Creatine Benefits (Why You Should Take Creatine Supplements)
It feels like the difference between mere mortals and gods. Like Superman on a good day and when he’s exposed to kryptonite.
That might sound like an exaggeration, but it’s not far off. Creatine is one of my ‘can’t do without supplements’, and I’m not afraid to show you why. This is perhaps the most widely tested supplement, proven safe and beneficial time and time again. Frankly, it’s about time people started learning more about it.
- 1 Here’s the bottom line
- 2 What is Creatine?
- 3 What does creatine do?
- 4 How does it do this?
- 5 Creatine Benefits
- 6 Is Creatine Safe?
- 7 5 Common (and Irresponsible) Creatine Myths Debunked
- 8 How much creatine should I take?
- 9 FAQ
- 10 Summing Up The Creatine Benefits
Creatine is about improving your power output. It’s about improving your one repetition maximum, your endurance for high-intensity workouts, and less about preparing you for a marathon.
There is nothing (legally) like it for enhanced athletic performance. That’s the reason professional athletes, across disciplines, supplement with creatine. There’s no other supplement (that I know of) which has such immediate effects. This is because creatine supplementing is about maximizing your existing creatine pool.
See, our bodies naturally produce the stuff, and we get some of it from our diet (mostly red meat and fish produce), but it’s rare that we are maxing this out on a daily basis. Particularly for vegetarians and other restricted diets, creatine just isn’t that readily available from food sources.
So, bottom line: you can certainly go about your daily life without the added creatine benefits. In my mind, that’s what they are: added benefits. This isn’t like the fundamental importance of magnesium benefits or protein benefits, it’s more of a bonus round (unless you are an athlete, then you really need to be taking it to compete at your highest level).
That being said, who wouldn’t want to increase their bench press max by upwards of 15% in less than six weeks? Or boost their repetition max at a given weight; or increase their vertical jump; or add fat-free mass to their muscle composition?
Enough hype. Let’s let the facts speak for themselves.
What is Creatine?
Creatine is an acid produced by the body, responsible for the facilitation of something called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) recycling.
ATP is often referred to as the currency of energy transfer because each unit plays such a vital role in providing the energy needed for processes in living cells. Processes like muscle contraction, chemical synthesis, and nerve impulse propagation. In fact, the body uses so much ATP that a person will recycle their own bodyweight in ATP each and every day of their lives.
The fact that creatine is responsible for handling the recycling of this very important chemical compound (turning ADP back into ATP) gives you an idea of why we like it so much. A more in-depth of this will come later on, so don’t worry too much if you’re not following all this ATP ADP talk for the moment.
Creatine is not an essential nutrient since the body can produce it naturally. Your body can only do this at a rate of roughly 1 gram per day. When you consider that the average omnivorous diet only adds another 1 gram to this and the peak-loading phase of creatine supplementing provides up to 25 grams for the first five days, you can see the discrepancy.
The Creatine Pool
Here, the pool analogy works quite well. When you think of your body’s creatine stores as a pool, it’s easier to think of how we might fill it up:
- The average diet and daily creatine production is 2 grams. That’s like a dripping tap trying to fill up your pool.
- When we load creatine, we turn on the hose full blast and let the pool fill up for the first five days.
Once the pool is full (once we’re creatine loaded), then we just need to top it up each day for the occasional spill. Like when we do a high-intensity workout and draw from our creatine pool.
The Average Creatine Pool
The average person’s total creatine pool sits at about 120 grams. With supplementing, this figure can be raised to roughly 150-160 grams. Hence, most people are walking around with their creatine pool only 3/4 full.
Vegetarians, particularly, have been found to have lower levels of natural creatine. This means that with their normal diet, they can never truly fill up their creatine pool. However, it’s worth knowing that after supplementing, there is no significant difference to be found between vegetarians and non-vegetarians.
Since creatine naturally occurs in the body, and we get a little bit of it from our regular diet, I will make a distinction here:
When I talk about ‘creatine benefits’, I really mean ‘the benefits of creatine supplementing’.
