What Is Creatine And What Does It Do?


Creatine, creatine, creatine. It’s a supplement that is talked about by just about every bodybuilder in the gym – a seemingly miraculous way to increase size and strength for any level of lifter. But with rumours of bloating, water weight and cramping, is creatine all it’s cracked up to be?

,What if I told you there was a supplement that you could take daily that would let you lift more weight? You’d be over the moon – surely? Then why is it that creatine isn’t used by every single gym goer in the world? Firstly, we need to explain what is creatine before we can explain the benefits.

What Is Creatine? Allow Science To Explain

Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) is the body’s main source of energy. Creatine is a natural organic acid comprised of arginine, methionine and glycine that helps to increase the formation of ATP. It is found in the skeletal muscle and vertebrae of fish. It is also produced in small amounts in your kidneys and liver. Half of creatine is consumed via food sources (largely meat-based.)

Essentially, ATP is an energy currency used by your body. During periods of mechanical work, the ATP is used up and split into ADP and Phosphate. When your ATP is depleted, your hard work stops. Fortunately, the body can use creatine to then replenish the ATP. Thus it allows you to keep your ATP levels up for several more seconds. Ultimately, this allows you to have more energy in short bursts of intense exercise.

With that process in mind, how does Creatine as a supplement work to help a lifter? Does it make you bigger and stronger?

What Are The Benefits Of Creatine?

What is creatine?

For people who respond to creatine supplementation (more on that in the next section,) the benefits are clear.

You can lift harder: Creatine Monohydrate is a supplement that provides an elevated level of creatine content in your skeletal muscle. An elevated level of creatine moderately improves contractile performance in sports with repeated high-intensity exercise bouts. In short, you should theoretically be able to complete a few extra reps or sprint for a little longer as your body will be able to readily supply ATP for a slightly longer period

Increases perceived mass: Because creatine causes your body to retain water in your muscle cells, they’ll appear slightly larger. This is because you’re saturating muscles with additional mass caused by the water. You can end up retaining over two kilograms of water weight when you’re consuming a high dosage of creatine.

Increases lean mass: A study published in the International Journal of Sport nutrition and Exercise Metabolism reviewed 100 other studies on creatine and reported that it was proven to increase lean body mass (all aboard the gains train).

Strength gains? The debate over whether creatine actually increases physical strength is ongoing. There are contradictory studies from different scientists across the globe. Some studies have shown an increase in 1RM lifts for bench press and squat when taking creatine vs placebos. However, others have been inconclusive. A meta-analysis in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research reviewed 22 studies on creatine and weightlifting performance and found creatine increased strength by 8% and power output by 14%. Put simply: you will likely see an increase in strength alongside when taking creatine but we can’t say for certain.

What Is a `Non-Responder`?

It is possible to be a ‘non responder’ to creatine. This essentially means your body does not respond to the supplement form of creatine and derives no additional benefit from it. The good news is that this seems to only affect a small number of people.

Are There Any Side Effects?

Creatine Monohydrate is one of the most well-researched supplements in the world. As such, no significant side effects have been reported, even in-long term doses.

There is HUGE volume of evidence that shows creatine is safe. For example, one 2003 study found no adverse effects in football players taking the supplement in 5g daily doses for 21 months.

Creatine is sometimes said to cause cramps and stomach aches but there is no significant evidence to support this. Other studies have concluded that long-term creatine use also has no adverse effect on kidney or liver function – some in timeframes as long as five years!

What Kind Of Creatine Should I Take?

What Is The Best Way To Take Creatine?

Almost all of the research has been done on Creatine Monohydrate. It is the cheapest and most available type of creatine and the one most credible sources would recommend.

There are new types of creatine hitting the market but they don’t look to be worth the extra cash: creatine hydrochloride, has been shown to be less effective than creatine monohydrate and creatine nitrate, a form of creatine in which no studies, beyond testing solubility, have been done.

What Is The Best Way To Take Creatine?

As creatine is designed to ‘load up’ your cells with the substance, to provide rapid chemical reactions and support muscles during intense exercise, most people recommend a ‘loading phase’ which sees you taking 20 grams per day in four daily doses of five grams, before dropping down to a daily ‘maintenance’ dose of five grams daily.

Alternatively, you can skip the loading phase introduce creatine to your body more slowly, starting at the maintenance dose of 3-5g per day and studies have shown that after around 28 days the amount of creatine stored in the muscle will be the same anyway.

However, creatine has no immediate effect on muscle strength or size, so the time you take it makes no real difference and your goal should be to properly saturate muscles with creatine. You will only start to benefit once your body is saturated with creatine. You can take it pre or post workout, and with or without food, as this has no effect on creatine absorption. The best time of day to take it is whenever it is most convenient for you.

Final Thoughts

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Ultimately, for folks who are involved in short bursts of intense exercise such as HIIT, weight training, powerlifting, bodybuilding and sprinting, creatine is great!

Both men and women can benefit from the supplement and supply themselves with just a little more energy – which in turn leads to just a little more exercise complete per workout. For a slight edge that is relatively risk-free, creatine supplementation is a great answer.

What is creatine? What are the benefits? Are there any side effects?

Scott is the owner and founder of Food For Fitness. He is a fat loss coach, speaker and fitness writer with a masters (MSc) degree in Applied Sports Nutrition.