Pretty much anyone into weightlifting, bodybuilding or otherwise seriously into fitness has heard of creatine supplementation.
Are you one of them?
It is known in the fitness world to help increase muscle mass, improve performance and stamina for those really grueling workouts.
But, are there other benefits that creatine can provide for you? And is there one form that might be the best to help you reach your fitness goals?
That is what we are going to discuss today – the different types of creatine, the pros and cons to taking it as a supplement, and why you may or may not want to take it.
Two Main Forms of Creatine
There are two main forms of creatine supplement – creatine hydrochloride (HCL) and creatine monohydrate. You may have taken one or both forms in your time as a serious weight lifter.
In a battle between creatine hcl vs. monohydrate, do you have an idea of who the winner might be?
Keep reading to find out.
Other forms of creatine supplements
While creatine monohydrate and creatine hydrochloride are the two types we will be discussing today, there are several other forms of creatine that you can use. These creatine combinations include:
- Creatine Magnesium chelate – a chemically bonded compound powder combining creatine and magnesium, thought to provide a greater anabolic effect and increase body absorption of creatine monohydrate or hcl
- Creatine Citrate and Creapure (Micronized Creatine) – the creatine molecules are broken up (micronized) to allow more surface area, thought to increase absorption and reduce side effects of taking creatine monohydrate or hcl
- Buffered Creatine (Kre-Alkalyn) – compounded with baking soda and/or malic acid to increase pH alkalinity for better absorption, not found to be any better than creatine monohydrate or hydrochloride
- Creatine Ethyl Ester – created to increase the bioavailability of creatine, not found to have any other benefits than taking creatine monohydrate or hydrochloride
- Liquid Creatine – creatine is already dissolved into water, may help with absorption but would need higher dosage, not found to be more beneficial than monohydrate or hcl
- Creatine Anhydrous – creatine with the water removed, provides slightly more creatine per gram than monohydrate but no proof that it absorbs better
- Creatine Citrate – powder bonded with citric acid, thought to provide better absorption over creatine monohydrate, but no studies to prove the claim
- Creatine Alphaketoglutarate/Creatine AKG – alpha-ketoglutaric acid is bonded with creatine, thought to help with stomach upset and diarrhea prevention as a precursor of glutamine, no evidence to support it’s better than creatine monohydrate or hcl
But, do you know which form is best when comparing creatine monohydrate vs hcl?
Today, we’re going to put the two most used creatine types against each other to see if we can find a winner.
What is Creatine?
First, let’s discuss what creatine is and what it’s best used for.
Creatine has been widely studied over the years and has been found to have many benefits to its users. It is especially worthwhile when taken to enhance physical performance – it can increase muscle mass and strength as well as overall exercise performance.
It is a naturally occurring substance found primarily in your muscle cells. Up to 95 percent of your creatine store is found in the muscles, with the remaining 5 percent in your kidneys, liver, and brain. Your body can only produce so much creatine, which is why it is a commonly used supplement. It picks up where your body leaves off, helping you maintain high enough energy levels to build muscle, reduce the chance of muscle injury, and increase muscle repair time.
Creatine provides energy to fuel intense workouts and heavy lifting, which is stored in the muscles as phosphocreatine. Supplementing with creatine increases your phosphocreatine, which then helps produce more of the high energy molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The more ATP your body has, the better your body can perform during workouts and the less chance of fatigue before you finish your sets.
Creatine Supplementation in the Golden Era and beyond
Creatine has been studied pretty extensively since the 1800’s, so it comes at no surprise that it was used to supplement for performance in the Golden Era.
Bodybuilders like Mr. Olympia Samir Bannout, the Lion of Lebanon, and Ric Drasin are no strangers to using supplements like creatine. These OSL ambassadors know what it takes to get into optimal shape to impress the judges and crowd when competing. Using creatine helped to boost their muscle building while streamlining their physique, which helped them win big both on and off the stage.
More recent bodybuilders, including Mr. Olympia and OSL ambassador Breon Ansley, have discussed using creatine supplements during his bulking phase to increase muscle mass.
Even Mr. Natural Olympia, John Hansen, who is also an OSL ambassador, uses creatine supplements. His use of Vintage Build has not only increased muscle mass, but helped reduce recovery time dramatically. It has helped him to keep his strength high when he is dieting to lose body fat.
Serious bodybuilders and competitors know that being able to bulk with reduced recovery time and less risk of muscle damage is key to winning over the competition.
Creatine in Food
Some people prefer to not take supplements, opting instead to try to create muscle the old fashioned way – through diet and exercise alone.
Since creatine is something that is needed by the muscles to grow, it is essential that it is constantly replenished. The average person has roughly 120 grams of creatine in their body at any given time, when at rest.
Even when you aren’t working out, you will naturally lose two to three grams of creatine a day through urine elimination. It is converted to creatinine in the urinary tract before being expelled from the body.
If you are looking to increase your creatine without using supplements, then look for these foods:
Sorry, non-meat eaters, but you will find it very hard to increase your creatine levels naturally without supplementing in some way. Cranberries offer levels of creatine naturally, but the amount you would have to eat would be prohibitive to being able to live your life, much less get in your workout routine.
Red meat offers the highest levels of creatine, but some is lost when cooking. Since eating raw red meat is not recommended, supplementing is still the tried and true way to increase creatine. Studies suggest that using a higher loading dose and then maintaining creatine at 5 grams per day seems to be the sweet spot for optimal health, muscle performance and recovery.
Creatine Provides Peak Performance
Over the years, there have been many studies done to prove the benefits of using creatine to enhance performance. Bodybuilders, weightlighters, athletes, and fitness buffs have shown that taking a schedule of supplements can increase fat free mass and muscle gains. It can also reduce fatigue and muscle damage during long training days.
When determining which is better, creatine monohydrate vs. hcl, we made sure to look at studies completed on athletes and bodybuilders to get a better idea of which might be the better alternative.
1. Sports Athletes Studied
In this study, 30 male athletes were followed over four weeks to determine if creatine supplementation would increase their muscle strength and reduce muscle damage.
The study included 10 men from the National Taiwan Sports University from each of the following sports:
It was found that supplementation increased sprint and jump performance and reduced muscle damage when combined with resistance training.
2. Resistance Training Studied
Another study done with 19 healthy resistance trained men showed substantial increases in bench press and squat volume over the placebo group. The greatest increases showed in weeks five through eight in the 12 week study. This suggests that creatine can be more effective when taken consistently over a period of time, rather than just when specifically needed.
Upon completion of the study, the men in the creatine group were able to bench 24 percent more and squat 32 percent more than their original tests showed.
3. Sprint Cycling Studied
When trying to determine how creatine affects sprint cycling performance, it was found that it offers a significant increase in performance when combined with short sprints (15 seconds) and longer recovery durations (2 minutes).
Twenty-three men were monitored over a 16 week study period. The men in the creatine group were given a level amount of 4 grams of creatine supplement a day without a loading dose. Researchers confirmed that the 12 men in the creatine group outperformed the 11 men in the placebo group, even though they were putting in less effort to get better results.
4. Bodybuilding Studied
There is no shortage of supplements, powders, and potions that some people will try to bulk up – even if the product isn’t safe for human use. The use of anabolic steroids has long been shown to cause lasting health effects on users, and has been outlawed in states, countries, and in virtually all sports.
Some of the health issues steroid use has been known to cause:
Creatine supplementation can be a much safer alternative to using steroids. This study suggests that using creatine correctly can increase cardiovascular function while bodybuilding.
When determining the best time to take your creatine, this study indicates that taking it post-workout rather than pre-workout provides superior results when considering body composition and strength.
Long Term Creatine Use
Not sure how short-term use compares to long-term use to help speed up muscle damage repair? In this study, a group of users were tested after seven days of taking creatine and then again after 30 days.
They found that seven days of use showed no effect on repairing muscle damage. Once they compared to the placebo group after 30 days, they showed that the creatine promoted protein synthesis, speeding up muscle damage recovery.
It should be noted that anyone with pre-existing kidney disease should use caution when taking creatine, as it can increase the risk of kidney dysfunction and further disease.
Creatine for All Ages
We’ve talked a lot about the need for creatine when working out, playing sports, and competing in competitions.
But it’s also critical for people at all stages of life. From young to old, let’s take a look at how creatine can affect your body.
1. Is it Safe for Adolescents?
While there have not been many studies on creatine usage in children and young adults, there are various conditions that a lack of naturally occurring creatine can cause, like:
- Retinal atrophy
- Speech delay
- Muscular dystrophy
- Movement disorders
- Neurodevelopmental delay
Of the studies that are available, it’s shown that use of creatine supplement to help with the above disorders has been positive with little side effects (see below for side effects).
It makes sense then, that increasing the body’s creatine production when it can’t be done naturally, for whatever reason, should be considered.
Working with a doctor to determine safe dosage and scheduling is crucial, especially in children and teenagers, until more studies can be done to determine the impact, if any, of prolonged and possibly lifelong use.
