Creatine Supplements 101
Creatine is by far the most impressive supplement of the 20th century, with numerous studies showcasing it's ability to improve strength, power output, muscular recovery, body composition, and training volume while reducing inflammation and cell damage following intense, prolonged exercise. Today, it is still the most tried and true supplement in the world, and it is utilized by athletes of all levels, bodybuilders, and fitness enthusiasts across the globe. Just one quick Google search will provide you with hundreds of articles written on the benefits or potential benefits of supplementing with creatine, but those barely even scratch the surface on the body of work surrounding this substance.
Today we are going to take an in-depth look at creatine, breakdown exactly what it is, discuss all of its benefits in details, review the different types of creatine supplements available, and debunk any misinformation out there. Welcome to Creatine 101!
First, let's cover the basics. What is creatine?
Creatine is a derivative of the amino acids arginine, glycine, and methionine. Our bodies naturally produce about 1 gram per day, which is primarily made in the liver, and to a lesser extent in the kidneys and pancreas. It stores high-energy phosphate groups in the form of phosphocreatine which are donated to ADP (Adenosine di-phosphate), regenerating it to ATP (Adenosine triphosphate), the primary energy source in the body. This role in energy production is particularly relevant under conditions of high energy demand such as intense physical or mental activity. ATP is often called the body’s energy currency. When you have more ATP, your body can perform better during intense exercise.
While our bodies are able to naturally synthesize creatine, and whilst beneficial, the amounts were able to naturally produce are unfortunately too low to be of any real noticeable benefit. Animal proteins such as red meat and fish, contain creatine naturally as well, but you would literally need to eat inhuman amounts of each to hit the level available in most creatine supplements.
What are the benefits of supplementing with creatine?
1. Improve and enhance athletic and intense exercise performance. Our muscles rely heavily on ATP, which is a byproduct of our phosphogenic energy system, to effectively perform short, fast bursts of energy, such as sprinting, ballistic movements, Olympic lifting, heavy squats, bench press, deadlifts, etc. Creatine’s direct effect on the production of ATP in our muscles can help create more potential available ATP, in turn, improving the performance of short, intense exercises and efforts. The more ATP the cells in our muscles can absorb, the harder our muscles can work, and the longer they can work before we begin to fatigue.
If you're looking to improve your 40 yard dash time, your 100 meter sprint time, improve performance on high-intensity intermittent speed training, boost your long jump record, or any other explosive movement, creatine supplementation is an excellent and recommended option.
2. Increases lean muscle mass, strength, and power/force output. One of creatine’s primary functions as a supplement is to increase muscle size and strength. In fact, it has been scientifically proven to be the most effective supplement on the market for this very task. The initial gains are seen via the additional water being pulled into the muscle cells. Over time, prolonged supplementation activates specific channels that aid in muscle tissue growth, strength, and performance.
Creatine increases the phosphocreatine stores in your muscles, used to regenerate more ATP which means more energy for your heavy lifting. Usually, your ATP levels deplete in less than 15 seconds if you train high-intensity but when you take creatine, the ATP levels increase thus you can train at your highest level longer. If your body produces more ATP then you have more power. Regenerating more ATP during high-intensity exercise will typically increase your capacity to do high-intensity anaerobic repetitive work by about 15%. This means that on any given set, you should be able to do one or two more reps with heavier weight, which is pretty damn substantial!
On top of creatine regenerating more ATP, it is also causes cell volumization. The hydration state (cell volume) of muscle cells is an important determinant of protein anabolism. Increasing muscle cell volume or hydration status acts as an independent anabolic signal as it initiates the cellular mechanisms needed to preserve and create net gains in muscle. This means that muscle cell hydration is a key determining factor in muscle growth. While yes, creatine supplies an extra phosphate group to help regenerate ATP during high-intensity contractions, it's cell volumization effect is an even more so important cause of creatine's muscle-building effect. Therefore promoting cell hydration with muscles with strategic supplementation before and in the hours immediately following intense exercise can enhance muscle anabolism and dramatically increase results from heavy resistance training.
