“I need you to settle something for me once and for all. Should I load with creatine or not?”
Good question. This topic is one which has been reviewed in previous posts, so feel free to review those as well. Oftentimes a complete perspective needs to be gathered regarding this topic and many others as they relate to exercise and nutrition. For example, be sure you are taking creatine for the correct reasons. Creatine serves as an effective intracellular buffer that helps your body more efficiently regenerate ATP. With greater availability to ATP, research has shown your muscles to be able to contract more forcefully over an extended period of time (Buford, Kreider et al. 2007). More powerful contractions by your muscles in athletic folks often results in changes such as an increase in vertical jump, maximal strength, increase explosive power and also an improved to perform more work over the course of several repetitions and sets. Creatine is also fairly effective at stimulating increases in lean body mass. In short, creatine is a first ballot, unanimous Hall of Famer if there was a Hall of Fame for dietary supplements.
OK, you asked about loading. The best answer is that, “it depends”. The easiest distinction is whether or not you need the desired effects mentioned above quickly or not. If you are impatient and tired of being the weakling in your workout group and want to gain strength as quickly as possible, then YES you should consider loading. Another example would be if you are an athlete who participates in any number of strength and power sports and wants to or needs to perform better for an important competition within the next week or so, the again YES you should consider loading.
On the other hand, if you are a strength and power athlete who is going to use creatine as part of a multi-week strength and conditioning program to gain muscle as well as both strength and power before your next season begins you likely don’t need to complete a loading phase. Same goes for a recreational (or competitive) bodybuilder or fitness buff who wants to improve their strength and body composition over the course of several months. In these two instances, however, a person can load if they wish as taking the creatine won’t harm them and it will help saturate the muscle tissue with creatine. But unless you need the gains quickly an argument could be made that it isn’t needed.
Why is this? Well, studies have indicated that after approximately one month, a person who completed a loading phase and one who did not will have similar levels of creatine in their muscle. A typical loading phase has been to take 20 grams per day for 5 consecutive days. The logic behind this loading phase is unbelievably nonscientific and was much more about available time to complete the initial studies. With a typical dose being anywhere between three to five grams per day, it certainly stands to reason that taking a smaller dose (say 10 grams) during loading may also saturate muscles, but it may not. Also, when muscle levels of creatine become saturated the amount of creatine in one’s urine increases several folds of magnitude. Studies have indicated that after three days of loading the amount of creatine in the urine has reached peak levels (Kerksick, Wilborn et al. 2009), thus it stands to reason that only two or three days of loading may be sufficient.
In conclusion, creatine is an awesome supplement for a strength and power athlete. It’s been heavily researched for over twenty years to be effective at increasing performance for a number of different athletes and is well tolerated (Kreider 2003; Buford, Kreider et al. 2007). Loading with the supplement is an effective strategy to rapidly increase intramuscular creatine levels, but may not be necessary if there is little need to experience rapid changes in performance. Therefore, if you are taking creatine and hope to derive gains over the course of weeks and not days an argument can be made to avoid loading altogether.
Buford, T. W., R. B. Kreider, et al. (2007). “International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: creatine supplementation and exercise.” J Int Soc Sports Nutr 4: 6.
Kerksick, C. M., C. D. Wilborn, et al. (2009). “The effects of creatine monohydrate supplementation with and without D-pinitol on resistance training adaptations.” J Strength Cond Res 23(9): 2673-2682.
Kreider, R. B. (2003). “Effects of creatine supplementation on performance and training adaptations.” Mol Cell Biochem 244(1-2): 89-94.
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