Hands down, creatine is the king of supplements for those interested in bodybuilding or physique development. It’s high on the list for those who want to improve strength and power, as well as those whose interests lie in the sports performance realm.
Why? The simplest answer is because it actually works.
No supplement on the market has been tested more than creatine. The truth is, few supplements have been attacked as unhealthy as often as creatine has, either.
It’s been blamed for everything from nausea and cramps to kidney and liver disease and even cancer.
In fact, in one of the largest and most comprehensive studies on creatine ever, researchers had subjects use creatine in normal doses for 21 months. They then measured 52 blood markers and found no significant adverse effects. (1) Zero. Zilch. Nada.
In another 4 year study, no adverse or negative effects on health variables were detected. (2) Ditto for studies looking for damage to the liver and kidneys.
One word of caution, though. There is enough evidence to indicate that those with pre-existing liver or kidney problems should check with their doctor before beginning to use creatine. This seems to be connected to potential dehydration of some renal and hepatic tissues with creatine use for those already suffering from, or predisposed to, liver and kidney diseases or conditions.
So what’s the real “scoop” on creatine, anyway? (If you use supplements, you get the joke. If not, I’m not telling…)
Creatine exists in muscle cells. It is part of an energetic pathway called the ATP-CP, or the phosphagen pathway. This is the energy system used for short duration, high intensity activity like sprints or explosive weight lifting. Throwing a pitch, jumping and punching or kicking also get their energy from this pathway.
Creatine helps restore ATP (adenosine triphosphate) molecules after they’ve been broken down to release energy for muscle activity. ATP has been called the body’s energy currency. Creatine, then, is important for high intensity muscular activity.
In the body, it is produced from the amino acids glycine and arginine. The vast majority, about 95% is stored in muscles as phosphocreatine. The remainder can be found in the brain, liver and kidneys.
How much you have is influenced by things like how much meat you eat (beef contains relatively high amounts of creatine,) how much muscle mass you have and levels of hormones like testosterone and IGF-1. Supplementation is another way to increase your phosphocreatine stores and assist in the production of ATP.
The most widely available form of supplemental creatine is creatine monohydrate. In spite of some claims from supplement makers that other forms of creatine are superior, there is no real evidence to support their claims. It turns out that the least expensive form of creatine is also the most effective.
Why is this cheap, tasteless white powder so popular with so many exercisers? It has everything to do with the myriad of positive effects creatine has on the exercisers body systems. For example:
- As noted, creatine increases phosphocreatine stores, positively impacting ATP production and raising energy for heavy weight lifting and high-intensity exercise. (3)
- Creatine increases cell surface area within the muscle by increasing cell hydration. Water content within the muscle cell increases, making fiber area larger. This cell volumization has the effect of creating slightly greater force production. (4)
- Creatine reduces the breakdown of proteins in muscles. This has a net effect of increasing total muscle mass through training. (5)
- Creatine can increase workload capacity. Volume, or total work performed, is a key element in the quality of training as it relates to long-term muscle growth. (6)
- Creatine can boost anabolic hormones. Contrary to what you might think when you look into the average “McFitness” gym, posting on social media about working out is NOT anabolic. However, taking creatine is, as it positively effects levels of hormones, especially IGF-1. (7, 8, 9)
- It reduces levels of myostatin. Myostatin is a protein which can inhibit or even prevent growth of new muscle. Using creatine can lower levels of myostatin, thereby enhancing new muscle growth. (10)
- Creatine improves cell signaling. Muscle stem cells are precursors to skeletal muscle cells. When signaling between these cells and other cells in and around the muscle is better, new muscle growth is more likely. (11)
Creatine’s positive effects on gaining muscle, building strength and on exercise performance are well documented. It’s even been shown to help sedentary people and older adults who don’t train at high intensities, (12. 13)
In a 12 week study of weightlifters, creatine increased muscle fiber mass across all three types of muscle fibers (types 1, 2A and 2B.) Concurrently, creatine users in the study saw a 24% increase in 1 rep max on the bench press and a 32% increase in squats. (14)
In another study, creatine users saw overall strength increase by 8% and bench press 1 rep max improve by a whopping 43% over the results of just training alone. (15) Other studies have found improvements in sprint power and speed, bike sprinting performance and even improved performance among endurance athletes.
Creatine can also make you smarter! Okay, that might be a stretch. However, studies are showing that creatine supplementation can improve:
- Memory and brain function, especially in older adults
- Motor neuron diseases
- Brain or spinal cord injuries
- Ischemic stroke
- Huntington’s disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
(16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23)
Even children with traumatic brain injuries can benefit from creatine. A six month study showed that creatine exerts a neuroprotective function. It reduced dizziness and fatigue and helped reduce the duration and intensity of headaches in children with TBI’s. (24)
So creatine has little risk and massive upside. So why aren’t you taking it? Maybe you just don’t know how or have been confused by the conflicting information that’s publicly available.
Should you use a “loading phase?” No loading phase? Take it with water? Take it with protein and carbohydrates? 30 minutes before a workout? After a workout?
There’s a lot of chatter around creatine, so let me help clear the air. If you choose to use a loading phase, you’ll take 15-20 grams a day, in 3-4 doses a day, for 5-7 days. After that, you’ll take 4-6 grams a day (6 grams if you’re a big ole dude.)
Here’s my suggestion. Skip the loading phase. It’s mostly touted so supplement companies can sell more creatine. Start taking 5-6 grams a day. In about 7-10 days, you should start to notice improvements in “pump,” or how your muscles feel while you work out. You should also notice that you feel a bit stronger.
Within 3-4 weeks, your creatine stores should be maximized. At that point, you should begin to notice distinct changes in your exercise energy, working loads and recovery time.
Always take creatine with 8-12 ounces of water and stay well hydrated throughout the day while using it. Don’t worry about perfect timing. If you can take it 30-45 minutes before your workout, great. If it’s easier to take it first thing in the morning or last thing at night, do that. Just take it consistently.
After all, your after those GAINZ, right?
Keep the faith and keep after it!