Beware: there are loads of myths out there related to creatine monohydrate and fluid retention. You might have heard before that creatine causes bloating and weight gain.
Or maybe you’ve heard that all weight gain from creatine is just water, not actual muscle. Both of these claims are misleading overstatements.
It’s true that creatine monohydrate does cause some fluid retention. However, this effect may enhance performance and does not preclude gaining lean muscle mass. We’ll clear up more water retention myths below - read on.
Does Creatine Cause Fluid Retention?
Short answer: yes, but this effect is not harmful - and may actually be helpful.
Let’s dive deeper into the science: creatine monohydrate is osmotic, which means it attracts and holds small amounts of water. This osmotic reaction occurs in the body’s tissues where creatine is stored, which is 95% in skeletal muscles.
How much water weight might you experience with creatine?
A randomized trial looked at total body water, intracellular water, and extracellular water in 32 strength-training participants.
The study found that participants taking creatine had gained just below 0.9 liters of total body water after 28 days of supplementation, significantly more water than the non-creatine placebo group gained.
These researchers concluded that because of creatine’s osmotic effect, it makes sense that the body’s water content should increase as creatine intake also increases.
Exactly what this water weight increase feels like will differ person to person.
Some people do experience a bloated feeling, but this tends to be noticeable during the loading phase - the earliest phase of taking creatine in which your doses are higher and more frequent than normal.
How Fluid Retention May Boost Performance
Fluid retention or “water weight” often has a bad connotation.
However, having extra fluid in your muscles may actually be ergogenic (aka, enhance workout performance). Let’s look at two examples of this application below: muscle protein synthesis and muscle hydration.
Muscle Protein Synthesis
An increase in muscle cell volume may actually be an anabolic proliferative signal - in other words, a “message” to the cell to begin making more muscle protein.
Creatine’s ability to help increase cell volume through fluid retention may be one way in which creatine helps increase strength, endurance, and overall performance.
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), creatine supplementation can be “an effective nutritional hyper-hydration strategy for athletes engaged in intense exercise in hot and humid environments” that reduces the risks of heat related-illness.
Creatine’s ability to help the body hold onto water can actually help us thermoregulate in extreme temperatures and at high levels of exertion.
Are My Gains Just Water?
Some weight gain while taking creatine does come from fluid retention.
With that said, the ISSN calls it a “myth” that all weight gain during creatine supplementation comes from water. While the initial weight gain during a week-long loading phase is likely primarily fluid, users will probably also gain lean body mass in the long term.
Part of the theory behind this is the ergogenic benefits of creatine enable people to train better - in other words, work harder and recover faster.
This work then, in turn, builds lean muscle mass. While these results aren’t instant, they’re research-proven. Handfuls of studies show that muscle mass and muscle diameter increase after using creatine combined with training.
Do Fluid Shifts Cause Cramps?
While it’s not backed up by science, you may anecdotally hear that muscle cramps are a side effect of taking creatine.
One hypothesis behind this is that creatine’s ability to retain water causes fluid shifts in the body that, in turn, cause cramps - but is this true?
Probably not. The study mentioned earlier that examined intracellular and extracellular water found no statistically significant shift between water content inside versus outside of cells along people who took creatine, even though total body water increased.
These findings do not support the “fluid shift theory” behind cramping.
Benefits of Creatine Monohydrate
If you’re looking for creatine, you’ll find it in various forms - like creatine monohydrate, creatine ethyl ester, and creatine hydrochloride, to name just a few.
Creatine monohydrate is the most extensively studied and widely used form of creatine.
Based on the most up-to-date scientific evidence, experts continue to recommend creatine monohydrate because of its proven effectiveness and safety.
While the other forms of creatine may show some promising results in studies, they’re still fairly new to the scene and require more research.
What are these proven benefits of creatine monohydrate? Here are just a few:
- Increased lifting power
- Faster single and repetitive sprint times
- Enhanced recovery from workouts
- Enhanced exercise tolerance in hot conditions
- Injury prevention
Experts recommend creatine monohydrate for activities ranging from lifting to endurance running to sprinting to martial arts (and plenty more!).
Creatine monohydrate supports virtually any activity in which muscle mass, strength, and recovery time matter.
The Bottom Line
If you take creatine monohydrate, you very likely will retain some water. This can have ergogenic advantages, including signaling muscle protein anabolism as well improving performance at extreme temperatures.
Keep in mind that muscle tissue is about 73% water anyways - so an increase in body water is expected regardless.