Creatine occurs naturally. It's an amino acid that our bodies absorb from food or produce from other components. Our muscles use it as part of their short-term energy production. When they need instant energy, creatine delivers. Supplementing with creatine monohydrate allows our muscles to absorb and store much more creatine than otherwise possible from diet alone.
What is creatine?
Creatine (a.k.a. methyl guanidine-acetic acid) is naturally occurring in ‘muscle foods’ – meat and fish. Your body can also make its own from the amino acids arginine, glycine and methionine. The typical adult stores around 120-140 grams of creatine, mostly in muscle tissue. We do, however, lose creatine daily. Around 2 grams is urinated out every 24 hours. Our body replenishes this loss either from the food we eat or making more ‘in house’.
How does creatine work?
Supplementing with creatine enhances the phospho-creatine energy production pathway in your muscles.
It boosts the muscles’ ability to perform very high intensity or maximal work and delays fatigue. For instance, during weight training or sprinting. Taking creatine can mean more intense training sessions with a stronger training stimulus. It gives your muscles the potential to develop more strength.
During very intense exercise, for example, when performing a set to exhaustion on the weights, or sprinting a 200m, muscular ATP (the energy source that drives muscular contraction) is broken down into ADP and phosphate much more rapidly than it can be regenerated via the aerobic system. However, our muscles store a compound called creatine phosphate – a kind of reservoir of high-energy phosphate. When ATP runs low, the creatine phosphate donates its high-energy phosphate to ADP to regenerate ATP very rapidly. This phosphate reservoir helps to prolong the time to exhaustion.
Why use creatine?
Taking supplemental creatine increases the size of the creatine phosphate reservoir in the muscles. This boosts regeneration of ATP, helping you to sustain high energy bursts for longer. You’ll also recover more rapidly between bursts. This, in turn, translates into better performance during intense exercise, and because it enables greater training intensities, also helps to produce a bigger training response; eg increased muscle growth after resistance training.
How strong is the evidence that creatine works?
Creatine monohydrate is one of the most researched sports nutrition supplements out there. There’s absolutely no doubt that when used correctly, it works.
Who can benefit from creatine supplementation?
Anyone involved in strength, power, sprint or anaerobic training. Purely aerobic athletes, on the other hand, have little to gain.
Are there any drawbacks to creatine supplementation?
There is a financial cost, however, creatine monohydrate is relatively cheap and easy to access.
Creatine supplementation can lead to weight gain. When your muscles absorb extra creatine, they will also hold extra fluid (water) along with it. This can lead to a noticeable increase on the scales. It’s important to remember though this isn’t an increase in your body fat levels. While not necessarily a drawback, it’s worth noting in case you compete in a weight-classed sport or event. Taking creatine may well push you up into the next weight category if supplementation isn’t carefully managed.
If you are tracking body composition by skinfolds, and performance isn’t a priority, I’d recommend stopping creatine supplementation temporarily. Creatine can interfere with skinfold measurements so you might not be getting a true reflection on your hard work showing up with the calipers.
There’s no evidence to date that short-term creatine supplementation produces any discomfort or harmful side effects. Remember though, that simply taking creatine without the appropriate strength training will not in itself build strength or muscle.
How and when should I take creatine?
When you use creatine, you first need to saturate your muscles. That is to say, get them to soak up as much creatine as possible. Then, after that, the goal is to keep them saturated with a top-up.
You can achieve saturation by taking 20 grams of creatine per day (divided into 4 doses of 5 grams each). Continue this for 5-6 days. The drawback to this method though is that for some, it can cause intestinal discomfort. Taking a large dose of creatine can wreak havoc on your digestive system. If you’re not sure, I wouldn’t use this technique. Worrying if you’re going to make it to the toilet in time isn’t fun. You have been warned.
My preferred method is to take 3-5 grams of creatine per day for four weeks. You’ll still be able to saturate your muscles at this lower level, it just takes a bit longer to get there.
Once you’ve achieved saturation, 3-5 grams per day is sufficient to maintain levels.
It’s best to use creatine in phases:
To progressively ‘load’ up the muscle tissues with creatine until they become saturated (ie can absorb no more). A 5-gram dose, four times a day (ie 20g per day) for 5 days will load the muscles rapidly, whereas a single 5-gram dose per day will take longer (around a month) but produce the same results; A smaller daily dose makes intestinal problems less likely though.
To keep the muscles ‘topped up’ once they’re fully loaded. Normally we achieve this by taking around 3-5 grams per day.
- Washout phase
Most athletes ‘cycle’ creatine use. For example, 4 weeks of use followed by a break. You can tie in a washout phase with your training phases. That is to say, you can stop using creatine during ‘recovery’ weeks.
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Any other tips for taking creatine?
Studies show that adding carbohydrate enhances creatine uptake into muscles. Try taking your creatine powder with fruit juice, which supplies carbohydrate in an easy-to-use form.
While there's no evidence to suggest long-term supplementation causes harm, it's a good idea to alternate periods of use and non-use. For example, after 8 weeks of supplementation, stop taking creatine altogether for the next 4 weeks. After that, begin the cycle again by saturating your muscles with the loading doses given above.
Who can benefit from creatine supplements?
Anybody who trains seriously and incorporates intense training into their regime; eg sprinting, interval training, weight training/lifting and endurance athletes seeking a bit of extra 'kick' for the line. It can also benefit vegetarians, whose dietary intake of creatine tends to be very low.
What to look for in a creatine product
Forget fancy and expensive forms of creatine such as citrate or phosphate. Virtually all of the scientific studies conducted with creatine have used creatine monohydrate.
Creatine monohydrate also happens to be the cheapest form of creatine. Check that any creatine monohydrate product conforms to purity standards. It's also worth noting that most of the research and studies have been carried out using Creapure. This product has a registered trademark and is manufactured using a very specific technique. It might be more expensive than cheaply produced 'generic' creatine monohydrate, however, there's no guarantee that other production methods give the same results.
If you're a sports competitor, check that products are manufactured in a drug-free environment. This can help avoid the possibility of accidental contamination and a possible drugs test failure.
Some creatine products combine creatine monohydrate with dextrose and other nutrients in order to enhance uptake. While there is evidence that such products can offer benefits, they tend to be significantly more expensive per gram of creatine supplied.