What is creatine for and how does creatine work? The two parts of this article tell you what you need to know.
What Is Creatine?
Creatine is one of the very few bodybuilding and fitness supplements whose effects are scientifically proven.
To understand creatine, we have to put in a bit of background information. The most important nutrient that your muscles need to perform is carbohydrates. When you digest your food, your body these into glucose and glycogen. If the body has enough of those two, the rest of the carbohydrates it converts into the energy reserve we know as body fat.
Muscles cells make use of the glucose by turning it into scientists call “ATP,” adenosine triphosphate. For a muscle cell it’s the electric juice it needs to run.
Imagine carbohydrates as the coals going into a power plant. The glucose and glycogen are the electricity this produces and ATP is the current that, after running through a converter, powers your computer and toaster.
Where does creatine fit into this?
When a cell uses its ATP for energy, the ATP loses one of its phosphates and turns into ADP, adenosine diphosphate.
The process of making new ATP takes time and at this point creatine comes to the rescue: it has a phosphate it is willing to share and turns the ADP back into ATP. This helps the cell perform longer.
Going back to the power plant analogy: in case of a blackout the creatine acts as an emergency generator. By raising your level of creatine through supplements the power reserve lasts a tad bit longer.
Where Does It Come From?
The human body produces its own creatine in the kidneys and liver, but some also comes from our nutrition, as meat comes with creatine. Through the blood stream it gets to the body’s muscle cells, who store it as part of the backup plan described above.
Aerobic And Anaerobic
Creatine doesn’t enhance every activity we do. It depends on intensity how much influence it really has, because intensity dictates where the energy comes from.
When we exercise, what we do is either “aerobic” or “anaerobic.” The first means producing energy with the help of oxygen (“aer” is Latin for “air”) and under this fall most endurance sports. The latter is the opposite, producing energy without oxygen. This involves activities where you need a lot of energy in short bursts, such as heavy benchpressing or very fast running.
Only anaerobic activities heavily rely on creatine, so it’s with these where you get the most effect from supplementing it.
Why Not Have More ATP Instead?
You might wonder why instead of using creatine, we don’t just directly increase our ATP levels. After all, this is what the creatine indirectly does.
The reason is that cellular ATP being too high can result in many unpleasant things, such as interfering with normal “housekeeping” processes. Too much ATP can spontaneously degrade back to ADP, and that energy needs to go somewhere. It may be randomly introduced into a slightly unstable protein required for cellular replication, which would be rather inconvenient.
Who Should Use Creatine?
To stress it once more: if you are an endurance athlete, save your money. Activities like running marathons or doing a triathlon recruit their energy differently. Creatine’s influence on performance will be small to non-existent.
One piece of advice creatine newbies often find is to “cycle” creatine supplementation, which means to use it for a certain time and then pause. This is because there is no research looking at long-terms effects of using creatine. Creatine is naturally produced in your body and it may be that when you supplement it over long stretches of time your body may cease producing its own.
What also might happen is that the body gets used to the higher level of creatine and it loses its effectiveness. Compare this to caffeine, which has much less effect on people who habitually drink coffee.
The general recommendation is to supplement creatine for two months and then pause for 4 – 8 weeks, allowing the creatine level in the body to drop to normal again.
Another common advice you will hear is to do a “loading phase,” meaning that when you start a creatine cycle, you at the beginning saturate the body with it.
Some sources say that a loading phase should consist of 5 – 7 days with 10 – 20 g of creatine per day, but a look at the scientific literature showed me that the majority advises this loading phase to last for no more than 2 – 3 days. Others even go as far as saying that a loading phase is not necessary at all.
In my opinion, the loading phase for two days seems to be the safest bet. Seven days may just result in you producing very expensive urine – the way by which excess creatine is secreted from the body.
Doing The Cycle
After the loading phase is over, the rule of thumb is to use an average of 2 g / day. Of course this also depends on your body weight – if your body has 150 lbs (68 kg) of lean mass, there is a lot more muscle that can make use of the creatine than in a person half that.
In other words: If you are very muscular, you may want to increase the daily dosage, and if you are smaller than average, you may want to decrease it.
When calculating this keep in mind that already when supplementing 2 g /day, the average body ends up with about double the amount of creatine it normally has.
When And How Should Creatine Be Taken?
First of all, contrary to what you might hear about protein supplements, there is no evidence about creatine supplementation being dependent on timing. For whey protein there is research showing that supplementing it right after a workout is more beneficial than at other times. I’m not aware of any study that made a similar link between timing and creatine.
What you might want to do is spread your daily creatine dosage over 3 – 4 portions, allowing the body to store it in smaller quantities, instead of hitting it with a huge amount at once, of which a lot may be lost.
