If you’ve ever read a fitness supplement article then you’ll have heard of creatine. No, it’s not steroids, but yes, it is the most studied supplement (other than protein) that has the most proof behind the results it yields.
To understand why it’s so effective, you have to look at the science behind it. The simplified version is that “creatine helps to recycle ATP”, but that opens up a whole load of questions.
ATP is a molecule called Adenosine Triphosphate – named for its three phosphate molecules.
Your muscles store these molecules, ready for use in providing energy. When ATP releases its third phosphate molecule, it produces a burst of energy. This powers muscle fibre contraction and turns ATP into Adenosine Diphosphate (ADP).
The issue is ATP is an unstable molecule so your muscles can only store a certain amount of it.
When you do a few seconds of max-effort exercise, your muscles convert their ATP into ADP to power it. ADP is useless without its third phosphate though, so to continue exerting energy you need to get them back to being ATP.
This is where creatine comes in. Your liver produces molecules called Creatine Phosphate. These hold onto a vital single phosphate that is also stored in your muscles.
An enzyme called Creatine Kinase is released, helping these Creatine Phosphate cells transfer their phosphate molecule to ADP and return it to ATP. Your muscles can once again use ATP to create energy and the process repeats. It’s known as the Phosphagen System.
On average it lasts about 10 seconds before you run out of Creatine Phosphates and move into the Anaerobic System. But that’s for another time.
When you consume Creatine Monohydrate, your body converts it into Creatine Phosphate. Stored in your muscles, it waits to supply this process.
Very few people naturally have full Creatine Phosphate stores. In fact, the average person only consumes 1g a day from their diet, whereas the recommended daily intake is more like 5g.
To get 5g of dietary creatine in a day one would need to eat 1kg of beef or 1.5kg of chicken. A study has shown that 5g of daily creatine monohydrate increases Creatine Phosphate stores in the subjects’ muscles by 15-20%.
There is a slight side effect to this. For a process called homeostasis to balance out the storage of creatine in the muscles, it draws in water to do so. This results in many well-trained subjects seeing muscle growth (studies show it’s about 6%) in the initial stages.
One point to note is during the first week, one needs to stay well hydrated to help this process. It has also shown to increase the amount of glycogen stored in muscles, which is another form of fuel for our muscles to use.
The average person requires 5g of creatine monohydrate daily for muscle growth.
The real-world application of this is that a study found that with two groups of participants doing the same training programme, with one group taking a placebo and the other taking creatine supplement, the placebo group made a 12% gain in strength, but the creatine supplemented group experienced a 20% increase in strength.
Lastly, moving away from the effects on performance and muscle mass, creatine has also been shown to be beneficial to the brain.
Some studies have shown that creatine supplementation results in improved short-term memory in healthy individuals. The results found in other aspects of brain function were less conclusive. However, it appears to be most effective for ageing or stressed individuals (or both).
So, how much should you take and when? For those looking for significant performance increases, it is generally recommended that they spend five to seven days on a “loading” phase of 20g a day.
This brings muscle stores up to the required load faster but isn’t necessary. Then the dosage reduces to five to 10g a day (depending on one’s muscle mass) to maintain it.
There are conflicting arguments on when it is best to take creatine. If your muscles have adequate supply from the daily dosage then it shouldn’t matter.
There have only been short-term studies done on the effects of creatine supplementation on those who have existing kidney issues. If one does have them (tested by looking at blood creatinine levels) then take caution in consumption.
One other study cites concerns over it increasing a hormone called DHT. This contributes to accelerating male balding in those predisposed to it. It isn’t conclusive though, and other contradictory studies found no such results.
Generally, it’s known to be a safe supplement that is important for those with a low dietary intake. It’s suitable for those looking for optimal performance in the gym and potential brain benefits.