Creatine. It’s one of those things that are weirdly misunderstood, especially by beginners or those new to the world of nutritional supplementation. Creatine has a reputation in some circles of being some sort of a “steroid.” Even more experienced athletes may distort it’s abilities and how it actually works; falling victim to ‘bro-science.’
People are always looking for new things to try out at the gym, but creatine really isn’t new. It’s been around for decades and is incredibly accessible. It can be found in most every nutritional aisle and store at various price points and in various forms.
People looking to put on mass, people looking for additional strength gains, and those who just like to run alike are among those who use creatine regularly. Some people swear by it, other people hate it. Either way, most people don’t quite understand exactly what it is and how it works.
Luckily, we have put together this piece for you so you know the basics of supplementing with creatine, how it works, and what to look for.
What exactly is creatine?
Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat. What is effectively known as creatine is simply just a compound made from amino acids. It is a naturally occurring substance found in each of our bodies and produced by the kidneys, liver, and pancreas.
Generally, creatine is stored in skeletal muscle to be used to help rebuild ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) levels when they get low. ATP is the main source of energy that the musculoskeletal system uses when any muscle contracts. The higher intensity of an exercise, the more of this ATP is used, and the more your body’s stores have to be rebuilt. That is where creatine comes into play. Consuming more creatine leads your body to build up it’s reserves of ATP. Higher levels help to increase endurance on top of a bunch of other cool effects such as increased mass and strength.
What creatine is not is a steroid. There are actual, scientifically defined steroids and there are socially defined steroids. Creatine is neither. It bears no resemblance to steroids at a molecular level and does not itself directly cause tissue growth. Socially, some people consider it a steroid because of it’s effects on those who are highly active, but it does none of the things that a steroid actually does. In fact, it operates more like a vitamin than miracle grow for your muscles.
So, as a recap, creatine is literally just a compound that helps you restore energy and allows you to better perform physical activities such as weight training and cardio routines. Since you can do more for longer, it helps your muscles to better stress themselves, leading to growth. Simple.
How does creatine work?
In order to answer the question of how creatine works, let’s talk about how muscles work. In order for a muscle to contract, it first needs an electrical signal to be sent through the nervous system and into the muscle fibers. After that signal is received, the muscle fiber contracts provided that there is adequate fuel (energy) for it to use. Each time that your muscle contracts, it uses up some ATP.
ATP is a compound that is made up of a nitrogen base (adenine), ribose (sugar) for bindings, and three strongly bound phosphates used to power to your muscles. Each time your muscles contract, one of the bindings holding the phosphates together is broken, leading to a loss in energy and ATP converts to ADP (adenosine diphosphate).
Creatine is one of the sources that your body uses to rebind the lost phosphates that power your body with with ADP, and converting it back into ATP. This conversion restores your previous energy levels. The more creatine you have in your reserves, the more power you have at your disposal, and the longer/harder you can exercise without tiring.
Is it safe to use?
Most of the concerns people have about creatine are unfounded and stem from what people (think they) know about illicit performance enhancing drugs, not scientific studies.
While anything can be bad for you if misused, lots of athletes have taken creatine for extended periods of time with little to no issue. The main problems that people tend to run into with creatine revolve around water consumption and dehydration. Since creatine draws water into cells, you have to adjust your water intake to account for that. Without drinking more fluids or spreading creatine consumption throughout the day, you can experience nausea, cramping, or dehydration.
Outside of that, obvious problems can occur with those who have underlying health issues involving the liver or kidneys, those with diabetes, and those who are taking certain medications. Of course, that is par for the course with supplements and you should always know how what you are taking could impact you.
You obviously should only take any supplement if you need to. However, Creatine is generally considered one of the safest supplements out there. After all, supplements are just that: supplements to an already established diet.
People take creatine for lots of reasons. Namely, they want to get bigger, stronger, or faster while others want to increase their endurance. Among the recorded benefits of creatine are:
- Increased cellular water absorption
- Greater muscular endurance
- Higher strength limits per lift
- Reduced levels of hormones responsible for inhibiting muscle growth
- Increased levels of energy
All of these benefits works to push your muscles beyond what they normally would be able to do. The increased capacity helps muscles grow faster than without supplementation. Since creatine aids in how much volume you can lift versus actually growing new tissue, it is much safer than other products with similar benefits. Other products generally work through anabolic means and we want to avoid that.
It’s more common than you think
As with most nutritional or fitness supplements, Creatine is actually pretty versatile when it comes to consumption. In fact, you are probably already consuming it without even knowing. The western diet is incredibly rich in creatine. That is, provided you aren’t vegetarian/vegan. Creatine can be found within nearly any meat at varying levels, but red meats and fish are the major foods it comes from.
If you aren’t highly active and eat a pretty varied diet that includes meats, chances are you are eating more than enough to supplement what your body naturally produces. However, for those who like to weight train, regularly go on long distance runs, or otherwise consistently push their bodies limits, creatine supplementation is a good place to start.
Wandering down a supplement aisle or through a fitness store can be daunting if you don’t know what you are looking for. I suppose that is why you are reading this article, however. If you choose to supplement with creatine, there are a few things you should know about it before you wander into a store. Once you are there, the salesperson will try selling you the shelf.
Creatine comes in tons of forms
First, creatine comes in multiple forms and how you consume it is all a matter of preference:
- Powder – ‘Old Faithful.’ Powdered creatine comes in flavored and unflavored varieties. You can take it alone, or add it to another beverage. It is fairly versatile, and often pushed as the easiest way to supplement. Some research shows that powder form is the easiest to digest and absorb, but many people also feel that creatine powder is also the most likely to cause bloating.
- Pill/capsule – The pill/capsule form has stood the test of time. It is slightly less popular than powdered form in terms of overall consumption, but still a very popular form to consume any supplement, nonetheless creatine.
- Chew – A relatively less popular way to take creatine is through chews. Generally, chews are fairly candylike and creatine chews are no different.
Different creatine types
There is a lot of variety when it comes to creatine other than just what form you buy it in. There are also different types of the supplement that you can buy, each with their own pros and cons, but significant enough to know about. Among them are:
- Monohydrate: The most studied form of creatine and also the most available version. Monohydrate consists of creatine molecules matched one for one with water molecules.
- Ethyl Ester: Creatine molecules bound with ethyl in an attempt to cause it to be absorbed more effectively.
- Hydrochloride: Creatine molecules bound to hydrochloric acid. Doesn’t make much sense, considering your stomach contains hydrochloric acid anyways.
- Magnesium Chelate: Creatine that has been bound to magnesium.
- Micronized Creatine: Much smaller crystals than ‘regular’ creatine, which is supposed to aid with absorption.
There are, of course, other types of creatine available. Most of those are all more or less deviations of those listed here. Some are probably not super effective. Others come at a premium cost for the same effect you may get through monohydrate.
You need to know what you want before you step into the store. Sales people will always try to upsell you on the newest products.
Is it for me?
No one can tell you what will and won’t work for you. Only you (and maybe your doctor) will know if it works for you. Even then, that is mostly through trying it out. As with any supplement, talk to your doctor if you have any reason to think that creatine could potentially interact negatively with medications you are taking or medical issues you may have.
If you are interested, do some research on a few brands and settle on what you want before you walk into the store. That way you can avoid being distracted by the labels.
Overall, creatine is in the top of the rankings when it comes to supplement safety and research. It isn’t by any means a ‘miracle drug.’ It will, however, definitely help you to reach where you are going at a somewhat faster pace based on what it does for you muscles.