Bodybuilding and Creatine are inexorably linked. That’s because creatine bridges the gap between drug users and non-drug users. Hell, everyone uses it these days. In fact, in 1999, over $20 million dollars in creatine product sales were logged. But for something so widely used, it’s probably the least understood compound on supplement shelves today.
Creatine is a simple combination of three amino acids: Arginine, Glycine and Methionine. Unlike 99.9% of other supplements, the human liver actually has the ability to manufacture creatine by putting all of those amino acids together within the body. Try that with whey protein or pro-hormones! The other way to pack creatine into the body is, of course, to take it in supplement or food form.
Many foods contain creatine, but supplementation is the surest way to build upon the creatine that you naturally store within your body at any given time. Incidentally, your body stores creatine at a rate of about 75% of your body weight in grams. That means that a 200 lb man would store approximately 150 grams of creatine in his body at any given time. A 125 lb woman would store about 80 grams. About 90-95% of that creatine is stored directly in the muscles. The remainder is stored in various organs.
The Benefits of Creatine
First and foremost, creatine provides additional energy for your muscles. From a functional standpoint, that’s most important. When supplemented, creatine phosphate is available as energy immediately, whereas fat and carbohydrates take time to process and avail themselves. But once food is processed it becomes Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP), which is also available immediately. However, the difference between ATP and Creatine is this: Your muscle’s supply of ATP is not endless and it burns out quickly. In fact, you have only about 15 seconds of ATP available for energy once you begin some form of exertion. Once you tap into ATP for energy, and you spend it, it produces a by-product called Adenosine Diphosphate (ADP) as a function of its releasing contained energy. But this byproduct of ADP is useless to the body as energy… unless of course it comes into contact with creatine! Creatine turns ADP into ATP again and it becomes viable energy for use during exercise. Voila! More fuel for your muscles and more fuel for your workouts!
Secondly, creatine volumizes muscles. In layman’s terms, that means creatine pulls water from the body into the muscles, increasing their overall volume. This temporarily increases the size of your muscles and the intensity of your pumps. But don’t get your hopes up over this tidbit. Volumization of muscles is cosmetically short-lived. However, increased water volume within muscles has been associated with increased strength and can allow you to push past previous barriers during workouts in order to add more mass. This benefit is more indirect, but nonetheless valuable.
Third, creatine enhances protein synthesis. It allows the body to become more efficient at synthesizing protein by putting the body in a more anabolic state to begin with. Remember that the better your body is at protein synthesis, the better chance it has to ultimately add more mass. This is one reason why the dispute over taking creatine before or after workouts is benign. Having free-floating creatine in your system at all times just means that you have a greater chance of utilizing all of the protein you actually take in during a given day.
Lastly, creatine helps to buffer the build-up of lactic acid during exertion. So next time you get that horrid burning sensation that makes you want to cut off your left nut because the pain is so excruciating, remember that creatine helps delay the build-up. To appreciate this, train hard without it and time yourself. When does the first “burn” set-in when you’re not taking creatine? When does it set-in after supplementing 4-5 grams prior to a workout? The difference can often be staggering!
In short, creatine will provide you with more energy during workouts to push through the threshold that normally stops you at a certain point in the cycle of exertion. It also helps you recover from any form of exertion by buffering and delaying the onset of lactic acid, and by turning by-products of the Kreb’s Cycle (ADP) into useable, accessible energy once again.
Now, we’ve already established that bodybuilders can really benefit from creatine supplementation, but there’s so much left unsaid about how to take it… for instance, which form is best? Which delivery system most effectively addresses size and muscle gains? And how should one go about dosing it?
There are about five different forms of creatine. Determining which is best is like trying to settle a dispute between the Hatfields and the McCoys. Everyone seems to be in a different camp. We’re just here to present the facts. Let personal experience be your guide when deciding what’s best in all of these instances. No matter what form or delivery of the creatine, the point is to ingest it in some form or another in order to increase energy stores and promote mass gain.
Creatine can come in the following forms:
Powder, effervescent powder, liquid, and capsules.
Talk to various manufacturers and they’ll swear that their form of delivery system and product is the very best on the market, and thus, the most effective. For connoisseurs of creatine products, there is a distinct difference too; particularly in how it makes them feel once they’ve ingested it.
