The Basics of Creatine
It is important to know why you take certain supplements, whether you’ve been told to by your trainer, a friend or a fellow gym goer, or read about them online or in advertisements. In fact, depending on how serious you are with your training, you should know the benefit of everything you consume. This is because a lot of supplements (you can insert ‘superfoods’ in here too) are very fashionable and promise immediate results, but with very little evidence to suggest they actually have a worthwhile effect. Luckily there are a few which do have a decent amount of research behind the claims and creatine is one of them.
Creatine is an organic compound produced naturally in the liver; a typical adult produces 2g of creatine a day and holds approximately 2g per kg of lean body mass. Throughout the day, food sources and the 2g naturally made by the body replenish these stores. Creatine is stored mainly in the skeletal muscles due to its ability to aid cell function during periods of physical stress. It does this by replenishing the levels of phosphates in the body’s ATP-PC system. If you think of ATP - adenosine triphosphate - as the body’s energy currency, energy is released once a single phosphate breaks from ATP making it ADP - adenosine diphosphate. As this is no longer ATP, energy cannot be produced, this is where another phosphate is needed to attach on to the ADP and to make it ATP. This is where Creatine is vital. Creatine takes the phosphate and causes an enzyme reaction to resynthesize ADP into ATP. In simple terms creatine basically improves your body’s ability to work hard for longer periods of time by recycling energy for your muscles. This system is active for around 7 seconds so any exercise activity that lasts 3-10 seconds or less than 3 seconds but for multiple sets benefits from creatine. I’d go as far as saying that if you’re lifting weights for 15 reps or less, or completing near maximal efforts lasting no longer than 15-20 seconds, creatine will benefit you.
So Creatine builds muscle?
Creatine has shown to increase muscular power and repeated power output (Morris. 2013) as well as reduce fatigue and improve high intensity exercise which can illicit a more substantial growth in muscle tissue. In terms of hypertrophy this means you can increase intensity and volume, leading to the increased stress and stimuli on the muscle, causing it to grow. Additionally, one of most well known side effects of creatine is the ability for the body to store more water. As muscle is around 70% water Creatine can have an effect on the size and shape of body muscle.
How much and when?
The amount during maintenance phase, or your starting amount if you choose not to do a loading phase, would be 0.03g of creatine per kg of body mass. So for an 83kg person, the amount would be 2.49g (round up to 2.5g) as 83 x 0.03 = 2.49. It’s worth noting that some athletes who have a higher amount of muscle or those who have used creatine for a longer amount of time, or just those would want to make sure stores are completely full, will often consume slightly more than 0.03g/kg/bw mainly because it’s cheap and causes little to no negative effects at higher amounts. Those who choose to do a loading phase usually do so to kick start the effects of creatine, this may have very slight short term benefit but in the long run it is not required. A loading phase would last around 7 days and the athlete would consume 0.3g of creatine per kg of body mass. So if your body mass is 83kg again, you would consume 24.9g (round up to 25g) of reatine for that amount of time as 83 x 0.3 = 24.9.
Creatine should be consumed immediately after high intensity exercise as this is when the body is lowest on ATP and creatine. Some choose to consume it within 30 minutes post workout whilst others will choose to start consuming it during their workout after their first working set as this is when muscles will need ATP as energy. I think either is fine.
Creatine with other supplements
Assuming the athlete is taking Creatine to perform high intensity exercise, it is essential that an adequate supply of protein is given to the muscles throughout the day to ensure that muscle protein synthesis is occurring, if there isn’t sufficient protein in the body, the body won’t be able to rebuild from the muscle damage the high intensity exercise has caused, inhibiting muscle hypertrophy. Three excellent forms of protein supplementation include essential amino acids (EAA’s), Whey and Casein (in addition to protein from food sources – which are the best choice). Additionally, it is well known that if carbohydrates are present alongside protein, the uptake of protein in the muscles is higher. Furthermore the replenishment of muscle glycogen is important so it is recommended that as well as protein, carbohydrates are consumed post workout with Creatine. This could be from a protein – carbohydrate blend, a protein bar or from adding supplements such as maltodextrin, cyclic dextrin or dextrose to your protein (once again, these are in addition to protein and carbohydrates from quality food sources).
In terms of supplements in which the primary goal isn’t to hit macros, beta-alanine is a great supplement and combining it with creatine appears to have the greater effect on lean tissue accruement and body composition than each individually (Hoffman 2006). Both supplements can increase power output and delay the onset of muscle fatigue which suggests taking both to have a synergistic affect during exercise. Beta-alanine can be taken with creatine but can also be taken at any other time of the day.
Caffeine and creatine have both shown to improve anaerobic performance individually but a recently study (Tarnopolsky. 2010) concluded that there is no need to take both supplements simultaneously. In fact it has been suggested that caffeine may block the adenosine receptors, inhibiting the effectiveness of Creatine and the ATP-PC system as a whole. Personally I believe that as long as you consume caffeine before your workout and creatine after, it shouldn’t be a problem.
In our opinion creatine is great. We’d recommend it to anyone whose training includes resistance training or maximal efforts. The only time we’d recommend caution is if you’re trying to make a specific weight as the increased water storage can be somewhat unpredictable, and for this reason you should also not consume creatine if a healthcare professional has prescribed you any form of diuretics.
As much as creatine helps, a supplement is only there to add small but often important improvement to your diet and training – if you want to perform well and lift well, it’s essential that you have a strong nutrition plan to fuel it.