Your Guide on Using Creatine for Muscle and Strength Gains, Plus The Best Supplements to Buy
Creatine can be a polarising topic in the world of health and fitness. Often associated with pumped-up gym-bros and bench-hogging swolediers, creatine's reputation among the fitness world is varied. But is it justified?
It's unlikely. That's because you probably eat creatine every day — you just don't realise it. When you eat meat — a delicious rib-eye steak, for example — your liver and kidneys take in the amino acids to make creatine, which is then transferred to your muscles as a form of cellular energy called creatine monohydrate.
The creatine supplements you're likely to have seen work in a similar manner, with your body converting the supplement into creatine phosphate, feeding your muscles during explosive exercises such as plyometrics, sprints, heavy lifts and HIIT routines.
However, your capacity for the fuel that's provided by creatine phosphate runs out at a rapid rate during this type of training, meaning that added creatine supplementation can give you more power for higher reps.
Similarly, creatine has been found to maintain and build muscle even with zero training. That's according to a study from Canada's St Frances Xavier University, which found that by gulping two 20g of creatine four times a week, test subjects maintained physical strength without even glancing at a barbell. But, is the fabled muscle-builder creatine suitable for your lifestyle? Utilise our guide, below, to find out.
What Is Creatine?
Creatine helps you recover between sets. Which means a supplements’ value lies in boosting recovery speed, which in turn enhances the amount of work you’re able to do during a workout. Over time, this leads to faster gains in both strength and size.
Creatine has proven itself over the years to be one of the most effective supplements for improving performance during repeated bouts of intense exercise. As far back as the 1970s, Soviet scientists knew that creatine supplements improved performance, and it contributed to the USSR’s Olympic dominance through the 70s and 80s.
What Does Creatine Do?
Combined with weight training, creatine slows the loss of bone mass as you age and could ease the effects of osteoarthritis, where joints become stiff and painful. That said, creatine, inevitably, has different effects on individuals.
The effects of creatine should be evident in a week in most using the supplement — with your training volume and strength increasing. Studies in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that muscle fibres grow faster after creatine supplementation and resistance-based exercise.
That said, it's not a magic pill. "Creatine monohydrate supplementation is not a magic powder that turns fat mass into muscle mass," says Andreas Kasper, Performance Nutritionist at England Rugby.
"Dosing with creatine can help increase our muscles store of the metabolite, which is linked with repeated bouts of high intensity performance such as sprinting and lifting weights. When we resynthesise at a high rate, it means potentially we can exercise more readily (1) and may even have a higher intensity session with shorter rest periods required, which hypothetically would aid with hypertrophy (2). However, you still have to lift the weights and bigger muscles do not always equal increased strength."
Really, it depends on your objectives. If you're a thirty or forty-something Dad looking to top-up his strength levels, you'll be getting enough creatine from a high-protein diet. If you're a bodybuilder, athlete or CrossFitter looking for an added edge on your physique or your performance in high-intensity competitions or workouts, then creatine supplementation could work for you. Read on to find out why.
When it comes to improving muscle strength, the US National Library of Medicine's MedlinePlus labels creatine as "possibly effective". "Analyses of this research show that creatine seems to modestly improve upper body strength and lower body strength in both younger and older adults,” it says.
It's not all about an increase in muscle mass, though. Creatine also has some other benefits you might not be aware of. As anyone who’s ever pulled an all-nighter in the office knows, sleep deprivation has a negative effect on mental performance and mood. What you might not be aware of is that this is partially due to a drop in creatine levels in the brain.
University College Chichester studies suggest that guzzling a creatine supplement can help to offset the decline in mental performance that normally happens when you’re short on sleep.
In another study on a group of elite rugby players, researchers from the UK Sport Council found that creatine worked just as well as caffeine at wiping out the effects of sleep deprivation on performance during a simple rugby skill test. So you might be better reaching for a shaker than your morning cappuccino.
