Creatine is one of the most popular and widely researched natural supplements out there. It has routinely been shown to enhance the strength and lean muscle mass gains which occur as part of training. Creatine also has benefits for high intensity sprint training and there is increasing research to suggest that it may have indirect but positive effects for endurance athletes too. Don’t worry, this will all be discussed in detail a little later.
All in all, if you’re serious about training and looking to make tangible gains in the gym, or you’re trying to squeeze everything out of your physical performance on the sports field, then creatine supplementation should most definitely be on your radar.
What is creatine?
Creatine is a naturally occurring non-protein amino acid found primarily in red meat and seafood. Approximately 95% of our bodies creatine is stored within our skeletal muscle, with the remainder found in the brain and testes.
The average person weighing 70 kg (154 lb) has around 120 mmol of creatine per kilogram of dry muscle mass (approx 54 mmol per lb), which is about 40 mmol/kg (18 mmol/lb) short of capacity. 1-2 % of the creatine within our muscles is broken down and leaves the body as part of our urine, which means you must replenish between 1-3 g (0.04-0.1 oz) of creatine per day just to maintain normal levels. Half of this is obtained from your diet and the rest is produced in the liver and kidneys.
As you can see, your body has to work pretty hard just to maintain ordinary levels of intramuscular creatine, let alone boost levels to the upper limit. You’d have to eat close to a kilo of red meat every day to see any meaningful changes and even then you’d still be struggling. Neither your digestive system nor your bank balance are going to cope with you eating that much steak so I’d suggest checking out supplements instead!
So what function does all this creatine in your muscles actually serve? Well, it’s number one role is to combine with a phosphoryl group to form phosphocreatine (PC) which is used to provide energy to your working muscles.
This is really important when you want to perform short bouts of high intensity work, which makes use of the ATP-PC energy system. ATP is comfortably the quickest source of energy in your body, but you have a very limited supply which tends to run out pretty quickly.
When you use ATP for energy you create ADP as a byproduct. The PC stored in your muscles allows you to convert this ADP back into ATP to be used for energy. Essentially, the more creatine you absorb, the more PC you have stored in your muscles. This means you can resynthesise more ATP and therefore have more energy available to exercise at high intensities Sounds useful right?!
Why should you use creatine supplements?
Creatine supplementation increases the muscles availability of creatine and phosphocreatine, which in turn enhances intense exercise capacity and training adaptations. Essentially, it allows an individual to do more work over a series of sets and repetitions leading to greater gains in strength, muscle mass and performance due to an improvement in the quality of training. In fact, after creatine loading, performance of high intensity/ repetitive exercise is generally increased by 10-20% depending on the precise levels of phosphocreatine increase within the muscles.
When you exercise at a high intensity, one of the nasty byproducts of your exertions is lactic acid. This reduces the pH in your muscles and inhibits muscular contractility. In simple terms, this is the crippling ‘burn’ you feel towards the end of your set of squats or bench press, or during your last few sprint reps. Guess what? Creatine can also help with this! When PC is used to resynthesise ATP, it combines with ADP and hydrogen ions. This in turn increases the pH in your muscles and helps to buffer against that burning sensation. Increase your creatine intake and you will have more PC available for this all important function!
There is more and more research to suggest that creatine supplementation may also have benefits for recovery from periods of physically stressful training. This could be particularly relevant for endurance based exercise, which doesn’t benefit directly from creatine supplementation in the same way as strength and power activities.
Glycogen (main source of energy for endurance exercise) replenishment is an important part of promoting recovery and preventing overtraining. Creatine has been shown to enhance the bodies ability to maintain glycogen levels and loading with creatine prior to performing exhaustive exercise promotes greater glycogen restoration.
Creatine supplementation may also help to reduce muscle damage which means you will be able to push even tired muscles beyond their normal threshold. This was demonstrated in a study on the effect of creatine on muscle force production following intense exercise, which showed that greater knee extension strength was possible when supplementing with creatine.
When should you use creatine supplements?
There are a number of instances when supplementing your creatine intake could be of serious benefit to both your athletic performance and health.
Anyone engaging in any kind of high intensity, high volume training, whether the emphasis is on strength and power improvements or endurance, boosting the levels of creatine within your muscles could be of huge benefit. In terms of direct impact on your ability to work your muscles harder for longer in the gym, or indirect benefits for your recovery from high volume training, there are few supplements on the market more effective!
Vegetarians, especially those taking their training seriously, could benefit even more from creatine supplementation. Why? Let’s break it down. The only dietary sources of creatine come from animals and animal products. Vegetarians have been shown to have notably lower intramuscular creatine stores 90-110 mmol/kg (40-50 mmol/lb) in comparison to average levels of 120 mmol/kg (54 mmol/lb). This means they have even more potential for muscle creatine gains from supplementation! So, whatever your reasons for steering clear of meat, it doesn’t mean you can’t make the physical gains you want to!
How much? Dosage and loading
Common practice is to “load” creatine for between 5 and 7 days at 20g (0.7 oz) per day before dropping down to a daily dose of 5g (1 tsp) indefinitely. The idea behind this is to saturate your muscles in the initial loading phase before maintaining levels thereafter. Creatine supplements are generally produced with this protocol in mind, with most offering 5 g (1 tsp) servings. That means you’re likely to be looking at four servings per day whilst in your 5-7 day loading phase, and one serving per day thereafter.
There isn’t really an optimal time around your workout to take creatine as it requires time to build maximum levels within your muscles. You can, however, consume it alongside carbohydrates and/or protein in order to boost retention levels.
There are very few if any reported side effects of creatine supplementation, with huge numbers of scientific studies demonstrating that consuming 0.3-0.8 g per kg (0.7-1.8 oz/lb) of body weight per day for up to 5 years is perfectly safe.
The only consistently reported side effect appears to be weight gain, but this is largely explained by an increase in water retention within the muscles.