Creatine, Science Explained.


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Social Media has a tendency to make it seem as though supplements are the key to success in the fitness industry — and since everyone is taking them, you should be too. This can easily get overwhelming for anyone — not to mention, expensive — but even though most are completely unnecessary, creatine is the only supplement with hundreds of studies supporting its effectiveness to increase muscular strength and performance. 

And while I think that one should always aim to max out their recommended nutrients through whole food options first, studies show that it’s actually very difficult to achieve an optimal level of creatine through diet alone since the dosage in creatine-containing foods typically isn’t large enough to maximize creatine stores in most people. Let alone, in athletes. 

The average diet provides only around 1 gram of creatine per day, which really isn’t quite enough to see the results you would get from supplementation, and that average becomes significantly lower in vegetarian or vegan diets. 

And not only does supplementing creatine seem to be far more efficient and practical, it’s also much less expensive. For example, taking the recommended dose of creatine monohydrate, an average cost of around $1.25, would be equivalent to eating 2.5 lbs of uncooked steak. An average cost of around $38, every day.

But let’s back up a bit. 

The cells in our bodies run on energy supplied by the molecule called ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate), and as athletes, the production of ATP is extremely important for training intensity. When there’s a high demand for energy, ATP is broken down into two constituent parts: ADP and a phosphate molecule — allowing that energy to be quickly released for muscle contraction. 

However, it’s not very efficient on its own since using too much ATP at once can cause muscle cells to become acidic. Leading to muscle fatigue within a matter of seconds. 

In order to combat this, two things happen.

First, creatine kinase helps to keep acid levels in check by taking out hydrogen ions, and at the same time, converts ADP to the type of creatine naturally found in our bodies: Creatine Phosphate.

Where the supplement of creatine comes in is by producing higher stores of creatine phosphate, and this is why long-term supplementation tends to be associated with more muscle growth. Higher stores of creatine phosphate increases ATP production, which then indirectly improves training performance by helping to recover more efficiently and delaying muscle fatigue during repeated bouts of high-intensity training. 

And while creatine does draw more water to the muscle giving it a tighter, fuller look, research shows it actually doesn’t cause water retention or bloating anywhere else. 

There’s also no need to load creatine or cycle off of it, since, unlike caffeine, the body won’t develop a tolerance. Rather, it only becomes effective once it collects and saturates within the muscle cells. 

Finally, it’s also important to note that the benefit gained through creatine supplementation is highly individual since up to 30% of people are labeled as “non-responders.” It’s possible that age or genetic response plays a role here — but it’s also more likely explained by the initial muscle creatine content prior to supplementation. Essentially, if your pre-supplementation creatine stores are already close to full then an additional dose is unlikely to have any effect.

That said, no negative performance effects of taking creatine have been reported to date, so essentially, self-experimenting with creatine could only positively affect your training at best or have no effect at worst. 

However, with all the research supporting its effects and affordability, I truly believe creatine is one of the very few supplements worth taking.

Fun fact: Creatine was first discovered in 1832 when the French scientist Michel Eugene Chevreul extracted it from animal protein.

Further Reading

https://examine.com/supplements/creatine/

https://examine.com/supplements/creatine/

https://bretcontreras.com/creatine-versatile-supplement/

https://www.biolayne.com/articles/supplementation/creatine-work-one-take/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creatine

Effects of creatine supplementation and resistance training on muscle strength and weightlifting performance.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14636102

Creatine supplementation with specific view to exercise/sports performance: an update.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22817979

The role of dietary creatine.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26874700

Effect of creatine and weight training on muscle creatine and performance in vegetarians.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14600563

Elevation of creatine in resting and exercised muscle of normal subjects by creatine supplementation.
http://www.clinsci.org/content/ppclinsci/83/3/367.full.pdf

Creatine supplementation as an ergogenic aid for sports performance in highly trained athletes: a critical review.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9414070

Putting to rest the myth of creatine supplementation leading to muscle cramps and dehydration.
http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/42/7/567.long

Creatine monohydrate supplementation on body weight and percent body fat.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14636103

Elevation of creatine in resting and exercised muscle of normal subjects by creatine supplementation.
http://www.clinsci.org/content/ppclinsci/83/3/367.full.pdf

Renal dysfunction accompanying oral creatine supplements.
http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2805%2977836-3/abstract

Effects of creatine supplementation on performance and training adaptations.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12701815