Whether creatine improves performance in all sports depends largely on what aspect of performance you’re trying to improve. But if a lack of muscle mass is a limiting factor, creatine certainly has the potential to help you perform better. In many sports, though, there is an “optimum” muscle size, beyond which adding additional mass may be counterproductive. Naturally, bigger muscles don’t always translate to superior performance.
Away from the squat rack, creatine is also beneficial during short, repeated bouts of high-intensity exercise, like CrossFit and circuit training.
“Creatine serves as a fuel source for short-duration, high-burst activities,” says Jose Antonio, an associate professor of exercise and sports science at Nova Southeastern University. In other words, if you sprint, lift or do HIIT, the compound can help you take it up a level.
Research by Athletic Bilbao’s medical staff, for instance, showed that creatine improved performance in sprint bursts designed to mimic on-pitch activity. Players were divided into two groups; group one was given 20 grams of creatine per day for six days, while group two received a dummy supplement that had no effect. Creatine resulted in faster sprinting times, increased strength and also improved jumping performance. Unfortunately they chose not to assess the impact of a half-time orange.
Everything You Need to Know About Supplements
Creatine Side Effects
Creatine supplementation can lead to 2-4lbs of weight gain in a week – your muscles retain water in order to heighten protein synthesis (the building of muscles). This, however, is nothing to worry about, especially for everyday athletes. "Creatine can increase water retention, which in some sports may lead to a negative effect on performance," says Kasper.
"But this is predominantly sports that restrict weight either to compete (combat sports) of for performance such as endurance cycling/running or swimming where optimal weight ‘on-bike’ or ‘in-pool’ is vital.
Ironically, this makes the weight-gain from water retention can be a good thing, as studies in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that muscle fibres grow after creatine supplementation and resistance based exercise.
Put simply, by supplementing creatine, you'll gain weight. But the added weight will help your muscles feel bigger, fuller and stronger. As creatine contains zero calories, it has zero impact on your fat metabolism — so you can take it on a non-exercise day, too.
What about the claims that creatine users are more likely to get cramps? Well, if you believe the research, then you shouldn’t worry. A three-year study by Arkansas State University showed that 5g/day of creatine had no effect on the incidence of injury or cramping in a group of American footballers. In a retrospective study of 26 athletes using creatine for up to four years, US researchers found no difference in the reported incidence of muscle cramp or injury compared with creatine-free athletes.
There are also a few reports of kidney problems linked with the use of creatine. Again, these are mainly isolated case studies where someone with a pre-existing medical condition developed further health problems while using creatine. If you’re healthy and not taking a host of other supplements or medicines, you should be fine.
Elsewhere in the news cycle, creatine was once purported to increase your risk of testicular cancer. It was reported that researchers in the US had found a link between 'muscle-building supplements' and the cancer, but didn't specify which supplements were spiking the user's risk. The study had lumped together 30 varying pills and powders under the umbrella term of 'muscle-building supplements' and, according to examine.com's lead researcher Kurtis Frank, the term was too "heterogeneous," with "an astonishing amount of ambiguity" in terms of the test products and any hidden ingredients.
"Ultimately, this study does not offer enough evidence for current supplement users to change their habits,” says Frank. “However, this kind of study will spark interest in the topic of MBS and testicular cancer, spur more research and, hopefully, result in a better questionnaire that can be used to predict relative risk of various cancers."
What Is Creatine Loading? Is It Safe?
Taking a superdose of 20,000mg of creatine for four or five days is safe but unnecessary, says nutrition adviser Chris Mohr. Research suggests that your strength gains will catch up after 30 days. For a consistent strength boost, go steady.
When To Take Creatine
As with everything health and fitness, there are multiple camps when it comes to taking creatine: before, during and after a workout.
Creatine Before a Workout
Generally, the case for taking creatine during a workout is built on ATP (adenosine triphosphate) an organic chemical that contributes to cellular energy and muscle contractions. When supplementing with creatine, you'll be taking on more ATP around your muscle cells. More ATP equates to more efficient muscle fiber activation and, obviously, better gains.
