If you’re a newbie in the world of bodybuilding or even if you’ve been going for a while and are looking for something legit to help maximize what you can do in the gym, you’ve come to the right place.
We’re going to tell you all about creatine – what is it and how it works, the benefits, the types available and the side effects. If you’ve been in a gym at all, it’s unlikely that mention of creatine has passed you by.
You could almost say it’s a gold standard associated with nutritional supplements. Anyone you admire who’s a big name in the world of bodybuilding, weight lifting, powerlifting and physique competing is bound to be taking this supplement.
Why? What are the benefits?
First, let’s look at what creatine actually is…
Creatine is a chemical that is found in our bodies – mostly in our muscles but also in the brain. It’s a combination of the amino acids glycine, arginine, and methionine and a nitrogen-containing organic compound. About 98 percent of creatine is stored within skeletal muscle, with the remaining 2 percent in the heart, brain and testes (if you’re a bloke, that is).
It is not considered an essential nutrient because it is produced by the body at a rate of about 1-2g per day. You can also get it from food (fish and meat are the best sources) and in man-made form through supplements.
Creatine is most commonly used to improve exercise performance and increase muscle mass – hence its popularity as a supplement. People sometimes mistakenly think of creatine as a steroid. It isn’t.
Supplementation of creatine is permitted by the International Olympic Committee the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and professional sports, although the NCAA no longer allows colleges and universities to supply creatine to its students with school funds.
You may now be wondering how creatine work, right?
How Creatine Works?
Creatine (in the form of creatine phosphate) plays a crucial role in the production of energy for high-intensity exercise performed in a short period of time.
- Reduce recovery time
- Improve sprint performance
- Increase muscle strength and size
- Enhance brain function
You can see why athletes and bodybuilders really like it as a supplement. What does it do as a supplement? Increasing dietary availability of creatine increases intramuscular storage of the chemical creatine phosphate.
When creatine is in the form of creatine phosphate (CP), this is what gives it the ability to fuel short-duration, high-intensity exercise. CP is used as a substrate (a substance that is acted upon) for the formation of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is the body’s source of energy and is responsible for driving almost every bodily function there is. ATP provides this power by hydrolyzing (changing) a phosphate group.
If a phosphate group is hydrolyzed, energy through heat is given off, and this energy is used for whatever process is going on – in the case of exercise, muscle contraction. ATP has now lost one phosphate and has become ADP – adenine diphosphate. As long as ADP isn’t converted into ATP again, it isn’t useful. Creatine phosphate donates its phosphate back to ADP to reform ATP.
The end result is that if you can make ADP go back to ATP, you increase your ATP stores and therefore have more energy for working out. You can train harder and for longer. You’ve increased your stamina, and you can do workouts that are effective.
Another thing is that it is itself a fuel source – and your body’s first choice of energy when performing anaerobic activities such as weightlifting is creatine phosphate stores.
You increase these stores by supplementing with creatine. Creatine hydrates muscle cells. This increases protein synthesis and ions going into the cells. When there are more ions in the muscle cells (nitrogen, for example), muscle protein synthesis increases – it’s easier for your body to build muscle.
There are currently about 500 peer-reviewed research papers that examine the benefits of creatine supplementation when it comes to exercise. Around 70% of those papers have concluded that creatine supplementation is effective at producing increases in how people perform high-intensity exercise, including interval training, sprints, and strength and power activities.
In the laboratory, results have shown that creatine supplementation seems to improve average sprint time and resistance to exhaustion during repeated sprints of around thirty seconds. The results are less conclusive when it comes to single sprints.
The effects of longer-duration exercise (for more than 90 seconds) are also inconclusive, although this is not surprising as CP has little influence on the body’s aerobic energy systems. Short-term creatine ingestion (say for less than a week of use) has shown performance-enhancing effects on sprint cycling and during bench presses and back squats.
What about long-term adaptation? Many bodybuilders and others will tell you they take creatine all the time. Is it worth it?
Long-term creatine supplementation (typically more than four weeks) and resistance training have shown increases in:
- Lean body mass
- Muscle size
- Rate of force development
- Sprint performance
- Strength and power
In other words, creatine supplementation is a good choice for those doing weight lifting, sprinting and other forms of athletes. If you’re an endurance guy or gal, running marathons or doing triathlons, then creatine supplementation probably won’t do all that much when it comes to performance.
Increased Aesthetic Gains
“I just lift weights to be stronger and healthier,” said…not very many of us. C’mon, let’s be honest.
