Creatine HCL vs Monohydrate

Creatine supplements have been popular for decades. And in recent years, more and more formulations have come to the market. One example is called creatine HCL.

These new versions of creatine offer enhanced benefits like faster absorption, increased bioavailability, more potency, and even better results. But is there truth to these claims, or are they just marketing tactics?

In this article, I’ll break down creatine HCL vs monohydrate to show you which one is better. So you can get the most bang for your buck when buying a creatine supplement.

Creatine HCL vs Monohydrate

What Is Creatine?

Since the 1990s athletes and bodybuilders have been using a performance-boosting supplement called creatine. And there are dozens of studies proving its effectiveness for increasing strength and gaining lean muscle1.

Yet it’s still widely misunderstood by the general population. So what is it exactly?

Well, creatine is a molecule produced by your liver and found in many foods such as red meat. Inside your cells creatine is used as a source of energy. To understand how it works, we need to talk a little bit about biochemistry.

How Creatine Works

Glycolysis is a process in which glucose from carbohydrates gets broken down to produce adenosine triphosphate or ATP.  This ATP is used as energy during short bursts of intense exercise. Such as sprinting or weightlifting.

When used as fuel, ATP gives up a phosphate to become adenosine diphosphate or ADP, and it can no longer be used for energy. But creatine supplies phosphate to turn ADP back into ATP so it can be used for energy again.

Supplementing with creatine increases the amount of phosphate available and enables faster regeneration of ADP into ATP. So it’s like having more cellular energy.

With that energy comes greater power output and strength. And that, in turn, boosts performance and increases muscle growth.

Creatine Phosphagen System

An illustration of the phosphagen system and how creatine contributes to the ATP energy pathway.

Creatine HCL vs Monohydrate: Difference

Now that you know what creatine is and how it works, let’s get into the different types. There are actually several different types of creatine on the market. But for this article, I’ll be focusing on the difference between monohydrate and HCL.

Creatine Monohydrate

Creatine Monohydrate is the most common and most studied form. So it’s the standard to which all other variations are compared. It’s also identical to the creatine produced in your liver, kidneys, and pancreas2.

The term monohydrate simply means each molecule of creatine is attached to a molecule of water. As a result, monohydrate is about 88% creatine by weight3.

Creatine Monohydrate

Creatine Hydrochloride (HCL)

Creatine HCL is one of several variants in which creatine is bound to a type of salt molecule. The HCL version is about 72% creatine by weight3.

The purpose of the hydrochloric acid molecule is to make creatine dissolve faster. As a result, creatine HCL is 38 times more soluble than creatine monohydrate4.

In theory, faster absorption means you could get the same effect as monohydrate with a smaller dose. But there’s more to it than that. So let’s see what the data says.

Creatine HCL

Creatine HCL vs Monohydrate: Comparison

In order to determine which is better between creatine HCL or monohydrate, I will consider the claimed benefits and compare the data. Including the areas of absorption, bioavailability, muscle gain, performance, water retention, gastrointestinal issues, dosage, and cost.

Absorption

Creatine absorption consists of two steps. First, uptake from the intestines into the bloodstream (plasma). And second, uptake from the bloodstream into the muscle tissue.

Unfortunately, there are few if any studies on the plasma and muscle concentrations of creatine HCL. But I did find data comparing other salt-based creatine variants designed with the same purpose. These variants are creatine citrate (CC) and creatine pyruvate (CP).

In this study, researchers showed that the addition of a salt molecule increases peak plasma creatine levels by up to 17%5. By this measure, it appears there is some validity to the claims of increased absorption.

Creatine HCL vs Monohydrate Plasma Levels

This graph illustrates the peak levels of creatine in the bloodstream in the hours following ingestion (adapted from Jäger, Ralf, et al.). While the modified versions of creatine do result in more plasma creatine, it’s interesting to note that it still takes 1 hour to peak. It’s not “instant” as some creatine HCL promotions claim.

However, it’s important to remember that creatine uptake is a two-step process. And increased intestinal absorption doesn’t necessarily mean increased absorption into the muscle cells.

Bioavailability

Bioavailability is a measure of how much of a substance is absorbed into the target tissue. In the case of creatine, the target tissue is muscle.

One study compared the muscle uptake of creatine monohydrate and creatine ethyl ester, another variant designed to increase absorption. Researchers concluded that both CM and CEE resulted in significant increases in muscle creatine. With only CM being significant in the first week6.

Therefore, faster intestinal absorption does not result in increased bioavailability!

Creatine HCL vs Monohydrate Muscle Concentration

Despite increasing plasma levels of creatine, modified versions of creatine supplements don’t result in greater muscle saturation (adapted from Spillane, Mike, et al.). In this study, both groups went through a loading phase on days 1-5.

With this information, we can see that so-called fast-absorbing creatine variants result in similar bioavailability at best. And, at worst, could result in a less stable creatine molecule that reduces performance benefits – which is the whole reason for taking creatine!

So let’s review what the data says about the effect of creatine HCL vs monohydrate on muscle and strength gains.

