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Creatine is one of the first supplements recommended to lifters who want to bulk since it has been proven to help develop muscle size and strength safely. However, is it possible to gain muscle without creatine? And by not taking creatine, are you limiting your muscle-building potential?
- While you can take creatine to support your performance in the gym, you do not need it to achieve results and promote muscle growth.
- The more important aspect of muscle building is having a well-designed resistance training program, eating a high-calorie protein-rich diet, and ensuring you get 8+ hours of sleep each night.
- When those other factors have been paired with creatine supplementation, it has consistently shown to enhance strength, muscle mass, and overall training performance, with studies indicating as much as a 20% increase in strength and significant improvements in muscle size and endurance.
What Is Creatine & How Does It Work
Creatine is an amino acid that your body produces naturally, with 95% stored in your muscles and the rest found in your brain and renal system (kidneys & bladder).
When you use creatine supplements, you elevate creatine stores in your muscles to complete saturation, which means that your muscles are full of creatine and wouldn’t be able to handle anymore.
These creatine stores are then used to produce a form of energy currency that helps the body perform better. Through this process, you can work harder and require less recovery during your training sessions, promoting proven strength gains and lean muscle growth.
- Learn more about creatine: Most Common Types of Creatine.
But, Is Creatine Necessary For Muscle Growth?
Creatine isn’t necessary for muscle growth.
Many people, for many years, have successfully built muscle and become stronger without using supplements like creatine.
A lot of people focus on supplementing with creatine before they’ve got a handle on other components of their training that have a more important role in promoting muscle growth.
These are things like:
- Resistance training
Let’s discuss each of these in more detail below.
Resistance training is where you’re using resistance (dumbbells, barbells, machines, etc.) against muscle contraction to build strength and size.
By your body working to overcome a resistance force, like lying down with dumbbells and working to push them up repeatedly and consistently over time, your muscles become stronger.
Resistance training can look different depending on your fitness goals, but common examples of strength-building exercises and movements include:
- Free weights – This encompasses many things, using dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells.
- Suspension trainers – These will usually hang from a roof, high bar, or a door and are a mix of body weight training against gravity.
- Weight machines – Popular in commercial gyms, they typically have hydraulics and adjustable weights, seats, and handles, for example, a leg press machine, leg extension, or hamstring curl.
- Resistance bands – These usually have various tension levels to provide different resistance levels.
- Medicine balls & sandbags – These can be different weights and sizes combined with movements like throwing, slamming, lunging, jumping, etc.
- Your own body weight – To perform a variety of movements in various ways like a pause squat or a squat jump, push-ups, chins, etc.
For successful muscle growth, you must have a structured program incorporating various movements and exercises to work different muscle groups.
Depending on the type of training you’re interested in, this could include anything from compound movements like a squat or deadlift to isolated movements like bicep curls, triceps extension, and weighted squat jumps.
Once you have a program, it should be set up so that you progress in your ability to perform your selected movements over time.
These are examples of training variables you would manipulate for selected movements and exercises:
- Training frequency (how often you train a muscle group)
- Number of repetitions
- Number of sets
- Number of exercises per muscle or muscle group
- Training durations (length of workouts)
Through resistance training, muscle growth is achieved by challenging your muscles and working them close to failure. By doing this, you are damaging muscle fibers, so they then repair stronger than before, increasing strength and growing the muscle.
You could be taking creatine every day, but if you’re not first training in a way that supports muscle growth, your creatine supplementation is not helping you build muscle.
Nutrition is one of the most underutilized levers people have available to promote muscle growth. For your body to grow muscle, it must consume surplus calories. That being eating more than you are burning.
Eating in a caloric surplus is necessary because if you aren’t eating enough calories, your body will burn stored calories to help fuel itself. This can include feeding off muscle stores, which is the opposite of what you want to achieve.
Beyond eating in a calorie surplus, you also want to ensure that the surplus calories you consume provide the necessary nutrients to develop muscle. As a starting point, focus your main food intake around:
- Protein-rich foods to build and maintain your muscle; and
- Carbohydrates to fuel your training.
Once that’s covered, balance your meals and snacks with fruits, vegetables, and dietary fat to suit your preferences.
Regardless of whether or not you’re using creatine, if you aren’t eating enough food, you won’t promote muscle growth.
- Related Article: Should Beginners Take Creatine?
Poor sleep increases the risk of muscle mass reduction. If you have poor sleep habits, it’s unlikely your body will generate new muscle tissue, regardless of whether you’re using creatine.
Sleep quality positively affects muscle growth and strength because when you sleep, your body has time to recover and repair muscles that have been worked and damaged. Your body does this by breaking down protein and sending it to muscle cells so they can be replenished.
