Dear Mark: What is Creatine?

Over the years, more than a couple readers have asked about creatine and whether or not it has a place in the Primal Blueprint. People may be tempted to lump it in with anabolic steroids or other chemical enhancers, but they would be conferring guilt by association. To clarify, creatine is a naturally occurring substance involved in ATP energy production. All vertebrates have it, and most of us get a good chunk of our creatine from eating said vertebrates. Red meat in particular – beef, lamb, and bison – contains the highest levels of dietary creatine (interestingly enough, human vegetarians – unlike their ungulate counterparts – generally have far less creatine in their muscles than meat eaters). The rest of the creatine we get is biosynthesized internally from three amino acids (some of which are also derived from diet): arginine, glycine, and methionine.

Whether it’s biosynthesized, part of a natural meaty diet, or taken as a supplement, creatine helps provide a very specific type of energy for your muscles. ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, is the fuel we use for short, intense bursts of speed or strength. It also plays a critical role in cell maintenance by regulating the assembly and disassembly of the cytoskeleton, but that’s usually not why people take creatine. They do it because it assists in ATP production. When we’re putting up large amounts of weight or going for 1 rep maximums or lifting cars off of accident victims, we are engaging our ATP energy. Our ATP is usually only good for a few moments of maximum output: fifteen seconds of all out sprinting; a few squats at 80% of our 1 rep max; or one good 100% 1 rep max overhead press. This is the stuff Grok would have engaged when making the killing blow on the mastodon. It’s survival fuel, and it depletes rather quickly, but it replenishes just as fast.

Creatine can help give that extra little burst of ATP that might get you through the set. Rather than stop at 10 reps, you might be able to push through for 12. It’s not a game changer, but it has been demonstrated to show some real – albeit minor – benefits in immediate muscle energy. Whether it increases musculature and permanent strength is unclear. The added reps it can help you pump out might confer some benefits, like signaling your genes to synthesize more protein and grow more muscle, but it gets murky when you consider that creatine supplements are cell volumizers that cause water retention in the muscles. Although bodybuilders and other athletes looking for “puffy” bulk over performance might find some use in creatine supplementation, most Primal Blueprinters who value performance over illusory size are probably getting plenty of creatine through dietary means (meat, fish, fowl, etc). The increased muscle fluid absorption can even result in muscle cramps and in dehydration for the rest of the body, so I would actually advise against too much creatine for dedicated athletes.

I’ve tried creatine before, using a six week on/eight week off cycle (so as not to get acclimated to it), and I definitely experienced the slight increase in capacity. Still, at my age, I’m not going to get a whole lot stronger, and I’m not too worried about it at any rate. One thing I can say: creatine is one of the most heavily researched training supplements out there, and it’s probably quite safe in doses less than 5 grams per day. If you’re truly interested in the pro-ATP effects, give it a shot. It won’t hurt, but don’t expect any magical results. Just be sure to stay hydrated and look for a brand without added sugar.

I’d say it works in the context of the PB. It’s not a necessary component of it, like, say, fish oil supplements, but it certainly doesn’t conflict. I’d even urge our more vegetarian-minded Blueprinters to consider creatine supplementation (or beef supplements) if they’re experiencing strength deficiencies when moving heavier weights.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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46 thoughts on “Dear Mark: What is Creatine?”

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  1. Believe it or not, a creatine experiment that I performed on myself 3 to 4 years ago is one of the reasons I started with the primal/EF/paleo lifestyle. Let me explain.

    I had been following a high grain, near vegetarian diet, for quite a few years. Then a friend of mine suggested that I just try an experiment with creatine to see the impact it would have upon my strength. It was a clear game changer for me. My 10 rep maxes over time became my 15 rep maxes. I was very noticeably stronger.

    It had been my view that if you ever needed a supplement it meant that your diet was deficient in some area. Therefore, if my creatine stores were indeed that low, it made me feel that I needed to eat much, much more meat to fill the storage sites that nature gave me. This is exactly what I started to do and my strength and energy improved significantly.

    1. Actually, even on a very meat-heavy diet, the amount of creatine intake is somewhere between 1-2 grams a day, and another 1-2 produced by your body. The turnover in your body is around 2-3 grams a day, so even on a really red meat heavy diet you only net about a gram or 2

      The reason supplementation with creatine works is because even with a very balanced diet, supplementation saturates your creatine to a maximum level, which is not reached naturally. I can’t find the source at the moment, but I’m pretty confident that you’d be hard pressed to fully saturate your creatine stores without supplementation.