Muscle Gain

When it comes to muscle gain, there is one study that directly compared creatine HCL and monohydrate. In this study, researchers found both HCL and monohydrate increased muscle gain7. And there was no statistically significant difference between them.

Remember, the marketing claims say you get the same results with a lower dose. But in this case, it took 5 grams of creatine HCL to get similar results as 5 grams of creatine monohydrate.

Creatine HCL vs Monohydrate Muscle Gain

Muscle gain by creatine type and dosage (Adapted from de França, Elias, et al.).

Anaerobic Performance

This same study also compared one rep max strength increases on the leg press and bench press exercises. Again they found no statistical difference between HCL and monohydrate7. Even with the 5-gram dosage.

Creatine HCL vs Monohydrate Strength Gain

% change in leg press and bench press 1RM by creatine type and dosage (Adapted from de França, Elias, et al.).

Given the information currently available, it’s unlikely that creatine HCL and other variants produce significant performance effects over monohydrate.

Water Retention “Bloating”

One of the biggest misconceptions about creatine is that it causes water retention or bloating. Yet, the claim that creatine HCL eliminates bloating caused by monohydrate is a big selling point.

While it’s true that creatine does increase the amount of water in your body, that’s not the same thing as bloating. So it’s important to understand where water is stored and what that means.

Does Creatine Make You Gain Weight? Water, Muscle, & Fat Gain Compared

Intracellular water is stored within cells of tissues like muscles, making them look full and tight. Whereas extracellular water is stored outside of cells, which can make you look inflamed and puffy.

What’s interesting is that the study I referenced earlier shows that creatine monohydrate and ethyl ester both result in increased total body water. But the water gain with monohydrate is almost all intracellular6.

Creatine HCL vs Monohydrate Water Retention

Allocation of % change in body water by creatine type (Adapted from de Spillane, Mike, et al.). An increase in intracellular water relative to extracellular water is an indication of favorable changes in body composition – not bloating.

On the other hand, the water gain with creatine ethyl ester (and presumably other “fast-absorbing” variants) is mostly extracellular. So despite this popular selling point, creatine HCL could actually cause bloating, not monohydrate.

How To Get Rid Of Water Retention: 8 Natural Ways To Lose Water Weight Overnight

Upset Stomach

On many creatine HCL product labels, the sellers suggest that the lower solubility of monohydrate means that up to 50% remains in your gut and causes digestive issues. Then they claim that creatine HCL solves this problem with higher absorption.

However, studies show that close to 100% of ingested creatine monohydrate is absorbed5. In addition, a study of 175 people taking 10 grams of creatine monohydrate daily for 310 days found no significant gastrointestinal side effects due to creatine supplementation8.

It seems that supplement companies created a problem that didn’t exist so they could solve it by selling you creatine HCL.

Dosage

Another purported benefit of creatine HCL is that the faster absorption means you can take less and get the same results as creatine monohydrate. Supplement companies advertise this as “microdosing” and say you only need to take 750 mg (0.75 grams).

However, there are no studies demonstrating that 0.75g is an effective dose. In fact, the smallest dose in any study was almost twice that at 1.25 grams.

For example, one study looked at polyethylene glycosylated (PEG) creatine, another variant aimed at reducing the dosage. It showed that doses of 1.25 and 2.5g did not result in significant effects compared to 5g of monohydrate9.

Creatine HCL vs Monohydrate Dosage

% change in mean anaerobic power by creatine type and dosage (Adapted Herda, Trent J., et al.).

Keep in mind, this study was with PEG and not HCL and it was only 30 days long. Also, there were some metrics where the lower dose performed similarly to a higher dose of monohydrate, but overall it was not equivalent.

Again, the best case is that these “fast-absorbing” variants perform similarly or only slightly worse than monohydrate. So if we give them the benefit of the doubt and say you can get similar results with half the dosage, does that equate to cost savings?

Cost

Removing a water molecule and adding an HCL molecule adds manufacturing cost. That means supplement companies charge you more for creatine HCL. So even if you use less, you might not save money.

To see how it shakes out, I compared the cost per effective dose for 18 of the top-selling creatine HCL and monohydrate supplements. This is the cost adjusted to 2.5 grams of HCL and 5 grams of monohydrate.

Creatine HCL vs Monohydrate Cost

Cost per 2.5g of creatine HCL vs 5g of creatine monohydrate based on Amazon prices.

As you can see, the average cost per serving is about $0.48 for creatine HCL and $0.19 for monohydrate. So even with half the dose, creatine HCL still costs more than twice as much!

Of course, you could buy the bargain brand HCL for a similar price as monohydrate. But remember, you may not get the same results as monohydrate.

Creatine HCL vs Monohydrate: Which Is Better?

As promised, I’ve examined the most common marketing claims for why creatine HCL is supposedly better than creatine monohydrate. And, if you’ve been following along, it should be apparent that most of those claims don’t hold up.

In fact, the only claims backed by studies are that it dissolves faster in water and you can potentially use a smaller dose. But that doesn’t mean creatine HCL is more bioavailable or that you can microdose as the marketing suggests.

