Creatine is the most widely researched sports supplement in history. There have been over 500 studies that support the use of creatine to build muscle.
While it is known that creatine is effective, experts do not agree about the way to take it. To get a better understanding, we will take a look at the background and the science behind its use.
History and Background Science
Creatine was discovered in 1835 and was found to occur naturally in red meat. The human body will make creatine in the kidneys, liver, and pancreas using the amino acids arginine, glycine and methionine. A typical adult male will use about 2.0 grams of creatine on an average day. Your muscles do not store as much creatine as they potentially can due to a lack of it in a normal diet. Supplementing with creatine increases the amount stored by the body.
Muscles need energy in order to contract and move the bones in your skeleton. They use a compound called ATP (adenosine triphosphate). When the ATP is used up, your muscles can’t perform as well. Creatine is used by your body to produce ATP. Creatine molecules increase the muscle’s ability to maintain power output during short, high-intensity exercises. This means that endurance athletes who exercise for long periods of time will likely find no benefit from creatine use.
Glycogen is the stored energy source for the body that is used after the first few seconds of ATP use by the muscles. Creatine has been shown to increase your muscle’s ability to store glycogen. Research has shown that replenishing stored glycogen by using carb loading may aid recovery and muscle growth. With creatine helping with energy use and glycogen storage, both processes together may create an ideal environment for muscle growth.
The majority of research studies have used creatine monohydrate which is a creatine molecule bonded to a water molecule and is the most common form sold.
Some important considerations when buying and using creatine products:
- Creatine naturally decomposes to creatinine, which is not a useable compound by the body. Pay attention to expiry dates.
- Creatine is unstable in liquid form so products being sold in any form other than powder are not effective.
- Research has shown that combining creatine with any other compounds in a mixture does not increase its absorption by the body. Using the basic powder is recommended.
Creatine needs to be used during a specific type of training to be effective. Research indicates that a single set of max effort is not enough to activate the creatine response. Creatine delays muscle fatigue during repeated sets of exercise. Creatine increases the amount of time that maximum output can be performed like lifting a heavy weight for several repetitions. To get the best results from creatine, you need moderate to high intensity effort (weights) and moderate to high volume using multiple sets.
Only 70-75% of people see a benefit from creatine. Vegetarians seem to have a larger effect from creatine use theoretically due to the lack of creatine intake. It is logical to assume that anyone who eats a large amount of red meat in their diet will find that creatine supplementation will have little effect.
Research has been extensive and has shown that using creatine for five years has no adverse effects on your kidneys and other studies found no adverse effects on muscles or the liver. However, there is a potential concern due to creatinine, a by-product of creatine use. Creatinine is basically harmless and is removed by the kidneys. But when kidneys are not functioning properly, any excess strain can cause problems. One study showed that animals with a pre-existing kidney problem had an increase in their condition due to an increase in creatine levels. Individuals with renal disease or dysfunction should avoid creatine supplementation.
The largest safety issue would be with the quality of the product. With creatine being manufactured from sarcosine and cyanamide, contaminants such as creatinine, dicyandiamide, dihydrotriazines and various other ions can be present. If they are not screened properly, these contaminants may cause problems. Use creatine from a reputable company only.
Creatine is mainly used during anaerobic exercise (weight lifting) but some studies have shown a positive result for aerobic as well. One study indicated that creatine reduced the “oxygen cost” of activity, meaning there was less strain placed on the cardiovascular system. Another study concluded that creatine use increases the oxidative potential of cardiac (heart) muscle. Both of these studies indicate an increase in aerobic capacity.
If creatine increases aerobic capacity, it could increase the amount of workload performed during aerobic exercise. This would mean a higher calorie output. Combined with weight training and good nutrition, this could result in a loss of body fat AND an increase in lean muscle mass. That is quite significant for athletes!
The majority of studies suggest the following:
Loading phase: 1-2 week of 10 to 20g of creatine each day in one or two servings.
Maintaining phase: 5-6 week duration; 3 to 5g each day in one or two servings.
Pause phase: 2-4 week duration of no creatine supplementation
A more accurate approach is to use the body mass of the individual. A common formula is:
- 3 g / kg per day for 5 – 7 days
- 03 g / kg per day for the remainder of cycle
For example: an individual weighing 80 kg would consume 80 x 0.3 g = 24 grams per day for the loading phase, then 2.4 grams per day for the maintenance phase.
- For vegetarians, consider 0.4 g / kg lean mass
- For those with higher protein in their diet, consider 0.2 g / kg lean mass
With this being said, there are studies that show a loading phase is unnecessary and does not show a significant increase in lean muscle mass due to increased creatine levels above maintenance amounts. Until one is proven correct over the other, I leave the decision up to the individual. Try both and see what results are achieved and decide which one is best for you.
A post-workout shake is important to replenish glycogen and aid with recovery. I recommend:
- Carbohydrates: 50% of lean weight (pounds) in grams
- Protein: 25-30 grams
- Fat: 1/12 of carbohydrate grams
For example, the post-workout shake for a 240 lb individual would be:
- Carbohydrate: 120 grams
- Protein: 25-30 grams
- Fat: 20 grams (healthy fats only)
Shakes should be consumed immediately after your workout. (maximum of 30 min after)
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