When it comes to building muscle, creatine is amongst the most popular supplements available, second only to whey protein. However, what is creatine? What are it’s benefits? Does it have any side-effects? And most importantly, do you need it?
What is Creatine?
Creatine is a natural substance, constructed from the amino acids arginine, glycine and methionine, and produced in the liver, kidneys and pancreas of the human body. Your body converts creatine into creatine phosphate which in turn helps to make a substance called adrenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is important as it provides the energy for muscle contraction, meaning creatine may increase your capacity to do high-intensity anaerobic work. For the bodybuilder out there, this means an extra 1 or 2 reps per set.
About 95% of the body’s creatine store can be found in the muscles in the form of phosphocreatine. The remaining 5% is stored in the brain, kidneys and liver.
Benefits of Creatine supplementation
Boost high-intensity work load – during high-intensity exercise creatine’s primary role is to increase phosphocreatine stores in the muscle. This is then used to produce more ATP, meaning it enables more total work in a single training session.
Creatine enhances recovery – studies have shown that supplementation with creatine may help to promote recovery from intense exercise as it somehow reduced muscle cell damage and inflammation following high-intensity training.
Improve cell signalling – Supplementation can increase satellite cell signalling, where signals to the muscles help with repair and new muscle growth.
Raise anabolic hormones – Studies have shown that there is a large rise in hormones, such as IGF-1, after supplementation.
Increase cell hydration – It is well known for increasing the water content within muscle cells. This causes a cell volumization effect that may play a role in muscle growth as it serves as a stimulus for protein synthesis.
Reduce protein breakdown – Supplementation may also help increase total muscle mass by reducing muscle breakdown.
Lower myostatin levels – Elevated levels of the protein myostatin are well known for slowing or totally inhibiting new muscle growth. Supplementing can reduce these levels, therefore increasing growth potential. It should be noted however that the decrease in myostatin levels were modest.
Creatine from food
Although the body naturally produces creatine, it is also readily available from a number of food sources, namely meat and fish. Arguably the best animal source of creatine is found in wild game meats such as, venison, elk, buffalo, and bison. Generally speaking, wild game meats tend to have fewer calories and less saturated fat than domestic meats.
The next best source would be lean, free-range meats including beef, chicken, turkey and lamb. Creatine is also found in wild-caught fish, which has an average of 1-2g per three-ounce serving.
As there are no vegetarian sources of creatine, vegetarians must ensure that they get enough of the amino acids that are used in its production, namely arginine, glycine and methionine.
Arginine rich foods – peanuts, walnuts, coconuts, soybeans, chickpeas and oats.
Glycine rich foods – raw seaweed, raw watercress, spinach and sesame seeds.
Methionine rich foods – brazil nuts, oats and sunflower seeds.
How much Creatine?
Many people who begin supplementing with creatine start with a “loading phase”. The idea here is to take 20g of creatine per day for 5-7 days, ideally split into 4 5g servings throughout the day. Once the “loading phase” is complete, the recommended dosage is no more than 3-5g per day. The concept behind the loading strategy is to gain a rapid increase in muscle stores of phosphocreatine.
It’s important to note that the traditional loading strategy has come under considerable scrutiny of recent. Yes, if the idea is create the immediate effect of muscle fullness, then loading is viable, however for general training purposes, cellular energy and long term performance enhancement, a simple 5g per day is arguably the best approach.
Side-effects of creatine
If taken appropriately, creatine can be a very effective supplement for helping to increase lean body mass, composition, strength and performance of high-intensity training. Despite this, there remain a number of concerns:
Creatine causes kidney and liver damage – there have been numerous studies conducted on the supplementation of creatine, none of which have found any conclusive evidence of negative effects to either the kidneys or liver. Supplementation of create does however lead to elevated levels of creatinine, which is a marker used to diagnose kidney problems, so this may be where the confusion occurs.
Creatine causes gastrointestinal distress – although very rare, it has been documented that excess creatine can cause some minor GI distress, although this is reported in only 5-7% of people. It should be noted that the reports of GI distress usually coincide with an over-supplementation of creatine, for example, with a loading phase.
Creatine causes weight gain – When supplementing with creatine, it is common for someone to experience some initial weight gain of up to 3% of body weight. This is likely due to the fact that water is being pulled into the muscle, and so the extra weight is water weight. However, over a period os sustained and appropriate use, creatine is proven to help increase lean body mass and decrease body fat.
There are many other claims regarding the use of creatine, however to-date there has been little to no conclusive evidence presented, with the general consensus being that creatine is safe to use providing you are not abusing the supplement.
Creatine monohydrate or micronised creatine
Creatine monohydrate is the original, and most widely sold form of the supplement. Micronised creatine is fundamentally creatine monohydrate, expect that the molecules of the creatine have been divided to increase absorption levels. This means that people who experience GI distress may find that micronised creatine works better for them. Given the extra process involved in its manufacture, micronised creatine tends to cost more at retail.
Do you NEED to supplement with creatine?
In short, no. Creatine supplementation is just that, supplementation of your regular diet. If your diet is poor, no supplement is going to overcome that fact, however if your diet is good, you will still be able to experience great increases in lean muscle mass and strength providing you are matching your nutrition with the appropriate training and rest. If you are eating correctly, training correctly and getting the right amount of rest, then supplementation with creatine can give you a strong helping hand towards your goals.
*The views and/or opinions expressed in the blogs are not necessarily those of Training Nation, but of the author