Creatine is one of the more controversial and misunderstood muscle-building supplements of our time. For this reason, I want to shed some bright light on what it does, what it doesn’t do, its benefits, and some of its drawbacks – both scientific and anecdotal. There are a lot of facts on creatine floating around, but it can be hard to find out what it really does with out making your head spin. I’ll try to fix that in this post. So let’s begin…
Take a look at the back label of almost anything at your supplement-provider-of-choice, and you are bound to find creatine monohydrate as an ingredient. It comes in many forms: pure powder, protein mixes, sports drinks, energy gels; but more importantly, what the heck is it, and why do so many strength athletes blindly swear by it?
Chemistry is what it is, but sometimes you have to swallow a horse pill of science to understand the world better – and ultimately to get swol3. Creatine is synthesized everyday by mammals fat and fit, in our liver and kidneys, from naturally-occurring amino acids. That means you make it, and you likely eat it (if you eat meat). While creatine is made in the kidneys and liver, over 90 percent of it is stored in our muscle tissue.
Why is it stored in the muscles, you ask? Because it forms a little molecule called phosphocreatine. This phosphocreatine spends most of its time lollygagging around our muscle cells, until our muscles need energy. When its number is called, the phosphocreatine kindly lends its phosphate to a tired and needy adenosine diphosphate molecule (ADP), so that it can form its jacked-up and more-powerful brother, adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Basically, ADP uses phosphocreatine as a wingman to form ATP and get the girl. For immediate energy, our muscles can now use the energy from ATP to contract.
Enough Science: Myths, Legends, and Hype
Creatine first reared its head in the 1970s, when the Soviets were experimenting with whatever they could get their hands on to increase the performance of their Olympic athletes. An apparent link between increased levels of creatine and explosive athleticism was made, and it took until the 1990s for the mainstream to buy-in.
Now that we know the chemistry, we know that creatine does not directly involve building muscle, but rather provides energy for short-burst exercises. For longer exercises and reps of greater than 10 or so, other energy systems kick in, like anaerobic glycolysis (glucose breakdown), and the krebs cycle (the energy system used by high school cross-country teams worldwide – no thanks).
There is a natural swol3 effect that comes from front-loading with about 20 grams of creatine for a few days, but that is from its ability to usher extra water into your cells. Most lifters experience a noticeably increased post-workout swell during the first 2 weeks of training with creatine monohydrate. Unfortunately, it’s just water weight. The muscle you build from creatine will come from your ability to workout with slightly heavier weights at lower repetitions.
How Should You Feel on Creatine?
Everybody has a different capacity to hold a surplus of phosphocreatine in their muscle cells. At a certain point, excess creatine leaves the body as waste. Many athletes report having to pee more frequently, tightness in ligaments, stomach aches, muscle cramps, etc. You have to decide if your body gets along with creatine, and whether the benefit is big enough. For strength and conditioning purposes, creatine can lead to greater power, but often to the detriment of flexibility and speed.
Another thing to look for when supplementing with creatine, is the speed with which your workout weights are increasing. During the first few months, it is not uncommon to see big jumps in your lifts. However, lifting more weight in fewer than six weeks is probably not a true strength gain. During this time, your ligaments and tendons are susceptible to injury. Factor in the extra 10-plus pounds of body-water you’re likely carrying around, and you can see why your body might not respond the way that you expect.
If you decide that the strength-power benefits of creatine are good enough, make sure to buy a brand that you have some trust in. As with all supplements, they are not created equal with regard to quality. If you stop using creatine, your surplus reserve will slowly decline, and you’ll reach normal levels of creatine in a few months or less. If you can maintain your strength gains, great – but you’ll probably experience a bit of a drop in performance. Your best bet to maintain good liver and kidney health is to cycle your use of this supplement, so that you’re not taking it constantly – even in manageable 5 gram doses. Something in the realm of 6 weeks on/4 weeks off will do the trick.
At the end of the day though, we all know you gotta keep working hard in the gym. Regardless of what supplements we take, there is nothing like feeding your body with plenty of good ‘ol carbs, fats, proteins – and a crushing workout.