Some links in this article are affiliate links, which means we earn from qualifying purchases. Learn more.
You might be taking creatine to improve your performance, and you’re also wondering if it’s going to impact what you see in the mirror.
So, are those gains you’re seeing coming from increased muscle, fat, or just water weight? Combined with resistance training, creatine supplementation leads to increases in lean muscle mass and no change in fat mass. Temporary water retention can happen with short-term loading phases, but no increases in water weight in the long run. This temporarily makes muscles look bigger without increasing muscle size.
If you’re worried about looking puffy from taking creatine, this article discusses important tips to minimize the impact.
The following questions will be addressed in this article:
- Can creatine make your muscles look bigger?
- Can creatine make you look bigger without working out?
- Do genetics impact creatine’s effectiveness?
- Are you gaining muscle, fat, or water weight? How to tell
- Can creatine make you gain fat?
Can Creatine Make Your Muscles Look Bigger?
Yes, creatine can make your muscles look bigger in the short term (1-3 weeks), especially during a loading phase. This is because creatine can draw water into the muscle cells, making them look bigger from extra fluid. This happens without actually increasing the muscle fiber size or the number of muscle fibers.
After the loading phase, as muscle creatine concentration reaches the point of saturation (meaning no additional creatine can be stored in the muscles), daily creatine doses decrease and water stored in the body begins to return to its previous balance.
If it’s important for you to avoid the short-term water retention associated with a creatine loading phase, you do not have to start creatine with high doses.
Instead of a loading phase of 20g per day for 5-7 days, you can simply start with 3-5g each day, which is the recommended ongoing maintenance amount. This just means that it will take a little bit longer (~4 weeks vs. 1 week) to reach creatine saturation levels.
In order for true muscle growth (hypertrophy) to occur, the muscles need to be challenged with appropriate resistance training and sufficient protein intake.
In the longer term (beyond 1-3 weeks), with an effective training program and appropriate caloric intake, muscle hypertrophy will occur. This means that muscles are actually bigger; they don’t just “look bigger” from water retention.
Consistent creatine supplementation, combined with challenging resistance training, leads to larger increases in lean body mass than from training alone. As lean body mass increases and fat mass stays the same, this means that body fat represents a smaller amount of total body weight. The result is a lower percentage of body fat.
Having a lower percentage of body fat can also make it easier to see muscles – when muscles are visible and defined, the effect can be that they appear even bigger than when they are covered by more body fat.
This leads me to my next point.
Can Creatine Make You Look Bigger Without Working Out?
No, creatine on its own does not make muscles look or get bigger, other than short-term water retention. Rather, it allows you to train at a higher intensity, doing more reps and/or higher weights. It is this ability to do harder training sessions that leads to greater gains in strength, performance and muscle mass.
Gains come from training, and creatine supplementation makes it possible and easier to train harder and for longer periods. This impact has been observed to be true across all ages, sexes, and experience levels.
In light of these results, you might wonder more specifically about genetics.
Do Genetics Impact Creatine’s Effectiveness?
Yes, scientific studies have shown that mutations in certain genes, and the presence or absence of others, have significant impacts on a person’s abilities to achieve muscle growth and development and performance improvements during training. Even with creatine, some people will not experience as much muscle growth.
With that being said, creatine supplementation would still result in higher muscle growth during a resistance training program than without, even for an individual who is less likely to experience muscle hypertrophy overall.
Also, underlying genetics or DNA does not completely dictate muscle growth potential. The scientific field of epigenetics looks at how environmental factors experienced in an individual’s life can impact how their genes are expressed.
Combining good nutrition with good training is foundational for additive muscle growth and healthy maintenance all the way into old age.
If you’re looking for guidance on what, when and how much to eat to optimize your training, please book a complimentary consultation with our team of Registered Dieticians and Nutrition Coaches.
Are You Gaining Muscle, Fat, or Water Weight? How To Tell
The very best way to track changes in body composition is with a DEXA scan to tell you exactly how much lean body mass, body fat, and water weight you have. Next are InBody or BOD POD scans, smart scales, and calipers for estimates of body fat. Finally, you can take measurements with a measuring tape.
Even if you don’t have access to or the budget for a DEXA or another scan, basic circumference measurements with a soft cloth measuring tape are helpful indicators.
This is because muscle tissue is denser than fat tissue. The same amount, by weight, of muscle, takes up less space than the same amount of fat tissue.
How much less? Muscle takes up about 80% as much space as an equivalent amount of fat. This means that if measurements are going down in areas that store fat (like the waist or hips) while weight is increasing, fat is going down and muscle mass is going up.
On the other hand, as muscles grow other measurements will go up, such as around the calves or biceps. These locations are less likely to store body fat.
You can also judge muscle gain based on how your clothes are fitting.
For example, if your pants are tighter in the quads, but looser in the waist, this is a sign that you are gaining muscle in your legs and losing fat from your midsection.
Water weight can sometimes be confused for fat, because excess water stored in the cells can cause you to have a puffy or “soft” look. Water retention can also be seen in swelling in your extremities, including wrists and ankles, and fingers.
Try lowering your sodium consumption for a few days to a maximum of 2,300mg, since excess sodium can cause water retention. Drink at least 3L of water each day to ensure proper hydration so that the body will not retain water.
Another temporary measure that you can take to allow you to drop water weight is to reduce your carbohydrate intake by 50-100g per day for a few days. Carbohydrates include “hydrate” in their name because they attract and store water in the body.
After 3-5 days any short-term water retention should be gone. If you still experience swelling, especially around your joints, please consult with your healthcare practitioner.
Fat gain can happen if you are intentionally eating in a calorie surplus to gain weight or while bulking. In general, 60-67% of weight gained during a calorie surplus is fat mass, and 33-40% is fat-free mass.
For every 5lbs gained, 3lbs would be fat and 2lbs would be muscle.
If you are not intentionally eating in a calorie surplus I would recommend that you track your calories for at least 1-2 weeks to get an awareness of your intake and your calorie needs so that you can adjust as needed.
This leads me to my final point about creatine and gains.
Can Creatine Make You Gain Fat?
No, creatine on its own does not lead to any changes in body fat mass. However, training harder can increase your appetite or lead you to believe that you need to consume more calories than you actually do, resulting in a calorie surplus that causes fat gain. It is the excess calories that cause fat gain, not creatine.
If you want to offset fat gain from a calorie surplus, you can either reduce your intake slightly (by about 10%) or you can move more during the day outside of your workouts. This is called non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT): purposeful movement outside of planned workouts.
NEAT generally contributes more to total daily energy expenditure (TDEE, or total calories burned from all activities, including rest) than calories burned from exercise (EAT or exercise activity thermogenesis).
Ways to increase your NEAT include taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking farther away, or choosing to commute by walking or bicycle.
- Can You Build Muscle Without Creatine?
- Does Creatine Make You More Vascular?
- What Happens When You Stop Creatine
- Does Creatine Make You More Hungry?
- Can You Take Creatine Forever?
- Does Creatine Help You Lose Weight?
About The Author
Lauren Graham is a Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified nutrition coach. She focuses on helping busy professionals balance healthy eating and purposeful movement. Lauren has a background in competitive swimming and is currently competing as a CrossFit athlete. She has a passion for training, teaching, and writing.