Creatine HCL Myths

To recap, let’s go through each of the categories of comparison and see which was better between HCL or monohydrate. Then we’ll tally up the score and declare a winner.

  • Absorption: HCL Is Better (so what?)

    It’s true that creatine HCL dissolves faster. And there is data showing that this could translate to 17% more creatine in the bloodstream. But who cares? This has no relevance on the muscle gain or performance-enhancing effects of creatine!

  • Bioavailability: Monohydrate Is Better

    At the very least, similar amounts of these two types of creatine make it to the target tissue of the muscles. But the fact that creatine HCL results in more creatine in your bloodstream could indicate that it is less bioavailable than monohydrate.

  • Muscle Gain & Performance: Both Are Similar

    In head-to-head studies, creatine HCL and monohydrate showed similar effects for muscle and strength gains. So all things considered, they may be equal. However, there are far more studies confirming the ergogenic effects of monohydrate.

  • Water Retention or Bloating: Monohydrate Is Better

    The “no bloating” claim plastered on all HCL supplements is very misleading. Creatine HCL could actually cause more of the extracellular water gain associated with bloating. While monohydrate increases the good intracellular water volume.

  • Upset Stomach: Data Doesn’t Support As A Side Effect Of Creatine

    Another claim made by HCL marketers is that it alleviates GI issues. However, there is no good evidence for stomach problems being caused by monohydrate in the first place. If you get a stomach ache from a supplement, it’s likely one of the other ingredients or a placebo effect.

  • Dosage: HCL Is Lower, But Not “Micro”

    The recommended serving size on most creatine HCL containers is 750mg… that’s only 0.75 grams! But I haven’t seen any studies that used less than 1.25g, and most of them used 2.5g or more. While it’s possible to get similar results with about half the dose, the microdosing claim is utter BS.

  • Cost: Monohydrate Is Better

    In reality, an effective dose of HCL is 2.5 grams. So when you calculate the cost per effective dose, creatine HCL is more than double the price of creatine monohydrate.

If you were keeping score, there are 7 categories of comparison. Of those, one is tossed out and one is a draw.

Out of the 5 remaining categories, creatine HCL wins two, but they are low relevance. Whereas creatine monohydrate wins three important categories.

Based on these criteria, creatine monohydrate is clearly better than creatine HCL. Also, the fact that supplement companies are straight-up lying about most of the benefits of creatine HCL should be a huge red flag.

If you’re going to buy creatine, I recommend pure creatine monohydrate from Naked Nutrition. I’ve like this brand because they give you exactly what you need without any of the fluff or fillers.

Final Thoughts

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype around new versions of old supplements. And I’ll admit, I sometimes take the bait.

But it’s important to catch ourselves and maintain a healthy degree of skepticism about marketing claims. Especially when supplement companies stand to make more money from an “improved” formula.

Even if those companies say the claims are backed by “science”, it’s usually a very loose interpretation of an irrelevant study. As long as they put an asterisk (*) next to it, they can get away with it.

On the other hand, creatine monohydrate is not heavily marketed or advertised because it doesn’t make supplement companies as much money. While monohydrate isn’t as flashy or trendy as HCL and other variants, it flat out works.

So if you’re going to spend money on creatine, go with monohydrate. For more time and money-saving supplement advice, check out my related articles below!

References
1) Branch, J. David. “Effect of creatine supplementation on body composition and performance: a meta-analysis.” International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism 13.2 (2003): 198-226.
2) National Center for Biotechnology Information. “PubChem Compound Summary for CID 80116, Creatine monohydrate” PubChem, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Creatine-monohydrate. Accessed 10 May, 2021.
3) Jäger, Ralf, et al. “Analysis of the efficacy, safety, and regulatory status of novel forms of creatine.” Amino acids 40.5 (2011): 1369-1383.
4) Gufford, Brandon T., et al. “Physicochemical characterization of creatine N-methylguanidinium salts.” Journal of dietary supplements 7.3 (2010): 240-252.
5) Jäger, Ralf, et al. “Comparison of new forms of creatine in raising plasma creatine levels.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 4.1 (2007): 1-5.
6) Spillane, Mike, et al. “The effects of creatine ethyl ester supplementation combined with heavy resistance training on body composition, muscle performance, and serum and muscle creatine levels.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 6.1 (2009): 1-14.
7) de França, Elias, et al. “Creatine HCl and Creatine Monohydrate Improve Strength but Only Creatine HCl Induced Changes on Body Composition in Recreational Weightlifters.” Food and Nutrition Sciences 6.17 (2015): 1624.
8) Groeneveld, G. J., et al. “Few adverse effects of long-term creatine supplementation in a placebo-controlled trial.” International journal of sports medicine 26.04 (2005): 307-313.
9) Herda, Trent J., et al. “Effects of creatine monohydrate and polyethylene glycosylated creatine supplementation on muscular strength, endurance, and power output.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 23.3 (2009): 818-826.

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