How Creatine Works – Everything You Need To Know About Its Benefits

Creatine is the most popular sports supplement on the planet, designed for mass gain. Surveys show that more than 40 percent of athletes in the National Collegiate Athletic Association take creatine. In addition, athletes from 20 NCAA sports also use it.

Creatine’s use in power-sport athletes is even more widespread, with 75 percent of powerlifters, boxers, track and field athletes and weightlifters using this supplement. A 2000 survey of gym members says that 60 percent of them use creatine.

You may wonder why it’s so popular among gym-goers and athletes? Well, basically because it works. There have been hundreds of studies released on creatine that reveal its effectiveness for boosting muscle strength, power, and size, as well as overall athletic performance. It can even enhance health.

Basics of Creatine

Creatine, a non-essential dietary compound (protein-like), is found naturally in meat and fish. Creatine is synthesized in the liver from three amino acids: arginine, methionine and glycine. Muscle tissue doesn’t make creatine, so it has to get it from the bloodstream. Once it gets into the muscle cells, a high-energy phosphate attaches to the creatine, turning it into phosphocreatine (PCr), or creatine phosphate.

This high-energy molecule is a vital component of creatine’s many benefits for the body. Why? Creatine lends its high-energy phosphate to make ATP (adenosine triphosphate), utilized by the muscles for quick energy required for muscle contraction, such as what happens during weightlifting. Creatine supplementation is known to boost PCr content in muscle by about 20 percent.

More PCr in your muscle cells means you have more ATP that can be quickly produced while exercising. This results in big gains in power, strength, speed, and muscle growth.

Creatine Increases Muscle Strength

Many studies have revealed big improvements in subjects’ one-rep max strength when taking creatine. In a 1997 Journal of Applied Physiology study, Belgian researchers found that untrained subjects who took creatine while participating in a 10-week weight-training program boosted their one-rep max on squats by 25 percent more than people who took a placebo and followed an identical program.

A University of Nebraska (Omaha) study in 1998 showed that collegiate football players who took creatine while on an eight-week weight-training program saw a six percent increase in one-rep bench press strength. Participants who took a placebo had no strength gains whatsoever.

A creatine review found in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research says that out of 16 studies on the effects of creatine regarding one-rep max strength, the average strength increase was 10 percent more in people who used creatine than those who used a placebo.

Studies reveal that creatine allows people to engage in more reps with a certain weight. Researchers at the University of Queensland (St. Lucia, Australia) found that competitive powerlifters who took creatine while prepping for competition boosted the number of reps they could complete with 85 percent of their one-rep max by 40 percent. On the other hand, those who took a placebo had no change in how many reps they could complete using the same weight. The average boost in reps made while using creatine was 15 percent more than those who used a placebo.

Creatine and Muscle Growth

Many studies show that creatine boosts muscle growth in a big way. University of Queensland researchers revealed that powerlifters who took creatine gained more than six pounds on average of lean bodyweight. Some subjects even gained up to 11 pounds of lean bodyweight in under a month. Those who took a placebo experienced no change in bodyweight.

Creatine supplementation doesn’t increase bone or organ mass, the boost in lean bodyweight is probably the result of a muscle mass gain. In a 2000 issue of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, researchers at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale said weightlifters who took creatine gained nearly five pounds of lean bodyweight in just six weeks, compared with those who took a placebo (they experienced no change in bodyweight).

Creatine and Athletic Performance

Most creatine studies show that supplementation greatly boosts athletic ability because it produces higher muscle power and force during short bursts of exercise. The subjects in most of these studies boast a variety of athletic ability and training routines, from untrained novices to college-level, competitive athletes.

The following exercise performances improved with creative use: short-term, all-out cycling; jumping; sprinting; swimming, soccer, rowing; kayaking; and weight lifting. The biggest improvements in athletic performance were found in repetitive output exercise bouts of high power.

For example, following a short rest period (20–60 seconds) after a short sprint, speed may be increased on the second bout of sprinting. Athletic performance during these latter bouts of exercise can be increased by 5-20% with creatine over the placebo group. This means that athletes in sports such as football and soccer, in which continuous play typically lasts for only a few seconds, can expect a significant boost in performance from creatine.