3. Reducing inflammation and cell damage following intense exercise. Myositis, aka muscle inflammation, occurs when muscles become swollen, tender, and stiff. Causes of muscle inflammation generally fall into one of two categories: myositis as a result of physical activity, or myositis as a result of autoimmune disease. For us lifters and fitness enthusiasts, muscle inflammation is a result of intense exercise.
While reducing inflammation is not a primary use of creatine supplements, it is a beneficial side effect. Numerous studies with weightlifters, bodybuilders, and even triathlon athletes have been conducted to test the efficacy of creatine supplements in reducing inflammation. Researchers compared the effects of creatine supplementation in a test group to a control group given no creatine. Both groups performed several sets of strenuous lifts (bench press, squats, and overhead press). By measuring the number of muscle enzymes released into the blood, researchers were able to confirm that the creatine supplement group saw less muscle inflammation than the control group.
Some of the same elements that enable creatine to enhance athletic performance could also contribute to the supplement’s ability to reduce inflammation. Just as creatine allows your muscles to work harder during training, it also enables them to work harder to repair and regenerate during rest. This leads to a speedier recovery from intense exercise and decreased inflammation.
Creatine has also been shown to reduce lactic acid, another culprit in muscle soreness. Lactic acid is an energy-waste byproduct that causes fatigue and tenderness in muscles. Reducing lactic acid with creatine supplements can reduce inflammation, and decrease recovery time.
What are the different types of creatine?
As creatine has grown in popularity, supplement companies have developed new chemical formulations designed to optimize bioavailability, combat gastrointestinal issues, and improve functionality. Here’s a breakdown of various creatine supplements.
- Creatine Monohydrate: Creatine monohydrate is the most common, and widely and well-researched form of creatine still today. It's also the most widely used form of creatine and the most cost friendly. This form is simply creatine with one molecule of water attached to it, hence the name monohydrate. It is usually around 88-90 percent creatine by weight.
How should I take creatine monohydrate? The most common way people will take this supplement is to start off with a "loading phase," which is designed to fully saturate the muscles' stores. Then, they move to a "maintenance phase" where they take lower daily doses to keep the levels where they need to be. A typical loading protocol consists of consuming high doses, like 20-25 grams per day, split between 4-5 daily doses, for 5-7 days. Following the loading protocol, athletes can generally maintain stores with a daily maintenance dose of 3-5 grams per day. The alternate method is to simply take 3-5 grams of a creatine supplement each day, without loading. In about three weeks, this approach will get your muscular levels to the same point as a loading protocol.
- Creatine HCL (Hydrochloride): Creatine HCL is made by attaching a hydrochloride (HCL) group to creatine to enhance its stability. While creatine is well-recognized by sports scientists and athletes as one of the most effective supplement ingredients you can take to promote muscle growth and strength gains, there can be a few issues with the standard form of creatine known as creatine monohydrate. Some users can may report gastrointestinal issues such as bloating, abdominal cramps and diarrhea from taking creatine monohydrate, even when it's micronized. This is due to the creatine that's not dissolved in the fluid it's mixed with. It then sits in the intestines and draws water in.
Creatine HCL works well because adding the hydrochloride group to the creatine molecule lowers the pH of the creatine, making it more acidic. Research shows that when subjects consume the same amounts of creatine HCL and creatine monohydrate, the creatine HCL is absorbed by the intestines around 60% better than creatine monohydrate. This means that you can take a much smaller dose of creatine HCL to get similar results as creatine monohydrate. With greater solubility in fluid, greater absorption by the intestines, and with a much smaller dose, you significantly reduce the chance of stomach issues and subcutaneous water retention.
The typical dosage of Creatine HCL is 1-2 grams per day. No loading phase is required.
One of my personal favorite Creatine HCL formulas is Cre-Absorb by Alchemy Labs
- Creatine MagnaPower: Creatine MagnaPower is pure creatine bonded to pure magnesium. But there is a lot more to Creatine MagnaPower than just creatine and magnesium. One of Creatine MagnaPower’s main benefits is its enhanced bioavailability of both Magnesium and Creatine. This results in a higher level of absorption and utilization of Creatine far superior to that of Creatine Monohydrate. Being able to utilize an ingredient more effectively is a huge benefit as it not only requires a smaller serving size compared to less bioavailable forms but it puts less stress on the body to process and utilize the ingredient when consumed.
