Creatine: What’s the Deal??

Creatine, creatine, creatine! Everywhere you look, you see posts about creatine!

First, what is it? Creatine is made from three amino acids (building blocks of protein) and can be produced in the body as well as being consumed in foods (like red meat and fish). Ninety-five percent of creatine is taken up in muscle with the remainder being found in other tissues (like your BRAIN!).

Once in the muscle, two-thirds of creatine is converted to phosphocreatine and is stored “potential energy”. When you perform high intensity activity (i.e. sprinting or lifting heavy weights) you use up energy (ATP) and this needs to be replaced with stored potential energy (i.e. phosphocreatine gets broken down to form ATP). In short, you can recover a little faster and perform a little more work when exercising and over time this could be of benefit.

OK…pretty nerdy start Let’s get to the big question….does creatine supplementation really provide any benefit? The answer is YES! Creatine has been one of the most studied supplements and can clearly benefit athletic performance.

The International Olympic Committee even brought together a group of experts and they listed creatine as one of five supplements that has strong scientific evidence to support its efficacy click here.

Beyond “athletes”, creatine can provide muscle health benefits to older adults. Our lab has previously shown that older adults (>50 years of age) who took creatine and resistance trained gained ~1.2 kg more muscle mass than those who just resistance trained. In addition, we have recently published several scientific papers examining the impact of creatine and resistance training on falls prevention as well as a review looking at all the nuances in the scientific literature click here, and click here.

"Creatine has been one of the most studied supplements and can clearly benefit athletic performance."

Since those publications, I have received lots of questions regarding creatine supplementation!

Who should take creatine?

My answer (as a scientist) is it depends! I would never recommend someone to take supplements to support a poor diet. For those individuals looking to gain muscle and strength, I recommend 3 things before even considering creatine #sledgehammers.

  1. You must train consistently (at least 3 months).

  2. Eat sufficient calories.

  3. Eat enough protein (at least 1.6 g/kg/day).

At that point, you can consider creatine supplementation. For healthy individuals creatine is extremely safe click here, but if you have any kidney issues, please consult your doctor. Besides that, everyone can try creatine and see if you respond.

My PhD supervisor, Dr. Gordon Bell and Dr. Dan Syrotuik found that some people respond to creatine supplementation while others don’t. Responders tended to have more fast twitch muscle fibers and a lower muscle creatine level at the start of the study click here. For the average person who cannot precisely determine their fiber type or muscle creatine content, you only have one choice….try creatine and see if you are responding or not.

What is the best way to take creatine?

There are several scientifically proven strategies and they all work.

  1. You can take 20 grams per day for 5 days followed by 5 grams per day.

  2. Simply take 5 grams a day and skip the loading phase. Muscle creatine levels will get to the same point, it just takes a couple weeks longer when comparing strategy 2 to strategy 1.

  3. Take 0.1 g/kg/day….yes, a bit more complicated and involves some math, but a bigger person may need more creatine, and this will take body size into account. It is recommended to mix creatine with water as well as carbs or a mixture of carbs and protein (again both carbs and protein stimulate insulin and will help the uptake of creatine).

We have recently reviewed whether timing of creatine can impact strength training adaptations click here. Presently, it seems like taking creatine after exercise may be optimal, however, very limited evidence exists, and more research is warranted.

Does creatine just make puffy muscles?

Creatine causes an osmotic shift and increases water retention. People think this is bad…when in fact science would completely disagree. A super nerdy study click here from McMaster University, in Canada looked at all the cellular mechanisms following creatine loading. Using a large-scale gene expression in skeletal muscle, they found that creatine supplementation led to a change in cellular osmolarity and upregulated the expression of myogenic regulatory factors important for satellite cell activation.

Yeah…crazy right. In lay person terms, the increase in water retention led to a cascade of events leading to an increase in markers important for muscle growth! Cool eh?

Are there any other benefits to creatine?

We have recently shown that creatine can help with fat loss click here. Those that took creatine and resistance trained lost about 0.5 kg more fat than those who just resistance trained! Not a huge amount but remember that creatine helped to gain muscle. So, the fact that it helps us lose fat or tended to help lose more fat is basically just a bonus!

Other benefits include being smarter! Yes, that is right. Not only will you be more jacked and have less fat, but you will also be smarter. Creatine seems especially important during times of stress (i.e., sleep deprivation and hypoxia) and this could be huge for firefighters!

We have also reviewed the potential benefits of creatine on bone health click here. In short, studies of sufficient duration (12 months) creatine combined with resistance training can help enhance bone strength.

In summary, creatine is one of the most well studieddietary supplements, it is extremely safe and well tolerated, and has a large amount of scientific support for both younger and older adults.There are also emerging therapeutic benefits to creatine including enhance cognition…which is AWESOME!

Scott Forbes, PhD

Dr. Scott Forbes is an assistant professor in the department of Physical Education at Brandon University, Canada. His primary interest is in sport science with a primary focus on nutritional (creatine and protein) and training interventions to enhance athlete performance. In addition, he has expertise examining nutritional and exercise interventions for optimal muscle and brain health in older adults.