Disclaimer: This post contains recommendations, opinions, and facts that I’ve gathered from my personal evaluation of the research available. This is by no means the only interpretation of the research. Take any supplement carefully, and do your own personal research before trying anything. Speak with your doctor if you have any health concerns, which might cause complications with taking any supplement. Supplements are NOT essential, but are used to supplement healthy nutrition and daily exercise.
One of the questions that I get asked pretty frequently is whether or not creatine supplementation is effective and safe. In this post, I want to break down what I know about creatine, how I recommend taking creatine, and the best sources of creatine supplementation. This will be a quick overview of the subject, but if you have additional questions, leave them in the comments and I’ll be happy to take a swing at them!
Let’s begin with a brief introduction into creatine and what it does for our body. Creatine is found in protein sources like red meat, some types of fish, and pork. If inadequate amounts are ingested, the body can produce upwards of 1-2/grams per day. By eating 1kg of steak, we can get approximately 4g worth of creatine (Grande, 2005). By the way, 1 kg of steak is over 2 pounds. Let that sink in. By supplementing with creatine, we can provide a much larger dose of creatine than we would normally be able to eat through dietary means alone. So, in summary, your body makes creatine, and you can get creatine from the food you eat. So why would you need MORE creatine, and what exactly does it do?
Let’s be clear, I faked my way through bioenergetics, but I can try to explain in the simplest of terms, how the process works. Our muscles use an energy source called ATP. The body has a limited ability to store ATP to use as a quick and easy energy source for the muscles. Creatine has a lesser negative charge and is less dense which means that the body can store up to 4-6 times the amount of creatine than ATP (Grande, 2005). As creatine is ingested, it passes through the blood stream and combines with phosphate to create phosphocreatine (PCr). This process allows for a very rapid regeneration of ATP to replenish what has been used by the active muscles (Grande, 2005). So in short, creatine acts as a mechanism to replace the energy source used by the muscles so we can exercise harder, longer, and also recover more quickly.
This process makes creatine a valuable supplement for strength athletes, athletes doing high intensity workouts, bodybuilding, and those doing repeated bouts of high intensity exercise. There isn’t much research on the effectiveness of creatine with aerobic athletes, but I personally don’t think there is much of a detriment if hydration and excess weight gain are addressed. With that said, do you need to supplement with creatine? I think so.
According to Burklen et al. (2006), the supplementation of creatine has shown to have benefits in cognitive function, increased memory and learning potential. There is research that supports the use of creatine supplementation for Alzheimer’s patients, and those with Parkinson’s disease. In addition, creatine has been researched quite extensively since it started to gain some popularity as a supplement. The only real side effects that can be validated by the literature that I can see are GI distress in some athletes and weight gain. Weight gain is likely due to increased water retention, and the fact that urinary volume sometimes decreases with creatine supplementation. There is some anecdotal evidence that this could lead to muscle cramping, but if adequate hydration levels are maintained, you’ll be just fine. Next to protein supplements, creatine is probably one of the most researched supplements on the market.
Ok, so now what to get and how do you take it? This is my favorite part. All you need is creatine monohydrate. This is one of the few supplements where the cheapest form, works the best. You don’t need micronized creatine or anything other than pure creatine monohydrate. You can easily get a month’s worth for under $15. While I’m not partial to any particular band (because pure creatine monohydrate is same across the board) my favorite to use at the moment is made Optimum Nutrition. Because it is micronized, it mixes a little better. This is what it looks like:
On the back of the bottle, it will suggest a loading phase and it will suggest that you take your creatine with some form of high glycemic carbohydrates. There isn’t a lot of evidence that supports MANDATORY loading phase. I believe that 5g per day is plenty of creatine, and after a few days you will have sufficiently loaded as much creatine as you need. I also don’t believe you have to take your creatine with high glycemic carbs, but it does help. I seldom do because I am typically trying to control by carbohydrate intake, but during bulk phases, it’s a good idea. There also isn’t really an optimal time to take your creatine, just take it every day and you’ll be fine. Many people suggest taking it immediately after your workout for better recovery. I take mine in the morning so I don’t forget. Do what works for you.
What about pre –workout supplements that have creatine in them? I won’t bash the pre-workouts…at least not in this post, but I don’t really think they are the most advantageous for many athletes. What you want from your pre-workout is creatine, and caffeine. I think you’re better off making your own concoction. There’s so some evidence that the ingestion of caffeine with creatine may have detrimental effects in regards to the effectiveness of the creatine (Vandenberghe, 1996) You’ll have to try this for yourself to see how you respond. In this particular article, the caffeine dose was 5mg per kg of bodyweight…that’s a lot! (Vandenberghe, 1996).
So, do I recommend using creatine as a supplement to your healthy nutrition and exercise program? Yep. If you want to give it a shot, it’s a minimal investment, and very safe. Here’s how to make it work the best for you:
- Get plain creatine monohydrate (it’s bitter so mix it with a flavored water or make a 1-2 ounce shot out of it)
- Chase it with a bottle of water and make sure you stay hydrated (drink 1/2 your bodyweight in ounces of water per day!)
- Don’t worry about the loading phase, just take 5g daily
- If you experience some weight gain and that bothers you, take about 4 weeks on, then a week or two off and see if you lean out some. Most of the weight will be water retention, but you should be building some muscle in the process!
Good luck! Let us know if you have questions. Leave them in the comments below, and don’t forget to like and share this post if you think it is something others can use!
Bürklen, T. S., Schlattner, U., Homayouni, R., Gough, K., Rak, M., Szeghalmi, A., & Wallimann, T. (2006). The Creatine Kinase/Creatine Connection to Alzheimer’s Disease: CK Inactivation, APP-CK Complexes, and Focal Creatine Deposits. Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology, 2006, 35936. http://doi.org/10.1155/JBB/2006/35936
Grande, B. M. (2005). Creatine supplementation: Forms, functions, and effects. Journal of Strength and Conditioning, 27(1), 62-68.
Vandenberghe, K., Gillis, N., Van Leemputte, M., Van Hecke, P., Vanstapel, F., & Hespel, P. (1996). Caffeine counteracts the ergogenic action of muscle creatine loading. Journal of Applied Physiology, 80(2), 452-457.