Hydrated? Focus on Cellular Hydration

Supports enhanced athletic performance

No matter your sport of choice, you can put yourself in a better position to succeed by supplementing with creatine. Having a faster regeneration of ATP between high-intensity exercises can increase performance and promote greater training adaptations.[16]

A meta-analysis of more than 500 research studies on the effects of creatine supplementation supports its athletic enhancement capabilities. For example, short-term supplementation has been reported to increase maximal strength and power, single-effort sprint performance and work performed during repetitive sprint performance.[17] Ultimately, creatine can be used as a tool to aid both exercise performance and your athletic endeavors.

Positively influences brain performance

There’s no doubt creatine can assist your muscle-building efforts. There’s also research showing it can help support cognitive function, too.

In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study on 45 young adult, vegetarian subjects, oral creatine supplementation proved beneficial for their brains. Following a protocol of taking 5 grams a day for six weeks resulted in a significant positive effect on both their working memory and intelligence.[18]

While it is important to note that the subjects did not obtain creatine through their meat-free diet, it’s also important to note the impact creatine supplementation had on tasks that required speed of processing. Essentially, the research supports the role of brain energy capacity (enhanced by creatine) in influencing brain performance.

Creatine FAQ

Ways to increase exercise

1. How do I increase my creatine intake? 

Your body makes creatine, so you always have some at the ready. For a boost, eat grass-fed beef, lamb and pork. Wild-caught fish also contains creatine, but it has less than red meat and pork. In addition to or instead of those food sources, you can supplement with 5 grams of creatine monohydrate per day.

2. What is a creatine loading phase and is it necessary?

A creatine loading phase typically involves taking 10-20 grams per day for the first week. Whether you load or not, your muscles will saturate at the 3-4 week mark, which means they will have taken in all they can hold. A creatine loading phase isn’t necessary, but it can be a useful way to speed up the process so you can potentially reap the rewards sooner.[19]

3. What’s the best time to take creatine?

There is no one-size-fits-all-approach when it comes to creatine timing. You can certainly take it before your workout, but you can also incorporate it into your post-workout shake or smoothie. However, one study on the effects of pre- vs. post-workout supplementation of creatine monohydrate on body composition and strength suggested the post-workout route could be more beneficial.[20]

4. Are there negative side effects of creatine supplementation? 

According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, there is no compelling scientific evidence that the short- or long-term use of creatine monohydrate has any detrimental effects on otherwise healthy individuals or among clinical populations who may benefit from creatine supplementation.[21]

5. Will increasing my levels of creatine cause me to gain weight? 

In the short-term, yes. Creatine draws extra water into the muscle, causing weight gain and muscle swelling from water retention alone. After a few weeks, your gains come from those extra sets you were able to rep out, and those extra weight plates you were able to throw on. You get real strength increases from the extra ATP you’re pushing into your muscle fibers.

6. Does creatine affect your kidney function? 

Although it’s one of the most common concerns, your kidney function is not negatively impacted by creatine supplementation. A study on five healthy men showed that short-term use did not have a detrimental effect on their renal responses.[22] And if you’re worried about the impact of long-term creatine supplementation, another study confirmed it did not negatively impact kidney function, either.[23]

7. Will taking creatine cause muscle cramping? 

Per the International Society of Sports Nutrition, clinical trials show creatine usage does not increase the incidence of muscle cramping. However, there is some conflicting information on this issue. The Natural Medicines Database lists muscle cramping as one of the most common adverse effects of oral creatine supplementation.[24] In general, it’s a good idea to pay attention to your hydration and electrolyte levels, as deficiencies in either may lead to cramping issues.

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This article has been updated with new content.