In other words, I’m talking about the positives of filling up your natural creatine pool to achieve it’s full potential. When you are peak-loaded, this just means that your body has as much creatine as it could possibly use. This is the optimal case for power output, increased muscle mass and physical performance, so that’s what I’m talking about when I mention creatine and its effects.
What does creatine do?
The documented effects of creatine as it relates to physical performance are long and consistent. As early as 1912, researchers found that ingesting creatine can boost the creatine content of muscle. However, it wasn’t until the early 90s that the effects of creatine on athletic performance came into public view. Olympic athletes came out after the 1992 Barcelona games, claiming that they had prepared for the event with a strange new substance called creatine. Since then, the sports supplement world has taken creatine on board like a member of the family, and research upon its safety, efficacy and combination effects has skyrocketed.
So what did they find? Let’s reiterate the big three:
- Enhanced physical performance;
- Increased fat-free mass; and
- Increased muscle morphology
A meta-analysis (a study which analyses the results of many studies) shows that on average, individuals were able to increase their one rep maximum (1RM) weight by upwards of 14%. Remember, this is a meta-analysis, and that average includes values from anywhere between 3 and 45% increases. In fact, the study mentions that for bench press specifically, the 1RM gains were limited between 16-43%. That’s a minimum of 16% improvement, with the possibility of adding almost another half of your previous maximum just with creatine supplementation and regular training. (This is the heart of it. This is the information our readers are searching to learn.)
How does it do this?
Creatine helps your body recycle ATP, the things which give our muscles energy. When these breakdown, they often turn into another compound called ADP. Creatine helps the body turn ADP back into ATP:
Imagine your body working like an engine
Imagine your body working like an engine. When you exercise, you are burning fuels. We can, for simplicity’s sake, think of this energy fuel as ATP. We break it down, use the energy, and give off fumes as waste. Well (again, to keep it simple) this waste product is ADP, and it’s possible to turn it back into fresh, reusable fuel. That is, creatine helps our body turn ADP (the waste product) back into fresh energy (ATP)
This is the key to the magic trick, as it means that your body has access to more immediate energy and can perform in high-intensity exercise for longer than usual. Things get a little technical when you look into the chemistry of what’s going on, but basically, all you need to know is this:
Creatine can help the body to produce force more rapidly and to speed up recovery during short-term high-intensity activity.
This means that along with boosting your maximum power output, creatine supplementation can help you to recover more quickly between sets and to reduce the effects of fatigue during your workout. While I’m in my peak-phase, I have no trouble finishing off the last two repetitions of each set, and I don’t need to drag out my rest times between sets. (We are starting to get redundant. We should consider cutting it down)
“In my peak-phase, I have no trouble finishing off the last two repetitions of each set, and I don’t need to drag out my rest times between sets.”
I will just drill into the main benefits:
Fight neurological diseases.
Since I’ve spoken plenty about creatine’s effects on athletic performance and strength, I thought I’d start with its effect on our brains.
Neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease have to do with a reduction in the vital neurotransmitter, dopamine. This is where creatine can prove beneficial. Creatine helps to prevent dangerous drops in dopamine levels in the brain.
Other conditions such as Huntington’s disease are also severely affected by low levels of phosphocreatine in the brain. With the help of creatine supplementation, these levels can be restored to healthy values and have been shown to prevent the onset of such dangerous mental conditions.
Another study of individuals with existing cases of Parkinson’s Disease showed that creatine supplementation, in combination with weight training, improved muscle functioning–substantially more than just with weight training alone. Since Parkinson’s is marked by muscle tremors and muscle degeneration, this can be an incredibly important finding for further research and study.
Creatines fatigue reduction goes for both in-session muscular fatigue, and general tiredness throughout the day. One study followed the progress of patients who had suffered from traumatic brain injuries, supplementing with creatine as a part of their recovery. 80% of patients from the control group reported fatigue–that figure was reduced to 10% in the creatine supplementing group. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18053002).
Traumatic headaches and dizziness were also significantly lowered in the test group.
Other studies have followed the effects of creatine upon energy levels and sleep deprivation. One such study shows that after 24 hours of sleep deprivation, creatine supplementation had a positive effect upon mood state and performance of tasks which rely on the prefrontal cortex.
