Arguably, the most well studied and effective sports supplement ever. What is it, exactly? How does it work? Should you be taking it? Let’s roll up our knee sleeves, stretch our piriformis, and delve into the science behind creatine.
The ATP-PC system
Creatine is a simple compound made of 3 amino acids - glycine, arginine, methionine. The simplicity of creatine should not understate its importance, however. Creatine primarily serves as a reserve for ATP production. ATP stands for adenosine triphosphate and is the universal energy source for all the body's cells from a zoomed-in perspective. You know how the only thing you remember from high school biology is that the mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell? Well, those mitochondria produce ATP via the electron transport chain. Electron transport chain? Even more nostalgia. I bet you can practically feel the whack of a wooden ruler on your skull as you doze off during 9th-grade biology.
During cellular energy expenditure, a phosphate molecule is used and ATP is reduced to adenosine diphosphate (ADP). ADP is much like tits on a bull -- not very useful. This is where creatine, or more specifically, phosphocreatine, (which is just creatine bound to a phosphate molecule) shows its usefulness and donates its phosphate molecule to help ADP regroup into ATP. This keeps energy flowing and helps maintain intensity during training.
Creatine for Strength, Energy, and Hypertrophy
So, how does supplementing with creatine lead to stronger and bigger muscles? When creatine capacity is maximized in the body, it provides the constituents necessary to maintain longer and more intense training sessions. The higher the intensity that can be managed, combined with the ability to accumulate volume, results in two very effective variables for increasing strength.
We know creatine contributes to ATP production, but, the first 10-15 seconds of any intense activity actually draws its energy directly from the phosphocreatine system. Again, this demonstrates that maximized creatine capacity means you can maintain very high-intensity sets for short durations before being forced to switch to the anaerobic glycolysis energy system. With reduced creatine capacity, your ability to perform maximal intensity sets is going to be diminished. This would be more noticeable for 1-5 rep/sets that are in the 10-15 second range.
Getting stronger can enhance your muscle's capabilities for hypertrophy, but it doesn’t always lead to hypertrophy depending on how much of the adaptation is neural-based. However, creatine can directly contribute to hypertrophy via a pathway not predicated on strength.
The majority of creatine stores are located within skeletal muscle cells. Here, creatine acts as a hygroscopic substance, meaning that it attracts water. That attraction of water causes muscle cells to hydrate and swell, this contributes to a nice pump, which may be better than an orgasm depending on whether you are Arnold Schwarzenegger or not. The pump, which can be visually appealing, also serves to compromise the integrity of the muscle cell via swelling. This forces the muscle cell to remodel itself as a bigger and stronger cell, thus contributing to muscle hypertrophy.
Yes, this means you can take creatine to literally get SWOLE.
How to take it?
Anyone who has taken creatine in their life has asked themselves one basic and universal question: To load or not to load? Typical loading parameters suggest 7-10 days of 20-25 grams daily of creatine to fully saturate your creatine stores.
While this is likely the fastest way to saturate your creatine stores, it is also the fastest way to literally piss away your money, via excretion of excess creatine. If you aren’t in a time crunch, the more economical way would be a standard daily dose of 5g, and with enough time your creatine stores will saturate and that same dose will be enough to maintain saturation in most instances.
When to take it?
There is some debate as to when the best time to take creatine is. That debate is usually between two parameters: before or after exercising. Irrespective of before or after, research demonstrates that insulin promotes increased uptake of creatine into muscle cells. This is fairly unsurprising, as we know that insulin also helps to increase uptake of carbohydrates and amino acids into muscle cells.
Aside from insulin, there is another mechanism that promotes absorption of nutrients like amino acids, carbohydrates, and presumably creatine. That is the mechanical contraction of muscles. Muscle contraction causes translocation of glucose and amino acid transporters toward the edge of the cell membrane which puts them in a prime location to stuff their respective cells with nutrients.
Given the potential enhanced uptake of creatine from muscle contraction, I think a valid argument for consuming creatine before/intra workout with an insulin promoting supplement (think carbohydrate/protein), could provide a synergistic effect for optimized creatine uptake into muscle cells.
What Kind of Creatine to Use?
The only thing that outdoes the documented effectiveness of creatine, is the exorbitant selection of different creatines. With seemingly more types of creatine than flavors of ice cream, how do you know which one to choose? There is creatine monohydrate, hydrochloride, ethyl ester, micronized, liquid, chelated, etc. It’s enough to make you throw in the towel on creatine and take that fistful cash over to the Massenomics apparel shop, instead.
Luckily, for you, the answer is relatively simple. Despite all the fancy designer creatine, the monohydrate form is still the most economically effective. All the other versions are designed to enhance absorption, but fail to do so at a rate that is more cost effective than creatine monohydrate. You can also try to find micronized versions of creatine monohydrate, which may enhance absorption while minimally adding to costs. We recommend something like this one available from Amazon:
Is Creatine Dangerous?
Acute Renal Failure. Rhabdomyolysis. Shitting your kidneys out your mouth. These are the medical terms physicians and nurses often use when asked about supplementing with protein or creatine. While there is a legitimate concern for people to supplement with protein or creatine if they have existing kidney impairment of some kind, people with normal kidney function will tolerate supplementation of both just fine.
And for god’s sake -- no creatine is not a steroid, and please don’t ever refer to yourself as being “on creatine” or “on protein”. Uttering such stupidity has shown a causal relationship for 650% lower testosterone levels and sporting a pervy, creep-mustache, as pictured below: