How to Cycle Creatine to Build Muscle (And Is it Necessary?)

How to Cycle Creatine to Build Muscle (And Is it Necessary?)

An extensive body of evidence demonstrates the benefits of creatine supplementation, especially for improving strength, endurance, muscle mass, and overall athletic performance [1]. Naturally, creatine supplements have been a cornerstone for athletes, bodybuilders, and gym-goers aiming to push their limits. Yet, the strategy of "creatine cycling"—alternating between periods of using and not using a creatine supplement—sparks debate.

Proponents of cycling creatine supplement use argue that it maximizes the benefits of creatine supplementation while mitigating the "drawbacks," while skeptics question its necessity and premise from a scientific standpoint. This blog delves into the science of creatine cycling, the logic (and lack thereof) behind this practice, and how to cycle creatine properly if you're adamant about such an approach.

What Is Creatine?

Creatine is a nitrogen-containing organic acid naturally found in mammals; in humans, it is synthesized primarily in the liver, pancreas, and kidneys from dietary amino acids, and the vast majority of creatine is stored in skeletal muscle and smooth muscle tissues due to their metabolic demand [2]. The primary physiologic role of creatine is in rapidly regenerating ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the main source of chemical energy in cells, especially during short bursts of high-intensity activities (e.g sprinting and heavy resistance training).

What Are the Benefits of Creatine (Monohydrate)?

Creatine supplementation, particularly in its monohydrate form, is well-known to bolster athletic performance by increasing the availability of ATP in muscle cells, and it also appears to promote increases in lean muscle mass through diverse mechanisms [3, 4]. However, it remains unclear if creatine supplements directly amplify muscle protein synthesis [5].

Aside from the ergogenic properties of creatine monohydrate, recent studies have been investigating its pro-longevity benefits for various populations (e.g. senior citizens and cancer patients). Such research has made it clear that taking creatine monohydrate plays an important role in cognitive function, heart health, and potentially even cancer treatment [6, 7, 8]. Odds are many people, regardless of their biological sex, activity level, or athletic pursuits, will be taking creatine supplements in the not-too-distant future.

Do You Need to Cycle Creatine?

If you're wondering, "Do I need to cycle creatine?" the short answer is "No." However, there are instances when intermittent cycling of creatine use may be prudent, such as for cutting weight before an athletic competition or for medical reasons that prevent the body from metabolizing and clearing creatine/creatinine (e.g. renal dysfunction).

The rationale for creatine cycling outside of these contexts doesn't seem grounded in much science. Creatine supplementation is most effective when muscle creatine stores are saturated (and maintained) over time. Given the mechanisms of action of creatine, which are largely independent of receptor interactions, there is no evidence of "downregulation" or "tolerance build-up" to chronic creatine supplementation [9]. Cyclical use would make plenty of sense for something like an anabolic steroid or even caffeine, but not so much for creatine.

Nonetheless, bodybuilding dogma persists as some people insist that varying creatine intake "keeps the body guessing" so your muscles are more responsive to growth once you start taking creatine again. (To reiterate, this notion is not substantiated by empirical evidence).

That's not to say creatine cycling is "bad." Rather, it's an unnecessary strategy for most people and doesn't appear to serve any benefit over consistent creatine use.

Does Cycling Creatine Reduce the Risk of Side Effects?

While fears about the negative effects of creatine supplementation on kidney function have been largely dispelled for healthy individuals, cycling creatine use may offer a layer of reassurance for those concerned about potential, albeit unfounded, long-term adverse effects.

How to Cycle Creatine

When you start a "creatine cycle" the goal is to rapidly increase muscle creatine stores so they become saturated. Hence, most people will start their creatine cycle with a loading phase by ingesting 20 grams of creatine monohydrate per day (divided into four 5-gram servings spread throughout the day) for 5-7 days. This is followed by a maintenance dose of 3-5 grams daily for 4-6 weeks, ensuring muscle creatine stores stay saturated.

After those 5-7 weeks, you "cycle off" creatine for four weeks to let the body "reset" before repeating another creatine cycle.

Example Creatine Cycle

The one-size-fits-all approach does not apply to creatine cycling. Factors such as individual metabolism, activity level, and specific training goals should guide your creatine intake. With that in mind, here's an example of a creatine cycle:

Week 1: Loading Phase—20 grams of creatine monohydrate per day, divided into four 5-gram servings throughout the day

Weeks 2-7: Maintenance Phase—3-5 grams of creatine monohydrate per day, preferably before or after working out (or prior to a meal on rest days)

Weeks 8-11: "Off" Phase—No supplemental creatine intake

After this, you would initiate another loading phase to begin a subsequent creatine cycle.

Maximizing the Benefits of Creatine Supplementation

Like any supplement, the key to reaping the benefits of creatine lies in strategic usage and practicing healthy lifestyle habits. This is especially true for mitigating potential side effects of creatine, such as dehydration and muscle cramps. Here are three tried-and-true tips that will help you make the most of your creatine supplement:

Dietary Considerations

Incorporating a balanced diet that supports your training goals is essential before even considering adding creatine supplements to your regimen. If your main goal is to increase muscle growth, you should eat plenty of protein-rich foods, such as lean meats and fish, along with a generous amount of unrefined carbohydrates and quality fat sources to keep you in an energy surplus (which is necessary for muscle growth). If you're not eating enough, creatine won't help you build muscle mass.

Hydration is Key

Dehydration and muscle cramps, often cited concerns with creatine use, can largely be mitigated by simply drinking ample fluids (particularly pure water) throughout the day. Creatine increases the water content in muscle tissue, requiring a compensatory uptick in fluid intake to maintain cellular hydration. Aim for an additional 16-24 ounces of water above your typical intake when taking a creatine supplement. If you're following a creatine-loading phase, an additional 30-40 ounces of water may be necessary to offset dehydration.

Take Creatine Before and/or After Your Workouts (and on Rest Days)

The efficacy of creatine is most pronounced during high-intensity training that relies on anaerobic metabolism, such as weightlifting, sprinting, or high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Endurance athletes can also benefit from creatine use, and it's typically best to take creatine immediately before and/or after you finish training as this capitalizes on the acute physiological adaptations to exercise. However, the most important factor is taking creatine consistently (even on rest days); the timing of creatine dosing is less of a factor [10].

Key Takeaways on Cycling Creatine

The concept of cycling creatine—alternating periods of supplementation with breaks—remains buoyant despite a lack of scientific evidence to suggest it's any more efficacious than ongoing creatine supplementation. Creatine cycling might make sense for a smaller proportion of active individuals (and under specific circumstances discussed earlier).

For the sake of simplicity (and efficacy), most gym-goers and athletes will find that taking creatine daily and indefinitely is the best way to go. Hopefully, this article has provided clarity on creatine cycling and how to use creatine supplements, like Transparent Labs Creatine HMB, appropriately.

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