Cycling Creatine: A Guide
So, by now hopefully you are all caught up on why supplementing with creatine might provide you with performance benefits, but have you thought about how to best use it for maximum impact? Most professionals will recommend using creatine in a cycling pattern for the most effective results, so let’s take a deeper dive into what this looks like in practice.
The most common creatine cycle used looks similar to:
1. A loading phase – 5-7 days of a daily intake of 20-30g
2. A maintenance phase – 4-6 weeks of a daily intake of 3-5g
3. A de-loading phase – 2-4 weeks of no intake before starting a new cycle
Let’s unpack the phases of the cycle step by step to explore the phases in more depth.
The loading phase
The main point of this phase is ultimately to increase muscle creatine stores, and to do this as quickly as possible. However, there is a limit to how much creatine skeletal muscle can take up in one period, so the recommended 20-30g intake gives the optimal balance between speed and effectiveness (any more than this will likely be excreted and lost).
A common question here is how would you know when you have hit full muscle saturation? Without access to complex equipment, it would be difficult to know, however the real answer here is that it really doesn’t matter.
When beginning a creatine cycle, you will likely find that your bodyweight will initially increase due to creatine’s water retaining properties. Once full muscle saturation is reach, weight will plateau off at this level, regardless if the loading phase is continued or dose increased. This is likely a good enough indication that you are is close enough to the highest muscle concentration of creatine you can achieve.
It is then time to move into your maintenance phase…
The maintenance phase
This is the point where you are able to ease off the high daily dosing, and move into the more maintainable dosing of 3-5g daily. Some will choose to take this as part of their pre-workout protocol, others may have it post work out - and some may even choose to do both. From a creatine supplement standpoint, if you’re having creatine at some point during the day, the muscles will be staying close to their saturation point and you should be getting benefit from your creatine.
When looking purely at the creatine concentration of the muscles, the loading phase has done its job and the purpose of this phase is to keep skeletal muscle levels as close to optimum as possible, without letting them drop precipitously by having too little, or alternatively wasting precious supplements by dosing beyond the body’s absorption limits.
After 4-6 weeks of maintaining this intake, it is time to move into the de-load phase…
The de-loading phase
After decades of research, this phase is still the one that is the most debated and contentious. After experiencing the benefits of creatine for 8-12 weeks, such as increased training intensity and muscle mass, sadly it seems, all good things must come to an end.
Now, there are a number of reasons as to why you would be recommended to undertake a de-loading phase as part of your creatine cycling protocol:
1. Potential health impacts of continued use – although the research showed no significant issues to the renal, hepatic or the cardiovascular system have been found when using a common dosing regime, the important thing to note here is that the majority of the research subjects were only using creatine for a relatively short time, using commonly accepted doses; the average length of studies is often the duration of the conventional creatine cycle.
2. Physiological adaptions to continued use - The theory is that if your body is exposed to chronically high doses, the body will eventually lose the ability to make this important amino acid for itself or obtain it from normal diet, simultaneously coupled with experiencing fewer positive effects from supplementation due to your body “getting used to it”.
Almost every substance the body is exposed to will cause some sort of physiological adaptions. More broadly, the body will usually try to retain its equilibrium – often referred to as homeostasis. However, it should be noted that this effect hasn’t been demonstrated in any creatine supplementation studies to date.
3. Aligning with the ebbs and flows of life - every sport or activity will usually lend itself to an ebb and flow over the course of the year. Bodybuilders are a great example here, who will go through an off-season bulk and then cut up in time for show season. Even the average gym goer will invariably have times where they have more free time and more motivation, opposed to other times due to life stresses where they may struggle to get to the gym at all. Being aware of these times and phases is where the seemingly annoying task of cycling creatine will naturally fall into place anyway.