      1. You are correct, however, Serge Nubret, the French body builder (who is now 70 years young might I add! still looks AMAZING), used to eat upwards of 2 kilos of red meat a day, legumes, beans and greens. This was his COMPLETE diet, NO supplementation at all. He used to train twice a day for a grand total of 5 hours every day.

        Google image search him, as he, as I believe, has the most amazing figure… ever!

        1. No Supplementation? Apart from all the steroids he took? They were rife back in the 70’s, largely because they were legal, so they were regarded as par for the course. You can’t build a body like that without some help. Of course once you have it, you can maintain it without any additional help.

  2. I tried creatine years ago when I was more interested in being “big.” It did seem to have a benefit, but what’s the point when you have to keep taking it to maintain the modest benefits?

    I think the most important piece of advice in this article is to “not expect any magical results.” Too many people are looking for a quick fix. Eat well, rest plenty, and train smart. That will bring far better results than any supplement can, or at least any legal supplement.

    Nonetheless, this is great information on creatine. Thanks Mark!

    1. The results you get from training while using creatine – muscle and strength gains due to higher load/volume capacity – will remain after you stop taking it. Many people think they lost the benefit because they will lose water weight and get smaller after they stop, but if you train right you’ll still be stronger than when you started.

      1. Creatine works especially if you use the latest and best version creatine hydrocloride. This stuff is incredible. I must tell you however when you get off the stuff, your workout definitely suffers. The strength goes down. YES IT DOES, I don’t care what the experts say. Definitely you lose some of the thickness but the definition that soft of follows is great. It works best if you are a vegeterian and I AM ONE. If you are a heavy meat user then definitely cycle through this.
        thank you

    2. Agreed. I took creatine in the past. It does work, but it’s not THAT great of an effect. I took it because I was super skinny. (…and yet somehow still fat) You know what’s been the single biggest help with actually growing muscle?? Stopping all the chronic cardio!

    3. I may be a little late on this one, but…

      What supplement does work forever after only taking it once? If you stop doing dead lifts, you’ll notice that your dead lifting ability will also decrease. Creatine Mono is pretty cheap (I spend less than $100 per year), and if you see a benefit, then why would you stop taking it?

    4. Just had a quick look at your website, looks good, i shall be bookmarking.

  3. This is a timely article, Mark. I just posted to the forum two days ago a link to a study that creatine supplementation has been shown to help PMS symptoms in women, including mood swings, cramps, and migraines. This both amazes and upsets me. I have been taking creatine to assist with my bodybuilding for two years now and coincidentally, my migraines that I have suffered with since youth have virtually disappeared. I had originally credited that to my primal diet and exercise, but the creatine could have also played a part. Why does this upset me? Because like so many other things out there, no one really stands to make a huge profit off of the stuff because you can afford the good stuff without insurance or co-pays!

    1. Do you still have a link to that article? Much appreciated if you do.

      I myself supplement with creatine and find it to help out with recovery.

      1. My comment is “awaiting moderation” for some reason. Maybe the link needs to be approved. You can find the study in the forum section here. Under the “Warning, more talk about periods” thread.

      2. How much do you take. I am considering starting to take it daily, but I’m worried about acne. I have PCOS, and my skin has been clear for over a year now…have you had breakouts? I am thinking about just starting out at 1 gram a day and gradually increasing to 3.

  4. Mark, i agree with primalman.

    i was a bodybuilder years ago, for 6-7 years. i made some gains immediately following creatine supplementation (strength and reps. not just water bulk). though i cycled off and on and did everything right, i eventually developed fatigue when on creatine, and very red eyes when off.

    this was disturbing. in my opinion, because of today’s nutrient depletion issues, if one is to be truly primal, maybe there are supplements one can take without corroding the ideal. i usually don’t agree with taking nutrients isolated from their whole food source, though. i take fish oil, but have reservations about even this.

    but creatine supplementation is unnecessary, and from my experience, dubious.

  5. I’ve been supplementing with creatine myself for 2 weeks now (5g a day), and I just hit a 25 pound PR on my back squat (after being stalled for a year), so I’m definitely a believer that it can provide a nice performance boost. For me it’s a cheap way to maximize my results in the gym.

  6. If you eat like 2-3 lbs of steak a day, you apparently get the recommended ~5 grams of creatine. I can’t find exact numbers, though. Can anyone find numbers for steak/fish/eggs?

  7. Creatine is also a worthwhile supplement to take after an injury to the brain, assuming your diet does not provide enough.

  8. Just looked in my pill box and saw those ‘hurkin’ suckers waiting for me in there. Due to an injury, I did not lift today, but I usually take them only on lifting days (box said 2 in morning and 2 in the afternoon).

