The Low-Down on Creatine
“Creatine has become one of the most extensively studied and scientifically validated nutritional ergogenic aids for athletes.” -Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2007
Without a doubt, creatine is the most effective supplement on the market today. And because of that, it’s also one of the most successful supplements. Its popularity has led to an entire lineage of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation creatines. Now the question still remains: are the new generation creatines really that much better than plain old creatine monohydrate? Better, yet, are they worth the price tag?
What is the fundamental principle behind getting bigger? You guessed right. The progressive overload principle: the constant increase in stress placed upon your body during training. More simply stated, increasing the number of reps, sets, or weights from workout to workout. If you benched 225 pounds for 5 sets of 5 reps this week, you better either increase the reps, sets, or weight next week. If you don’t, you’re not giving your body a reason to adapt and grow bigger and stronger.
So what does creatine have to do with progressive overload? Your body uses energy (ATP) to lift weights. The more energy you have available, the more work you can do. Your body creates ATP via 3 different pathways: the phosphagen system (creatine), anaerobic glycolysis (carbohydrates without oxygen), and aerobic glycolysis (carbohydrates with oxygen). Depending on the intensity of the exercise and the rate at which ATP is needed, your body will automatically determine which system it will rely on to create ATP. Because weightlifting is usually intense and brief (a set usually doesn’t last more than 30 seconds without rest), your body will primarily rely on the phosphagen system and anaerobic glycolysis because both of these systems are capable of producing ATP quickly. However, the downside is that they both run out of gas relatively quickly too. Your muscles only have so much creatine available to help create energy. And this is where creatine comes into play…
Taking creatine can increase the amount of creatine within your muscles by anywhere from 10-40%(1). That’s an extra 10-40% of energy available to your muscles. With that much extra energy available, instead of lifting 5 reps, you’d be able to lift 6, 7 or even 8 reps now. And whenever you’re increasing the amount of weight or reps, you’re following the progressive load principle, and your muscles are getting bigger and stronger.
With a nearly 70% success rate, don’t write off your results as a placebo-like effect. Expect an extra 5-15% increase in strength and performance.(2) And when that 5-15% is converted to pounds, it always makes a max effort look that much better.
Better yet, studies have also shown that you can expect to double the amount of muscle mass you’d expect to gain if you weren’t using creatine.(3) Pretty impressive.
When creatine first hit the market in the 90s, the standard dosing protocol was 20 grams in divided doses for 3-5 days followed by 5-10 grams daily thereafter. That’s still an effective dosing regimen. However, recently coaches have been recommending a slightly more individualized dosing regimen similar to how most prescription antibiotics are dosed. They suggest 0.3mg/kg/day for 3-5 days, followed by 3-5 grams daily thereafter. So for a 200lb male, that would be around 27 grams (in divided doses) of creatine for the initial 3-5 days, followed by 3-5 grams daily thereafter.
The new dosing regimen makes sense. Creatine is stored primarily within your muscles. The more muscle you have, the more creatine storage capacity you have. A 120lb beginner should not be using the same amount of creatine as a 260lb professional bodybuilder. The difference in muscle mass is huge. It’s like the difference in the amount of water used to fill up a water balloon and a pool. Also, if we calculate our daily protein intake in a similar fashion, why shouldn’t that apply to creatine? But the real question is: does it matter? Yes and no. Will, in the end, both dosing regimens give you the same result? Yes. However, the original dosing regimen is just going to take a little longer so the results will not seem as dramatic.
As far as when to take it, that’s a little more un-scientific. In fact, it’s largely my opinion. During the initial 3-5 days, I take 5 grams in the morning, at lunch, at dinner, and before bed. I always try to take it with my meals because there have been several studies that have shown that carbohydrates and protein actually increase the amount of creatine that gets inside your muscles. After the initial loading dose, I take 3 grams before my workout, and 3 grams immediately after. By taking 3 grams 30-45 minutes before my workout, I get assurance that my muscles are going to have a supply of creatine waiting for them. After my workout, my muscles are usually begging for nutrients. With the proper postworkout nutrition, I can get more creatine back into my muscles than at any other time.
