You've heard about a supplement and how it can increase strength and muscle mass. You've heard that it can increase exercise intensity, but unsure whether you should try it. Here's the low down on creatine monohydrate.
It's true, there's a ton of information circulating on the internet, but what is true? How much of it can you trust? I find it hard at times to find accurate answers to things I do know. Imagine how hard it is to find accurate answers to questions you don't know the answer to. That's why you're reading this.
Honestly, there is a lot of information about this supplement and what it does. My goal with this article is to provide easy to read information. I'll do my best to provide other resources for follow-up reading. The hope is that there is ample information to give you the ability to make an informed decision whether to use creatine.
Before I go much further, I want to point out a couple of things. First and foremost, creatine monohydrate has been around for a long time (introduce for public sale in the early 1990s). In that time you can imagine that there has been study after study completed. In fact, creatine is one of the most well-researched supplements on the market (one of the cheapest as well). It's efficacy is proven and unwavering in its effect on the body.
What Is It and How Does It Work?
Creatine is something that is found naturally in the human body. It's created from amino acids in the liver. A little amount is produced in the pancreas and kidneys. Once produced, creatine is stored in muscle tissue as phosphocreatine where it acts as a phosphate donor. Think back to chemistry, remember hearing about ATP (adenosine triphosphate)? That's the energy that the body uses to function, once expended it degrades into ADP (adenosine diphosphate). The body isn't able to keep up with production of ATP (seen during strenuous activity) and you become fatigued. When creatine is present, it's able to donate a phosphate to help with recycling the ADP to ATP.
As a side note, I want to be clear when I say that this is note a steroid. Nor should it be confused with one. This is something that still surprises me when I hear it.
What Are the Benefits?
It has been attributed with a whole host of benefits. If we look at its function of being a high-energy phosphate donor, it's easy to identify what its benefits are. Most of the benefits you are going to see are in the strength and power output category.
Assuming your training and nutrition are taken care of, adding this in will increase your ability to lift more weight. You may notice you recover a little faster. You'll also notice that when sprinting, you're a little faster. To reiterate, your training has to be designed for improvement and not just to maintain.
Adding in appropriate nutrition, you'll begin to notice a decent amount of muscle begin to develop. This is one of the benefits of increased strength. Generally, you'll see an increase in strength before you'll see an increase in muscle size.
Are There Risks or Side Effects?
In the beginning, when it first came to market, there were some that believed that it would be hard on the body. Specifically the liver and kidneys. We know that this isn't the case. To be honest, at the time there was some preliminary research that lead some credibility to this idea.
At best, the side effects are minor and more anecdotal than anything. Typically, revolving around gut aches and diarrhea, some people have reported muscle cramps. Further investigation has lead most to believe that this occurs because water consumption is low during increased bouts of higher intensity exercise.
Usage and Dosage
It was popular at one time to complete a loading phase of 20-30 grams for a few weeks. Then lower it to 3-5 grams per day after that. We know that this isn't necessary, in fact, we know that it doesn't speed up results felt or seen either. Research is clear that at the end of 30 days, muscle saturation is going to be about the same. Whether you decided to load or not. Though loading will have you reach peak saturation quicker, but this doesn't mean that the effects of the supplement will start working right away.
The most you would see with a loading phase is a large weight increase and possible gut distress. Not the most ideal situation when you're trying to lift weights or do any kind of strenuous activity. It is possible to see slight increase in strength a few days sooner than someone who isn't loading. In the long term that isn't going to translate into a huge difference.
If you're still set on loading, my recommendations have always been to take 20 grams (split dose into 5 gram servings). Each dose can be mixed in with a protein shake or beverage. Juice is fine, just make sure you're paying attention to your overall calories. You'd do this for 3 weeks, after that reduce down to 3-5 grams. The lower dose can be consumed at one time in a beverage of your choice.
Given people don't normally like to have an upset stomach. Or the thought of having one, you could always just add the 3-5 gram dose once per day and call it good.
What to Expect While Supplementing
Typically, within a few weeks you should begin to notice an increase in muscle size, strength, and power output. This is regardless of what kind of dosing scheme you decide to use. Results typically peak around 12 to 14 weeks after you begin taking it.
One meta-analysis even reported it as being one of the single most effective supplements on the market. That's saying a lot when there are so many supplements that hit the market on an almost weekly basis. As you can tell though, not many can hold a candle to creatine.
Lastly, I think this is a good time to mention that supplements are secondary. They should come after you have your training and nutrition in check. A supplement, regardless of what it is, will not current poorly designed training routines or fix nutrition habits. Clients that I have worked with in the past have tried to use supplementation to hack their training and eating habits. Only for it to backfire on them.
So please, before beginning any supplement, take a hard look at what you are doing. Decide where the supplement fits in your regimen and understand that it's not going to be a crutch. It would also be wise to do as much information gathering before adding anything into your routine.
- Effect of dietary supplements on lean mass and strength gains with resistance exercise: a meta-analysis
- International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: creatine supplementation and exercise