What is Creatine
Creatine is a natural substance in the body and is formed from two amino acids, arginine and glycine. It is stored primarily in muscles and the brain.
You can get it naturally in your diet by eating meat but athletes typically supplement with it to boost performance, energy and muscle pump.
For those reasons, it is one of the most popular supplements to take pre-workout.
Benefits of Creatine for Athletes
Creatine may be the most tested and proven natural supplement on the planet and its benefits for athletes of all types is well documented.
As all readers of my blog posts here at Alpha Wolf Nutrition know, I like to focus on human case studies and fortunately I’ve got a lot to choose from to showcase a handful of the most proven benefits for athletes, bodybuilders and runners.
Increases Muscle Pump
Creatine is extremely popular among bodybuilders because it pulls water into muscle cells increasing their volume and fullness otherwise known as cell volumization. (1)
More Effective When Combined with Glycerol
Scientist also discovered when glycerol is combined with creatine it increases cell volumization by a whopping 40% over creatine alone. (2)
This is known as “hyperhydration” and it is not a soft look either as the increase is primarily in your blood or in other words, it is increasing plasma volume.
If you want to see your muscles swell up and have mind blowing pumps that gets looks from the ladies and draws envy from the guys, combine glycerol with your creatine pre-workout.
Increases ATP Production & Energy
Adenosine Triphosphate or ATP is a high-energy molecule which actually stores the energy for almost every single activity you undertake whether it be muscle or brain power you are using.
In fact, biologists often refer to ATP as the “energy currency of life”.
Creatine supplementation has been shown to both enhance ATP synthesis as well as enhance ATP resynthesis. (3)
In short, this means it helps your body generate more energy and sustain it for longer periods.
Speeds Muscle Growth
As creatine may help you train harder due to enhanced ATP production, it has believed to help increase muscular hypertrophy as well. (3)
Technically speaking, scientist attribute the hypertrophy from better ATP production, in part, to improved “myosin heavy chain expression” but the exact mechanisms of how that works is out of the scope of this article. (4)
There have been multiple human case studies showing creatine supplementation to have a substantial effect on strength.
How much of an effect it has varies by studies and some people realize very little gain but the average strength increase comes out to around 14 – 15%.
To put this in perspective if you had a 225 pound 1 rep max bench press, a 15% increase would push your 1 rep max to just over 258 pounds.
Some people respond much better to creatine than others though and gains by as much as 45% more strength have been realized.
I would caution against expecting such an incredible increase and keep expectations more in the 10 – 15% range for the average person though. (5, 6)
Increases High Intensity Exercise Performance
I’ve already discussed how creatine increases ATP synthesis which is huge for high intensity exercise and there have been several studies showing direct benefits.
One of the more impressive human case studies was done on sprinters as sprinting is one of the most exhausting and physically taxing exercises one can do.
The test consisted of eight, 40 meter full out sprints with just 25 seconds of rest in between runs.
The participants who supplemented with creatine saw a significant increase in their ability to maintain speed throughout the series of runs over those who received a placebo. (7)
Although it has not been tested yet, likely due to the complications of such a test, there is speculation this may even translate to distance runners who are full on sprinting at the end of their races as well.
Creatine has been shown to reduce cell damage, inflammation and rate of recovery after exercise.
Case Study 1
In a test on participants in a 30km (18.64 mile) run, the racers supplementing with 5g creatine and 15g maltodextrin saw a 19% creatine kinase (CK) reduction. (8)
When CK levels in the blood rise it signals a breakdown of skeletal muscle tissue. So a 19% reduction is very significant and positive.
They also saw a 60.9% reduction in Prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) which helps regulate inflammation response. (9)
As well as a 33.7% reduction in TNF-α which is cell signaling protein involved in systemic inflammation.
Case Study 2
Untrained males, which would be more likely to see greatly increased inflammation due to not having built up their bodies to withstand serious exercise, were put through a resistance training program.
Those who supplemented with creatine and a carbohydrate saw a significant decrease in CK levels by a whopping 84% on average. (10)
Only Effective When Combined with Carbohydrates Like Dextrose
It’s important to note that creatine by itself has been shown to have no benefit in recovery without the use of quick absorption carbohydrates to back it up. (11)
While the participants in the 30km race used maltodextrin because it is a complex carbohydrate which is easily absorbed and used to restore muscle glycogen, I recommend you use dextrose over maltodextrin unless your training session is going to go beyond 1 1/2 hours.