Many report that powder, while the most widely sold, is oftentimes the hardest to digest and contend with after taking it. What’s more, it’s often gritty and difficult to mix if it’s not “micronized creatine” and can cause upset stomach. But the most significant fact about powdered creatine is that it has one of the lowest absorption rates of all the types of delivery systems. An estimated 40% is lost before it ever reaches your muscle tissue. That’s substantial, not so much because of price (powdered creatine is one of the cheapest forms) but because of the wasting and overall price per serving.
Liquid creatine is the second-generation improvement on standard powdered creatine. It absorbs more rapidly, causes less stomach upset and becomes useable far more rapidly because it doesn’t have to break down at the gut level. That means that the time you take in between ingesting liquid creatine and your workout is much less than with powdered brands. Working out can be much more impromptu and natural; it doesn’t require a math equation in order for it to be feasible on that day and that hour.
Pills are the same as powder because they are essentially capsules packed with powder. The disadvantage, of course, is that if you’re taking several grams of creatine at one time, the amount of capsules you’ll have to take to equal a few scoops is really staggering and very difficult to swallow, literally and figuratively. Some companies offer larger gram dose capsules, but they aren’t flexible in terms of being able to the tweak dosage.
Effervescent creatine delivery is also an effective alternative to powdered creatine. Some believe it’s as effective as liquid, but because effervescent creatine nearly always comes in pre measured packets, it’s somewhat limiting to tailoring doses on a day-to-day basis.
Types of Creatine
C r e a t i n e M o n o h y d r a t e
The most commonly used form of synthetic creatine is the monohydrate salt, creatine monohydrate. Creatine monohydrate is simply a molecule of creatine accompanied by a molecule of water for stability. Each molecule of creatine monohydrate is made up of 88% creatine and 12% water. One gram of creatine monohydrate = 880 milligrams of creatine. Creatine Monohydrate is by far the most common form for a creatine supplement, and the most economical. Does that mean it’s not worth as much as the other forms? Not at all. In fact, since most studies done on creatine almost always use creatine monohydrate, the science backs this form up more than the others.
C r e a t i n e P h o s p h a t e
In order for creatine of any kind to be effective and useable, it needs to bond with a phosphate. The association made when taking creatine phosophate is that if you take a phosphate along with a creatine molecule, you’ve covered all your bases and created a creatine more viable and effective than creatine monohydrate. But creatine phosphate has only 62.3% creatine and 37.7% phosphate. It takes a higher dose to equal the same 88% of creatine found in the monohydrate form. Plus, creatine phosphate is more expensive than creatine monohydrate, so it’s not necessarily as rosy a picture when you look at all sides.
C r e a t i n e C i t r a t e
Creatine citrate is much more water soluble than other forms of creatine, which is why it became more popular. The volumization potential was seen as much greater, but really, all it does is dissolve better when mixed with water or juice. The problem is that creatine citrate is weakest of all. In fact, it’s a little less than half the strength of creatine monohydrate, with just 400 milligrams of creatine per gram of creatine citrate. The kicker? It’s more expensive than creatine monohydrate!
This is something that, here again, is very individual. Yet, it’s not because there is a logical cap to the amount of creatine you should take daily. It’s not like whey protein, where whether you take in 3 scoops or 13 in a 12 hour period, there’s no cause for health concerns. Creatine is something that definitely should be limited in the amount and methods of taking it.
For the average 200 lb man, the amount of powdered creatine that is effective and safe is approximately 5 grams per day. For liquid/serum, the amount is about half of that. Incidentally, when we talk about effective, what we mean is that it’s the minimum number of grams that have a positive effect at that point in time. Taking 5 grams, for instance, and getting results, doesn’t mean that taking 10 grams will result in double the effectiveness and returns.
Effectiveness is also dependent upon the pattern of dosing that you engage in when taking creatine. Many people will cycle their creatine, just as a pro bodybuilder might cycle his anabolic steroid use, because they reason that the body will adapt over time, and will require either more of the same, or a break from taking it altogether. Others will still load their creatine in phases, which is somewhat like a cycle, but different in that it’s based on a steady and upward increase in creatine dosage for maximum effect within a shorter period of time than a cycle. Typically, it’s dosed in split doses of a set amount throughout an entire day.
So what should you do?
Whether you cycle, load or just take creatine religiously before a workout, it’s dependent upon your experience trying these things and how your body responds to them. It’s the same dilemma when talking about whether to dose creatine prior to a workout or after. Accepted practice is that powder is highly effective if taken an hour prior to a workout, though capsules have to be taken even further out. Liquid can obviously be dosed much closer to workout time, usually about 10-15 minutes, including effervescent creatine packets mixed with water or juice.
