What is Creatine?
Contrary to what Baby Boomer mothers often think, creatine is not a dangerous, completely synthetic drug that’s only found outside of nature. Nor is it a steroid. It’s a substance that’s found in the bodies of animals, and your own body as well.
Creatine is a nitrogenous organic acid found primarily in the skeletal muscle that helps muscles get the energy they need to contract (more on that in a bit). Your body makes about a 1-2 grams of creatine a day from amino acids, and overall, your body is composed of about 1% creatine. You also ingest creatine whenever you eat the meat of other animals, like beef, chicken, or pork. In fact, the higher the percentage of creatine in a piece of meat, the higher quality it is.
Of course, the creatine you buy as a supplement is made synthetically in a lab, but its molecular profile matches that which is found in the body, and as we’ll see, is quite safe to take.
What Does Creatine Do?
To understand what creatine does, it’s necessary to know a bit about the cellular energy cycle. All cells in your body are powered by adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. When you walk, you’re using ATP. Deadlifting? Powered by ATP. Thinking about Teddy Roosevelt riding a moose? Brought to you in part by ATP.
ATP can be produced in three ways:
- Through oxygen-dependent metabolism that utilizes fatty acids (oxidization). This is how most of the ATP you use throughout the day is created. When you breathe, oxidation is turning fatty acids into ATP.
- Through non-oxygen dependent glucose metabolism (glycolysis). If you’re doing an intense exercise like sprinting or lifting weights, your body switches from oxidizing fatty cells to produce ATP, to burning glycogen/carbs to replenish ATP stores. Glycolysis produces large amounts of ATP, but the buildup of hydrogen ions and lactate make its production unsustainable over long periods of time.
- Through the recycling of previously stored ATP. This is the ATP production mechanism that interests us for this article, because what does this recycling? Creatine! When ATP is transferring energy to cells, it breaks off one of its phosphates and becomes adenosine diphosphate (ADP). Creatine then comes along and says, “Hey, ADP, you can have my phosphate,” turning it back into ATP to once more be utilized as energy.
The more creatine you have in your system, the more ADP that can be recycled back into ATP. The more ATP you have, the more weight you can hoist or the faster you can sprint. Creatine, thus, can help make you bigger, stronger, and faster.
What Are the Benefits of Creatine?
Not all nutritional supplements are created equal. In fact, most of the stuff being peddled as magical muscle and strength builders are a complete waste of money.
But one supplement has been studied heavily for the past 35 years and consistently been shown to be safe and effective: creatine.
Creatine is in fact one of the most well-researched nutritional supplements on the market. Below are some of the benefits studies have proven come from this supplement:
Creatine can help make you stronger.
Several studies have shown that creatine supplementation results in strength gains. In a meta-analysis of 22 studies on creatine, researchers found that individuals who use it show an 8% increase in strength compared to those who don’t.
Creatine can help your muscles grow bigger.
Creatine makes your muscles look bigger, while actually making them bigger as well. First, creatine causes your muscle cells to store more water which causes your muscles to appear fuller and larger. You may notice the size increase a few days or weeks after starting creatine supplementation. (Keep in mind that if dropping sheer poundage is what you’re after, like in preparation for a wrestling weigh-in, this water retention may not be something you desire.) The other way creatine can help your muscles grow is that it can help you to lift heavier weight at more volume. Over time, your muscles will get bigger from this increased intensity.
Creatine can help you sprint faster.
Research has found that creatine supplementation can increase sprinting speeds. So if you want to get faster, supplementing with creatine can help.
Creatine can speed up recovery.
Intense exercise causes your muscle fibers to tear and creates inflammation. Some research suggests that supplementing with creatine can reduce the cell damage and inflammation that occurs during intense training, thus speeding up recovery. The faster you can recover, the faster you can achieve those gains goals.
Creatine may help strengthen your brain.
While the bulk of your body’s creatine resides in its musculature, smaller amounts are also found in your testes and brain. It takes a lot of energy to power your brain and, just like in your muscles, that energy transfer is carried out through ATP. Creatine has been found to play a major role in ATP levels in the brain. One study found that higher creatine concentrations in the brain resulted in improved mental performance and that this concentration can be increased substantially by supplementation.
Creatine is inexpensive.
Not only is creatine more effective than almost all other supplements, it’s also a whole lot cheaper, on the order of $13 for 114 servings, or 12-budget-friendly-cents a serving.
Creatine is safe.
After 35 years of testing on infants, athletes, and adults. Creatine has been found to be completely safe, even after years of use. It won’t damage your kidneys or liver. It doesn’t cause dehydration. The only issue you might have is nausea or diarrhea, but that only happens if you take too much.
What kind of creatine should I take?
There are different types of creatine being marketed out there. Stick with creatine monohydrate. It’s the cheapest, and it’s the kind that’s actually been proven to work.