Increased intracellular hydration is another key benefit of Creatine MagnaPower®. Enhanced intracellular hydration alone provides a wide variety of performance-enhancing benefits. When we refer to intracellular, we are talking about the hydration of our cells, the fluids we hold inside our cells in the body. This is also the fluid we lose through exercise, sweating and also through urine. Being able to maintain a higher level of intracellular hydration not only supports our physical performance but also has been shown to help represent a higher level of protein synthesis occurring in the body which is vital for proper recovery.
The unique combination of Magnesium and Creatine makes Creatine MagnaPower® a 1-2 double action ingredient that not only provides two separate ingredients together. But their combination enhances the performance-enhancing effects the ingredients have individually to make them more effective than being used separately.
The typical dose of Creatine MagnaPower and the sweet spot to maximize benefits is 1,500mg per day. No loading phase is required
- Creatine Ethyl Ester: This is simply creatine that has been esterified. Esterification of creatine decreases its hydrophilicity which enables it to bypass the creatine transporter and be absorbed directly into the cell. This results in higher muscle creatine levels compared to creatine monohydrate and causes less muscle water retention as well. Creatine Ethyl Ester can penetrate the cells that form muscle tissue more effectively than creatine monohydrate so it yields superior muscle-building benefits.
The typical dosage of Creatine Ethyl Ester is 3-5 grams per day. No loading phase is required.
So, what is some misinformation out there?
Let's go ahead and get this out of the way first and foremost. CREATINE IS NOT A STEROID! Haha, it's kind of ridiculous that this even needs to be said, but there are some people out there that truly believe this, or they have heard it through the grapevines and just ran with it. Obviously, these people haven't done any research on the substance, and basing there claim merely on hearsay.
Now, let's move on to other creatine myths.
1. Creatine should not be taken by women.
This statement could not be further from the truth! A numerous amount of studies have investigated the use of creatine in women. When comparing one group of women supplementing with creatine to one that isn’t, the group supplementing have experienced significant increases in muscle mass and exercise performance. The International society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) states either gender of athlete would benefit from supplementation of creatine and it should be considered as part of an athlete’s performance related strategies.
2. Creatine will not work unless a loading cycle is completed?
The necessity of the loading protocol has long been overblown and emphasis that without loading creatine appropriately will cause the supplement to be ineffective is untrue. The difference between this approach, and one incorporating a loading phase, is simply that the non-loading approach takes longer before you’ll start to reap the benefits of creatine supplementation, normally between 21-28 days approximately.
However, by completing the loading phase, you will see results far quicker as you increase your creatine stores at a faster rate (up to 40%) with an initial burst and then the smaller daily dosage will sustain those stores, but it 100% not a necessity.
3. Creatine can cause kidney problems.
One of the long-standing creatine myths is that "creatine causes kidney problems" and can be responsible for kidney stones. Creatine metabolism products, creatinine and creatine is removed from the body almost exclusively by your kidneys. Due to this, creatinine is used as the best endogenous marker of estimating glomerular filtration rate, "how well your kidneys are functioning".
Creatine sceptics have claimed there are indications and potential for creatine to overwhelm kidney function, possibly leading to health complications. However, a large scale meta-analysis study aimed to investigate creatine supplementation and their possible renal function side effects found creatine supplementation, both short and long-term, in a range of dosages, had no effect on serum creatinine levels, which is a marker of kidney function and damage.
Creatine supplementation has been rigorously tested and appears to be safe in recommended dosages for any period of time on your kidneys.
There we have it! A full breakdown on creatine and it's plethora of benefits for athletes and gym-goers of all levels!
- Creatine can help anyone looking to improve athletic performance, boost strength and power, and add on lean muscle mass
- Creatine is 100% safe for use as long as general guidelines are followed
- No, creatine is not a steroid!
- There are many different types of creatine. Find the one that works best for you and get after it!
- Creatine benefits: increased lean body mass, improved hydration, improved performance in strength/power/speed, and more..