What Is Creatine And How To Use It
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.
Pictures courtesy of “cumi & ciki“, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Lin Mei.
Thank you for these really informative posts. But I still have a few questions: What is the ultimate result of creatine use?
You can lift more weight or do more reps, but does creatine usage actually accelerate strength gains, once unloaded, when compared to someone who doesn’t take it?
And if so, then by how much?
Also, what is the mechanism for doing so? If it is the same mechanism as simply completing another set, then wouldn’t eating some extra carbs and working them off give you similar results?
Just more things to research before you really dedicate yourself to an expensive supplement.
Ryan, the theory is that you can perform on a high level for slightly longer, therefore giving your muscles slightly more stimulation, resulting in slightly faster gains.
Note the stress on “slightly” 😉
Just eating extra carbs probably wouldn’t have the same effect, as this would go down the carbs > glucose > ATP pathway, while creatine is synthesized in the kidneys and liver.
Evil, At this point I would like to say that creatine has for me more motivating effect than nethn else. fuller muscles, better pumps. But can’t say much about weight progression.
P.S. Great article thought.
Well, if your workouts are better with it, then it is working, ain’t it? 🙂
Good article, well summarized! Especially with the expectation thing and the whole cycle life of creatine.
Just one thing I didn’t like: a tablespoon of sugar won’t do nothing for improved absorption. In order to create an insulin spike high enough to support absorption you’d be needing somewhat about 100g of carbs with each portion, say you take it twice a day that would equal 800 extra calories each day. Good way to avoid that: consume it after a normal meal that consists of your usual protein and carbs which should achieve the same effect.
About the amount of simple carbs I’m not sure – the recommendations I saw were all over the place. You could be right and simply consuming creatine along with or after your regular meals may be the way to go.
Oh just one more thing about solubility, make sure to drink your water fast after stirring otherwise the creatine will get set on the ground quickly. Dissolves perfectly in hot beverages.
Good input! I will add this.
gee thanks, very informative.
Glad you find it helpful!
First of all, what you said about the manufacturers of pure creatine is spot-on. But then again, ich kann auch ein bisschen Deutsch.
Having tried creatine ethyl ester, and having had an adverse reaction to it (e.g., I felt very weak and light-headed; I had to leave the gym immediately), I’d recommend sticking to monohydrate in powder form until more research surfaces.
It’s shocking to see how many supplements nowadays have creatine as well as caffeine embedded in their products, especially under the guise of a Proprietary Blend †††††††††††††††††.
BTW, your new layout looks good, but you still need to change the main banner!
Heah Schmidty, interesting to hear your experience with ethyl ester – that is a side effect I wouldn’t have expected and certainly something nobody wants.
I also agree about these proprietary blends, that are given fancy names (“HyperInsta Formula”) and just hide the fact that creatine and caffeine are somewhere in there.
And thanks for liking the new layout! It’s not yet quite finished 😉
Thank you very much. This is a great post.
I have one question. I am a rock climber and climbing is normally anaerobic with short bursts of high intensity, this makes it logical that creatine would be beneficial.
However, in climbing a high strength to weight ratio is very important and it is almost all upper body strength that is required as the legs arent worked very hard while climbing. But creatine increases water retention in the upper and lower body so therefore increases your weight, right? So it may not be beneficial for me as a climber.
My question is, how significant is the increase in weight when creatine is taken and would this outweigh the benefit of the increased performance given by creatine for climbing?
Thanks very much.
Interesting question, Will! I have zero research to back it up, but my hunch is that the added strength should outweigh the added weight from water.
What do you read about creatine supplementation for wrestling/jiu jitsu?
Well, if during wrestling you repeatedly want to lift your opponent straight off the ground, you might be able to do it one time more 😉
Seriously, during wrestling you rely on strength and that means you have to work out to get stronger. Any benefit creatine will have on wrestling is via that route. Jiu jitsu is mainly about speed and dexterity, so I don’t see a lot of added benefit there, if you don’t couple it with resistance training to improve your general strength.
I notice the weight feels slightly easier with creatine. although I end up drinking more water to make sure I don’t dehydrate, meaning more trips to the bathroom. I think it would be useful with runners as well. I don’t run.. because it’s not fun for me, unless playing a sport. but creatine lets me run and bike slightly longer before my legs feel spent.
Yep, drinking more is a good idea when you use creatine. I know of cases where people developed compartment syndrome when they didn’t have enough fluid while using creatine.
i`ll start in creatine cycle and i`ll take creatine monohydrate and i was asking about the amount of creatine i should take after the first part of cycle the loading days and when i take it after workout or before ?
and i need a good program to follow in training
As said in the article, the rule of thumb is to use an average of 2 g / day.
Here are workout plans for all experience levels:
there are something else
in loading cycle
i will take 20 grams per day dividend on four times at lunch will i take it before lunch or after it ??