How much creatine should I take per day?
It’d be easy to think, “If creatine helps me recycle ATP, then the more creatine I have in my body, the better. Give me all the creatine!” But that would be wrong. Your muscles can only process and store so much of it.
So how much is enough?
There are all sorts of answers out there to that question. The standard daily dosage recommended by companies selling creatine is 5 grams daily.
Can I get enough creatine from eating meat without supplementing?
It’s possible, but to get the recommended dose of 5 grams of creatine a day, you’d need to eat about 2 pounds of beef or 3 pounds of chicken. That’s a crap ton of meat, and also expensive — much more expensive than creatine. 5 grams of creatine from a supplement will run you 12 cents, while 5 grams of creatine from chicken breasts will cost you almost $10.
Should I start taking creatine by doing a “loading phase”?
Your muscles can store about 3 grams of creatine per kilogram of lean muscle mass. So if you’re a 200-lb dude, your body can store about 272 g of creatine in its muscles. That’s potential though — if you’ve ingested enough creatine to saturate them to that level.
With that in mind, companies that sell creatine powder recommend that when you first start taking it, you begin with a “loading phase” that involves taking a high dosage of 20 grams per day (taken 4X a day in 5 g doses) for a week or two.
Once your muscles have become “super saturated” with creatine, you move into a “maintenance phase” where you take the usual 5 g a day.
While it’s true that a loading phase will saturate your muscles with creatine quickly, it might not be necessary. Research has shown that taking 3-5 g a day from the get-go will eventually result in creatine saturation. It just takes longer for the saturation to occur.
So whether you load or not is up to you. Mega-dosing during a loading phase won’t cause any ill-effects except for maybe some nausea or diarrhea.
Do I need to take creatine forever?
You don’t need to take creatine forever. You can stop supplementing anytime you want. But your muscles’ creatine levels will start to deplete about two weeks after you stop taking it. In 4-6 weeks, the extra creatine will wash out of your muscles altogether, and your body will be back at producing its baseline level of 1-2 grams a day. According to one study, even when continuing to supplement with 2 g a day of creatine after a loading phase, instead of the recommended 5, the creatine in participants’ muscles still fell to baseline levels within 2 weeks due to their strenuous exercise routine.
Some fitness experts do recommend that you cycle off creatine for a month every 12 weeks or so. Why? There’s lots of bro-science reasons thrown out as rationales, like ensuring that your body can still naturally produce creatine or to avoid other possible negative side-effects.
Actual science has shown that there’s no reason to cycle off creatine. While you take it, your body’s own production of creatine will slow some, but it will continue to produce it, and your natural levels will return to normal if/when you do stop taking it. And as discussed above, there have been no negative side-effects found with the daily, prolonged use.
So, no, you don’t have to take creatine forever. But if you want to get the most from its benefits, supplement with it daily. It won’t hurt and it’s cheap.
Does it matter when I take it?
Nutrition timing is something that confuses a lot of men. You’ve likely read or heard about magic “windows” in which you need to consume certain nutrients to get the maximum benefit from them. As we discussed in our article about pre- and post-workout meals, however, you shouldn’t over-think this stuff. Your overall diet plays more of an important role in your physique and strength than the exact timing of when you eat.
The same goes for creatine. One study in 2013 showed that supplementing with creatine after a workout resulted in better strength gains. The insulin spike that occurs after a workout may do a better job of transporting creatine into muscle cells. But the difference between individuals who supplemented before their workout or after wasn’t that much. The researchers concluded they needed to do more research on this question to come to a definitive answer.
So just take your creatine supplement when it’s convenient for you. Personally, I take mine with my mid-morning protein shake.
Do I need to take creatine with carbs?
Research is mixed on this question. One study found that ingesting creatine with fast-acting carbs improved athletic performance compared to individuals who just consumed creatine, while anotherfound no difference.
Again, my philosophy with nutrition supplementation is to keep it simple. If you have a post-workout shake that has carbs, throw in a scoop of creatine. There’s a chance you’ll get an added benefit from consuming creatine with your carbs. If you usually skip breakfast, take it on an empty stomach. Or save it to take with your dinner. Don’t stress — do whatever works for you.
Can young people take creatine?
I remember back when I started supplementing with creatine when I played high school football, my mom was a bit concerned. But research has found no negative effects from creatine use in young adults or even children. In fact, doctors will often prescribe creatine to children with certain neuromuscular disorders. If you’re a young man or are a parent of a young man, you shouldn’t worry about creatine supplementation. Most doctors simply recommend that you wait until after puberty starts and make sure you stick with the recommended dosage.
Can creatine make me big and strong even if I don’t lift and exercise?
Is that you, Cartman? Like all supplements, creatine will have no effect if you don’t push yourself in the gym and maintain a healthy diet. Creatine can help you push a little farther, but it won’t turn you into a beefcake if you don’t do the work.