When it comes to exercise, creatine is well-known to reduce muscular fatigue. Following just five days of creatine supplementation, female cyclists were able to dramatically increase their endurance and extend their fatigue threshold numbers (EMFT).
Boost ATP formation
Our muscles fatigue rapidly during high-intensity exercise because we burn up ATP faster than we can recover it. This is unavoidable, but creatine can help your body to recycle ADP faster, turning it back into ATP and therefore giving you more energy to work with.
Here is a big piece of the puzzle when it comes to creatine’s proven benefits to physical performance. More immediately available ATP is the difference between pushing out eight repetitions with maximum power and leaving the last few reps for another day.
Creatine gives your body immediately available energy during workouts–it also helps us to understand why the positive effects are diluted with longer workouts. Our creatine stores are not endless, and when they are depleted, the benefits of drawing more ATP are used up. That being said, there is further research being done on the positive effects of creatine on endurance athletes and it would seem that creatine is beneficial to almost all forms of exercise. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9662683) This part isn’t clear in the article.
Add Working Mass
Forget weight gainers and bulk diets–the fastest way to add healthy mass is through creatine supplementation. I will loosely define healthy mass as weight that is working for you. Working mass. While much of the added weight (and you will gain weight) will be water weight, initially, creatine supplementation promotes lean muscle mass like nothing else on the market (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2048496/). The long game shows that creatine lowers body fat, increases lean muscle mass, and overall improves body composition with regular use. With six months of creatine supplementation, you might even out on the scale, but I guarantee that you will be more muscle mass and less fat.
The full list of known Creatine benefits:
Is Creatine Safe?
There are two types of supplements I like to talk about:
- Those that I take, regularly;
- And those that I couldn’t do without.
Many of my friends and family are surprised when creatine shows up in the second category. They’ve heard of it, or heard someone talking about it, or seen a headline somewhere; whatever the case, there’s one question I hear time and time again:
‘Isn’t creatine bad for you?’
At this point, I’ll do some further explaining about how it works, the research behind it and all the studied positive effects. I’ll tell them that I’ve been using it for several years, that there’s nothing else in the nutrition world that has such an immediate, positive effect. They’ll let me go on for a while about how great it is, then comes the next question. It might be framed slightly differently each time, but the point of it is always the same:
‘What’s the catch?’
Thus far, there is no catch. Several hundred peer-reviewed studies, plus safety testing, long-term observation, short-term analysis, meta-analysis–you name it. This is why I can recommend creatine without reservation. Because literally hundreds of people have studied it, searching as hard as they can to find something wrong with it. And when the people who have a reason to find something wrong can’t find anything, then you must be onto something good.
When I started creatine supplementing, I’ll admit that I wasn’t so cautious. I’d been using it for a couple of years without really understanding what it was, or how it was helping me–I was just glad that it was. I wouldn’t recommend this. I got lucky.
In the years following, I started seeing a number of negative headlines relating to creatine. Things like, ‘Is Creatine Killing Your Kidneys?’ or ‘Useless Water Weight; How Creatine Made Fools Of Us All’ (these aren’t real headlines, but believe me: that was the gist of it).
You might have heard similar myths, too, and this bothers me. It seems that no matter how well-documented and proofed a product is, some ideas just stick in people’s minds. So, here I’d like to do my part to spread some truth about creatine and it’s safety for usage.
5 Common (and Irresponsible) Creatine Myths Debunked
I say irresponsible because, well, it is. Many otherwise sensible people keep their distance from creatine based on the negative rumors. I have no problem with exercising reasonable caution–some things out there just don’t have the testing behind them to be confident. However, creatine isn’t one of these things.
While it’s impossible to guarantee the safety of any product 100%, you can do a lot to add confidence. When hundreds of studies have been designed to test the safety of creatine supplementation, and none of them come back with significant, negative results: that’s something. It doesn’t mean that we will never find anything wrong with it. All I’m saying is that these myths don’t have any evidence to stand on, and the fact that they are commonly spoken is a problem.
Let’s get debunking.
