Creatine may be one of the most popular sports nutrition supplements of all time, but it’s also one of the most controversial. Everyone and their brother has an opinion about how, when, why, and where to take the stuff—if you should take it at all. But given opinions are like glutei maximi (everybody has one), let’s dispense with the jibber jabber and look instead to real scientific facts behind the supplement. Ever since it spiked in popularity in the early 1990s, creatine has become the most researched sports nutrition supplement in history. Here’s what’s been discovered.
What is creatine and what does it do?
Creatine (or methyl guanidinoacetic acid) is a combination of three amino acids: arginine, glycine, and methionine. It was first discovered in 1832 by the French scientist Michel Eugene Chevreul while he was researching the skeletal muscle system. Creatine is naturally produced in the liver, kidneys, and pancreas. A normal, active person produces about two grams daily, and most people consume an additional gram or two from fish, beef, chicken, and dairy products. Creatine is stored in the muscles as creatine phosphate, which plays an important part in the adenosine triphosphate (ATP) energy cycle that supplies energy to human muscles. During exercise, as the stored ATP begins to run low, creatine phosphate (CP) is then broken down into creatine and phosphate, replenishing ATP for greater energy and contractile strength.
What are the benefits of using creatine?
Research shows that creatine supplements are most effective for people who want to gain muscle strength, muscle tone, or engage in explosive sports like powerlifting, rowing, or sprinting. Many people falsely believe that creatine is only good for bulking up and that using it will stop them from losing body fat. The truth is that creatine volumizes the muscles, increasing muscle tone, which may increase the metabolic rate and accelerate fat loss. Volumization means the storage of extra water in the muscles, allowing the user to have harder muscle contractions, or more strength. The trick is that volumized muscles will show up as extra pounds on the scale. No, that doesn’t mean you gain fat; it means you gain muscle. Obviously, if you’re looking to build or tone muscle and gain strength, that’s a good thing.
What about side effects?
There are no documented research studies showing that consuming creatine causes any serious adverse side effects. However, during scientific research studies some test subjects reported that while supplementing with creatine, they experienced two noticeable issues. The first was subcutaneous water retention, or a bloated appearance. This can be chalked up to creatine’s poor solubility. The second was gastrointestinal distress (gas, stomach bloating, and even diarrhea). This occurred when creatine was consumed in excessive doses. The reason for this is most likely creatine’s high acidity.
Although these problems are temporary, they may be completely eliminated by lowering the dosage of creatine and taking it (with nonacidic juice) in divided doses throughout the day. Some people might also look at cell volumization as a negative side effect because it can stall weight loss. “Creatine does not impede fat loss—far from it,” explains Steve Edwards, Beachbody Director of Results. “However, it does not at all aid weight loss and will even offset it in some ways. You do hold on to more water weight with creatine as part of the cell volumization to increase CP stores. This is why we don’t recommend it for everyone.” Most people will gain between two and four pounds in the first few weeks of using creatine, but human studies have shown that this extra water volumizing in the muscles may increase protein synthesis, leading to the growth of muscle fibers as well.
What is the best way to take a creatine supplement?
Scientific research shows that the best way to increase the uptake of creatine is by creating an insulin spike. Insulin is an extremely anabolic hormone that transports nutrients into the muscles. The best way to create an insulin spike is by taking a serving of creatine monohydrate powder and chasing it with a glass of nonacidic juice (grape juice is the most popular), or by using creatine products that are mixed with simple carbohydrates such as Beachbody Performance Creatine. If you’re looking for more control over your sugar intake, you want to mix your creatine with another supplement, or you want to skip the sugar entirely (the creatine will still work, albeit not as well), try a pure creatine monohydrate.
On a final note, post-workout is also an excellent time to supplement creatine, because your blood sugar and glycogen are low. So, as the dietary sugars replenish those, they do double duty by rushing creatine to muscle.
For some reason, creatine has become one of the most complex sups to learn about—but it doesn’t have to be. It’s safe, naturally occurring, and it works. Consider adding creatine to your supplement regimen if you want to gain muscle or increase muscle tone, power, and strength.
• Bahrke, M.; Yesalis, C.; Creatine As an Ergogenic Supplement, Ch. 15. Performance-Enhancing Substances in Sports and Exercise, 1st edition; Human Kinetics: Champaign, Illinois, 2002; 175-209.
• Nutrition. 2004 Jul-Aug;20(7-8):609-14. Scientific basis and practical aspects of creatine supplementation for athletes. Volek JS, Rawson ES. Source Department of Kinesiology, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut 06269, USA.
• Sports Med. 2005;35(2):107-25. Creatine supplementation and exercise performance: recent findings. Bemben MG, Lamont HS. Neuromuscular Research Laboratory, Department of Health and Sport Sciences, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK 73019, USA.
• Casey, A. et al. Creatine Ingestion Favorably Affects Performance and Muscle Metabolism During Maximal Exercise in Humans. Am. J. Physiol., 1996, 271, 31-37.
• J Strength Cond Res. 2009 May; 23 (3): 818-26. Effects of creatine monohydrate and polyethylene glycosylated creatine supplementation on muscular strength, endurance, and power output. Herda TJ, Beck TW, Ryan ED, Smith AE, Walter AA, Hartman MJ, Stout JR, Cramer JT. Department of Health and Exercise Science, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma, USA.
• J Strength Cond Res. 2003 Nov; 17 (4): 822-31. Effects of creatine supplementation and resistance training on muscle strength and weightlifting performance. Rawson ES, Volek JS. Department of Exercise Science and Athletics, Bloomsburg University, Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania 17815, USA.
• Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2003 Mar; 13 (1): 97-111. Creatine supplementation: a comparison of loading and maintenance protocols on creatine uptake by human skeletal muscle. Preen D, Dawson B, Goodman C, Beilby J, Ching S. Department of Human Movement and Exercise Science at The University of Western Australia, Crawley, W.A., Australia, 6009.