My Definitive Guide to Creatine
What is Creatine?
Creatine is a naturally-synthesized compound found in the human body. 98% of creatine is found in skeletal muscles in either its free form (40%) or its phosphorylated form, also known as phosphocreatine (60%). Creatine is synthesized primarily in our livers, but can also be made in both the kidneys and pancreas. Although 98% of creatine is stored in skeletal muscles, small traces may also be found in the heart, brain, and testes (in males). Creatine can be found in abundant quantities in both meat and fish, although for highly active individuals, supplementation may be the only way to properly maintain optimal creatine levels.
Creatine and Exercise
Many of you may already know that the main "currency" of energy in the human body comes from a compound known as Adenosine Tri-Phosphate (ATP). ATP produces energy to working parts of the body by breaking the bond and releasing one of its phosphates (phosphorylation) causing ATP to become ADP (Adenosine Di-Phosphate). In order for an ADP to "re-load" and become useful again, it must rephosphorylate, or add a phosphate group back onto its structure becoming ATP again.
ATP is especially important in actions that are short, but intense in nature, such as resistance training or high-velocity sprinting. As an individual performs a high-intensity exercise, their ATP stores are used up rapidly, increasing concentrations of ADP. This is where the creatine phosphate (CP) comes into play. Stores of CP in the cells can then help rephosphorylate ADP back into ATP, allowing them to provide more energy for the working cells.
Breakdown occurs when the CP stores become depleted, therefore slowing or completely inhibiting an individual's ability to perform highly-intense exercise. A full-out sprint for example can deplete CP stores by as much as 80% within 30 seconds!
Creatine supplementation has become one of the most widely-used and studied supplements in the world. Research has shown that a proper creatine supplementation schedule can increase skeletal muscle concentration by 20%, although this certainly is not a case of "more is better". Many individuals may feel that if taking a regular dose of creatine can help, then taking twice as much will cause twice the strength gains. This does not appear to be the case, however, as your muscles will hit a saturation point where they will simply not retain any more creatine.
So what is the proper way to supplement? Typical regimens include a "loading phase" which consists of 20-25g daily for 5 days, or 0.3g/kg of body mass. The loading phase is generally broken down into 3 or 4 smaller doses to increase the likelihood of saturation. For example, 20g broken up into 4 doses of 5g each. After the initial loading phase, a "maintenance dose" of 2g/day is sufficient to keep skeletal muscle cell creatine levels topped-up.
A "loading phase" is not necessarily vital, although it will take an individual a longer period of time to reach maximal saturation levels by not loading. Some athletes may have some light stomach upset from creatine supplementation, so avoiding a loading phase is better in that case.
Studies completed on creatine supplementation have been fairly consistent in showcasing quite significant strength increases. For beginner or novice resistance-trained athletes, creatine can help build confidence and early strength gains that will help the individual meet some of their desired strength goals. For the more experienced weightlifter, creatine can also help prevent the early onset of fatigue while also enhancing recovery, both of which are desired in any resistance-trained athlete.
How Long Should I Supplement?
It appears as though creatine is more effective as a training supplement rather than a performance enhancer. Doses taken for single workouts will help an individual train harder during that workout, but creatine should be taken over a specific period of time in order to maximize its benefits.
Most studies I have read about have said that creatine supplementation should be used for at least 4-6 weeks in order to see desired results.
Should Creatine Be Cycled?
There does not appear to be any long-term health risks associated with chronic creatine usage, although an individual may want to "cycle" creatine to prevent supplement plateau. What this means is that your body will eventually reach its "saturation maximum", whereas your muscles cannot absorb any more creatine. I have read many sources and can recommend about a 6-week cycle "on" creatine, then 4 weeks "off".
When Should I Take Creatine?
Many individuals feel that creatine is a performance enhancer and should therefore be taken before exercise, which is simply not the case. Keep in mind that creatine should be treated as a supplement so it should therefore be taken following an intense workout.
Intense exercise increases anabolic hormones in the body, which can therefore create a greater demand for nutrition and supplementation within the muscle cells. Creatine should be taken immediately following an intense workout with a beverage containing both carbohydrates and protein to maximize its effectiveness.
What Should I Take Creatine with?
Many people will try and tell you that grape juice is the best thing to take your creatine with. Truth is, any beverage or meal that is sugary (carbs) will do the trick. I actually like to mix my creatine with chocolate milk following a workout because of its concentrations of both carbohydrates and protein. Carbohydrates cause an insulin response in the body, which can therefore increase your muscle's affinity to absorb protein and creatine into their cells.
Does Caffeine Decrease Creatine Absorption?
There is a rumor/myth that states that the acidity of caffeine, or more specifically, coffee, can degrade creatine and decrease its effectiveness. Truth is, no matter what beverage you mix your creatine in, the pH level of your digestive system is far lower than anything you may drink so there is no truth to this. In fact, early studies of creatine were ingested by using coffee and tea transports, with studied effectiveness!
Creatine seems to have been viewed in a bad light within the last few years, although time and time again, research studies have been unable to find any concrete data that suggests creatine usage is bad for you, even with long-term use (10-12 weeks). A study was even completed by using 26 competitive athletes who supplemented with creatine for 4 straight years with only occasional gastrointenstinal upset during the loading phase. Some others have suggested that creatine may be bad for individuals' kidneys due to the increased nitrogen content in the blood, but again, no conclusive data has proven this.
One side-effect, that may either be desired or not is weight gain caused by creatine supplementation. An increase in creatine content in muscles is thought to enhance the intracellular osmotic gradient. This may sound like mumbo-jumbo, but what this means is that the body's lean-mass tissues (muscles) retain more water. Again, for those individuals training for specific power or strength sports may welcome weight-gain with open arms, but not all athletes may want to gain weight as it could potentially decrease their skill-specific performance.
What Form of Creatine is the "Best"?
Due to its immense popularity, there are many different types, forms, shapes and colors of creatine on the market. It now can be found in liquid, bar, inject-able, tablet, capsule, and powder form. Not only that, but companies may even brand their form of creatine as being "better absorbed" or "fast-acting" in order to get you to purchase their product. Often times, however, these "gimmicky" forms of creatine come with a higher price tag. At the end of the day, there is no scientific evidence that says one form of creatine is more efficient or "better" for you than good old creatine monohydrate.
Sales people in supplement shops may try and "up-sell" you to a more expensive form of creatine, but I am telling you right now, you are better off just buying plain-and-simple creatine monohydrate in powder form. All that I ask is that you research the manufacturer(s) you are purchasing from to ensure that they have a good reputation and well-standing manufacturing processes.