Creatine supplements make you dehydrated
You know, I think I’m going to enjoy writing this section. Because smarter people than myself have already done the work. For example, taken directly from a meta-analysis of the existing research on creatine and hydration, particularly in hot or humid environments:
‘No evidence supports the concept that creatine supplementation either hinders the body’s ability to dissipate heat or negatively affects the athlete’s body fluid balance’.
In fact, as we’ve already discussed, creatine actually increases your muscles’ water uptake. While it is recommended that you drink plenty of water while supplementing with creatine, to experience the full benefits, a failure to do so will not increase dehydration or muscular cramping, as the myth suggests.
To find out how much water you should be drinking, check out my post on the benefits of proper hydration, and refer to the water intake calculator.
Creatine will damage your kidneys and liver
Again, a claim without evidence. All available research has concluded that creatine has no significant negative effect on kidney or liver health.
As with any myth, this hasn’t sprung out of thin air. We can likely trace it back to some confusion about the presence of ‘false positives’ in kidney health diagnoses. Confusion is a generous term, though–when you are publishing articles about creatine causing liver failure under the pretense of being ‘confused’ about false positives, then I don’t really have much sympathy. But enough of that.
Elevated creatine levels happen to be a marker used for diagnosing kidney problems. With creatine supplementation, these levels naturally rise and can trigger a ‘false positive’ result on such tests. These results are in no way harmful to your body, and again: there is no evidence whatsoever that chronic creatine supplementation (with the recommended dose) has any negative effects on kidney or liver function. It’s just a side effect of the fact that a useful kidney test relies upon creatine levels as its marker for detecting other problems.
Creatine gains are actually useless water weight.
Perhaps the most common criticism of creatine is that it’s useless, except for adding muscle-filling water weight. Beyond the fact that anything which is visibly filling your working muscles is probably doing something on some level, I’m surprised by how many people are happy to believe this. I can see that it might seem intuitively easy to understand–and yet it isn’t.
Let’s say that creatine was merely drawing more water and fluids to your working muscles (which it does), and that this was the only thing it did. That would still be really important. An increase in cellular hydration (swelling) has been shown to send growth signals (anabolic proliferative signal); whereas cell shrinkage sends the opposite message (catabolic antiproliferative). The point being, just by hydrating our cells we are helping to promote growth and positive states.
“The idea that creatine is only an aesthetic muscle-filler may be popular and easy to believe, but it is simply false.”
In any case, the gains of creatine supplementation have been shown extensively, and we have already gone through them: increased power output, energy creation, muscle growth and reduced fatigue being just a few. The idea that creatine is only an aesthetic muscle-filler may be popular and easy to believe, but it is simply false.
Creatine supplements will stop my body from producing it naturally.
Creatine supplementation does not prevent creatine synthesis in the body. It may slow the process down if you are getting enough of it from supplements, but this is not a bad thing. Creatine is creatine, and getting your body enough of it is the main thing.
This myth seems to be two-sided; the other side of it is that when we stop supplementing, our body won’t be able to produce creatine like it used to. Again, not true. Once your stop supplementing, your body will return to its normal rate of creatine synthesis. This may take a couple of weeks, but it is by no means a dangerous transition.
This myth gets a lot of attention. Even respectable sources seem to eat it up, writing titles such as ‘Side Effects of Stopping Creatine’ with scary-looking subheadings like ‘muscle weakness’, ‘fatigue’, ‘decreased creatine production’, then filling the article with caveats, ‘although there is no evidence…’. There’s nothing wrong with reserving judgment until you are convinced, but by propagating these myths you are steering people away from something that could really help them—I don’t appreciate that.
How much creatine should I take?
Now that we’ve dispensed with some myths, let’s get back on track. Want to know how much creatine you should take? Or when to take creatine, if it makes any difference?
Unlike some other supplements, creatine can be a little specific. That’s fine–it’s worth it. First of all, you need to know something about loading.
How to load creatine
Creatine requires two phases: of loading and maintenance. Here’s a good rule of thumb for creatine usage:
0.3 grams per kilogram of bodyweight for the first five days, followed by 3-5 grams daily for maintenance.