There are many reasons for this but at the top of the list is that dextrose is nearly instantly absorbed providing a quick boost of energy to power you through workouts and its ability to fill muscle glycogen stores is well documented.
Also creatine combined with dextrose has been shown to increase strength as much as protein supplementation! (12)
In addition to that, taking creatine combined with dextrose has been shown to increase muscle glycogen resynthesis by as much as 82% which is huge. (13)
If your training session is going to go beyond 1 1/2 hours I would still recommend using dextrose but add in maltodextrin as well since it is a complex carbohydrate that is a little more slowly absorbed.
That way you get the benefit of both the initial energy boost as well as a more prolonged sustained energy benefit.
Improves Brain Function & Performance
The single greatest muscle we have in sports performance isn’t actually a muscle but our brain.
Our ability to think clearly and push ourselves beyond our boundaries is what separates the wannabes from the true achievers.
Creatine plays an extremely important role in brain health and function.
Your brain requires a significant amount of ATP to function at a high level and research shows that creatine supplementation can positively affect working memory, intelligence and speed of processing. (14)
Creatine can also help to increase phosphocreatine stores in your brain which help it produce more ATP and may also increase dopamine levels and mitochondrial function. (14, 15, 16)
Dopamine is known as “the feel good” neurotransmitter and mitochondrial function produces the energy current of ATP and regulates cellular metabolism.
Is Pre-Workout the Best Time to Take Creatine
There is a debate on whether it is best to supplement with creatine pre or post workout and science is not exactly clear on the matter either.
One study showed it may be more effective post workout, however a follow up study showed zero difference on body composition if you took it before or after. (17, 18)
The studies were looking for overall body composition changes though rather than how the participants felt during their workout.
Overall it seems to make less of a difference when you take it than how consistently you take it. Creatine needs to be supplemented with every day to keep your stores high.
However, as mentioned earlier, when you combine creatine with dextrose you can increase your glycogen resynthesis by up to 82% which could mean a massive increase in your workout capabilities.
For this reason, I personally prefer to take it pre-workout as I want that ATP energy increase which it provides going into my workout and glycogen resynthesis happening during my workout!
What is the Best Type of Creatine
There have been dozens of different types of formulations of creatine all promising to perform better than standard creatine monohydrate (CM).
Studies have never shown a benefit to “fancier” versions of creatine over monohydrate. You will, however, pay significantly more for them.
The one exception to this is Creatine HCL (C-HCL). The HCL stands for Hydrochloride which enhances its solubility and overall absorption rates as well as improves stability.
Creatine HCL has been shown to be up to 40 times more soluble in fluid than monohydrate.
A 5g dose of CM would require approximately 21 ounces of water to maximise absorption whereas an equivalent dose of C-HCI would only require 0.33 ounces of water to maximise absorption.
What exactly does that mean for you?
For one you do not need to take as much C-HCL as monohydrate which is a potential cost savings as well as it may save you on some of the gastrointestinal problems some users experience with monohydrate.
You also don’t have to chug excessive amounts of water for your body to absorb it.
Lastly, CM is rather chalky and hard to drink since it likes to settle in the bottom of your glass or shaker bottle whereas C-HCL mixes extremely well and you don’t have to spend all that extra time trying to get the last gram out the bottom.
How Much Creatine Should You Take
If you take a standard creatine monohydrate (which is perfectly fine) you should take 5g per day. Science has shown there is no need to do a “loading phase” with higher amounts for the first week as was once thought to be the case.
However I recommend you take creatine HCL since it is more bioavailable and easier to drink. For C-HCL you will want to take 3g per day.
Side Effects of Creatine
Many concerns over the side effects of creatine such as cramping or liver problems have long since been disproven as false by scientist.
Creatine is one of the most well studied supplements on the planet and has time and again been proven safe.
In fact, one study testing for 52 different health markers for up to 21 months found ZERO serious adverse effects. (19)
Creatine is flat out healthy for you and actually, the health benefits of it go far beyond what I mentioned in this article as I focused solely on the benefits for athletes.
The fact is the overall health benefits are wide ranging such as but certainly not limited to potentially:
- Helping with Parkinson’s Disease
- Helping with Neurological Diseases
- Lowering Blood Sugar Levels
- Fighting Diabetes
There are a few minor stomach side effects some individuals may experience though which are:
- Stomach pain
This is another reason I recommend you use creatine HCL, not only do you have to take 2 grams less to realize the benefits of it but the overall higher bioavailability lessons the odds of you having any stomach issues.
