You may have never heard of it… or you may have seen the endless threads on bodybuilding forums, the relentless marketing and the countless testimonies by fitness icons and athletes. But why do fitness fanatics and athletes alike choose to supplement creatine? Even more to the point, why is it that so many people are unaware of its effects, or even its existence and prevalence in our lives?
First off, without going into the hard science behind its chemical makeup, what exactly is creatine? Creatine is a substance which naturally occurs in animals of the vertebrate group and is primarily found in muscle and therefore meat. This means that we ourselves produce creatine via biosynthesis as well as consuming it in our diet through red meat. This could be a common dilemma for vegetarians; although this does not mean that non-meat-eaters do not produce creatine whatsoever, it may be an extra incentive to supplement it!
So, what does it do and how does it work?
In layman’s terms, creatine is used for the replenishment of our energy ‘currency’ known as ATP (Adenosine triphosphate), as well as retaining water in the muscle cells to assist protein synthesis. This occurs by becoming part of the phosphocreatine (PCr) energy system; an anaerobic reaction used in short, intense bursts of exercise. By increasing these phosphocreatine stores within the muscle (through increased creatine consumption), a greater duration of anaerobic force production is possible.
In short; more creatine = greater ATP production efficiency = more endurance and power in short term exercise (typically high intensity bouts of less than 10 seconds).
Common myths about creatine:
- “Creatine makes you fat if you don’t work out” – For a start, pure creatine monohydrate tends to be calorie-free so even a couch potato would see no fat gain from taking creatine! So how did this myth come about? Well one thing creatine will do, regardless of exercise, is retain water in skeletal muscle cells. This ‘water-weight’ will add to the overall weight of the individual and can make an inactive person look and feel ‘bloated’, however it cannot add fat to your body.
- “Creatine damages your kidneys” – This is perhaps one of the most serious side effects claimed to be linked to creatine. Creatine has been around over 80 years and has been subject to rigorous testing over the last decade or two, due to its increasing popularity amongst the athletic community. In a 5 year study by Poortmans & Francaux, it was found that oral supplementation of creatine did not induce any detrimental effects on the kidneys of healthy individuals.
- “Creatine makes you stronger” – Not all creatine myths are negative, but they are myths nonetheless. This one is a common claim amongst recreational lifters who haven’t done their research! There is little evidence to suggest that creatine increases muscle maximal isometric strength, maximal force production or aerobic performance. This myth may be due to lifters gaining strength as an indirect result of supplementation. As stated earlier, creatine can be the difference between failing at 12 reps rather than your usual 10 and therefore allowing a higher work volume and thus, permitting a gain in strength through the enhanced training.
- “Creatine increases muscle mass” – This popular belief may be down to water retention making consumers’ muscles look fuller and therefore bigger, or down to muscle mass being gained through hypertrophy for the same reasons as the above myth. However creatine itself is not directly responsible for muscle tissue growing.
- “If you supplement it, once you stop, your body will no longer synthesise it” – It is true that your body adjusts to external sources like supplementation, which in turn causes your own biosynthesis to be reduced or even stopped (as your body no longer deems it necessary). However this system, like all homeostasis reactions, is very sensitive and once supplementation is stopped, your body will resume biosynthesis almost instantly.
How much should you have?
First we must look at the method used, known as ‘cycling’, which involves having a period of time where Creatine is supplemented and a period where it is not. This is usually broken down further into the ‘loading’ phase and the ‘maintenance’ phase. In other words, if a cycle is set as a month, the first ‘loading’ week would have significantly higher dosage than normal and the ‘maintenance’ phase would be lower, but enough to elevate levels above dietary intake. Now that we have an understanding of the phases, let’s throw a recommended equation into the mix…
Loading: 0.3g x kg of bodyweight per day (5-7 days)
Maintenance: 0.03g x kg of bodyweight per day (2-3 weeks)
Another method is to go off the average recommendation of 20g per day during loading and 5g per day during maintenance. So why does creatine have a cycling regimen unlike most other supplements? The method behind the madness is that the muscle cells become ‘fully saturated’ in creatine following the heightened intake and therefore only so much is needed/used to maintain these levels afterwards, hence the labelling of the phases.
A few things to consider when measuring dosage:
- Don’t worry about working out your dose too much, this is just a guideline and besides, the majority of manufacturers now put dosages on their packaging which is tailored to their own formula.
- Using the custom equation stated above is probably going to be more beneficial than following the crowd, however remember to suit it to your needs…
- Vegetarians will naturally have less creatine intake via their diet so should perhaps substitute 0.3g/Kg of BM/day for 0.4g/Kg of BM/day.
- Likewise, for those of you who have higher than average meat consumption will typically need a lower dose.
- Up to 30% of the population are thought to be ‘non-responders’ who do not substantially react to extra creatine intake and therefore, it is always a good idea to buy a smaller amount and only buy more if you are reaping the benefits.
- Time your consumption for the best results… carbohydrates increase the uptake of creatine into the muscles, so supplement accordingly rather than last thing at night. Also, make sure your intramuscular levels are peaking when you need them to i.e. take your dosage before and after a workout (most manufacturers will advise this on the label anyway).
- Consider your other sources of creatine! With the high popularity of this supplement, many manufacturers now incorporate it into their other products such as pre-workouts, all-in-ones, and mass gainers… so you may not need to take a standalone creatine supplement!
So to recap, creatine has been proven to aid the ATP-CP (phosphagen) system which can be beneficial in short, intense bursts of exercise. It is available through nutrition but is cheap and easy to supplement. However, remember that not all of us respond the same so it may not be ground-breaking for everyone!