This has been found to be the most effective loading schedule for creatine monohydrate. It works out to be roughly:
5 servings of 5 grams per day, for the first 5 days.
The 0.3 x kg bodyweight calculation below explains why some people might only need 20 grams per day.
This convenient way of remembering it is simple and effective. Some people might use the calculation and end up with only 20 grams per day for the first five days, which is also fine. You can’t do any harm by taking an extra couple of grams though, anyway, especially not in the loading phase.
This is just every day after the loading phase. Remember, the idea is to keep up your creatine stores, so that your muscles can draw from it when they need to. Once you’ve been through the loading phase and saturated your muscles’ creatine contents, there’s no need to load again.
When should you take creatine?
This is a good question. Many supplements show no significant difference when you take them before or after a workout; in the morning, with meals, or before bed. While the difference will dilute over time with regular usage, research suggests that taking creatine post-workout is most effective and may lead to superior gains compared with pre-workout supplementation.
What is creatine monohydrate?
Creatine monohydrate is just creatine in powder form. This is why the terms creatine and creatine monohydrate are often used interchangeably (especially in my own writing on the subject!).
Is creatine a steroid?
No, but I like this question so I’ll give it some time. Creatine is indeed an ergogenic aid (a fancy term for performance-enhancing substance), as are anabolic steroids. Steroids, however, are illegal for competition and unsafe. Creatine, on the other hand, is often considered the world’s most beneficial, safe ergogenic aide. This is why we love it.
Is creatine safe?
After several hundred peer-reviewed studies looking into this exact question, I can safely say: yes, creatine is safe. For more on this, see above.
Does creatine make you gain weight?
Creatine will lead to an initial weight gain of between 1-3% of your bodyweight. The majority of this will be water weight, due to creatine’s effect on water retention. Over time, creatine often leads to an increase in lean muscle mass and a reduction of body fat percentage–how this works out in overall bodyweight will have to do with diet, frequency of exercise, and your starting weight.
Does creatine cause acne?
While this is often leveled as an accusation against creatine, there is little evidence to support it. Creatine has an effect on hormone production in the body at large, and could therefore, indirectly, increase the presence of acne in those who are genetically prone to it. That being said, there is no significant evidence (that I can find) which would conclusively make this connection.
Can women take creatine?
Yes, of course! While creatine supplementation in women does produce slightly lower levels of water retention and the associated muscle mass gains, the studies relating to physical performance and creatine supplementation also extend to women. In fact, some studies have even found that creatine supplementation (in combination with heavy resistance training) reduces body fat percentage in women to a greater extent than in men.
What to mix creatine with?
This may sound like a matter of preference, but there’s a little more to it. Creatine is best absorbed by the body when it is accompanied by an insulin spike. The diabetics (and nutritionists) out there will know what causes this: sugar. That’s why creatine is often taken with a fruit juice. However, while fructose is fine, it won’t necessary bring about a significant insulin spike. The best option is a dextrose drink, taken post-workout while your body is most eager to restore glycogen.
How long does creatine take to work?
Beyond its many benefits, creatine supplementation has the added bonus of showing you quick results. Within five days of loading, you will already see many of the benefits of having creatine-loaded muscles. This may result in gains to your 1RM within the first week, or an increase in muscular endurance during high intensity workouts.
Longer-term benefits of creatine supplementation will come with consistent resistance training.
Summing Up The Creatine Benefits
Creatine is the most effective performance-enhancing substance that is totally safe for long-term use. It will help you reach new one rep maxes (1RM), workout at a higher intensity for longer, boost ATP production, and even help to fight off severe neurological disease. It’s a supplement that gets a bad wrap for one major reason: It seems too good to be true.
Let me finish, then, by saying that there’s no magic to creatine supplementation. By filling up your creatine stores, you’re simply giving your body access to advantages it has already developed. You’ll be stronger than you were, but not stronger than you were meant to be (or beyond what’s natural).
Creatine is safe, straightforwardly beneficial and widely underestimated.
For more information on how to choose the right creatine supplement, stay posted for my Buyer’s Guide to Creatine.