How Creatine Works

Research reveals there are many ways in which creatine can lead to increases in muscle strength and growth, as well as overall athletic performance. Most of creatine’s benefits were originally thought to only be due to the increase in quick energy as a result of increased PCr in the muscles. Thus, athletes can recover faster between exercise bouts, such as weight lifting or fast running. They can then run faster or do more repetitions. With time, they also improve the ability to do more repetitions that lead to muscle growth. While this is certainly true, creatine also works via many different mechanisms.

One of those is via muscle cell volumization, which is when the muscle cells fill with water. Creatine is a protein, drawing water from the blood and interstitial fluid (the space outside the muscle cells). This is the cause of rapid weight gain that comes with creatine supplement use. But this cell volume increases makes the cell membranes stretch, which in turn initiates long-term boosts in muscle strength and growth with higher protein synthesis. This is the process that allows muscle cells to grow.

Creative can also work by increasing how many satellite cells are in muscle fibers. Satellite cells are muscle stem cells, and they help muscles get bigger by attaching to existing muscle fibers. A University of Copenhagen study in 2006 revealed that after eight weeks of creatine use while participating in a weight-training program, subjects had 100 percent more satellite cells in their muscle fibers, compared with subjects who took a placebo. The higher number of satellite cells were associated with bigger muscle size. This led to greater muscle power and strength, as expected.

One more way that creatine works is via increases in the insulin-like growth factor-I, known for short as IGF-I. This is key when initiating processes within muscle cells that result in better muscle growth and strength. Researchers at St. Francis Xavier University (Canada) in 2008 held a study that showed weight-trained subjects who took creatine while participating in a weight-lifting program for two months had much higher IGF-I in their muscle fibers than people who simply took a placebo.

Lastly, another way creatine works is to increase muscle growth. Arak University researchers in Iran in the 2010 issue of Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology reported that subjects who took creatine while engaging in a weight-lifting program for two months had much lower myostatin levels than subjects who used a placebo. The protein myostatin limits muscle growth. In this study, since myostatin levels were lower in those who took creatine, creatine may have reduced myostatin levels, thereby reducing the limitation that this protein outs on muscle strength and growth.

Health Benefits of Creatine

On top of enhancements in muscle size, power, strength, overall athletic performance, creatine is known for its many health benefits. Due to the fact that PCr is key to energy production in regards to nerve cell function, creatine is known to offer many benefits to the brain and the entire nervous system. Research shows that creatine supplements can enhance memory and cognitive function, and could even aid in the treatment of depression, Parkinson’s disease, and Huntington’s disease, while also protecting against brain injury.

Creatine also helps with cardiovascular health, leading to improvements in symptoms in people who suffer from congestive heart failure. It could even lower cholesterol levels. A study appearing in the 1996 journal Clinical Science found that males and females who took creatine for two months witnessed a drop of at least five percent in total cholesterol, along with a reduction in LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) of at least 20 percent. Researchers from Skidmore College (Saratoga Springs, NY) reported in the 2001 issue of Metabolism that a month of creatine supplements decreased total cholesterol by 10 percent in healthy young men. Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University researchers found that healthy young men who took creatine with a multivitamin supplement greatly reduced levels of the amino acid homocysteine (associated with heart disease), as compared with men who only took the multivitamin.

These are only a few ways in which creatine can result in health benefits, with additional being discovered every year. German researchers, for instance, found that creatine supplements enhanced skin cell protection from sun damage and oxidative damage. Research also shows improved cognitive function in people who supplement with creatine. Finally, in another German study, scientists found that mice given creatine increased their lifespan by 10 percent more than rodents that did not get creatine.

Creatine Safety

While there is a lot of research out there that shows creatine is safe for most people, myths still abound in regards to its safety and side effects. One of the biggest myths is that creatine may lead to muscle cramps. However, many subsequent studies have debunked this claim. A study by Arkansas State University researchers in 2003 found that NCAA football athletes who took creatine over three years had no increase in muscle injuries or cramps. Another study from Baylor University (Waco, TX) that same year revealed that NCAA football players who took creatine for one season experienced a big reduction in muscle injuries and cramps.

There is a misconception out there that creatine can result in poor liver and kidney function. Studies from the 1990s showed that short-term creatine use does not lead to poor kidney function in healthy adults. Two studies from Uruguay show that two months of creatine supplement use in soccer and football athletes had no impact on health markers such as kidney and liver function.