Creatine After a Workout
Thankfully, this is a more simple theory. After a workout, your muscles are depleted and are, essentially, gagging for a payload of nutrients to start repairing and building more muscle.
Creatine, Whenever You Want
Like a healthy amount of protein, there's no real downside for taking a healthy supplement like creatine that encourages muscle growth and won't derail your nutrition plan.
How Much Creatine Should I Take?
"The literature recommends seem to suggest a ‘loading’ dose of 10-20g (5g dosages split throughout the day) for five to seven days followed by a 3-5g ‘maintenance’ dose thereafter," says Kasper. "In reality, it is dependent upon the speed at which you are looking to load (3)."
"In my personal opinion, for someone new to taking creatine, I would suggest there is no need for a loading phase as you are more likely to suffer any gastro or other side effects – it will just take a little longer to get the creatine loaded into your muscles and experience any positive effects."
But what ingredients should you be looking out for when purchasing creatine? "You need to be very careful with ‘pre-workout’ mixes as many of these contain ingredients with very little evidence or dangerous substances such as methylhexanamine (often seen on the label as geranium extract)," says Kasper.
"The main ingredients I would personally look for when choosing supplements to aid with gym performance and these would be caffeine, creatine and potentially beta-alanine."
Although “new and improved” versions of creatine pop up all the time, none have consistently proven themselves to be any better than regular creatine monohydrate.
A substance normally found in muscle cells, creatine helps your muscles produce explosive energy during exercise, such as HIIT or weightlifting. For years, athletes and sports people have taken creatine to gain an edge on their performance — to gain strength, size and muscle and improve exercise capacity.
A dose of 3-5 grams per day of creatine supplement for 30 days will raise creatine levels in the muscle just as well as a 5-day loading phase where you take 20 grams per day.
It doesn't matter too much when you use it or what you mix it with. In short, creatine is a multi-purpose supplement that has a number of benefits for both physical and mental performance. It’s cheap, it’s safe and it works.
“No well-controlled clinical trials have shown that any other form of creatine works better than creatine monohydrate, and usually the other kinds are more expensive,”
Chad Kerksick, director of the Exercise and Performance Nutrition Laboratory at Lindenwood University. Seek out a product with credentials, such as the “Certified for Sport” label. Brands we like: Motion Nutrition, MyProtein and Maximuscle.
Foods High in Creatine
You would have to eat an “ungodly amount of meat” to reach a number achievable from supplementation, says Jose Antonio, an associate professor of exercise and sports science at Nova Southeastern University. That's more than a kilo of beef or salmon a day, which would lumber you with eight times the recommended daily amount of protein. (Please don’t eat a kilo of meat in a day.)
Steak: If you take care of your protein in the form of eating varied meats, you may already be close to hitting your creatine goal. Steak is one of the most creatine-dense, packing around 5g of creatine per kg of uncooked beef.
Fish: Another food high in creatine is fish. Salmon and tuna are especially high in creatine, packing around 4.5g of creatine per .5kg of salmon.
Egg Yolks: Cracking into eggs at breakfast will unlock just under 2g of creatine per egg, so it pays to have a cooked breakfast before the gym.
(1) Hultman E, Bergstrom J, Spreit L, Soderlund K: Energy metabolism and fatigue. In Biochemistry of Exercise VII Edited by: Taylor A, Goll- nick PD, Green H. Human Kinetics: Champaign, IL; 1990:73-92.
(2) G.L. Close, D.L. Hamilton, A. Philp, L.M. Burke, J.P. Morton. New strategies in sport nutrition to increase exercise performance. Free Radical Biology and medicine, 98, 144-158.
(3) Hultman E, Soderlund K, Timmons JA, Cederblad G, Greenhaff PL: Muscle creatine loading in men. J Appl Physiol 1996, 81:232-237; Willoughby DS, Rosene J: Effects of oral creatine and resistance training on myosin heavy chain expression.Med Sci Sports Exerc 2001, 33:1674-81.
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