Over the years that creatine has been around as a supplement, it has been proven to be effective time and time again.
But how does creatine work?
With very few reported side-effects – none of them serious – this seems like a product worth trying for anyone wanting to build muscle or increase power and performance.
Because of its popularity, there have been many new formulations emerging onto the market which can make it difficult to choose between types.
You’ll often find these different variations within gym preworkouts and protein shakes, although some manufacturers argue that you don’t feel the benefit when taken alongside ingredients such as beta-alanine.
In this post we’ll give you the lowdown on the most popular creatine formulations, and let you know exactly what to expect from taking it as a supplement.
What is Creatine?
The science explained…
Without creatine, our bodies would be unable to produce the energy needed to fuel high-intensity exercise.
Our bodies naturally produce it, but taking a supplement can make the fueling process even better, resulting in enhanced athletic performance.
For bodybuilders, a high level of creatine can give the body the ability to power through a few more reps each set, or lifts at a higher weight, ultimately resulting in more muscle mass.
Creatine (a.k.a. creatine monohydrate, creatine 2-oxopropanoate, a-methylguanidinoacetic acid) is a necessary as part of the ATP system – the body’s go-to system when short bursts of explosive energy are required.
As the ATP system starts to release energy, molecules within the body are broken down and this creates a new molecule – ADP.
This new substance cannot be used by the body as energy, so without a hero stepping in – creatine phosphate in this case – the muscles will be unable to carry on.
Creatine allows the ATP cycle is return to the beginning and the energy becomes available to be released again.
Taking a creatine supplement ensures that there is plenty of creatine in the body to make creatine phosphate and subsequently, ATP.
The supplement’s safety for the majority of people has been proved in many studies, and creatine supplementation is consistently effective.
Is Creatine a Steroid?
Some people confuse any muscle building supplements with steroids.
Yes, creatine does help build muscle, but no, it is not a steroid.
Creatine’s chemical structure is known as a tripeptide compound. In simple terms, this means that it is a chain made up of three amino acids (L-methionine, L-glycine and L-arginine) making its chemical structure completely different from a steroid’s four ringed structure.
Creatine is produced naturally in the body and is not illegal.
It also does not have any of the severe side effects that steroids are infamous for.
What Form Does Creatine Come In?
Creatine as a supplement comes in tablet, capsule and most commonly powder forms.
The powders are usually flavoured and are mixed with liquid to turn into a drink.
Adding it to fruit juice will increase uptake speed as the sugars in the fruit juice cause an insulin spike in the blood which the body kicks into action to process. Any drink with about 60% carbs (60g in 100g of product) will work this way.
A high-quality creatine powder should mix well with the liquid. Lower quality powders don’t mix as easily and will end up stuck to the glass, leaving you with a lumpy shake – and no-one likes them! Ew.
Now let’s take a look at some of the different formulations of creatine you will see listed in the ingredients section of the container:
This is the most common form of creatine supplement.
A monohydrate is a compound that has been chemically bound to water in equal amounts.
In this case, that’s one unit of water for every unit of creatine compound.
Every molecule of creatine monohydrate contains 88% creatine.
CEE (Creatine Ethyl Ester)
The same molecule as creatine monohydrate, but with an ‘ester’ attached, this form of the supplement is anecdotally reported to be quicker absorbing, and can be taken in smaller doses to get the same effects.
It is also claimed that there is less of a bloated feel from this form of the supplement.
Manufacturers claim that this form also has a longer serum half-life than creatine monohydrate. The serum half-life is the amount of time it takes for the concentration of creatine to decrease by half – i.e. wear off from your body.
This sounds like a great advantage, but so far no studies have been able to definitively prove the manufacturers’ claims.
In fact, one study concluded that CEE actually breaks down to creatinine more quickly than creatine monohydrate. Note the subtle difference in spelling.
Creatinine is the waste product left over after the breakdown of creatine phosphate.
Because of this, the study claimed that creatine monohydrate was superior to CEE as a source of creatine.
Magnesium Creatine Chelate
This has a similar effect to the first type we spoke about; creatine monohydrate.
The atoms in this creatine are bound by magnesium in this form of the supplement.
