Creatine supplements have been taken by bodybuilders for years. I remember teachers, family, and coaches telling me to “be careful” with creatine supplements or that it was “basically a steroid.” They warned about potential side effects and told me that not very much is known about it. Is any of this true? If you aren’t sure about the safety of creatine, or you are just wanted to learn more about what it actually does or how to take it: this article is for you.
What is Creatine?
First you should know:
- Creatine supplements are the one of the most tested supplement for improving performance in the gym. They can be used to increase muscle mass, improve muscle strength, and boost exercise performance.
- Supplemental creatine can benefit your health in many other ways unrelated to fitness.
- The safety of creatine supplements is well documented at this point and there is no need to worry about side effects.
Creatine is found naturally in muscle cells and helps the muscles produce energy during heavy lifting or intense exercise.
Creatine supplementation is very popular among athletes, bodybuilders, and gym goers. It is used to support muscle growth, increase strength, and improve overall exercise performance.
Your body can naturally produce creatine from the amino acids glycine and arginine.
However, your bodies creatine stores are constantly affected by things like meat intake, exercise, current muscle mass, and hormone levels.
Around 95% of your body’s creatine is stored in muscle cells as phosphocreatine, while the rest of it is found in the brain, kidneys, and liver. Supplementing with creatine monohydrate or another readily absorbed variation increases the body’s stores of phosphocreatine. This stored phosphocreatine helps your body produce more ATP. Having more ATP just means your body can perform better during exercise!
Creatine also enhances several cellular processes that lead to increased muscle mass, strength gain, and faster recovery.
How Do Creatine Supplements Work?
Creatine supplementation can improve health and athletic performance in many different ways.
While performing high-intensity exercise, creatine supplements increase phosphocreatine stores in your skeletal muscle. The additional stores are used to produce more ATP which increases your capacity for heavy lifting and high intensity exercise. This helps in facilitating muscle gains by:
- Increasing the amount of total volume that can be completed in a training session, a key factor in muscle growth
- Increasing satellite cell signaling, aiding in muscle repair and new muscle growth
- Raising anabolic hormone levels, including IGF-1
- Increasing water content within muscle cells
- Reducing muscle breakdown
- Lowering myostatin levels that slow or inhibit new muscle growth
Creatine supplementation is not just beneficial for sports nutrition though, as it increases phosphocreatine levels in the brain. This improves overall brain health and may help prevent neurological disease.
Effects of Creatine Supplements on Weight Gain
Creatine supplementation is effective for long-term and short-term growth.
This study found that adding creatine monohydrate to a weight training program significantly increased leg strength as well as muscle mass.
A shorter study found that creatine supplements increased muscle fiber growth 2-3X more than just training alone.
Effects of Creatine Supplements on Strength and Exercise Performance
Creatine supplements can also improve strength, power, and high intensity exercise performance. In fact, one review found that adding creatine to a training program increased strength by 8% and weight lifting performance by 14%. Just 28 days of supplementing also increased bike sprint performance by 15%.
These improvements can be attributed to the increased capacity to produce ATP while taking creatine. Under normal conditions the body’s ATP is depleted after 8-10 seconds of high intensity activity, however creatine supplements increase this time by a few seconds.
Different Types of Creatine
The most common and well researched form is creatine monohydrate. Here is the brand that is recommended based on their rigorous testing and purity reviews. Many different forms are available, however, the research still supports that monohydrate is the best for results.
Until new research claims otherwise it is probably best to stick with monohydrate.
Many people who use creatine start with what is called a loading phase, which causes a rapid increase in creatine stores within the muscles. You can still experience the benefits of it without loading, however, the results will come faster if you do the loading period.
If you plan to load with creatine, take 20 grams per day for 5-7 days, split into four separate 5-gram servings according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition. To increase absorption take it with a carb based meal.
After the loading period, continue taking only 5 grams per day to maintain the creatine stores in your muscles. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition there is no benefit to cycling creatine. Essentially, this 5 gram dosage can be taken for an extended period of time.
If you choose not to complete a loading phase it will take 3-4 weeks to maximize creatine stores in the muscles.
Note that regardless of loading or not, it is important to stay well hydrated when taking dietary supplements, especially creatine as it is pulling additional water into your muscle cells.
Does Creatine Have Side Effects?
According to the Mayo Clinic, creatine can be taken safely for up to five years. However, it is important to choose a product that follows safe manufacturing practices and uses third party testing to ensure quality.
Any sports supplements should be used at the appropriate dose, and creatine is no different. When taking it you may notice weight gain, generally as lean body mass.
One item noted by the Mayo clinic is that individuals with decreased kidney function should speak to their doctor before consuming creatine. More research must be done regarding its use in individuals with decreased kidney function so it is better to play it safe in this case.
Outside of that the Mayo clinic a possible interaction between creatine and caffeine. Combining the two, will decrease the effectiveness of both.
One common misconception is that creatine may cause dehydration and cramps, however, research does not support this. It actually has been shown to reduce cramps and dehydration during endurance exercise in high heat.
Creatine monohydrate is one of the least expensive, most effective, and safest supplements you can take. If you do not currently have it in your exercise regiment it is highly recommended that you add it in!
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