Long-term studies confirm the safety of creatine too. Researchers at Truman State University (Kirksville, MO) found that NCAA football players who took creatine for six years had no long-term detrimental effects on kidney or liver functions, or overall health. University of Memphis researchers also said that NCAA football players who took creatine for two years had no negative effects on their general health, or on their kidney and liver function.

Creatine Forms

There are lots of creatine forms on the shelves today. There are so many that we can’t even include them all in this guide. But here are some of the most common forms.

Creatine Monohydrate – Most creatine research has focused on creatine monohydrate. For most people, creatine monohydrate is a cheap, effective way to supplement. But you should be sure to buy micronized creatine, which has been ground down to a much smaller size than other creatine monohydrates. This makes it dissolve better in fluids, leading to fewer instances of stomach upset. Plus, your body absorbs it better.

That being said, some people experience bloating and upset stomachs. If this describes you, take an alternative form of creatine to see if you get better results.

Creatine Hydrochloride – This is basically creatine that has been attached to hydrochloric acid. One study shows that creatine hydrochloride is absorbed by the body 60 percent better than creatine monohydrate. This means you need a lower dose of creatine to achieve enhanced results. It also doesn’t cause stomach discomfort or water retention.

Magnesium Creatine Chelate – This combines creatine with magnesium. Magnesium enhances the ability of creatine to draw water into the muscle, along with its ability to boost muscle energy levels while preventing muscle fatigue. This is because of the better uptake of the combination into your muscle cells.

Kre-Alkalyn – This is a buffered creatine that is processed at a higher pH level than standard creatine. This prevents creatine conversion, enhancing both uptake and effectiveness. With this one, you don’t need such a high dose, and you don’t get stomach discomfort or bloating.

Creatine Malate – This is comprised of creatine that has been bound to malic acid. Malic acid helps with creatine absorption while increasing energy production in the muscles for less fatigues and better endurance.

Creatine Alpha-Ketoglutarate – This is creatine that has been attached to alpha-ketoglutarate. It’s better absorbed by the body than monohydrate is.

Creatine Gluconate – This is creatine that has been attached to glucose that enhances uptake in the body.

Creatine Ethyl Ester – This is creatine with an attached ester group, enhancing creatine’s ability to go through cell membranes so it is more easily absorbed by your intestines. Studies show that creatine ethyl ester is no better than creatine monohydrate when it comes to increasing muscle.

Creatine Orotate – This is creatine that has been bound to orotic acid – a precursor to nucleic acids that enhances creatine phosphate formation in muscle cells. This is the form of creatine we use to produce fast energy to fuel our weightlifting workouts.

Creatine Pyruvate – This contains pyruvate, which increases endurance and buffers lactic acid within your muscles. As a result, you can train harder for longer periods of time.

Creatine Dosing

How much creatine you get will depend on the form you use. For creatine monohydrate, you may want to use a loading phase of 5g taken four to six times a day for up to a week to increase creatine levels by 40 percent. But research shows that taking only 5g per day can give you similar increases; however, it will take a month and not a week.

This is why it’s recommended you do a loading phase if you’re just starting out with creatine supplements. This way, you can experience the benefits of creatine quickly. After completing the loading phase, it is advised to use 5gs of creatine within a half hour before and after workouts. Research reveals that creatine taken around workout times leads to better accumulation of muscle.

Optimize your creatine uptake by taking creatine with high-glycemic (or fast-digesting) carbs, such as gummy

sports drink or gummy bears, and fast-digesting protein, such as whey protein. The major reason for this is that these nutrients boost blood insulin levels. This anabolic hormone is critical for stimulating the transport of creatine into muscle cells.

Many of the other forms of creatine, such as creatine hydrochloride and Kre-Alkalyn, allow you to take a much lower dose and not bother with the loading phase. For the other forms of creatine, use the dosing amount recommended on the label. However, I strongly suggest that whatever that dose is that you take one dose within 30 minutes before workouts along with your pre-workout protein shake, and one dose within 30 minutes after your workout along with your protein shake and fast carbs. On days that you do not train, take one dose of creatine with your morning protein shake and carbs.


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