What Is Creatine All About? Safety, How to Take It, and What It Does

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I have spent a long time researching creatine (Cr), and so have picked up a number of different opinions and pieces of research whilst studying this supplement.

“What is creatine?”

For those who do not know, creatine is a performance supplement. It is often recommended as a number 1 supp for people looking to get bigger, faster and stronger. This is due, in part, to its role in our energy systems.

Basically, you have three energy systems: the phosphocreatine (PC), lactic (LA), and aerobic. You have probably experienced the two latter systems, and we will come to those soon.

During exercise your body uses something called Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP). ATP is broken down to create energy. During this process it becomes Adenosine Diphosphate (now two phosphates instead of three).

In order for your body to create energy again, it must replenish its store of ATP by borrowing a phosphate from one of the three energy systems (PC, LA, aerobic).

In the LA system, your body uses the glycogen stored in your muscles to replenish ATP. The glycogen is only partially broken down, and one of the bi-products is lactic acid. This acid remains until oxygen returns to the muscle and removes the waste product. The LA system is used for intense activities lasting between five to forty-five seconds.

The most long-lasting system the body has for energy is the aerobic system. Oxygen we inhale is used to breakdown carbohydrates and fat to replenish our ATP. When you go for a half-hour run, you will be using this system, burning food you have consumed for fuel. The waste product of this, of course, is carbon dioxide that we exhale.

Bolt using the PC system to get out of the blocks

Bolt using the PC system to get out of the blocks

Now we have the PC system. It is used for short periods of time at a high intensity. Lifting weights, sprints, jumps, and so on, are examples of when this system is used. Cr is stored in our muscles and is in very short supply so it only lasts up to 5 seconds. After it is used we either have to rest, or our body turns to the next system; the LA system. There is very little waste in the PC system, except for some heat.

“Why do people take creatine?”

Now you understand how your body uses Cr, you might be able to see why athletes and bodybuilders use creatine. Supplementing with creatine will increase your Total Cr levels (TCr), meaning you can go for longer periods of intense exercise without fatiguing.

For example, if you are lifting weights you may find you have more energy in your workouts, and might be able to push out a few more repetitions than you would when you did not take Cr.

The reason Cr is often recommended to guys looking to build muscle is because of this. The heavier weight you can lift, the more repetitions you push out, the stronger you get. This means you build more muscle and therefore put on more weight. Furthermore, it is an amino acid, which are the building blocks of muscle, and it is therefore recommended to aid recovery, too.

Furthermore, Cr has been found to reduce triglycerides (fats in the blood), and also aid those with muscular dystrophy and Parkinson’s Disease to maintain strength and endurance, these studies are limited, though.

“What are the side effects, though?”

None, to anyone’s knowledge. You have probably read it so often, but Cr really is the most researched supplement on the market. I asked Aidan Innes, a Postgraduate Student at Stirling University and Fitness Officer at the University gym, what he thought.

Beforehand I read his dissertation, which looked at the use of Cr on endurance athletes to determine if it had an impact on performance. It did not. He, too, told me that there have not been any negative side effects of Cr supplementation, to his knowledge.

However, the only side effect is that Cr does draw water into your muscles. I have not seen it myself, but many bodybuilders stop Cr supplementation before a competition because they do not want to hold on to water and look “puffy”. Initially, the weight you put on will be water weight, but you will start building muscle with continued use.

It must be noted that everyone is different. What works for some might not for others, and Cr is no exception.

“Should I do a loading phase?”

According to a number of studies, Cr loading is recommended for the best results. A “loading phase” is where you consume 20g of creatine a day for one week, before reducing it to 5g a day for the rest of the time. What this does is totally saturates the muscles. This period will see a great increase in TCr, but also a lot of water retention.

Furthermore, loading will make you need to visit the bathroom more regularly. What the body does when there is more of something than it needs is get rid of it. Eat a very salty meal and you will probably feel quite sweaty afterwards. This is in order to maintain what is called homeostasis. This is a balance in your body.