Most of us are in the gym groaning our way through a heavy weight-lifting session because we want to be ripped. We aspire to the physique we see in magazines and on the pages of popular fitness sites – visible muscles and abs and little body fat the kind of body you see on most Hollywood big names these days.
Primarily, you need the diet to get that kind of leanness as well as a lifting programme that will challenge those muscles. And you need to keep it consistent as it can take months to see results.
However, long-term supplementation of creatine can help you with your aesthetic goals. Over several months of hard training, subjects gained up to twice the lean mass of those taking a placebo. Do you want to be ripped? Add creatine to your programme.
Why do gains in lean muscle mass happen? It seems that because creatine supplementation can improve a person’s ability to perform resistance exercise at a higher intensity for a longer time, this facilitates the process. It can also make the muscle cells swell, and cellular swelling has been shown to stimulate muscle hypertrophy – an increase in the size of the skeletal muscles.
Elevated Testosterone Levels
When men get to their thirties, testosterone levels usually begin to decline – and that means decreases in energy levels endurance mental sharpness, strength and, yikes, yikes, yikes, your sex drive. A creatine supplement complemented by a weightlifting programme can help increase resting testosterone levels.
By now we reckon we have offered enough reasons and evidence for you to want to add creatine to your life, but supplementation should be done effectively. You don’t just shovel some down in the morning and hope for the best.
- Frequency and timing
- Complementary nutrient
- Side Effects and safety
Frequency & Timing
How often should I take creatine and when do I use it?
While it would be nice (and much more convenient) to take creatine first thing in the morning, that isn’t going to give you optimal results.
Do you want to do a loading phase – i.e. where you take higher doses for a short period of time and then go back to maintenance levels? You can start with big doses of about 15-25g spread out over four servings and ideally taken with food.
The maintenance phase sees you go to 4-10g of creatine a day. If you’re new to weightlifting and training in general, start there as you will probably find this gives you results anyway.
You can take creatine supplementation before and after a workout. See below for further information about this and why it’s a good idea.
This will depend on the product, and you should always follow the manufacturer’s recommendations when it comes to dosage. No rogue dosing, we say!
Another idea is to watch what you are taking overall. Some products such as the protein bars you pick up in health food stores and the supermarket contain creatine so eating them on top of creatine supplements, AND a high-protein diet isn’t necessary.
The recommended optimal dose is 20g per day during a five-day loading phase split between four 5g servings. For maintenance, go back to 4-10g servings divided into something like two 2.5g portions. If you don’t want to load with creatine, just use the maintenance dose.
Are there supplements of macronutrients that enhance the effects or absorption of creatine?
The supplements guru, Dr Jim Stoppani, recommends taking creatine both pre and post-workout if you are weight lifting. He cites a 2006 Australian study that looked at weight-training subjects and gave them a protein, carbohydrate and creatine shake immediately pre and post-workout for ten weeks.
Those people experienced an 80% greater increase in lean muscle mass and some 30% better muscle strength than a group taking the same supplement morning and night. The first group also showed significantly higher muscle glycogen levels – vital for performance and growth.
The takeaway seems two-fold – take your creatine before and after working out, and take it with fast-acting carbohydrates to maximise absorption and protein. Fast-acting carbohydrates are products such as dextrose glucose or maltodextrin.
You can buy shakes that contain these products in combination with creatine. The amino acid glycine has also been shown to increase its absorption, as has arginine.
Safety And Potential Creatine Side Effects
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand, the only clinically significant side effect reported in the research literature is weight gain. There are anecdotal claims of dehydration, cramping, gastric distress and others, but the scientific literature suggests that athletes have no greater (and possibly a lower) risk of these symptoms than those who don’t supplement with creatine monohydrate.
They say there’s no scientific evidence that either short-term or long-term use of Creatine has any detrimental effects on people who are otherwise healthy.
Types Of Creatine Supplements
Like many other supplements, creatine comes in different forms. The most proven form is creatine monohydrate. In recent times, newer forms have emerged such as Kre-Alkalyn, creatine ethyl ester, effervescent creatine, creatine nitrate and creatine malate.
- Creatine monohydrate is the most available and most-researched product. It’s relatively cheap, and it’s safe.
- Kre-Alkalyn has a pH level of 12 to create a stable creatine molecule. It’s designed to be more absorbable than creatine monohydrate.
- Creatine ethyl ester is creatine with an ester attached (a chemical compound derived from an acid). The ester allows for almost 99% absorption, thus dismissing the need for a loading phase. It is more expensive, however.