    Anywho, my rambling was to say this: Once these are finished, I don’t feel the need to go out and purchase another bottle.

    Did I increase my gains? Yes, I did feel an extra ‘pump’ and maybe an extra rep.

    I also increased my weights by 5 – 10 lbs this last month without taking creatine too, but then again, these past 2 weeks have been 100% Primal, consisting of significantly increased amounts of meats/ protein sources.

  9. Great post Mark. In my opinion, creatine is much more irrelevant to the PB than, say, fish oil or grass fed beef. It is a hugely beneficial supplement without any known serious side effects, but for a regular person it may be unnecessary. I’ve used it in the past, and I plan on it again, but as an athlete I have strength and size goals which to me represents a sufficient reason to take it. If you follow the PB and are an athlete, it can work for you and won’t interfere with any of the principles. If you follow the PB and just want to be healthy and have fun, its not [necessary] for you.

  10. Naysayers have tried to vilify Creatine for years, and have continually come up short. You are dead on when you mention its guilt by associate.

    I personally love the stuff and haven’t experienced side effects. My site’s link above has tons of these studies in the Benefits section, along with subcategories of different types of creatines you can read about.

  11. Gives me horrid cramps if I don’t drink gallons of water a day so its not part of my primal blueprint for sure.

    For some though I’ve seen amazing results.

    But like others have said, who cares about creatine if the rest of what you eat isn’t in line.

  12. I’ve also gotten really good results from creatine, but as many of you point out it won’t do you no good if you are not eating or training correct in the first place

  13. About 10% of people also appear to be complete non-responders to creatine.

    Years ago I tried 3 or 4 different plans, and a variety of loading parameters. All produced the same results (nothing).

    To quote something I read years ago, “give it a try and it if doesn’t work for you, don’t kid yourself. The gains are real and you don’t need to dream them up.”

  14. great post. Two questions:

    1) when do you all find is the most beneficial time to take creatine? i’m thinking about sipping it (mixed with gatorade) while doing my workout.

    2) is it still necessary to take a fish oil supplement if you eat salmon 1-2x per week?

    thanks all. love this site.

    1. From what I’ve read, creatine ethyl ester can be taken without a sugary drink, before or during workouts. I’ve mixed it with water and 5 grams glutamine and taken it with an alpha lipoic acid supplement post workout, then eat a paleo meal in 20 – 45 minutes. Although I eat paleo, I’ve found that over the years I have better performance and recovery after lifting if I add brown rice and potatoes to my diet. The creatine also helps, and I have never had a cramping problem (might be an uncommon side effect).

    2. The myth that you need some sort of carb with creatine to properly absorb it has been proven wrong to the extent that the amount of carbohaydrates necessary to help absorption is very high, meaning nothing within normal post-workout nutritional parameters.

      That said, taking creatine AFTER your workout when your body is naturally siphoning nutrients into your muscles is typically considered the best route. On non-training days, taking it in the morning before breakfast one of the better options. However, as long as you’re not using more creatine than your body can absorb, what you take in will get into your bloodstream and eventually make it to your muscles. The effects are not immediate, i.e. you need to load for a few days or allow a few weeks for full saturation so time of ingestion on a daily basis is actually less of a big deal than it seems.

  15. As touched upon, there is several types of creatine – monohydrate and ether ester, mono requires a carb to be ingested with it to help transport it 100% to the muscles, it is best taken after workouts or first thing in the morning on non workout days, dosage recommended 3-5g.

    Ether ester does not require carbs to help transport, ideally taken 3g 30 minutes before a workout, or again, first thing in the morning on non-workout days.

  16. Good article but even a better discussion in the comments section. Especially interested in the effects of supplementation for those that don’t eat a heck of a lot of red meat.

    Although I have a tough time endorsing supplementation, I’m curious about running a test cycle with creatine while participating in intermittent fasting?

    If anyone has covered this ground before, I’d be curious to hear an honest account of their experience.

  17. I’m tempted to try creatine, but I’ve heard that it can cause acne. I don’t see how though.

  18. I’ve tried creatine in the past when I was trying programs such as body for life, and let me say that I noticed a HUGE difference- muscle strength gains were somewhat noticeable. What I did notice the most improvement in was my performance during cardio- it soared! My heart/lungs seemed to want to keep going and my legs were unstoppable during a run. I could easily push myself faster/harder than I had before. That said, I’m easing into Paleo, and am concerned that at 35, female with compromised hormones that I’ll have to eat a less fatty diet than recommended here to lose the 30-40lbs that I need to strip off from previous carbo load diet. I might have to do some cardio too to make up for my metabolism defects, so creatine might be back on the table.

