Creatine is one of the most popular and most-researched supplements in the world. It is in the top three of most people’s ‘essential supplements list,’ but many are unaware of the creatine basics, such as what creatine is, different forms of creatine and how to use it. So we’ll start from the beginning…a beginner’s guide to creatine.
What is Creatine?
Creatine is a nitrogenous organic acid produced in the liver that helps supply energy to cells all over the body – particularly muscle cells. It is made out of three amino acids: l-arginine, glycine, and l-methionine. As well as being produced naturally by the body, creatine can be obtained from the diet. Foods that contain creatine include meat and fish. However, multiple kilograms of meat/fish would have to be consumed to get a performance enhancing effect.
Because of creatine’s ability to supply energy where it is demanded, the chemical is mainly used by athletes to increase their ability to produce energy rapidly, improving athletic performance and allowing them to train harder. As such, creatine is very popular amongst athletes who compete in explosive sports and activities, like rugby and weight lifting.
What’s the science?
Very simply, creatine is an energy source. Specifically, creatine is a source of high intensity energy. The body has three energy systems, one of which is called the ATP-CP (also referred to as ATP-PC) energy system. The CP stands for creatine phosphate (or phosphocreatine). ATP is the body’s immediate source of energy; think of sprinting, the first few repetitions on the bench press, throwing a punch, etc. As the body exercises, ATP levels reduce; creatine is needed to help resynthesise ATP which, in turn, provides the body with more high intensity energy. If creatine levels run out, the ATP-CP system cannot be resynthesized and the body has no high intensity energy.
Creatine is stored in the muscle, with the average 70kg male storing circa 120grams. However, muscles have the capacity to store 160g. The aim of creatine supplementation is to fill up the creatine ‘fuel tank’ which provides the body with more high intensity energy. This increase in energy can lead to greater training adaptations as the body is able to perform more work, and create a greater stimulus for growth. The amount of creatine in the muscle is a limiting factor for high intensity exercise, so increasing these levels has shown to develop real performance benefits.
Why should I take it?
Creatine has been extensively researched, and its benefit for increasing strength, gaining muscle and for high intensity training is unequivocal. In fact, The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (Buford et al, 2007) said, in its position paper on creatine, that “creatine monohydrate is the most effective ergogenic nutritional supplement currently available to athletes in terms of increasing lean body mass during training.”
What is the most popular form of Creatine?
Without doubt, the most popular form of creatine is creatine monohydrate. Several different types of creatine exist, but they all effectively do the same thing, which is to resynthesize ATP levels. The main difference is how the creatine molecules are bonded, which impacts how they are metabolised and broken down in the body. If you’re thinking about using creatine for the first time, creatine monohydrate is recommended.
When should I take it?
In order to increase muscle creatine levels, creatine should be taken consistently. There are typically two phases to creatine supplementation: loading and maintenance.
The loading phase involves taking approximately 20g of creatine per day (4 servings x 5g) for 5-7 days. During the loading phase, creatine should be taken in the morning, lunch and/or post-workout, depending when you train. The primary objective of the loading phase is to increase muscle creatine levels quickly.
During the maintenance phase, where 3-5g per day is normally sufficient, the most optimal time to ingest creatine is post-workout, as this is the time when your body will be most receptive to fuel. Mixing creatine with a carb source like dextrose, and/or a carb/protein combination can also help with muscle creatine saturation, as the insulin spike created will transport nutrients to the muscles faster.