Creatine is generally considered the gold standard supplement for athletes and recreational lifters, based on its scientifically proven effects on strength, power and lean muscle tissue.
Creatine is a nitrogen-containing organic compound naturally produced in the human body, predominantly in the liver, but also in smaller amounts in the kidneys and pancreas.
It’s produced in the body using the amino acids glycine, arginine and methionine, at a rate of about 1-2g per day. Approximately 98% of creatine is stored within skeletal muscle, with the remaining 2% in the heart, brain and testes.
Creatine can also be obtained through diet, with the average person consuming around 1g per day through sources such as fish and meat. Increasing dietary availability of creatine serves to increase intramuscular storage of creatine phosphate (CP), which is important in maximizing performance.
You’ll find in this article:
How Does Creatine Work?
Creatine, in the form of creatine phosphate (CP), has an extremely important role in the production of energy for short-duration high-intensity exercise. CP is used as a substrate for the formation of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is used during energy transfer, by re-phosphorylating adenosine diphosphate (ADP).
In short, if ADP can be converted quickly and more efficiently into ATP, either through the body’s natural sources of CP or by supplementing with creatine, more energy would become available for intense exercise.
Theoretically, by supplementing with creatine, intramuscular stores of CP could be increased or topped up, thereby feeding the phosphagen/alactic energy system leading to enhanced performance.
Effects of Creatine on Exercise Performance
According to a position statement released by the International Society of Sports Nutrition (Buford et al. 2007), creatine is the most effective ergogenic nutritional supplement that’s currently available to athletes to increase high-intensity exercise capacity and muscle mass during training.
There are currently around 500 peer-reviewed research papers examining the effects of creatine supplementation on exercise.
Of those papers, around 70% have concluded that creatine supplementation is effective at producing increases in high-intensity exercise performance, including interval training, sprints, and strength and power exercise. From controlled lab studies, results have shown that creatine supplementation appears to improve average sprint time and resistance to fatigue during repeated sprints of around 30 seconds. However, over single sprints, the results are less conclusive.
The effects on longer duration exercise over 90 seconds are also inconclusive, although this is unsurprising, as CP has little influence on the body’s aerobic energy systems. Short-term creatine ingestion (i.e. typically less than a week of use) has shown performance-enhancing effects on sprint cycling power as well as resistance exercise, including the total amount of work and repetitions performed during the bench press and back squat.
Long-term adaptations (i.e. typically more than 4 weeks) combining creatine supplementation with resistance training have demonstrated increases in:
✓ Strength and power
✓ Sprint performance
✓ Rate of force development
✓ Muscle size
✓ Lean body mass
So creatine is great for lifters, sprinters and intermittent sports athletes, but it probably won’t knock minutes off your next marathon.
Effects of Creatine on Muscle Mass
Many of us train for a specific purpose, and although for some gains in muscular strength, power and overall athleticism could be considered enough, increases in lean mass, muscle size and achieving an ideal physique is often the main goal.
Long-term creatine supplementation has been shown to increase lean mass and muscle size. Specifically, over several months of hard training, the research subjects experienced up to twice the gains in lean mass of subjects ingesting a placebo supplement.
In one study, a twelve-week resistance training program combined with creatine supplementation produced an increase in muscle fiber diameter by 35% in both type I and II muscle fibers, versus only 6–15% in a placebo group (Volek et al. 1999).
Gains in lean muscle mass from creatine supplementation appear to be as a result of an improved ability to perform resistance exercise at a higher intensity for longer. Creatine can also produce muscle cell swelling. Cellular swelling has recently been shown to be a potent stimulus for muscle hypertrophy.
Considerations When Using Creatine?
Considering the amount of evidence that supports the effectiveness of creatine, you should understand the F-A-C-T-S, which stands for Frequency/Timing, Amount, Complimentary Nutrients, Type, and Side Effects/Safety. Let’s briefly explore each one as it relates to creatine:
Frequency & Timing
This is how often you use it and when. When using creatine, particularly creatine monohydrate, a ‘loading’ phase is often recommended consisting of 20g per day spread out over 4 servings, ideally at meal times.
This would usually last for 5 days, followed by a ‘maintenance’ phase of 4-10g daily.
A small amount of research has shown that a loading phase may not be necessary, and just consuming 4-10g daily will achieve the desired results.
The best times of day to supplement with creatine would be around 30 minutes before your training session and immediately after as part of your post-workout shake or meal.
- The recommended optimal dose is 20g per day during a 5-day loading phase, split over 4 x 5g servings.
- After the loading phase, reduce to 4-10g per day as a maintenance dose, split over 2 x 2-5g servings. If you choose not to complete a loading phase, take 4-10g per day (split over 2 x 2-5g servings).
You should always read the recommended serving size on the packet to provide you with a guideline.
Complimentary nutrients are other nutrients, either from supplements or the diet, that may enhance the effects or absorption of another supplement.
It’s recommended that creatine should be consumed with fast-acting carbohydrates with a high glycemic index in order to maximize its absorption, for example, a combination dextrose, waxy maize starch or maltodextrin. The amino acid glycine has also been shown to increase the absorption of creatine.
Additionally, combining creatine with arginine has demonstrated impressive results in recent research.
Types of Creatine?
Like many other supplements, creatine is available in different forms. The most proven form of creatine is Creatine Monohydrate. However, newer forms of creatine have also emerged on the market with various advantages. Newer forms of creatine include: Creatine Ethyl Ester, Creatine Gluconate, effervescent creatine and creatine malate.
Creatine supplementation has had no serious side-effects reported within research. However, there have been some reports from users of gastrointestinal discomfort and mild muscle cramps. Bloating and water retention have also been reported by some.
Controlled studies have been unable to document any significant side-effects or safety issues for extended periods of use lasting up to 12 weeks.
Many users choose to cycle their use of creatine (e.g. 6 weeks on, 6 weeks off), however, there are no reports that cycling creatine is more beneficial than consistent use.
Take Home Message
Creatine has been suggested as the gold standard for which other supplements should be weighed against, both for its effects on exercise performance and body composition.
If you’re looking to maximize your results from training, then creatine use is scientifically proven and recommended.