Do the work!
Written by The Art Of Manliness
Creatine has been shown to
- Increases muscle strength and power
- Improves performance in high-intensity exercise
- Increase energy levels and speed up recovery rates
- Enhance energy reserves in muscles while minimizing protein breakdown
Creatine can actually be a really great supplement to help with muscle growth, gaining strength and also muscle recovery. The risks associated with creatine are actually quite mild. Anecdotally, people will say they have more muscle cramping, maybe more muscle pulls, dehydration, but when creatine is studied in a clinically controlled setting there’s very little difference from the groups using creatine versus not as far as the side effects. So it’s one of our safest supplements we can use.
Using creatine before your workout will help you increase that intensity and that power of your workout. If you put creatine after your workout it will actually help you recover quicker from that workout so that your next workout is fresher. So if your goal is to get bigger and stronger and lift more weight you would want to take creatine before, but if you’re a triathlete maybe who’s training twice a day, putting creatine after that morning workout can actually help you train better that night.
The other good benefit of creatine that a lot of people can appreciate is that the immediate response you see is your muscles hold more water. So if your goal is to get bigger, to get stronger, you’re gonna notice a difference in the appearance of the size and shape of your muscles even within the first week of taking it. But don’t let yourself be fooled, you’re not immediately that much stronger. You’re just holding the fluid. So as soon as you stop taking the creatine, of course that’s gonna go away, but it is a nice little side effect right when you start taking it.
19 Facts You Need to Know
1 – What will creatine do for me, strength-wise?
Creatine is stored as phospho-creatine in muscle cells and it supplies an extra phosphate group to regenerate ATP during high-intensity muscle contractions, so it will increase your capacity to do high-intensity anaerobic repetitive work by about 15%. That means on any given set, you should be able to do one to two more reps with extra weight, which is hardly ho-hum.
2 – What will creatine do for me, size-wise?
About two-thirds of users will gain about 0.8 to 2.9 percent of bodyweight after the first few days of supplementation. Results vary tremendously, of course. In his research, Tarnopolsky found that some subjects gained about 2 pounds while one – using the same creatine dosage and training – allegedly gained 17 pounds.
In addition to increasing work capacity, creatine builds up muscles by raising the level of anabolic hormones (like IGF-1), lowers myostatin levels (elevated levels inhibit muscle growth), improves cell signaling of satellite cells (that help with repair and new muscle growth), and reduces protein breakdown.
3 – Isn’t the weight gain from creatine mostly water?
Most people gain weight so rapidly after starting to take creatine that logic tells you that the weight gain is almost all water. That may be largely true after you first begin taking it, but even then, the increase in weight appears to be proportional to the total weight gained. Muscle is 73% water, so if you gain ten pounds from using creatine, about 7.3 pounds of that is water.
That being said, creatine does indeed cause cellular volumization and that’s an important determinant of protein breakdown and protein synthesis in skeletal muscle (and other cell types, too). Working out turns on protein synthesis while simultaneously breaking down protein, but creatine shifts the balance towards protein synthesis.
Yes, creatine supplies an extra phosphate group to help regenerate ATP during high-intensity contractions, but cell volumization is an even more important cause of creatine’s muscle-building effect.
Long-term use is a slightly different scenario because that’s when creatine increases fat-free mass without a concomitant increase in total body water. Muscle fiber diameter goes up, along with strength, so long-term effects appear to be caused largely by increased muscle mass.
4 – Does creatine help with recovery, too?
It appears to. A recent study found that lifters (in this case, guys who did curls to failure) felt less muscle soreness than a placebo group. The researchers didn’t exactly know why, but they felt it was “likely due to a combination of creatine’s multifaceted functions.”
5 – Does creatine work for endurance exercise?
Not so much. It’s best used for intense, repetitive exercise that lasts less than 30 seconds, which pretty much describes weightlifting.
6 – Why doesn’t creatine work for everybody?
Some people, especially big-time meat and fish eaters, already have an appreciable amount of creatine in their bodies and might not respond as well –their cells are already saturated with creatine. Others, like vegetarians who don’t get as much creatine in their diet, might have phenomenal results.
Muscle fiber ratios matter, too. Those who have a pretty much equal distribution of fast twitch and slow twitch fibers will respond fairly well, whereas those that have a fast-twitch distribution of about 70% should respond really well.
7 – What’s the best type of creatine to take?
For a while it seemed like someone was introducing a new form of creatine every few months. You had creatine ethyl-ester, dicreatine malate, micronized creatine, effervescent creatine, and even a gummy-bear type creatine, among others. If imagination hadn’t dried up, we’d eventually have had beef jerky creatine or “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Creatine” creatine.