Over time, this process fosters muscle growth.
Chronic sleep deprivation inhibits this process, causing a loss of muscle mass and function. In addition, it will impact your ability to train harder because sleep deprivation will have you giving up quicker than you otherwise would under optimal sleep ranges of 7-9 hours per night.
So before thinking you need creatine to build muscle, review your sleep routine because bad sleep habits are going to impact your gains negatively. If your sleep routine is inconsistent, try doing the following:
- Limiting screen time before going to sleep – put your phone away at least 30 minutes before bed.
- Use your bedroom only for sleep (and intimate fun times with your partner)
- Have mood lighting; there is no need to have bright lights blaring.
- As much as possible, maintain a consistent sleep/wake schedule every day.
Before looking to supplement with creatine, ensure your training program, nutrition, and sleep are in order because this will position you well to leverage the benefits of creatine supplementation to enhance your pursuits in gaining muscle.
Does Creatine Help You Build Muscle Faster
When looking at the available research, the use of creatine will benefit pursuits in strength and weight training.
By supplementing with creatine alongside a tailored resistance training program, you’ll be more likely to experience faster results (only if the three pillars discussed above are taken care of first).
Let’s look at the research:
- Research on 22 studies shows, across the board, that creatine supplementation could result in a 20% increase in strength for your 1, 3, and 10 max rep efforts. This is compared to only a 12% increase in strength when stopping, or not using creatine.
- A study focusing on old men using creatine coupled with a resistance training program produced increased lean muscle, improved leg strength, endurance, and power.
- Research around long-term creatine use and strength showed using creatine paired with resistance training resulted in an increase in max weight lifted in young men.
- Another study tested participants taking creatine versus another set of participants taking a placebo, with all other parameters the same to see bench press progression. This showed bench press increases of around 43% for a 1RM and 14% average increase in general strength for the participants taking the creatine.
- This 12 week study of untrained males on a resistance program split across those taking creatine and those taking a placebo resulted in increased thigh volume, fat free mass and muscle strength.
Certainly, if you’re looking to progress your muscle-building goals, creatine is a tested and proven supplement to support you with this.
Valid Reasons Not To Take Creatine (6 Examples)
Creatine supplementation isn’t relevant or necessary for everyone.
Just because you want to build muscle does not mean you need to employ the assistance of a supplement like creatine.
Creatine may not be suited to you or your goals for several reasons, like:
Where you have a predisposition to gastrointestinal issues, using creatine may make you feel unwell or uneasy in your stomach.
While it is a safe supplement, the stomach discomfort you feel may be such that the benefit of using creatine isn’t worth it. You don’t want to put your body under undue stress, especially when trying to build muscle.
Read more about stomach sensitivities & creatine use in my articles:
Newbie Strength Gains
If you have just started weight training, there are a lot of gains coming your way. Research has shown that strength increases are maximized in the early stages of resistance training.
Your rate of muscle gain and the extent of your progress during your beginner phase will be influenced by individual factors like age, genetics, nutrition, and training history. Generally speaking, though, as you start strength training, your body will adapt and progress quicker, gaining strength and muscle.
You can expect newbie gains in response to consistent weight training to last from around six months to 1 year. During this time, because you’re likely experiencing quite rapid gains compared to an advanced strength athlete, it isn’t necessary to accelerate this even further with creatine supplementation.
Creatine may be more worthwhile once you have progressed from a beginner and moved into an intermediate or advanced phase of weight training, where progression tends to slow down.
Sub Optimal Nutritional Habits
Before using supplements to ensure you’re getting the most out of them, your nutrition must be dialed in. You wouldn’t start building a house without first having a foundation to build from.
Taking creatine to build muscle without consuming enough calories and protein as part of your diet is like putting your bathing suit on to swim in an empty pool. The bathing suit is helpful to swim in but is meaningless if you have a pool with no water to swim in. If you want to swim, the pool with water is the critical element. Adding swimwear is helpful, but you don’t need it.
Nutritional habits will support muscle-building goals: having a greater calorie surplus and ensuring you are consuming enough protein. Recommended calorie and protein ranges for muscle building are:
|Macros||Per kilo of body weight*|
|Calories (kcal)||30 to 35|
|Protein (grams)||1.4 to 2.0|
*This is a general guidance note and can dramatically change based on body composition extremes eg. very lean muscle mass or significantly overweight. A Dietician or Nutrition Coach can assist you in tailoring specific calorie and macro targets for your goals.
Sub-Optimal Sleep Habits
Reviewing your sleep habits and routine will have a massive impact on your ability to build muscle. Managing sleep more effectively will allow you to build and sustain muscle growth.
