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Do You Need to Cycle Off Creatine?

Creatine has fast become one of the most popular supplements in the health and fitness industry -- and for very good reason, too.

It is one of the few supplements on the market that has a very large body of evidence to support its use. With this in mind, it has also been shown to be extremely effective, having a positive impact on many different aspects of your training.

But when it comes to some of the practicalities of creatine supplementation, some questions still remain -- including whether you need to cycle creatine, or not?

What is Creatine?

Creatine is a compound found naturally occurring in the human body.

It is synthesised from small protein molecules called “amino acids,” where it is then stored within your muscle tissue. In your muscles, creatine is used to produce the energy required for muscular contractions during short, high-intensity, and explosive efforts.

What does supplementing with Creatine do?

Something that you need to know is that under “normal” circumstances the amount of energy you can produce through creatine is limited -- which comes down to the fact that your body can only produce and store a certain amount.

Which is exactly where creatine supplements enter the equation.

Creatine supplements simply increase the amount of creatine stored within your muscle tissue. This ultimately provides an extra ‘reserve’ of energy, which can improve your exercise performance.

Interestingly, when supplemented in moderate to high dosage, small amounts of creatine are also stored in your brain, which can have some positive impacts on your cognitive function.

What are the benefits of Creatine?

Now, as I am sure you might have guessed, boosting your creatine stores through supplementation can have some pretty powerful benefits -- especially if you are looking to get as strong and muscular as possible.

1.   More Muscle Growth

Because creatine is used for energy during short, intense, and explosive muscle actions, increasing your stores through supplementation has been shown to increase exercise performance.

It does this by increasing the amount of weight you can put on the bar, or the amount of reps you can perform at a given load. For example, without creatine you may be able to bench 70kg for 10 reps, but with creatine you might be able to bench 70kg for 12 reps.

Over time this causes an increase in training volume, which leads to greater gains in muscle size [1].

2.   Better Strength Gains

Now, piggybacking off our previous point, if creatine allows you to lift more weight on every single exercise, then it stands to reason that it should also contribute to greater gains in strength -- which is exactly what we see [2].

In fact, a recent study demonstrated that people who supplement with creatine saw 8% greater strength gains compared to people who were not taking creatine -- even though both groups performed the exact same training program [3].

And just think -- if this is what happens over the course of 8-12 weeks, imagine what is going to happen over years of hard training.

3.   Boosts Brain Function

Going back to the introduction, you will remember that I alluded to the fact that creatine also has a role to play in your brain -- and its supplementation can also have some positive effects in this area.

Research has shown that if you are in a sleep deprived state and decide to take creatine, you will see notable improvements in mental acuity, mental and emotional wellbeing, and energy levels [4].

It has also been shown to improve cognitive capabilities related to reaction time, memory, and decision making, irrespective of sleep loss [5].

All of which suggests that creatine has the potential to boost the quality of your workouts every single day -- and especially if you are in a sleep deprived state.

How do I take Creatine?

So, it should be pretty apparent that creatine can have some serious effects on the results of your training -- but how should you take it?

Well, research would suggest that when you start taking creatine for the first time, you should commence with a loading phase. Then, once this is complete, you will move into a maintenance phase [6].

This process essentially describes taking a higher dose of creatine for 5-10 days as a way to completely saturate your muscle tissue with creatine. Then, once they are full of creatine, you move to a maintenance dose to ensure that they remain full for the duration of supplementation.

What does this look like?

  • Loading Phase: Take 20 grams of creatine per day for about 7 days. This should be spread out evenly throughout the day (i.e. take 5 grams four times a day)
  • Maintenance Phase: Take 5 grams of creatine per day, once per day

I should also note that a loading phase is not essential, but it does ensure that you get full creatine saturation faster. This is likely to speed up the time between starting supplementation and receiving the maximal benefits.

Do you need to cycle off creatine?

And now for the big question -- do you need to cycle off creatine?

Over the last couple of years that have been a number of people suggest that you should cycle off creatine at regular intervals for three main reasons:

  • It's bad for your kidneys
  • You will build up a “tolerance” to it (making it less effective)
  • It will stop your body's production of creatine

But fortunately, none of these appear to be true at all.

Firstly, research in athletes has shown that taking creatine for up to 5 years without a single break does not appear to have any negative implications for kidney health and function [7]. This provides some clear evidence that it does impact your kidneys in any manner.

Secondly, the tolerance argument is a dumb one. While your body has the potential to make creatine, it can also be obtained via red meat, fish, poultry, and most other animal based products.

In fact, most people obtain more creatine from their diet (~2 grams per day) than what their body makes.

With this in mind, you are always consuming creatine, and your body is always making creatine. As a result, you ALWAYS have creatine in your body, which would suggest that if you could build up a creatine intolerance, you would have done so years ago.

Finally, as I have already mentioned, your body makes small amounts of creatine each day to help with creatine storage -- but it is not your primary source of creatine. As such, even if you supplement with creatine, it is not going to impact your natural production, because it is already rather small.

So in short, no, ‘cycling off’ creatine is not necessary in the slightest.

Summary

Creatine is hands down one of the most effective supplements on the planet.

With a large body of research indicating that it can improve gains in strength and size, while also improving cognitive function, it should be a key component of any lifters supplement regime. And as a bonus, research would suggest that it is something you can take all year round without having any negative side effects.

So there you have it -- creatine “cycling” is a waste of time, and could impact your long-term progress.

 

References

  1. Cooper R, Naclerio F, Allgrove J, Jimenez A. Creatine supplementation with specific view to exercise/sports performance: an update. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012;9(1):33. Published 2012 Jul 20. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-9-33
  2. Mills S, Candow DG, Forbes SC, Neary JP, Ormsbee MJ, Antonio J. Effects of Creatine Supplementation during Resistance Training Sessions in Physically Active Young Adults. Nutrients. 2020;12(6):1880. Published 2020 Jun 24. doi:10.3390/nu12061880
  3. Rawson ES, Volek JS. Effects of creatine supplementation and resistance training on muscle strength and weightlifting performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2003;17(4):822-831. doi:10.1519/1533-4287(2003)017<0822:eocsar>2.0.co;2
  4. McMorris T, Harris RC, Howard AN, et al. Creatine supplementation, sleep deprivation, cortisol, melatonin and behavior. Physiol Behav. 2007;90(1):21-28. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2006.08.024
  5. Benton D, Donohoe R. The influence of creatine supplementation on the cognitive functioning of vegetarians and omnivores. Br J Nutr. 2011;105(7):1100-1105. doi:10.1017/S0007114510004733
  6. Buford TW, Kreider RB, Stout JR, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: creatine supplementation and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2007;4:6. Published 2007 Aug 30. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-4-6
  7. Poortmans JR, Francaux M. Long-term oral creatine supplementation does not impair renal function in healthy athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1999;31(8):1108-1110. doi:10.1097/00005768-199908000-00005
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