It’s the most studied supplement in history and has had more sceptical eyes cast over it than any other. Yet time after time, study after study, creatine has proven itself the real deal of the legal performance enhancement world. Having been commercially available for over 20 years, perhaps you have wondered whether you’re missing out on something, a silver bullet maybe? Well this post is aimed at debunking any questions you have surrounding creatine and helping you to decide whether it’s a worthwhile investment for you.
What Is Creatine?
Creatine is a naturally occurring amino acid compound found in large amounts in the brain and muscle of humans and other animals. It is produced by the liver, pancreas and kidneys but also taken in through animal products in the diet. Meat, chicken, fish and eggs contain substantial amounts of creatine and the fact that muscle creatine levels of vegetarians tend to be less than that of us carnivorous folk suggests that natural production in the body may not adequately substantiate maximum muscle creatine stores.
In the body, creatine is found as either the free amino acid compound or bound to a phosphate group. Don’t be worried if you do not understand detailed chemistry. Creatine taken as a supplement comes in many different forms with confusing names. The marketers of each product tout its ability to impart benefits in a more profound way than others. The types include the following and more:
- Creatine Monohydrate
- Creatine Phosphate
- Creatine Citrate
- Tri-Creatine Malate
- Creatine Ethyl Ester
- Micronised Creatine
- Liquid Creatine
- Buffered Creatine
- Conjugated Creatine
What Are The Benefits of Supplementing With Creatine?
The science proves creatine’s ability to enhance performance in exercise or sports that involve bursts of high intensity energy and shorter recovery periods. The best example of this would be sprint or swim exercises of 50 to 400 metres distance. Its suitability also extends to sports with intermittent work patterns and scheduled breaks such as most ball sports like tennis, basketball, football, rugby and hockey. Yet what comes to mind for men as the most obvious use of creatine is in resistance training and helping to build lean muscle mass. Under all of the above circumstances, creatine has been shown to be highly effective.
While more research is required, creatine usage in other areas has returned positive results. For example, creatine supplementation may improve glycogen storage in the muscles of trained athletes. With glycogen being the body’s stored form of glucose (energy), this could mean creatine supplementation may have benefits in longer duration sports. Even more interesting is that there is a growing weight of evidence suggesting a potential therapeutic role in treating disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease, muscular dystrophy and even improving brain function. Yet at this stage, there is no recommendation to supplement for these latter purposes as the evidence is not yet clear.
Using Food As Energy – ATP!
Part of widespread positive agreement on creatine’s usage as a supplement is due to the fact that the pathway by which it works is well understood comparative to other less studied supps. Before we explain exactly how creatine works, first you must understand the basic manner in which food energy is converted into the energy required to power the body.
- Once digestion of food has been completed into tiny molecular parts, these carbohydrates, fats and protein are absorbed into the bloodstream.
- Once in the bloodstream, they are sent to the organs and tissues for processing, storage (e.g. as body fat or muscle glycogen) or usage as an energy source (e.g. glucose).
- To be available for energy usage, the nutrients must be converted to the smallest type of cellular fuel known as adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP). Similar to crude oil needing to be refined to petrol before it can be used, our food fuel must be converted to ATP before is becomes available to power the body.
- One of the predominant ways muscles can use ATP is through the creatine phosphate (CP) system. The CP system is used predominantly when the movement required is of high intensity and short-duration. For medium to longer duration and lesser intense activities, two other systems exists that you may have heard of – the lactic acid and aerobic energy systems. Any one activity uses a combination of all three energy systems to provide fuel but to differing degrees depending on the demands of that activity.
- The ATP molecule is an energy-rich compound that links one molecule of adenosine with three phosphate molecules. The potential energy provided by ATP is contained in the high energy bonds linking the phosphate molecules to adenosine. When these bonds are broken, a bang of energy is released and what remains is a molecule of adenosine di-phosphate (ADP, only two phosphates joined) and a free phosphate molecule. To get some imagery going in your head, think of this short energy bang like a drop of fat from a barbecued sausage hitting the flame and causing that short flare-up.
So How Does Creatine Supplementation Work?
Only limited ATP can be stored in the muscles at any time and in high intensity activities, it is depleted quickly. Fortunately, the CP system provides the buffer to replenish ATP stores. Creatine Phosphate molecules also contain the high energy phosphate bond. The breaking of this bond provides the required bang of energy to rejoin ADP with free phosphate molecules to reform ATP which can again be used as fuel.
If this all sounds a little complicated, simplify it by watching this easy 45 second clip!