The products supposedly got into the system better, or had greater muscle uptake, or enabled you to take less than you did with other forms, but no data convincingly showed that any form worked better than the original creatine monohydrate. Oh, one thing that the more exotic forms did though was max out your credit card much, much quicker.
8 – What’s the best way to load creatine?
Despite all the countless loading variations proposed and tried, despite all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, the original loading method first proposed by Richard Kreider back in the 1990’s appears to work best:
- 0.3 grams per kilogram taken 4 times a day for 5 to 7 days. (There’s no need to be so precise, though, with the dosage. Just round it off to 5 grams four times a day.)
- Once you’ve loaded up, you only need to take 3 to 5 grams a day to maintain full capacity.
True, there’s at least one study that showed you could forego the loading and just take 3 grams a day for 28 days, but it isn’t exactly clear if that low dosage increases exercise capacity.
9 – Do I need to take creatine with carbs that spike my insulin?
Standard creatine lore suggests that you need to take creatine with a large load of glucose (80 to 100 grams) or a carb/protein mix of 50 to 80 grams of carbohydrate and 30 to 50 grams of protein.
Granted, that technique will cause a surge of insulin that leads to an increase in glycogen in skeletal muscle, which might in turn result in an increase in cell volume, but taking it with carbs doesn’t necessarily cause the muscles to carry more creatine.
There’s also been a decent amount of research that suggests the sodium might be more important to creatine transport than insulin, but it’s tricky since sodium uptake is mediated by insulin.
Additionally, this dependence on sodium levels in the body might invalidate the age-old recommendation to take creatine after a workout. You of course lose a lot of sodium during a workout, so sodium levels aren’t going to be at optimum levels post-workout and that might affect creatine transport.
You could of course address the sodium issue. Some users combine creatine with sodium bicarbonate to increase creatine transport. Of course, new thinking suggests there’s really no reason to use creatine pre-workout or post-workout, which would negate the potential sodium problem. Creatine actually works through saturation and not timing.
As long as your muscles are filled with creatine, it’ll be there to help with your workout regardless of when you took it, be that in the morning sprinkled on your cornflakes, afternoon with your tea, or before bed. Likewise, there’s probably no real reason, once you’ve passed the 5 to 7-day loading protocol, to continue to take creatine with large doses of carbs.
10 – When’s the best time to take creatine?
In case you skipped the previous question, it probably doesn’t matter when you take it. As long as you’ve followed the loading protocol and your cells are saturated with creatine, you don’t need to take subsequent dosages before or after your workout. Creatine doesn’t abide by the clock. Saturation (not timing) is what counts.
11 – Do I need to cycle creatine?
12 – Does caffeine or acidity affect the absorption of creatine?
The vast majority of the initial creatine studies were all done by dissolving creatine in coffee or tea, so no, caffeine doesn’t affect its absorption. As far as acidity, the acid levels of coffee, grape juice, and orange juice are all less than that of stomach acid, and creatine survives digestion completely intact.
13 – Is long-term use of creatine safe?
It sure seems to be safe. It’s been in limited use since the 60’s and widespread use since the 90’s. Sure, in the early days some people were worried about creatine causing or contributing to dehydration or rhabdomyolysis, but those myths have been long debunked.
14 – Is there anything I can do to maximize creatine’s effects?
Given that one of creatine’s main effects is cell volumization, you need something to volumize the cells WITH, namely water. The general rule is to drink half your body weight in water, so if you’re a 200-pound dude, drink roughly 100 ounces of water a day.
15 – How soon will I know if creatine’s working for me?
You should see or feel something in a few days, but give it about a month before you come to any conclusions.
16 – Will I lose muscle if I stop taking creatine?
You’ll lose some of the fluid from your cells, which will of course reduce muscle volume, but you won’t lose any of the muscle you gained.
17 – Will creatine blur my definition?
A little bit. Creatine makes muscle bellies rounder, but it might blur some of your definition. Vain bastards might do well to just use creatine in the seasons of the year where they’re all bundled up and then stop using it during ab-baring summer. Of course, you’d have to be pretty damn ripped to begin with to notice this minor effect.
18 – Why did some weightlifters stop using creatine when it’s clearly so effective?
This is purely conjecture, but it was likely that for a while creatine was just another added ingredient in dozens, if not hundreds of bodybuilding supplements. After a while, users gave it little mind. Add to that the fact that the creatine in those products was often under-dosed or inferior and consequently of little effect, and you have the perfect recipe for forgetting about the supplement or having a ho-hum attitude towards it. The truth is, creatine was and is a valuable, super-effective supplement.
19 – What should I look for in a creatine product?
Make sure it’s from a reputable company. Don’t buy the stuff in giant oil drum containers from drug stores or any warehouse clubs where you need a membership card and fat-lady navy-blue spandex pants to get in. Their stuff is likely adulterated or just plain low quality. If possible, look for something micronized. And good ol’ creatine monohydrate is really all you need.