Take each of these doses with about a glass of water, as the cells absorb water when they store the creatine. Excess creatine, as said above, is also flushed out of your body via your urine, which means you may lose more liquid on top of that. When you supplement creatine and drink too little water you may end up with medical conditions like dehydration and compartment syndrome.
One study found that when creatine was taken together with some simple carbohydrates, the absorption rates improved. If you want to follow this, you may want to add a bit of table sugar to the glass of water you have your creatine dose with.
What Can You Expect?
Creatine is no anabolic steroid and you should have your expectations in check. It simply gives your muscles a slightly bigger energy reserve, letting them perform on a high level for a bit longer. In practical application this means that when last week you did benchpresses for three sets, and managed 10, 8 and 7 repetitions on each, then this week you may be able to do 11, 9 and 8, while without creatine it may just have been one or two more repetitions.
Creatine Monohydrate Or What?
The most common form of creatine supplement you will find on the market is “creatine monohydrate”, but some companies sell what they call “creatine ethyl ester”, claiming it has a better absorption rate than creatine monohydrate.
However, no peer-reviewed studies support this claim and in fact one study found that creatine ethyl ester actually does the exact opposite: it breaks down faster, making it less available for usage by your body (Child, R. & Tallon, M.J. (2007). Creatine ethyl ester rapidly degrades to creatinine in stomach acid. International Society of Sports Nutrition 4th Annual Meeting).
Another new creatine product on the market is “creatine hydrochloride”, of which the manufacturer claims it is much more soluble in water than creatine monohydrate, meaning you would need to supplement much less of it. But the only study supporting this was sponsored by said manufacturer.
Finally, these days you also are sold creatine supplements in liquid form, to make usage more convenient. But Creatine is notoriously unstable in liquids and these might be less effective than the traditional powder. Manufacturers of liquid creatine claim they have the stability problems under control, but I have my doubts.
Creatine and Caffeine
One study tried to find out if using creatine together with caffeine, another substance that can enhance performance, would benefit both. It actually found the opposite: the caffeine limited the effectiveness of the creatine. Another study found that there was no interaction at all and we are left with the conclusion that the negative effect may or may not exist.
If you want to make sure, you may want to follow the first study’s advice: Limit your daily caffeine intake to about 200 mg / day. This equals about two cups of brewed coffee or six cans of Coca Cola.
Numerous supplement companies sell creatine products, but the vast majority of them don’t manufacture the raw creatine they use themselves. In fact, there are to my knowledge only four plants in the world where producing creatine: three of them in China, one in Germany.
Without wanting to cause ill feelings to my Chinese readers, I still have to mention that the country has a bad reputation when it comes to nutritional products. It was just a couple of years ago that Chinese infants died from a milk powder laced with a toxin.
It may therefore be just my prejudice, but if you want to use creatine, I’d say use the one made in Germany, where the standards are high and controls are tight.
The German powder comes from by AlzChem Trostberg GmbH and to distinguish their creatine from others, they established a registered trademark for it under the moniker “Creapure”. This means that no supplement manufacturer can state using Creapure creatine in their products if that isn’t so.
Supplements made with Creapure creatine are more expensive however, and you may have to weigh if your ease of mind is more important to you than saving money.
Creatine And Health Risks
Many studies conclude that supplementing creatine causes little risk, but as “little risk” doesn’t mean “no risk” let us also mention who should be careful with using creatine supplements.
The one side effect most people starting to use creatine experience, is an increased body weight, which is due to the heightened water retention we already talked about.
This also means that when you use creatine with too little liquid, it may result in the aforementioned dehydration and compartment syndrome, as well as in muscle cramps and tears, especially when people after starting to use creatine have unrealistic expectations and attempt to double their fitness efforts.
Creatine’s influence on the body’s liquid household of course also influences how often you have to urinate, which may result in a problem for people with kidney disease. If you are among these, then you may want to avoid creatine supplements, as they would mean more stress for your kidneys.
Something similar goes for people with liver problems: there are at least some indications that creatine may alter liver function and if your liver is among those with a bad medical history, you should at least use caution.
In general, the same goes for creatine as for using any other supplement: Apply common sense. Research what you are doing and talk with and get a checkup by your doctor, to make sure there are no yet undetected conditions that may badly affect your health if you start using a supplement.
If at any point of using a supplement you think you are experiencing side effects that may come from the supplement, stop using it and investigate.
Questions, Comments, Experiences?
If you have further questions on how to use creatine or if you feel I left something out, fire away! I’d also be very interested to hear about your personal experiences with creatine.
Many thanks go to Uglok, a London-based biochemist, who provided a lot of the background research that has gone into this article.