Creatine: What is it and should I be using it?
Creatine is a natural supplement that passes the 3 main tests we consider important for the use of any product on the market, in that it’s legal, safe and effective. Whether you should use it requires a bit of explanation and thought.
Creatine supplements have been on the market since the early 1990’s, and sales have continued to rise worldwide. Creatine is a small protein, found naturally in many foods, such as meat and fish. It’s also naturally produced by the in the kidneys in small quantities. It is stored mainly in the skeletal muscles, those muscles responsible for our movement, and is directly involved in the creation and maintenance of energy within the muscle. In muscle, creatine is rapidly used for single or repeated muscle contractions, for the first several seconds of activity, before other energy-supply mechanisms take over. Once used, it can be largely replaced by the kidneys after a period of rest. This is why all-out short sprints require rest before being repeated, even if you don’t feel “tired” or “winded!”
Even though it is made by the body, and can be consumed in the diet, most people who take creatine supplements will also increase the amount of creatine stored in their muscles. As such, how much creatine one absorbs, and stores in the muscle cells, from any given supplement is dependent on how much creatine is in that person’s diet, and how much of it is used on a daily basis through movement and activity. Some people, who have enough creatine in their diets, or produce enough for their activity level, will have a minimal to zero response to creatine supplements.
In muscles, creatine is available for high intensity, short duration muscle activity lasting up to 10 seconds. After that, other sources of energy are required to provide the fuel we need to keep moving. Supplementing creatine can improve performance in repeated high-intensity/short duration efforts by 0.5 to 10%, depending on the person’s type of exercise and overall activity pattern.
Over time, creatine supplementation is directly related to increases in strength, muscle mass, and the ability to resist fatigue from short duration and high intensity efforts. Through various mechanisms, creatine supplementation combined with structured strength training and sound nutritional practices increases the amount of creatine in the muscle cells, as well as the concentrations of muscle glycogen. Since glycogen is a source of energy for more prolonged high intensity efforts, increases in its concentration may be related to the improvements in energy and performance beyond the ~10 second window during which creatine itself is thought to be most effective. Its use is also associated with improved gene control of the body’s normal growth-inducing factors, thus allowing for reduced muscle damage during training. Creatine is also thought to improve the retention of water within muscle cells. As simple as that effect may seem, water is critical to optimal cell function.
There are multiple forms of creatine sold, many of which claim to have superior benefits to the standard form, known as creatine monohydrate. It is, by far, the least expensive and most well studied version of creatine, and is therefore the best-advised form to use. Many packages will advise the use of quantities that are higher than needed. Except in rare circumstances, the best dosing pattern to follow is to use 3 gm once daily. Creatine is not meant to be used continuously, although continuous use of it for up to 5 years has not shown any long term effects in studies. Its use is best in the off-season, when muscle mass and strength gains are best achieved.
The only common side effects of creatine, used logically and as advised, are weight gain and possible muscle cramps. Weight gain is a reflection of muscle mass gain as well as increased water storage in the muscle cells. Cramping is usually a reflection of inadequate hydration, given the fact that creatine does draw water into the muscle cells. Creatine, along with caffeine and whey protein, is one of the few substances accepted for use in athletes by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), International Olympic Committee (IOC) and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). These are the three groups most directly involved in policing doping in athletes, so their endorsement of the product should be considered highly positive. To be as safe as possible, one should use products that contain “just” creatine monohydrate. Combined products with “new” and “improved” creatine sources, touting their added benefits (e.g., “pre anabolic”) are to be avoided as products with these types of marketing flags are commonly the source of positive doping tests.
So…should you use creatine? That depends on several factors. Are you trying to gain weight, strength, muscle mass and explosiveness? Then creatine can be among the things you consider. If your activity or sport is largely aerobic in nature, creatine is unlikely to be of much benefit. If you’re involved in a sport with weight classes, its use has to be carefully timed and considered against the possibility that your weight gain may take you into a different class.
We believe creatine can be a helpful addition to the training regimen of an athlete and fitness enthusiast. However, that endorsement comes with some caveats. It should never be considered unless you are already optimizing your training lifestyle toward your goals. In other words, are you sleeping a minimum of 8-9 hours daily? Is your diet highly tuned? Do you train 4 or more days weekly? We recommend that only those people who answer “yes” to all these questions should consider adding creatine or any other supplement to their regimen. In addition, creatine use in anyone under the age of 18 is ill-advised. Teens should consult with their parents before considering its use.
Although it appears and easy fix, creatine isn’t a magic pill, nor is any supplement, legal or otherwise. What it can do depends on how you train, how well you eat, and how well you respond to it. For most people who understand its benefits and restrictions, creatine is a safe, effective and inexpensive supplement that has been proven worldwide to deliver on its promises to a large proportion of people who use it. As always, we are here to answer your specific questions and help guide you in the best decisions for your personal situation.