- Effervescent creatine is creatine combined with sugar or sodium and a chemical that makes it fizz when mixed with water. This increases absorption and makes it taste better. Again, it’s more expensive.
- Creatine nitrate is a popular salt of creatine. It’s a highly soluble form of creatine and should cause fewer gastric issues than creatine monohydrate.
- Creatine malate is creatine bonded with other molecules to increase absorption. It’s made from particles created from malic acid and is more water-soluble and absorbent.
Creatine Powder vs. Creatine Pills
Creatine comes in powder and tablet forms. Powders might be more absorbable, while pills are more convenient.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is Creatine?
Creatine is a chemical that’s found in the body – mostly in your muscles but also in the brain. It’s a combination of glycine, arginine, and methionine. You can get it from food and in man-made form through supplements. Its most commonly used to improve exercise performance and increase muscle mass – hence its popularity as a supplement.
Is Creatine safe?
Most research has been carried out on creatine monohydrate, and the International Society of Sports Nutrition deems it safe for otherwise healthy people. It is allowed by the International Olympic Committee the National Collegiate Athletic Association and professional sports.
Is Creatine supplementation necessary?
It depends. You can get it from your diet but you do need to know what you are doing, and it’s easier to get creatine’s benefits from a shake post-workout. Many bodybuilders use it long-term.
Does Creatine work?
Yes, the studies show that it is safe and effective.
What does Creatine do?
It can help increase the intensity of your workout, which will aid muscle building. You’ll be able to push yourself further where you might have had to stop and rest or decrease the load providing that you are giving your body enough fuel for its performance too.
What is the best and most effective form of Creatine?
Creatine monohydrate is cheap-ish and readily available. You might want to look at some of the new forms, however, for their greater absorption.
What is the worst form of Creatine?
Bear in mind that most of the research on creatine is done on creatine monohydrate – there’s not that much been done on the other forms. If you do choose another form, make sure they aren’t making claims based on creatine monohydrate.
What foods are rich in Creatine?
A good question to ask, my friend. Before you rush off to stock up on what seems to be today’s wonder product, let’s look at how you can maximize creatine in your diet.
The best source is cod (7mg of creatine per gram), followed by pork chops. Then there are steaks, chicken and turkey breasts and chicken thighs. Tuna is another good source.
Does all this sound familiar? If you’re on a bodybuilding-type diet, you’re almost definitely eating chicken. Why not swap it out for some cod too? (Get it from sustainable sources, though, as we’re planet-friendly types here, and don’t batter and deep-fry it.)
Poached and boiled fish on its own can be a tad dull. But make a fish stew with tinned tomatoes, onions, green and red peppers, garlic and top with black olives and prawns, and you’ve got yourself a serious dose of macros and micros. Throw in some brown rice or pearl barley for clean carbs – a carb intake at the same time as creatine is useful too.
Bear in mind that cooking will destroy some of the creatine content in foods.
Who should watch their Creatine intake?
Creatine shouldn’t be taken by pregnant women, women who could get pregnant, or those who are breastfeeding. If you do not have a good renal function (i.e. your kidneys don’t work properly), speak to your doctor before trying a creatine supplement. Many people in the health and fitness industry take creatine for extended periods of time with no ill effects.
How fast are Creatine results?
To answer this, you need to know how creatine works. Creatine phosphate helps replenish your stores of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the molecular fuel for muscular contractions. Activities that require short-term bursts of energy, such as strength training, rely on ATP for five to ten-second efforts. When that time elapses, your ATP reserves are small.
Glucose can be used for energy, but it needs twenty seconds to kick in. Creatine can be converted to ATP very quickly – thus making it an informed choice. You build up your stores of creatine phosphate in the muscles and prolong the conversion of ATP.
This doesn’t mean you get results if you take it just before a workout. But if you start supplementing by loading with creatine, you can expect to see strength and workout improvements in about a week.
Do Creatine results last or go away?
Your muscle pumps go up in part in the beginning because creatine will cause water retention. As your body gets used to the supplement and the workouts you do, this will level off after a while. Many bodybuilders take creatine for years, so apparently, they feel it is safe and effective.
How to maximize Creatine results?
Take your creatine with carbs. So, having it with a meal is one way and eating creatine-rich foods with carbohydrates as your sides is another. You must have adequate carbohydrates in your diet to get the benefit from creatine. Take creatine monohydrate and in powder or capsule form, not the liquid shakes. And take it post, not pre-workout for best effect.