If you were stuck on an island and could only bring one article about creatine with you, this should be it. This isn’t a paid advertorial. It’s not marketing jargon from some medical professional who is having his pockets stuffed with cash from the supplement companies. It’s fact. It’s real-world evidence. It’s exactly what most articles are not.
I’ve been in the lifting game for over 12 years now. I was there for the birth of Ergopharm’s 1-AD as well as when the media got the first glimpse of 4-androstendione in Mark McGwire’s locker. I’ve been a pharmacist for the last 4 years, while spending the last 3 years specializing in dietary supplements (countless hours of reading research). I’ve also owned a 6,000 square foot fitness center for the last 3 years which has basically given me access to hundreds of eager guinea pigs. I can say conFITdently “I know supplements.” I can spot the bullshit, and decipher fact from fiction in a glance. And the large majority time, if I still have questions, I’ll test it. So here it is. Plain and simple.
Creatine: In the Upper Echelon of Supplements
Without question, creatine has been one of the most studied dietary supplements on the planet. In fact, it’s done so well in the world of research that it has made the nearly impossible transition from performance enhancement aid to effective add-on treatment for various medical disorders.
A quick search in pubmed reveals it’s extensive uses in patients with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, as well as various muscle-wasting diseases. It is the most effective LEGAL supplement available today. Bar none!
The Story Behind Creatine
To really understand why creatine works so well, you must first understand how the muscles use energy to create work (in the form of lifting weights). ATP, the body’s energy source, is made via 3 different pathways:
- Anaerobic glycolysis (glucose without oxygen)
- Aerobic glycolysis (glucose with oxygen).
Depending on the rate and intensity of the need for ATP, the body will rely on one pathway more than the rest. Because weight training requires rapid rates of ATP (energy), it primarily relies on the ATP-PC pathway, while dipping into anaerobic glycolysis during a longer set (>15-20 seconds).
The PC in ATP-PC stands for a phosphocreatine, a substrate that rapidly replenishes ATP within the muscle. It’s easy to see why creatine is so effective. If we can increase the content of creatine/phosphocreatine within the muscle, we have more energy substrates available to do more work.
Think of it this way: In which scenario are you more likely to hit the target? A gun with one bullet OR a gun with 15 bullets. Creatine essentially gives your muscles more bullets so you’re much more likely to hit your target (more strength/muscle mass).
This is exactly what the research has shown. Supplementing with creatine monohydrate increases creatine content within the muscle which in turn allows the lifter to perform work at a higher intensity. That in turn improves strength and muscle mass. 1,2,3
Keeping Creatine Simple
The large majority of research suggests a loading dose of 5 grams of creatine monohydrate 4 times daily for 5 days followed by 5-10g of creatine daily increases creatine content within the muscle the quickest. Some have argued that a loading phase is not necessary. They’re exactly right. Loading isn’t necessary. However, the strength and mass gains don’t come as quick because it will take longer to increase the creatine content within the muscle. If you want to find out if you are a responder or non-responder, I highly suggest the loading phase. After 5-7 days, you’ll know if creatine works for you. The scale as well as your big, multi-joint lifts will go up quickly.2,3
I have yet to see any definitive evidence that creatine should be cycled.4 I think this has largely been brought up from the AAS crowd. Steroids are almost always cycled because if you expose the cell to prolonged periods of elevated hormones, the receptor for those hormones downregulates and the hormones become less effective. However, creatine has not shown to have that effect. Remember, it’s been extensively studied for the past 20 years, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the research never supports cycling.
Epic Failure with Creatine
If you are one of the unlucky non-responders (which research estimates to be about 20-30% of users), I can’t offer you much help. Even though they haven’t quite pinpointed the exact cause as to why some people don’t respond, the most likely explanation is that they already have enough creatine content within the muscle. It’s not an absorption problem. Regular creatine monohydrate is readily absorbed. I also don’t believe it’s a receptor problem. If they do end up finding it’s a receptor problem, I have yet to see a new form of creatine that has increased muscle creatine content more so than creatine monohydrate.
The only advice that I have, and this is a long shot, is to consume your creatine monohydrate with carbohydrates (~50g). That’s been the only form/method that has routinely been shown to increase muscle creatine content more so than consuming it alone. The carbohydrates will cause a rapid increase in insulin, and hopefully the insulin will act like a Trojan horse and allow some creatine to enter the cell along with the glucose. Again, I cannot guarantee that will work. Also, consuming an extra 200g of carbohydrates during the loading phase is probably not realistic for most people who are concerned about gaining fat-free mass. I repeat. The newer forms of creatine have NOT been proven by research to be more effective than creatine monohydrate.
Our Opinion of Creatine
If combining creatine and carbohydrates does work for you, but the additional weight gain from the extra carbohydrates is a problem, try taking creatine with leucine (5-10g). Leucine has been shown to increase insulin, and may just work. I’ve never seen research supporting this, but the physiological mechanism makes sense.
Newer is better. Right? Wrong! There are just some things that should have stopped after the original. Creatine monohydrate is one of those things. I have yet to see any substantial evidence showing that one of the newer forms of creatine is superior to regular creatine monohydrate. In fact, I’ve seen more evidence for the opposite statement: regular creatine monohydrate is superior to several of the newer forms. Do not waste your money on the new stuff. Stick with the $20 1000g bottle of creapure.
Here is one more point to ponder. If one of the newer forms of creatine was more effective than creatine monohydrate, they would be using it in the clinical studies involving Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s patients. They wouldn’t risk wasting tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars for a study with an inferior product. They’d select the best. Yet, almost all of those studies are still using creatine monohydrate. Don’t be fooled by the marketing.
Expectations With Creatine
As far as what to expect, creatine is not a steroid. You won’t go from Clark Kent to Superman in 6 weeks. However, compared to every other dietary supplement available, you’ll see a huge difference. The majority of research suggests mass gains of 5-10 pounds over 6 weeks are reasonable while strength gains of 10-20 lbs in large, multi-joint lifts are also common. If you are a responder, you will notice a difference beyond just the typical placebo effect within the first 2 weeks.
There have been a few studies that have suggested, when used with an adequate strength training program, users can actually gain muscle mass (5 lbs or more) while losing body fat. That my friend is the holy grail of body transformations. Adding 5 pounds of muscle while dropping 2-3% bodyfat makes you look like you gained 15 pounds of muscle. That’s what typically happens in those “amazing” Hollywood body transformations actors make like Brad Pitt in Troy.
Remember, don’t just take my opinion. Take a look at in The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition or The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research and see what they have to say about creatine monohydrate.
Sources and research supporting this article:
- Rawon E, et al. Effects of Repeated Creatine Supplementation on Muscle, Plasma, and Urine Creatine Levels. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2004, 18(1):162-67.
- Buford T, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: creatine supplementation and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2007, 4(6).
- Peeters B, et al. Effect of oral creatine onohydrate and creatine phosphate supplementation on maximal strength indices, body composition, and blood pressure. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,1999, 13(1):3-9.
- Schoch, et al. The Regulation and expression of the creatine transporter: a brief review of creatine supplementation in humans and animals. Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2006, 3(1):60-66.