- Creatine Supplementation Increases Total Body Water Without Altering Fluid Distribution. – Michael E. Powers, Brent L. Arnold, Arthur L. Weltman, David H. Perrin, Dilawaar Mistry, David M. Kahler, William Kraemer and Jeff Volek. J Athl Train. 2003 Jan-Mar; 38(1): 44–50. – Link
- Creatine and glycerol hyperhydration in trained subjects before exercise in the heat. Easton C, Turner S, Pitsiladis YP. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2007 Feb;17(1):70-91. – Link
- International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: creatine supplementation and exercise. Thomas W Buford, Richard B Kreider, Jeffrey R Stout, Mike Greenwood, Bill Campbell, Marie Spano, Tim Ziegenfuss, Hector Lopez, Jamie Landis and Jose Antonio. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2007; 4: 6. – Link
- Effects of oral creatine and resistance training on myosin heavy chain expression. Willoughby, Darryn S., Rosene, John. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: October 2001 – Volume 33 – Issue 10 – p 1674-1681. – Link
- Effects of creatine supplementation on performance and training adaptations. Kreider RB. Mol Cell Biochem. 2003 Feb;244(1-2):89-94. – Link
- Effects of creatine supplementation and resistance training on muscle strength and weightlifting performance. Rawson ES, Volek JS. J Strength Cond Res. 2003 Nov;17(4):822-31. – Link
- Creatine supplementation delays onset of fatigue during repeated bouts of sprint running. Aaserud R, Gramvik P, Olsen SR, Jensen J. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 1998 Oct;8(5 Pt 1):247-51. – Link
- The effect of creatine supplementation upon inflammatory and muscle soreness markers after a 30km race. R.V.T Santos, R.A Bassit, E.C Caperuto, L.F.B.P Costa Rosa. Life Sciences Volume 75, Issue 16, 3 September 2004, Pages 1917-1924 – Link
- Prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) exerts biphasic effects on human tendon stem cells. Zhang J, Wang JH. PLoS One. 2014 Feb 4;9(2):e87706. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0087706. eCollection 2014. – Link
- Creatine supplementation enhances muscle force recovery after eccentrically-induced muscle damage in healthy individuals. Matthew B Cooke, Emma Rybalka, Andrew D Williams, Paul J Cribb & Alan Hayes. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition volume 6, Article number: 13 (2009). – Link
- Creatine supplementation does not reduce muscle damage or enhance recovery from resistance exercise. Rawson ES, Conti MP, Miles MP. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Nov;21(4):1208-13. – Link
- Creatine-dextrose and protein-dextrose induce similar strength gains during training. M. Tarnopolsky, G. Parise, N.J. Yardley, C.S. Ballantyne, S. Olatinji, S.M. Phillips. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 33(12):2044-52 – Link
- Creatine ingestion augments dietary carbohydrate mediated muscle glycogen supercompensation during the initial 24 h of recovery following prolonged exhaustive exercise in humans. – P.A. Roberts, J. Fox, N. Peirce, S.W. Jones, A. Casey and P.L. Greenhaff – Link
- Oral creatine monohydrate supplementation improves brain performance: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over trial. Caroline Rae, Alison L Digney, Sally R McEwan, and Timothy C Bates. Proc Biol Sci. 2003 Oct 22; 270(1529): 2147–2150. – Link
- Beyond Muscles: The Untapped Potential of Creatine. Lisa A. Riesberg, Stephanie A. Weed, Thomas L. McDonald, Joan M. Eckerson, and Kristen M. Drescher. Int Immunopharmacol. 2016 Aug; 37: 31–42 – Link
- Role of the creatine/phosphocreatine system in the regulation of mitochondrial respiration. Saks VA, Kongas O, Vendelin M, Kay L. Acta Physiol Scand. 2000 Apr;168(4):635-41. – Link
- The effects of pre versus post workout supplementation of creatine monohydrate on body composition and strength. Antonio J, Ciccone V. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013 Aug 6;10:36. – Link
- Strategic creatine supplementation and resistance training in healthy older adults. Candow DG, Vogt E, Johannsmeyer S, Forbes SC, Farthing JP. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2015 Jul;40(7):689-94. – Link
- Long-term creatine supplementation does not significantly affect clinical markers of health in athletes. Kreider RB, Melton C, Rasmussen CJ, Greenwood M, Lancaster S, Cantler EC, Milnor P, Almada AL. Mol Cell Biochem. 2003 Feb;244(1-2):95-104. – Link