  19. I’ve taken creatine off and on for years and I am definitely very reactive to it. Strength gains follow imemdaitely after a loading phase and if you put that to good use: some heavy squats, bench press, maybe some deadlifts, the hormone realease from those exercises (assisted by the increased poundage) can give you some long-term benefits in muscle size and strength.

  20. This is good inspiration to begin the year off on the right foot. I really need to drop weight. I am at the very least FIFTY pounds over weight and its driving me crazy.

  21. There is lots of speculation that is being confused with scientific facts here. One thing Mark does very well is cite his arguments where his readers argue by the means of experience. Tony writes “Yes it does I don’t care what the experts say” referring to strength loss after a cycle, that is great for Tony (not really because he is not one that gets the maximum benefits) but people need to understand that any supplement has the potential to work differently for each user. This is more important when the levels of fitness are different. I personally have used creatine and do not suffer any strength loss after I stop (could be the steroids) and know tons of people that have the same experience. There are plenty like Tony too.
    Try to keep facts and hypothesis separate if you want to have any credibility

  22. this is all very good information for someone who is considering supplementing, but what is critical here is for people to be aware of the long term effects of creatine. no background studies available will tell you whether an excess of creatine in the diet and thus in the blood will in fact produce tolerance and that upon stopping will leave the body less of its natural secretion of the amino acid. this is of course the reason behind the recommendation of cycling with creatine, but not all supplement brands will advocate this. if anyone could possibly shed light on this idea, it would be much appreciated 🙂

    1. Actually, creatine is good for more than one part of you. Research shows that it’s a great brain food as well, protects neurons and improves cognition. In fact, some research shows that Parkinson’s disease can be connected to a deficiency of creatine!

      If you think about it, creatine is basically meat extract. 🙂 And meat is good. Still, joke aside, there are quite a lot of scientific study out there that shows creatine to be a good guy. I guess moderation is best, but I wouldn’t worry about the negative effects of occasional creatine supplementation.

  23. How can one be okay w supplements when they are synthetic?
    I don’t understand the obvious overlook of where this stuff is made?

    1. Synthetic itself doesn’t equate harmful, as neither does “natural” mean healthy. Gluten is natural, and it’s quite bad for you. The mycotoxins of the death cap mushroom are natural AND organic, and yet will kill you in hours.

      If we can synthesize a chemical that is known to be good for our bodies, and add it to our diet in moderation (ie. in a way that mimics the natural sources we’re evolved to handle), a synthetic supplement can be as good as, or even better than a natural one.

      I find dietary ludditism to be a horrible pandemic of our culture. While the distrust toward the food industry is understandable, and on most cases grounded, let’s be logical, analytic, sentient beings, and not emotion-driven cattle. Remember, humans EAT cattle. 😉

    2. I see this and similar comments on synthetic come up all the time on health sites. If I mix oxygen and hydrogen I will get water. You can call it “synthetic” water but water is fungible and you couldn’t tell the difference between “natural” water and “synthetic” water. Whatever process is used to manufacture creatine, it is indistinguishable from creatine extracted from meat sources. Frequently when one uses the term “synthetic”, it’s is a completely meaningless comment.

  24. Not sure if this thread still gets checked for new entries but here goes my question. I’m a type 2 diabetic. (Recently diagnosed). I have to give myself anywhere between 2-10 units of insulin once a day. I eat extremely clean (primal/paleo) and I’m wondering if adding a creatine supp (5g) before my workouts (crossfit) would be harmful. The stuff I’ve been looking at appears to be pure creatine monohydrate with no sugar added. My concern is a significant blood sugar drop or rise as a side effect of this supp. Any advice you could give would be great. Thanks.

  25. I just got my creatinine levels test back and it is high. It measures Creatine. The doc says it is a measure of kidney function and thus it shows Stage 2 kidney damage. High levels are also indicative of a high protein diet. Does excess creatine tax the kidneys? Should it linger in the body, is that ok?

  26. I have a few additions. The first is that creatine in the optimal dose for your brain and muscle tissue is equivalent to 2.5 lbs. of red meat. Most people will find it unhealthy to consume that much per day so taking 5 grams of creatine monohydrate is a good replacement.

    The other factor to consider is that creatine works well with sugar / carbohydrates due to the insulin response. For primal eaters this is a slight issue, but can be remedied with the use of fenugreek. For some reason this natural herb does the same thing as sugar for human insulin responses to maximize efficiency without the carbs.

  27. Dear Mark,
    Out of the myriad choices out there, can you please recommend a brand for Creatine supplementation ?(especially for a vegetarian who does CrossFit twice a week)