Back around 1995, when I first started looking at the use of creatine, it was still a new phenomenon in the fitness and bodybuilding world, with a lot of general confusion surrounding how it should be taken. Sifting through all the information from the press, the supplement suppliers and the food science experts, it seemed like the best route was to boil up some water, let it cool down a little and then stir around 7g of creatine into it. Ingest it in the morning and make sure you don’t eat anything till about half an hour afterwards. That was the chosen method of the time, but was it right?
Fast forward just a year or two and loads of pre- and post-workout and ‘get big’ formulas were dropping creatine into the mix. It was everywhere. And when I spoke to one of the major UK online manufacturers in 1997, he told me it was in their products purely because it was the new thing that everyone wanted to see on the ingredients list – the get-big-buzz-bullet.
20 years on and creatine is now one of the most researched sports supplements in the world. It has been subject to hundreds of scientific studies over the last few years and there is now a robust pool of data available for us to take a look at.
But there is still some left over confusion about the safety of creatine, the correct dosage and particularly the time to take it, pre-workout, post-workout, just before bed? Let’s dive into the detail and destroy some of the myths about this workout supplement.
Check out this creatine infographic for an at-a-glance roundup of the benefits of creatine.
So what is creatine?
Creatine phosphate is found naturally in the human body. It is produced by the liver, kidneys and pancreas, and is then transported to muscles where it is used to create adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP transports chemical energy within cells for metabolism, so when energy is needed it is converted from storage molecules like carbohydrates and fats into ATP. ATP then acts like a shuttle, delivering energy to places within the cell where energy-consuming activities are taking place. The more creatine phosphate that you have in your body, the more successfully ATP can be formed and can power these cellular processes.
Activating ATP more efficiently helps you to exercise harder.
Creatine also causes the body to hold more water in muscle cells, so your muscles will also look rounder and fuller due to this mechanism.
While creatine can be obtained from red meat, it is more practical to take higher-dose creatine supplements in order to achieve the required levels and ensure it’s available whenever it’s needed. To get 5g of daily creatine from beef, you would need to eat more than 1kg of beef every day – around 2.4lbs: nearly five 8oz steaks every day.
What is creatine good for?
Due to the nature of the metabolic pathway that is influenced by creatine intake, scientific research studies have found that it helps improve performance during short periods of athletic activity, like lifting weights, sprinting or other high energy burst sports.
A study carried out recently in Italy showed that jumpers and sprinters who supplemented with creatine significantly improved the first 30 seconds of their performance by roughly 10%. If seconds matter, then creatine can make a difference.
However, if you’re considering taking creatine to improve your effectiveness at an endurance sport, forget it. There is no evidence to suggest that creatine helps with gains in endurance sports.
Also, depending on your genetic predisposition, research shows that not everyone’s muscles respond to creatine. Some people who use it experience minimal benefit, and sometimes no benefit whatsoever. There’s no way of knowing whether it will work for you until you try it.
But when it does work, it works well.
One research study carried out in 2002 by Zeigenfuss et al, monitoring male and female athletes, demonstrated that using creatine for just three days can produce a significant increase in skeletal muscle volume and exercise performance.
Another study from 1997 by Volek et al showed that one week of creatine supplementation increased body weight by an average of 1.4 kg, with one subject adding 2.7 kg.
Furthermore, a study in 1999, again by Volek et al concluded that creatine supplementation, when combined with resistance training, resulted in a 6.3% increase in both bodyweight and fat-free mass after a 12 week period.
Is creatine safe?
There are two aspects to the question of whether creatine is safe: chemical purity and side effects of creatine itself.
Now, because the production of sports supplements isn’t monitored as closely as medications, you can’t always know exactly what’s in your supplements or in what amounts. As a result, some cheaper supplements may contain contaminants and impurities which could potentially be harmful over the long term, so always make sure you buy reputable brands and don’t just by the cheapest stuff that you find on the internet.
Low grade creatine can contain derivatives and byproducts of some of the chemicals that are used to start the chemical production, such as dicyandiamide, dihydrotriazine, sodium and creatinine.