Magnesium is also used in the ATP energy release process:
By binding magnesium, which is transported into the body differently to creatine, it is thought that the transport of creatine to the muscles will be improved and that less will be lost in the process.
When we looked at the ATP process earlier, we saw that in order to recreate Adenosine Triphosphate, creatine phosphate was needed. It would seem logical then, that taking creatine phosphate is a better supplement than creatine alone.
Creatine phosphate has less creatine per molecule (at 62.3%) than creatine monohydrate (at 88%) and it is more expensive, meaning that you get less creatine for your money.
What Creatine Does
Simply put, creatine enhances the size and strength of muscles.
It does this primarily through improving muscle recovery, but also improves the speed and power needed for bursts in sports like sprinting and weight training.
It even enhances brain function.
While all this sounds great – swallow a supplement to get bigger muscles – it is important to realise that the creatine doesn’t build muscle directly.
Instead, it gives athletes the ability to work that little bit harder, do a few more reps, and therefore build muscle as a result of harder training and more effective recovery.
And another important thing to remember:
Creatine doesn’t affect everybody in the same way.
Some people simply don’t respond to it, and won’t see any benefit.
If it is working for you, you should see results pretty quickly. If you aren’t seeing results within a couple of weeks, you may be one of the small percentage of people it doesn’t help.
Let’s take a look at some of the things you can expect from taking this well-researched supplement:
Does Creatine Increase Muscle Volume?
Because creatine pulls water into muscle cells, which allows the cell to synthesise more proteins, it also increases muscle volume.
When creatine is first taken the higher muscle volume – weighing up to 6 pounds in the first few weeks – will be down to the added water. While this won’t make the muscles any stronger it will make the athlete appear more bulky.
But it’s not all about the looks.
Increased water can help build new muscle – hence why it’s so good to drink so much of it – so with training there should be a rise in strength and power, too.
Does Creatine Increase Power?
As we saw earlier, creatine is used in the ATP energy release system.
When supplementing with creatine, the body is able to store more creatine phosphate to supply the fast twitch muscle fibres with rapid energy.
The muscles can then work for longer before fatigue sets in.
The increased energy adds power to strengthen muscle contractions, enabling the athlete to perform more reps, pedal harder, or sprint faster.
How Does Creatine Help Muscle Recovery?
Although scientists aren’t sure why yet, they have observed that creatine supplementation allows for more complete recovery after exercise.
Although creatine isn’t typically taken to enhance performance in endurance exercise, one study looked at cell damage in male endurance runners after a 30km race.
The men were given 20g of creatine monohydrate and 60g maltodextrine for 5 days before the race.
Compared to another group of athletes who received no supplements, the supplement group were found to have less cell damage and inflammation after the race.
Vegetarians Respond Better to Creatine Than Meat Eaters
Another study found that vegetarians who supplemented creatine had a greater response to it than meat eaters who took the same amounts.
DG Burke and his colleagues measured creatine levels in the muscles, exercise performance, body composition, muscle fibre structure, and hydration in athletes over an eight-week training program.
He had four groups – two supplementation groups (one vegetarian, one non-vegetarian) and a placebo group (again one vegetarian, one non-vegetarian).
The creatine dose was 0.25g for the first week, followed by 0.0625g for the rest of the study period.
The vegetarians who took creatine responded more strongly to non-vegetarian supplementation group, showing higher total work performance, higher increases in creatine and more lean tissue gain.
For vegetarians looking to gain muscle, this is clearly an effective supplement.
That’s not to say it’s not effective for meat-eaters too – it can be extremely useful. It’s just that vegetarians, overall, respond better.
Creatine Helps Retain or Build Muscle Mass in Older Athletes
It is a fact that as we age, the levels of muscle building hormones like testosterone begin to decline.
This leads to decreased muscle mass and less strength and is known as sarcopaenia.
However, there are reasons to believe that supplementing creatine can slow this decline, particularly if combined with a strength building program.
As type 2 muscle fibres are the first to decline with age, and creatine concentrates in these fibres, it can be assumed that the addition of extra creatine could fight the process. The following study supports this assumption with facts.
Greater Capacity for Anaerobic Exercise
Not only can creatine be proven to work – it can be proven to work rapidly.
In a study by Ziegenfuss et al, experienced athletes were noted to have increased their performance levels after just three days.
20 male and female athletes were split into either placebo or creatine groups.
After an initial assessment, the groups were given either a placebo or a 0.35g dose of creatine for each kg of fat-free mass.
After three days the participants performed in six 10-second cycle sprints separated by 60-second recovery periods.
The creatine group had improved their anaerobic capacity, as well as their thigh volume and body mass.
Although the volume increases would not contribute directly to increased muscle, we do know that the creatine acted very quickly and would help build more muscle long term.
How Much Creatine Should You Consume?
Although you don’t need to load creatine, you may get faster results if you do.
To load it:
Begin by taking 0.3g per kg of bodyweight for 5-7 days.
After this, you can follow with a tenth of this amount – that is, 0.03g per kg of bodyweight per day.
This creatine dosage can then be continued as long as you choose.
Some studies have dosed 5-10g per day without a loading phase, and some have seen results from as little as 2-3g per day. Both methods should have the same eventual outcome, but including a loading phase will bring quicker results.
If too much creatine is taken in one dose, you may suffer from nausea or diarrhoea.
If this happens, splitting the amount across more doses per day should solve the problem.
Remember to drink plenty alongside your supplement, too. Without enough water, you may experience stomach cramps.
These are the main to side effects of creatine consumption.
Foods That Contain Creatine
Creatine is produced naturally in the liver and kidneys, from where it is transported to the muscles.
It can be found in protein-rich foods such as chicken, fish, pork. Beef, salmon, and tuna are particularly good sources.
However, considering that one pound of beef contains 5g of creatine, you would have to eat a lot to gain large amounts from the diet.
Additionally, a lot of the creatine that exists in food is destroyed by cooking, so unless you like your meat raw a supplement is an easier option.
For vegetarian bodybuilders, supplementation is a must. Scientists believe there are no plant-based sources of creatine.
When to Take Creatine
There is confusion around when to take creatine.
So creatine before or after a workout?
There is no best time to take creatine.
It works due to a build up in the body, so it doesn’t matter if you take it pre or post-workout, or at a different time of day.
It is believed that taking carbohydrates alongside creatine will increase the speed of uptake.
Caffeine is suspected to counteract creatine if taken at the same time, although there is evidence to suggest that if caffeine is taken after creatine, performance can be improved.
Side Effects of Creatine
Creatine is thought to be one of the safest supplements out there.
It has been studied extensively for years, with no reports of ill effects.
However, anecdotal evidence of some side effects persists.
This anecdotal evidence has suggested that kidney damage and heart problems may occur as a result of excessive creatine supplementation. Studies contradict this and without being able to rule out other causes, there is no way of knowing why people report these problems.
Other anecdotal evidence concerns increased injuries after taking creatine.
One possible explanation for this is that tendons and ligaments are unable to keep pace with the fast changes occurring in muscle tissue, causing an imbalance leading to injury. As they are not so well supplied with blood and nutrients, they will take longer to match the muscle development. It may be wise to take extra care until muscle growth is well established.
Overall, there is no evidence to suggest that creatine has any severe, long-lasting health effects.
The only observed side-effects of diarrhoea and nausea stopped after participants gave up the supplement.
Do You Need to Cycle Creatine?
There is no evidence that you need to cycle creatine.
Some people claim taking supplemental creatine will ruin your kidneys’ ability to produce creatine naturally.
The kidneys produce creatine at a rate of about 1-2g per day, and this production does slow down when supplementation happens.
However, in the long-term studies discussed above, no evidence was found to suggest it permanently harms or affects natural creation.
The long-term studies, though, did not follow participants once they stopped taking the substance, so theoretically, it is possible that there was some detrimental effect. No studies have proved this yet.
Cycling creatine could prove beneficial, though.
If when you take it initially your muscles are boosted and able to do more work, they will eventually adjust to the new workload, and the creatine will no longer be needed to fuel this level of effort.
Cycling should give muscles a new boost further down the line when a step up in training is taken.
Creatine is a very popular and well-studied supplement, particularly in its monohydrate form.
It can improve power, increase muscle size and slow age degeneration in the muscles.
One of the safest supplements around, it works for most people – especially vegetarians – and causes few side effects and no known serious problems.