2. Creatine Use as We Age
There is quite a bit of evidence that shows the benefits of using creatine supplementation as you age. Of the limited amount of creatine our body’s can naturally produce each day, production decreases even more as we get older. Once we hit 30, our phosphocreatine regeneration capacity falls by 8 percent each decade we get older.
With age, comes more chance to acquire diseases and disorders as our bodies slowly start to shut down and reduce the ability to regain what we’ve lost. Our bones degenerate, our muscles lose mass, and we just aren’t as strong as we used to be.
Can creatine supplements help with the aging process? Let’s take a look and find out.
Creatine Treating Disorders
Some of the successful disorders and issues that creatine has been used for include:
- Kidney disorders
- Rheumatic diseases
- Type II diabetes
- Neurodegenerative disorders
- Parkinson’s disease
- Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)
- Huntington’s disease
- Bone loss
The benefits that creatine provides for these types of diseases:
- Provide antioxidants
- Aid as an anti-inflammatory
- Protect the brain from neurotoxicity
- Reduce mental fatigue
- Improve depression
- Reduce effects of bipolar disorder
- Increase in muscle strength
- Reduction in bone loss
In a study completed on 60 older women over a 24 week period, the placebo group was tested against the creatine group to see how it affected their resistance training results.
The study found that creatine consumption along with resistance training helped increase muscle function and lean mass over the placebo group.
There is evidence that some forms of creatine can cross the blood-brain barrier, which is extremely beneficial when working out to prevent or heal from brain and heart issues.
This study shows promising results for eight acute stroke victims who used creatine within a few hours of suffering a stroke, up to four weeks after. Results show that creatine was able to help improve blood flow to damaged areas when taken six hours after stroke onset, limiting prolonged damage.
Creatine Side Effects
As with anything, there are some side effects to take note of when supplementing your diet with lab created powders.
When comparing creatine hcl vs. monohydrate, which do you think has the worst side effects? The results may surprise you.
Creatine monohydrate side effects:
- Water retention
- GI distress
- Weight gain
- High blood pressure (thought to occur from increased water consumption)
Creatine hydrochloride was created to reduce the side effects for people who suffer when taking creatine monohydrate. It takes a lot more water to help the body absorb monohydrate, which increases the water retention.
HCL is said to be 41 times more water soluble than creatine monohydrate. HCL helps reduce water retention in the intestinal tract and increases permeability with less creatine excretion.
1. Increase in Water Retention
A study was done on 13 healthy soccer players, with six players taking a placebo and seven players receiving creatine supplements. The supplemented group showed a large increase of total body water(TBW) compared to the placebo group.
Sixteen men and 16 women were give creatine supplements for a month, starting with a loading dose for the first week and then a lower maintenance dose for the remaining three weeks. Their stats at the end of the month showed significant increase in muscle and overall body mass, as well as total body water.
This information is especially important when working towards competitions. The excess water weight can be the make or break when beating out your competition, so proceed with caution if you are out of the bulking phase and working on the cutting phase.
So, Who’s the Winner?
When it comes down to comparing the benefits and side effects of hcl vs. monohydrate, we think that one type stands out a little more than the other.
The benefits of both creatine types seem to be the same, so we couldn’t use those factors to determine which type would win over the other. They both have clear benefits when used in conjunction with weightlifting, bodybuilding, and athletic performance.
Even though creatine monohydrate causes increased bloat and water retention while also creating gastro problems for users, we would say the winner in this battle is creatine monohydrate vs hcl.
Here’s our reasoning – a lot of the side effects that are caused by monohydrate can be avoided by making sure that the supplement powder is fully absorbed in water prior to consuming it. You’ll also want to make sure you are drinking plenty of water to keep yourself properly hydrated before and after your workout, which will help increase the amount of creatine your body absorbs from the supplements.
Studies have been done extensively on monohydrate and while creatine hcl is promising to reduce bloat and gi problems, there still isn’t enough research out there to prove it better than monohydrate. Unless specifically listed, all studies referenced in this article were done on monohydrate.
If you are worried about water retention and are getting ready for a competition, consider stopping the supplements until after the comp as suggested in this study or switching to hcl if you still feel it’s needed.
Taking your creatine supplements correctly (proper dosing and allowing it to fully absorb before drinking) is the key to getting the most out of your supplements and not flushing your hard earned cash down the toilet.
Do you prefer one type of creatine over the other? What has your experience been when supplementing with creatine? Let us know in the comments.