So, to answer the question: some would say for the fastest results, loading is advisable. However, I myself did not go to the lengths of loading with a full 20g, just 10g.

Cr will not make you like this

Cr will not make you like this

“Do I need to cycle creatine?”

Now, when it comes to Cr cycling there is still great debate. Some say you should stop supplementing with Cr after 8 weeks, some 10 weeks, some never. Those who say you should cease for about two weeks between cycles argue that it is so your body does not stop creating its own creatine, and becomes reliant on the supplement. On this ground I would recommend cycling. I am not looking to get massive, so I do not want to become dependent on a supplement.

It should be noted that Cr is a supplement. Cr is found in fish like tuna, as well as red meat. However, the amounts in them is tiny. If I recall correctly, you would have to consume 500g of raw meat or fish every day to obtain the optimal amounts of Cr. That is not realistic, so athletes use Cr supplements.

“Which form is best?”

Monohydrate. I once saw Dr. Jim Stoppani say Cr HCL was best because it is more easily digested, and so on. I would say monohydrate as it is the form that is already stored in your muscles, and is therefore readily available. The Fitness Officer I spoke of earlier agrees.

“When should I take it?”

A fair amount of research has been done into this. Studies have found that taking creatine post workout is superior to pre-workout. However, some say that taking half of your daily creatine before your workout, and the rest after is even better. The former claim has not received backing from any significant studies, though, and post workout still appears to yield the best results in increasing fat-free mass, muscle size, and strength gains.

“How should I take it?”

Yes, the questions go on and on, but I asked them myself so many others probably have, too. Cr can be consumed with water, or can be added to protein powder. Numerous protein powders now actually contain Cr already.

It is also advised to be taken alongside carbohydrates. There have been a couple of studies that I remember reading that have noted Cr uptake is related to insulin levels, which are spiked by carbohydrates.

The University of Maryland Medical Centre among others also note that taking Cr with caffeine is not advised, as caffeine appears to slow the rate of Cr uptake, and combining the two may cause dehydration.

I have also read about people taking it with juice. To be honest, I would stick with water. Even sugar-free juices have chemicals in them and sweeteners, so I am unsure how they would interact with the Cr.

“Do I need to drink a gallon of water a day? That is way too much!”

A lot of guys will say that if you are drinking a gallon of water a day, that is the best. I personally drink 3L a day. This is not specifically because of Cr supplementation rather to maintain mental focus, and to be ready for the next workout drinking 3L a day is advised anyway.

It is not a big ask, and you will not explode. Just have handy a decent sized water bottle, such as a 750ml, 1L, or 2L so you know how much you’re drinking. I will say I do not track my water intake. I know I drink over a litre at the gym, and after that I just keep filling my 750ml bottle. It is not rocket science.

[Above is a quick video on how Cr works. I am not promoting this company].

“Where can I get it?”

Literally anywhere. Health shops like Holland & Barrett, or online. However, despite there being no known negative side effects of taking Cr, make sure you are going for a reputable brand. Even better one that has an Informed Sport badge, meaning it has been batch tested and is 100% safe.

The Informed Sport website has a list of products it tests.

I would recommend Maxinutrition’s Creatamax 300, which I know to be a reputable brand and is very high quality. Price-wise Cr monohydrate can be sold very cheaply, but watch out for potential drops in quality.

“Do I really need it?”

In short: no. Cr supplementation, any supplement for that matter, is not essential. However, it does help. If you want to push your performance, see better results, and be a better athlete then supplementing with Cr may be the way to go. You do not need to take Cr to gain muscle. Eating enough calories, training at a correct intensity, with proper technique and organisation, will produce results; no question.

 

I hope this post helped anyone deciding whether or not to supplement with Cr, or anyone who was merely interested in what is is. If you have any questions, use my “Contact Me” page, and I will respond as soon as possible.

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