Look for ways to prioritize your recovery. If you’re struggling with where to start, look at:
- What you’re doing leading up to going to sleep
- Reviewing when you’re training and stimulants used during workouts
- Speaking with a professional about using magnesium or melatonin to help support your body to wind down and get some quality sleep
- Planning your daily commitments more diligently so you can prioritize sleep
Tackling your sleep habits will have far greater carryover benefits to building muscle. Focusing on sleep before looking to creatine supplementation is a worthwhile endeavor not only benefiting muscle gain but likely enhancing other aspects of your life too.
Regular use of supplements like creatine can add up. While creatine is not typically expensive, costs can add up over time, especially if you use other supplements.
Luckily, though, you don’t need creatine to build muscle. There are a number of other ways to influence muscle growth without giving yourself another expense.
Creatine has been shown through studies to be a remarkably safe supplement that doesn’t cause kidney problems. However, if you are using medications that impact your kidney or liver function, using creatine may not be suitable for you as taking creatine could place added pressure on your kidneys or liver, already working hard or fighting illness.
Regardless of your reasons for not using creatine, you can still focus your energy on different resistance training activities, exploring suitable nutritional approaches, and managing your sleep.
Those factors remain underutilized within the fitness community, and understanding their impact on your body composition goals could be a real differentiator for your muscle growth goals.
5 Things To Do To Build Muscle Without Supplementing With Creatine
To build muscle without creatine, try these four things:
Eat Creatine Rich Foods
Incorporate creatine-rich food in your diet to assist in boosting creatine stores in your muscles without supplement. Here are some options for you to consider:
|Food source||Creatine (Amount/100g of food)|
|Herring Fillet (raw and dried)||1.1g|
|Beef patties (raw), Herring, Salmon||0.9g|
|Black pudding (blood sausage)||0.6g|
|Dry cured ham||0.6g|
|Lamb, top round||0.5g|
|Chicken breast, Rabbit, Tuna||0.4g|
|Cod, Beef Heart, Ox Heart, Beef Cheek||0.3g|
|Hot dogs, Mortadella, Sausage, FIsh Sauce, Bovine Tongue||0.2g|
Consistently Eat in a Caloric Surplus
Ensure your caloric intake is between 30-35 calories per kilogram of body weight. This should be a good guide to provide enough energy to encourage muscle growth and training endurance.
Consume Enough Protein
Consume enough protein as part of your daily caloric intake. A suitable range is between 1.4 grams to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Having the appropriate protein ratio in your diet will build and maintain your muscle mass.
Participate in Consistent Resistance Training
Consistently participate in a resistance training program targeted at progressively overloading your muscles. Working your muscles with a variety of exercises in different ways will cause the muscle to tear and then repair stronger and bigger than before.
Review Your Sleep Routine and Habits
Sleep will allow your muscles to recover from training and promote muscle growth. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep a night. Failing to do this could prevent you from building muscle.
When Should You Consider A Creatine Supplement For Muscle Gain
Several factors are at your disposal to influence and encourage muscle growth before considering creatine supplementation.
However, you may reach a point where you’re looking to explore creatine as a supplement to assist with your goals, perhaps:
- You’ve reached a training plateau and gains have slowed down
- You’ve dialed in your nutrition and sleep, and you’re looking for a boost
- You’ve upped your training intensity and you need added support
One of the best creatine supplements on the market is by Transparent Labs, their Creatine HMB supplement has no artificial colors, sweeteners, or preservatives, ensuring you have a pure quality creatine monohydrate helping you to build lean muscle.
What sets this product apart is the multiple flavor options available, everything from unflavored, allowing you to mix it as you like, to fresh or fruity flavors you can add to jazz up your water during workouts.
Read More Creatine Resources
- How Long For Creatine To Work?
- Does Creatine Make You Look Bigger
- Does Creatine Make You More Vascular?
- Does Creatine Help You Lose Weight?
- Does Creatine Break a Fast?
The Bottom Line
You can absolutely build muscle without creatine, but supplementing with creatine in the context of structured weight training programs and appropriate nutrition and recovery protocols will support you in gaining more muscle.
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About The Author
Steph Catalucci is an online nutrition coach from Australia, working with clients all over the world. Her passion for nutrition was born through wanting to treat her body better, for health and performance. She is a strong advocate for understanding nutrition to develop informed nutritional habits that go beyond just food. Steph leverages a decade of her own nutritional experience to help people make sense of the noise and carve a path forward with their nutrition, supporting clients with whatever body composition goal they have. When not coaching or writing, you’ll find her training for her next powerlifting competition.
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