Although the inclusion of all of the above can reduce the product’s purity, meaning you’re not buying pure creatine, so getting less of it into your body, three of the above are not categorized as harmful to human beings. In high doses, the fourth substance, creatinine has been shown in some lab tests to be harmful, but the data is insufficient to be substantive. In addition, the level of creatinine in high quality creatine products falls way below the danger threshold.
Health and fitness consultant, Will Brink, who regularly co-authors articles with notable scientists, carried out a study on a dozen or so brands of creatine, which showed that products made by a large pharmaceutical company out of Germany were far and away superior to creatine manufactured elsewhere, particularly China, where the above chemicals could be found at high levels. Always, always purchase quality creatine from reputable brands that have robust manufacturing processes.
There are side effects associated with creatine, but they all originate from the way that it us absorbed in the intestines. At low doses of 5 grams and less, the intestines can absorb creatine efficiently. As the dosage moves beyond that level, the body cannot absorb the full amount, so side effects can occur.
This inability for the body to absorb high levels of creatine means that you can’t overdose on creatine. It’s just not physically possible.
However, if you do take more creatine than your body can handle, perhaps during a loading phase (which we will come on to later) a few things could happen:
- Some people are susceptible to stomach upset and cramps when taking creatine, even at smaller doses. The solution is to take in more food and water intake at the same time that you take your creatine or take smaller doses spread throughout the day.
- Diarrhoea can occur when too much creatine is taken in a single dose. This is because it can’t be absorbed properly by the intestines, so water is retained in the bowel as the unabsorbed creatine draws water into the bowels.
There have been questions about whether kidney function is affected by creatine supplement consumption. This stems from a test for kidney disorders which measures the amount of creatinine in the blood levels; if the level is elevated then this can indicate kidney malfunction. However, creatinine is a by-product of creatine, so if you’re putting more creatine into your body you’re naturally going to get more creatinine in your blood. This is not a symptom of the kidney failing, just a marker that you’ve been taking creatine, it’s that simple.
How to take creatine
There is an upper limit on the level of creatine that will stay in your system, so there’s no point in taking more than you need. As explained earlier, you will only expel it from your system and be literally throwing your money down the toilet.
However, it takes the body a certain amount of time to reach that upper creatine limit, so many people will load up on creatine to start with and then use a maintenance dose.
For loading up, you can either take 20g a day (taken in 5g doses four times a day) for five days, which is the way that I load up. Or you can take 10g a day (5g doses twice a day) for 10 – 12 days. After the loading period, drop the dose down to somewhere between 3g and 5g. As a measuring guide, a teaspoon is around 5g of creatine. It should be taken with food, particularly carbs.
If at any time you experience stomach upset or diarrhoea, just reduce the dose.
And then there’s timing. Should you take it before exercise, afterwards or can you take it any time of the day. There are a lot of arguments for all of these options, with many people putting valid cases forward for each. However, until recently, there was little study carried out on the optimum timing for creatine ingestion until a paper was published in August 2013 by Antonio and Ciccone which shows that there is a very small, but measurable edge when creatine is taking after a workout session.
It is so slight that it doesn’t make very much difference. The main thing is to take the creatine every day – on a rest day take it whenever you wish. It’s also been shown that taking creatine just before bed can disrupt sleep patterns, so make sure you avoid that.
There are also questions about whether creatine should be cycled, perhaps 12 weeks on and 12 weeks off. Some anecdotal sources suggest that the body can build up a resistance to creatine, so the reasoning is that cycling flushes the system and sets you up for another growth phase. However, there is very little scientific evidence to suggest that this is true. Personally, I take just a few days off every couple of months or if I want to get more muscle definition. The only reason to drop creatine is if you want your muscles to look more cut up, as creatine adds additional water to your muscle, filling it out, but also taking some of the definition out of it.
The main thing that you need to do is to use creatine and make sure you use it every day! There is a lot of scientific evidence showing that additional gains can be made by the majority of people when they use creatine.
I hope this article has been of value to you, I certainly enjoyed all the time I spent researching it. If you like this article, please share!