I also recommend not cycling creatine. The theory behind cycling makes sense. For creatine to enter the cell, it must move through a transporter that scientists have conveniently named the creatine transporter. Scientists theorized that if the transporter is constantly bombarded with creatine, it will develop a level of resistance to the suppement, similar to how Type II diabetes begins. When it develops this resistance, creatine becomes less effective. To circumvent this, they recommended avoiding creatine intake for “x” amount of days to refresh the creatine transporter. There was one study (that I know of) that supported this theory. However, it was done in rats, and the dosage, if extrapolated to a human dosage, would have been astronomical. There’s just never been any human data supporting this theory, and it’s fallen out of favor within the last 5 years. Bottom line: don’t cycle your creatine.
A resounding YES!
There are a few individuals that just don’t respond to creatine monohydrate. It’s because of these individuals that supplement companies create a new creatine every 3 months or so. These companies then try to convince the entire creatine market that their new version of creatine is vastly superior to every other version available. Their marketing ploy, “Our creatine has helped John Doe, who has never got any results from regular creatine, to increase his bench by 50 lbs. Just think what it can do for you if you got results from the less potent creatine monohydrate.” Simply not true. To date, I have yet to see one study that convincingly finds one of the newer forms of creatine is superior to creatine monohydrate.
So let’s take a look at some of the newer forms.
Creatine ethyl ester
Good in theory, poor in results. The creators attempted to attach an ethyl ester to the creatine molecule to make it more fat soluble. Because cells are surrounded by fatty membrane, they hoped by increasing its fat solubility, the CEE would bypass the creatine transporter and move directly into the cell. Thus, in case the creatine transporter was the problem, CEE wouldn’t be affected.
However, not only does it taste horrible, but it also has never been shown to be superior to creatine monohydrate. In fact, there was a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition entitled “The effects of creatine ethyl ester supplementation combined with heavy resistance training on body composition, muscle performance, and serum and muscle creatine levels.” that concluded, “When compared to creatine monohydrate, creatine ethyl ester was not as effective at increasing serum and muscle creatine levels or in improving body composition, muscle mass, strength, and power.”
Pass on CEE. Your wallet and your taste buds will thank you for it.
This time the supplement manufacturers took a slightly different approach. By combining pyruvate or citrate with creatine, not only are you adding an acid to base with hopes of increasing its bioavailability, but you’re also adding another possible performance-enhancing supplement to the mix. Both pyruvate and citrate have had mixed reviews regarding improvements in endurance training.
However, even though there’s a little more evidence supporting these two creatine combinations, overall the jury is still inconclusive. For every positive study, there’s a negative study refuting the possible benefits. Are they worth the price tag? Absolutely not. Once again, there has yet to be a study that convincingly demonstrates their superiority over creatine monohydrate.
Creatine with sodium
This is probably the most interesting creatine combination. The creatine transporter that was mentioned earlier is thought to be dependent on a sodium/chloride pump. Some scientists believe that creatine requires two molecules of sodium and one molecule of chloride to enter the cell. So by adding sodium to creatine, the sodium concentration gradiant is increased (more on the outside than the inside, think teeter-totter), and the cell is “tricked” into accepting creatine. The only problem is that we haven’t had any definitive real-world feedback. Even though it makes sense from a scientific standpoint, so does CEE. That doesn’t mean it’s going to work in the real-world. As of now, it’s not worth the money. Until a study is done and it concludes creatine combined with sodium is superior to creatine monohydrate, pass on it.
Effervescent creatine and serum creatine
Junk. Don’t even think about it.
Creatine with carbohydrates
Not only is this the most effective means for getting more creatine into the muscle, but it is also the cheapest. The carbohydrates cause an insulin surge in your bloodstream. Because insulin is highly anabolic, it acts like a key and makes the cell more receptive to outside influences. The more receptive a cell is, the more creatine that can enter. Pretty simple.
