The G.O.A.T. will always have the most haters.
As discussed previously, creatine is not a drug of any kind and many of the purported “drawbacks” of supplementing with it have no merit. Still, you’ve probably heard of cycling creatine in conversations about how to use the supplement, which creates the impression that taking creatine is somehow harmful to your health.
Once again, we find our powdery gym pal under attack.
If it’s not a drug, then why would we need a creatine cycle? For what reasons would we need to cycle off creatine? And if we do need to fine-tune how we use this supplement, what would be the best creatine cycle?
Let’s “load up” on some more facts about creatine, shall we?
How Creatine Works
While a deep-dive into the mechanistic effects of creatine is beyond the scope of this article, it would still be helpful to understand the big-picture view of how creatine imparts its benefits in order to assess the potential need to cycle it.
Creatine works by saturating phosphocreatine stores in the muscle, which buffers against fatigue. When ATP is hydrolyzed into ADP to create the energy needed for explosive contractions, this greatly enhanced phosphocreatine “pool” stands ready to donate its phosphate back to ADP to recycle into ATP and further sustain performance.
You may be familiar with certain other “supplements” (a.k.a. Anabolic Steroids) that improve all these parameters, albeit to a much greater degree. You may also know that steroids and related compounds need to be cycled in order to preserve endocrine health. Therefore, it might be easy to look at creatine’s benefits, consider it a type of watered down “steroid”, and just assume that it also needs to be cycled.
Not only does that leap in logic fly in the face of what we just learned about how creatine actually works, it also overlooks that these benefits from creatine are consistently found in the literature in the absence of any impact in hormone production [2, 3].
So since we don’t have to take those same precautions as with hardcore drugs, then why do so many people assume that you need to spend time “off” creatine in order to stay healthy?
Creatinine: Creatine’s Ugly Stepbrother
The notion of needing a good creatine cycle to avoid any health detriments likely came from a faulty interpretation of creatine metabolism and its byproducts.
After being utilized to support explosive activities such as weight training, creatine/phosphocreatine is degraded into its metabolite, creatinine, in the bloodstream. Your kidney filters the creatinine from your blood, which is then excreted in your urine. Because of this, creatinine levels in the blood have been used as a proxy marker for healthy kidney function, and an accumulation of creatinine levels in the blood would send up red flags.
Go figure: supplementing with creatine can increase both blood and urinary measures of creatinine. But don’t sound the alarm bells just yet.
Several long-term studies and reviews [1, 2, 3, 4] have suggested that despite these transient increases in serum and urinary creatinine levels, chronic creatine consumption should create no complications to your kidney health, or to your health overall. According to a recent position stance on Creatine by the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), the lack of negative health effects has even been observed in subjects taking 30 grams of creatine on a daily basis for five years (!!!).
In fact, creatine can plausibly improve cognition and some research even suggests anti-depressive effects; when taken in combination with the clear benefits to gaining muscle mass, it’s pretty clear that creatine’s benefits far outweigh any of its supposed “downsides”.
The Verdict on Creatine and Cycling
Considering the likelihood of suffering from any health detriments is incredibly slim, you can (and probably should) supplement with creatine indefinitely. However, this may only be half the story when it comes to what people mean regarding a “creatine cycle,” because they may also be referring to something called “creatine loading.”
Creatine Loading Vs Cycling
These two concepts are closely related enough that they’ve become synonymous in certain discussions about creatine use. Since most Gym Bros/Broettes don’t take the time to dig into the nuances of supplement discussion (unlike you!), they probably consider these concepts one in the same and call it a day.
But it’s an important distinction to make, because while cycling on and off creatine isn’t necessary and likely reduces benefits versus chronic use, creatine loading can actually make supplementing with creatine more effective by shortening the amount of time it takes to see benefits.
Remember: creatine works by increasing your phosphocreatine reservoir, creating more donors to contribute to explosive, effortful tasks. This reservoir needs to be fully saturated to deliver the most benefits.
In non-supplementing populations, the average 70 kg male has an existing creatine pool of about 130 grams, and excretes about two grams worth of creatine on a daily basis. Your storage capacity and the amount of creatine excreted correlates with levels of lean mass (more muscle = larger pool & more excretion).
Your body synthesizes about a gram of creatine a day, and the average diet may contribute roughly another gram of creatine per day, which would largely offset this excretion and keep your existing pool relatively stable.
In order to create performance benefits, though, we need to do much more than just offset these losses; we must fully saturate our pool. This is where loading comes in.
The most common loading protocols in the literature are to consume 20-25 grams of creatine per day for a week, followed by a daily dose of 2-5 grams of creatine per day to keep levels “topped off.” As you can see, if your diet contains less animal products, such as vegan or vegetarian diets, your pool will decrease; conversely, supplementing with creatine over time will fill it to the brim. A loading protocol simply fills it quicker, as you’ll still experience full saturation of your pool over time by supplementing with as little as two grams of creatine per day.
When it comes to creatine supplementation, you don’t need to worry about starting a creatine cycle or creating some complex creatine cycle schedule. If you’re going to be supplementing with creatine, there’s no evidence to suggest that it isn’t safe to do so every day.
A daily dose of 2-5 grams of creatine, preferably in monohydrate form, will fully saturate your reservoir over time. If you want to fully saturate your stores even quicker, a week-long loading phase at 20-25 grams per day will do the trick, followed by a reduced daily dose thereafter.
If you would like to experiment with loading, take care to split up the doses throughout the day and take them with food. Not only can single doses greater than five grams cause digestive problems, creatine uptake is also facilitated by insulin. Pairing your creatine with food, then, can decrease the stomach issues while also creating the most favorable conditions for your body to actually absorb the creatine you’re taking. It’s a win-win.
Another creatine myth, down the drain. When you come for the king, you best not miss.
If you’d like to learn more about what creatine and dozens of other supplements actually do (and do not do), check out the Henselmans PT Course, which is dedicated to busting myths just like this one and optimizing your fitness journey.
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