If you’ve spent some time perfecting your supplement regime, you already know that adding creatine to the mix is a no-brainer. It’s actually one of the most widely used fitness supplements on the market.
However, it’s not quite as simple as buying the first creatine you see on the shelf. Many people assume that creatine is just creatine, but there are actually several types. If you’re on the hunt for a creatine supplement, you can narrow it down to the two most popular: creatine monohydrate and creatine HCL.
So, which one should you choose?
In this article, we’ll deep dive into the differences between these forms of creatine. We’ll talk about everything from their safety, effectiveness, and the best way to use them. Then, you can decide which one is best for you.
The Difference Between Creatine HCL vs. Monohydrate
You have to look closely to see the difference between these types of creatine, because the differences exist at a molecular level. While these differences are physically small, they actually have a noticeable impact on how creatine is absorbed and utilized in the body.
Creatine monohydrate is the most common creatine supplement you’ll find. It’s been around the longest in the fitness world, and has been studied extensively.
This form is typically made with a creatine molecule plus a water molecule. However, manufacturers commonly process this form in slightly different ways.
For example, some manufacturers use micronized creatine, which involves slightly more processing to improve the supplement’s solubility.
Other manufacturers leave the water molecule out completely. This creates anhydrous creatine, or 100 percent creatine. Although 100 percent sounds appealing, it is also more expensive.
Plenty of research supports the effectiveness of every variation of creatine monohydrate. There is extensive evidence that shows how it increases energy, power and stamina during workouts. This form is also known for bringing more water into the muscle.
Another key point about creatine monohydrate is the method for taking it as a supplement. It’s most effective to use a loading phase to build up stores in the muscle. Without this phase, the muscles and your workouts won’t reap all of the benefits.
Creatine hydrochloride (HCL) is newer to the market, but quickly gaining popularity. This form is made up of a creatine molecule with hydrochloride attached.
Attaching the hydrochloride instead of water or another molecule enhances water solubility and absorption. And the potential difference in solubility isn’t small.
One study found that this form of creatine is 38 times more soluble than monohydrate. This means that it’s possible to take less creatine HCL and see the same results as creatine monohydrate. Faster absorption also means little to no water retention, which is a potential side effect of creatine monohydrate.
The attached HCL also makes the creatine molecule more stable. It also means you may be able to skip the loading phase and still see results.
Which Creatine is Best for Muscle Growth?
Here’s a little refresher on how a creatine supplement works for muscle growth. First, remember that your muscles already store creatine from your diet. When it’s released, creatine:
- Increases insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), a hormone that helps with muscle growth.
- Boosts energy, power, and endurance so you can get more out of your workout
- Draws water to the muscles, which makes them appear larger.
- Promotes better recovery after a workout.
Taking a supplement ensures that your muscles are storing the maximum amount of creatine possible. Although any type of creatine will help you achieve results, each one will work a little differently.
First, let’s talk about safety. In the past, there were concerns about the risks of taking a creatine supplement. There were claims that it worked like a steroid and caused a number of negative side effects like weight gain, hair loss and kidney problems.
However, those claims have since been proven wrong through years of research. In fact, there are hundreds of peer-reviewed studies about the efficacy and safety of creatine.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition is on board with using a creatine supplement as well. In their position stand, they state that long and short-term creatine use is safe and well-tolerated by generally healthy people.
It should be noted however that their stance does not specify which type of creatine is most safe. Although creatine in general is one of those most widely researched fitness supplements, the vast majority of peer-reviewed studies use creatine monohydrate.
The safety of creatine HCL cannot be guaranteed until researchers study it more thoroughly.
Okay, so which type of creatine is most effective?
Technically, creatine monohydrate and creatine HCL are equally effective. Both forms of supplemental creatine facilitate increased muscle mass when taken appropriately. The difference between the two lies in how effectively they actually get into the muscle.
In theory, creatine HCL is more efficient when it comes to solubility and absorption. You could say this makes this form more effective, because more creatine is getting into the cells, more quickly, with less side effects.
The problem is, there isn’t enough research to say for sure that creatine HCL is the better option. Research that zeroes in on creatine HCL is so limited, it’s hard to say for sure that the benefits actually make it more effective.
However, limited research doesn’t mean none at all. One recent study compared the effectiveness of these two forms of creatine.
In this double-blind study, subjects were divided into four groups to compare the effects of creatine monohydrate and creatine HCL on athletic performance, plasma testosterone and plasma cortisol.
These hormones serve as indicators of muscle growth. In the end, the results of this study showed no significant difference in effectiveness between the two forms, based on these indicators.
Other Forms of Creatine
There are actually several forms of creatine. Although the others aren’t quite as popular as the two we’re focusing on in this article, it’s worth discussing the key differences between them. Here are some other common forms:
Creatine Ethyl Ester - some claim that this form of creatine is better absorbed in fat. However, the limited research on this form actually suggests that more is excreted, which could be hard on the kidneys.
Buffered Creatine - the addition of a slightly basic “buffer” is claimed to decrease creatine breakdown in the stomach and therefore enhance absorption in the muscle.
Creatine Citrate - this form binds creatine with citrate. Although it is more water soluble, it’s not thought to be better absorbed.
Creatine Magnesium Chelate - this is simply creatine bound to magnesium. The magnesium may limit water retention.
Creatine Malate - this form binds creatine and malic acid, which may improve stamina.
The Best Way to Supplement Creatine
Although several forms of creatine exist on the market, you can’t ignore that creatine monohydrate is the most thoroughly-researched form.
No matter what kind of creatine you choose, remember that quality matters. Avoid fillers, sweeteners, and artificial ingredients as often as possible when shopping for fitness supplements. Pay for the supplement, not the unnecessary stuff.
Finally, take your creatine as recommended. If you decide on creatine monohydrate, it’s important to start with a loading phase, followed by a maintenance phase. Following this technique will give you the best result.
Also, be sure to check out our article on when to take creatine for best results.
If you choose creatine HCL, a loading phase may not be necessary. Remember, consistency is key with either option.