Based on the demands of your workout, you have a choice whether you want to take creatine straight or engage in loading.
Loading Phase: In accordance with this dosing protocol most athletes begin supplementing creatine with a loading phase. The purpose of the loading phase is to quickly fill creatine stores in a matter of a few days for maximum mass building. A typical loading phase might be to take 15-20 grams of creatine monohydrate daily, for five days. The loading phase should not exceed the time it takes your muscle creatine stores to saturate, approximately five days.
-Remember- research recommends that athletes take creatine with a carbohydrate (e.g. with grape or orange juice) or ingest commercially available creatine supplements that combine creatine with glucose.
Maintenance Phase: Follow the loading phase with a maintenance phase to maintain creatine stores. Any maintenance dose should just cover the amount of creatine degraded on a daily basis. That’s about 2 grams total for a 180 lb male. Most experts suggest not going beyond 6-8 weeks in any maintenance phase.
From the point of workout, you can figure that you have about 90 minutes to use it or waste it. By wasting it, we mean that one portion goes automatically into storage and another portion is wasted and excreted. The active amount you can access, however, is the amount that circulates for approximately 90 minutes.
But remember, your body also has a window of time where it can replenish its own creatine supplies (through converting ADP into ATP) to use during and after workouts, plus being able to keep a store of it. Dosing after a workout doesn’t make much sense for this reason, though some will tell you they swear by it. Here’s the main reason: You need to be able to access creatine during workouts for the extra energy that it will provide, and the only way to do that is to take it prior to workouts, to make it available within the full window of time to maximize its use. Plus, you need to have the ability for your body to replenish just following a workout. It helps, also, if you take in a protein serving just following workouts so that you can maximize protein synthesis. (Remember? Creatine facilitates this!).
Creatine As A Recovery Tool?
Some people will take creatine on their off days (days they aren’t working out) because they believe it will store itself better and help repair muscles torn down by workouts. No one can conclusively say this because there is still a lot about creatine that we do not know. However, if you have practiced this and find that it actually does help you recover faster, then do what makes the most sense. If you are in the camp that believes that taking creatine on off-days means that you’ll keep steady levels of creatine stored and available, then a safe way to practice this is to take half doses on off-days, so that you won’t waste your supply.
Not All Brands Are Created Equal
When shopping for creatine, things can get pretty tricky. Not all brands are created equal because many manufacturers formulate their product with binders and fillers that, even though they are inert ingredients, greatly skew the purity of the creatine. There are too many products out there that are pure 100% creatine to mess around with brands that insult buyers by adding fillers. The point is to head for the brands that are willing to back up their claims for purity and ingredients. Going for the cheapest creatine isn’t always the best route.
Try to find a company that stands behind their products and offer some kind of money-back guarantee. It’s the only way you can be sure that they believe what their package claims! You’ll find widely varying prices for creatine too. In fact, it’s just like the food world, where you can get the identical generic soup for less than half of what you’ll pay for the big national brand. Many of the national brands do private labeling, and it’s the exact same product as theirs. Without big money marketing behind it, the private label will cost half as much as the nationally recognized brand. It pays to unearth some of these things and know your brands.
A Final Note: Is Creatine Safe?
Like anything, it is possible to abuse creatine. Add anything to your body that isn’t produced in the same quantities as you’re supplementing, and you can forge an imbalance within your body as a result. In the case of creatine, anything you don’t use is turned into creatinine and is excreted. Puting your body on the path of constant excretion of excess/wasted creatine can be hard on the liver and kidneys.
No studies published on creatine can substantiate that creatine has long term negative effects. Once the creatine is stopped, or the dose greatly reduced to a therapeutic/realistic dose, the body resumes normalcy. However, always check out various drug interactions with your doctor or pharmacist to make sure that a condition or drug you’re taking won’t be adversely affected by ingesting creatine. But all of this fails to take into account that creatine can produce undesirable side effects.
Naturally, with anything, there is always a downside. In this case, there is a list that, while unsubstantiated, contains a few side effects several athletes have experienced along the way.
•Susceptibility to muscle strains. Increase in weight used because of volumization can cause an overload and the attending ligaments may not fare well.
•Muscle cramps can result when creatine is used along with a hard workout in hot or humid conditions. This is likely because of the change in water volume and salts within the muscle. Dehydration is highly possible.
•Excreting byproduct creatinine can cause kidneys some stress and strain in processing.