In this way, the availability of ATP for short burst, high intensity activity is dependent on the level of muscular CP. Supplementation with creatine increases the muscle CP levels by anywhere up to 50%. As such, more muscular CP allows you to work at a higher intensity for a slightly longer period and this is where you get your gains. Effectively, creatine is almost like having a ‘spotter’ who helps you to get out that extra 3-4 reps that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
The response in uptake however varies with each individual and it’s definitely not a case of the more you supplement, the more muscle CP you will have to an infinite level. In fact, hyper-dosing is only going to leave you with a tummy upset, some diarrhoea and a toilet full of expensive pee!
Creatine – A Magic Bullet Or A Suitable Supplement?
In keeping consistent with all of my recommendations, there are no magic bullets when it comes to health and performance. Creatine does indeed have the runs on the board and this is evidenced by the fact that the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) categorises it as a ‘Group A supplement’. Such supplements are said to ‘directly contribute to optimal performance’ and are unequivocally supported by the science (See http://www.ausport.gov.au/ais/nutrition/supplements/classification).
There are some points however I would make regarding creatine supplementation:
- Speak first to your GP if you have any pre-existing kidney conditions before taking creatine.
- Consider thoughtfully the psychology of offering such supplements to your younger children even if they are involved in training at a somewhat elite level.
- Go for the simplest and cheapest form: creatine monohydrate. Even with all the fancy, new types that are typically infinitely more expensive, monohydrate remains the best bang for your buck in terms of value and effectiveness. Mixing it up with natural juice, weak cordial or a Powerade will help it to be absorbed by the body. I personally like to mix it into a pre-workout shake (don’t worry, blog post coming soon on protein shakes).
- Work off the dosage of 5-10g or 1-2 teaspoons a day prior to and during training. The theory behind needing to ‘load-up’ for a few weeks on super-dosages is really a myth.
- Make sure to increase your water intake to 3L or more a day. Whilst damage to kidneys has been ruled out as a side-effect, drinking enough fluid minimises tummy upsets and helps to clear out the waste product of creatine, creatinine. You may also notice you feel a little ‘fuller’ in the muscles. This is because creatine increases cellular water retention which actually makes you look bigger. It would make sense then that competition bodybuilders or boxers that need to ‘dry-out’ prior to competing usually stop supplementing with creatine a week or two out.
- Remember that as with all supplements, unless optimal nutrition, training and rest is part of your plan, supplementing with creatine will be a total waste. This is not a magic bullet and there is no substitute for hard work!
Creatine Versus Steroids – Why Is One OK And The Other Not?
I want to address this question lastly and briefly because I am definitely against the use of steroids, particularly for young people. I will admit, when it comes to sport supplements I can see some merit in an argument being offered by a steroid-user that anything that enhances performance (be it creatine, steroids or anything else) fits in the same bill.
Here are the top three reasons I offer as to why I do recommend creatine supplementation for athletes and people training hard in the gym or on the track but push back on steroid usage:
- Creatine has been intensively studied and scrutinised over many years – despite some initial concerns with potential side effects, creatine supplementation has now been proven safe. The dosage protocols are well understood and hyper-dosing will likely lead only to a horrible bloating and diarrhoea experience. Compare this to steroid usage and the potential risks of abuse are marked and can include stunted growth, hair loss, changes to blood pressure and cholesterol, heart enlargement and attack, liver toxicity and the two things that perhaps men fear most: growing breast tissue and testicular shrinkage. Don’t laugh! I have mates who have naively misused and suffered these outcomes.
- Creatine is a highly regulated supplement, steroids are not – because steroids are effectively illegal without prescription, you must obtain them in a manner that places queries over their safety (probably from that big dude at the gym). If you are injecting or ingesting something that can have the above mentioned side-effects, you definitely want to be sure it’s under medical supervision. As a beginner steroid-user, it’s unlikely that you will be have been given proper administration advice.
- The psychological effects can be damaging – Because improvement can occur rapidly when steroid usage is combined with hard training, the sense of accomplishment in strength, size and self-esteem is huge. The pressure nowadays on teens and early twenty-somethings to dabble in steroids has becoming incredibly clear to me over the last decade. So when you have a whole subsection of society using steroids and pushing the limits, it becomes more dangerous and harder to fit in or be noticed. It’s human nature to seek acceptance and approval from your peers, so how would you go about coming off steroids and being your normal self when your self-esteem and body image is diminished as you are no longer in top shape? The gains from creatine supplementation are modest and incremental and much less likely to become a psychological challenge. I also worry about the combination of steroids, a false sense of ego and a big, boozy night on the town – that’s a recipe for disaster and certainly not something I would like my son to be involved with.
So there’s a wrap on creatine! Really hope it has helped. Leave any questions or comments below and I’ll happily answer… JS