Side note: This is also why it’s extremely important to have carbohydrates in your postworkout shake. Not only do they replenish your glycogen stores, but they also cause a surge of a highly anabolic hormone, insulin. That’s an extremely good thing, especially if you’re in a state of catabolism.
A study entitled “Carbohydrate ingestion augments skeletal muscle creatine accumulation during creatine supplementation in humans.” in the American Journal of Physiology showed that by adding 93 grams of a simple carbohydrate solution, you can increase total creatine concentration by 60% compared to regular creatine supplementation. However, the question still remains though: Does the increase in total muscle creatine result in an increase in performance? That question has yet to be answered definitively. In my opinion, it can never hurt to have too much creatine within the muscle. Plus, for the cost, it doesn’t hurt to try. A 4 pound bag of dextrose shouldn’t cost more than a couple of bucks.
Creatine with protein and carbohydrates
This is my personal favorite. The same theory that applied to creatine and carbohydrates also applies here. However, we’ve added another potential anabolic agent to the mix: protein. Now not only does the surge of insulin from the carbohydrates help more creatine enter the cell, but hopefully more amino acids will also follow suit. And don’t worry if you think the amino acids will prevent additional creatine from entering the cell. A clinical trial entitled “Protein- and carbohydrate-induced augmentation of whole body creatine retention in humans.” found in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that the mixture of protein and carbohydrates was just as effective as carbohydrates alone in improving creatine retention.
So not only does mixing all three make it more convenient, but it appears as though it may also make it more effective. Plus, it’s extremely cheap.
Side note: If you’re dieting and concerned with the extra calories from the carbohydrates, don’t fret too much. Taking creatine by itself will work just fine.
Creatine with supplements that improve insulin sensitivity
Unless you have insulin resistance, I don’t really see the cost-effectiveness of this combination. If you’re lifting weights, on a decent nutrition plan, and taking fish oil, your insulin sensitivity is not going to be the weak link in the creatine equation. Until there’s more evidence, save your money.
This is probably going to be the most controversial segment of this article. There’s going to be several supplement manufacturers that won’t be too pleased with my answer. First let’s look at why you might not be responding to creatine. Hopefully, before I give you my answer, you will have already formed your own.
Even though 70% of the clinical trials show a positive benefit to creatine use, there are still 30% of studies that show no benefit. One study actually estimated that out of 10 users, between 2 and 3 users will not benefit from creatine supplementation. Why? Scientists have yet to pinpoint the exact cause. However, they have developed several theories. The most prominent theory involves a decrease in activity of the creatine transporter. Even though they haven’t been able to explain specifically the cause of the decrease in activity, they have determined a profile of a responder. It includes the 4 following characteristics:
1) Have a lower initial concentration of creatine within the muscle
2) Have a greater number of type II muscle fibers
3) Have more fiber cross sectional area
4) Have more fat-free mass, aka muscle
All 4 characteristics make sense.
So, if the new creatine product doesn’t improve one of those 4 characteristics, it’s probably not going to be of much help to you. By the way, none of them do. None of them are going to give you bigger muscles. None of them are going to give you more Type II muscle fibers. And none of them are going to decrease the amount of creatine you already have in your muscles. If the creatine transporter theory holds true, you’re probably SOL.
Carbohydrates are going to be your only choice. In the future, maybe a creatine and sodium combination may help, but that’s a big maybe.
– If you’re a non-responder, wait until a product clearly demonstrates that it increases total muscle creatine content COMPARED to regular creatine monohydrate. Thus far, none have.
– If you’re a responder, don’t bother wasting money on new creatines. Stick with creatine monohydrate. Save your money and use it on more protein, beta alanine, or fish oil.
Hopefully, this article has answered a lot of questions that other “experts” have left unanswered or even worse, let the supplement manufacturers answer. Remember, cost-effectiveness should be your primary concern when buying supplements. If it doesn’t produce quantifiable results, don’t buy it. There’s too much junk on the market. This industry has been built on clever marketing, not quantifiable results. Shop smart!
About Cliff Englewood Cliff goes to MSU and is TSB Magazine resident "College Life" contributor with tips and advice to get the most out of your time in college.