Whether you’re running, cycling, lifting weights, or challenging yourself to the latest Aaptiv workout, your body needs fuel. Good nutrition paired with the proper hydration keeps your muscles working properly and helps all that hard work to pay off. Depriving yourself of nutrients, on the other hand, can sabotage your exercise.
Of course, there’s a lot more to nutrition than just food and water—that includes supplements, which come in a variety of forms, from pills and powders to sports drinks. One supplement in particular that’s been a staple among athletes and trainers for decades is creatine.
Creatine is an organic substance produced naturally in the body, with the vast majority residing in the muscles. It can also be obtained via foods like meat and fish. Creatine is a known performance enhancer that helps your muscles produce more energy, hence its popularity as a supplement among athletes.
Is creatine safe?
Creatine is one of the most widely-consumed supplements in the world. So, fortunately, it’s generally regarded as safe. In fact, the International Society of Sports Nutrition says that there is “no scientific evidence that the short- or long-term use of creatine monohydrate has any detrimental effects on otherwise healthy individuals.” They also note its efficacy, claiming that creatine is the most effective nutritional supplement available in terms of increasing the capacity of high-intensity exercise and lean body mass during training.
That being said, no supplement is a perfect match for everyone. And, even creatine, with all its scientific backing, can have negative results and side effects for certain users.
To learn more, we spoke with Amy Goodson, MS, RD. She specializes in sports nutrition and has spent more than a decade working with professional and college athletes. Below, she covers the pros and cons of creatine.
The Pros of Creatine
Goodson starts by noting that creatine is one of the world’s most researched supplements. So, unlike many supplements with unproven claims, you know what you’re getting with creatine. That’s provided that you’re purchasing it from a reputable company, of course. Here are a few more positives you can look to when debating whether or not to try creatine.
“Supplementing with creatine increases stores of phosphocreatine in the muscles,” explains Goodson, noting that the increases in storage can be up to 40 percent. “This is a form of stored energy in the cells that plays a role in fueling high-intensity, explosive movements. As you increase your phosphocreatine stores, this energy can be used to fuel high intensity exercise.”
She adds that “creatine can help boost workload, enabling more work or volume to be done in a single exercise session.” This, in turn, can help to improve your strength gains.
Goodwin agrees, stating “Creatine can help exercisers and athletes gain muscle mass. It has been shown to help increase IGF-1, a key hormone for muscle growth.” And, while creatine can be taken before or after exercise, studies show that taking it immediately after exercise will result in the most benefit to your muscles.
The Cons of Creatine
While Goodson agrees that creatine is well-researched and known to be safe, it’s still not something that should be ingested recklessly without regard to dosage. “Taking more than the recommended dose won’t necessarily enhance results,” she says. Below are three other issues to be aware of when taking creatine.
Research shows that creatine supplementation causes water retention and subsequent weight gain, primarily in the initial stages of taking it. Because of this, it can cause some people to feel bloated. “There is no real con to that except that it may be uncomfortable for some people,” says Goodson. Typically the weight gain subsides, however, studies also show that sustained weight gain is typically due to increased muscle mass, not fat.
She adds, “Some people can experience stomach issues when too much creatine is taken at one time.” This doesn’t happen to everyone, and it may simply depend on how sensitive your stomach is to new substances. But, those in the initial loading phase should be aware that this may occur. Goodson suggests reducing your dosage if you experience any discomfort.
Lastly, Goodson warns that people with impaired kidney function or women who are pregnant or looking to get pregnant should speak with their doctor before taking creatine.
The Bottom Line
According to science and the experts, creatine is a largely safe supplement. But, as with all things, it pays to conduct a little research and follow instructions. Do that, and you can likely enjoy creatine’s positive effects—most notably increased exercise capacity and lean muscle mass—while minimizing any negatives.
For more on supplements and nutrition, Aaptiv has you covered. For hundreds of workouts, from cardio and HIIT to resistance training, check out the Aaptiv app.