Creatine 101: What Is It, What It Does, And How To Use It

Creatine is one of the most popular fitness supplements today, with an extensive research history dating back to the 1970s. 

Unlike many products on the market, research finds that creatine works, delivers numerous health benefits, and is safe for long-term intake. So, let’s look at what creatine is, what benefits you can reap, and how to take it.

What is Creatine?

Creatine is an organic substance comprised of three amino acids: arginine, glycine, and methionine. The human body produces some creatine every day, and we can get trace amounts of the substance through foods like fish and red meat. But, muscle saturation can only occur through supplementation because of the concentrated dose. 

Most of the creatine in the body is in muscle cells, but there are small amounts in the brain, liver, and kidneys. We primarily store it as phosphocreatine (PCr) in the body.

How Does Creatine Work?

To understand how creatine works in the body, we first have to look at how cells in the body use energy. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) molecules are the primary energy currency for all the cells in the body. They consist of adenosine (an organic compound) and three phosphate groups. 

Under normal circumstances, your body breaks down ATP molecules, releasing energy for your cells. The process occurs at a fairly consistent rate. The breakdown of ATP molecules results in adenosine diphosphate (ADP)––molecules consisting of adenosine and two phosphate groups, hence the ‘di.’ 

Your body then goes through the process of converting ADP back into ATP for later use, allowing you to function and stay alive. Activities like walking are relatively easy, and most people can maintain them for long periods because the intensity isn’t too big and doesn’t burn through as many ATP molecules. As a result, ATP synthesis matches or outgrows ATP breakdown, and your muscles have a steady supply of energy.

All of the above changes when the exercise intensity increases. When that happens, ATP demands can grow as much as 1,000-fold, making it impossible for your body to convert ADP into ATP on time. As a result, you burn through the available ATP in the muscles you’re working, resulting in fatigue and an inability to keep going. 

Creatine promotes athletic performance because it accelerates the process of forming new ATP molecules. As mentioned earlier, we store the majority of it as phosphocreatine or PCr. As such, creatine accelerates ATP synthesis by donating its phosphate group to ADP molecules, resulting in slightly better training performance and recovery during workouts.

What Benefits Does Creatine Offer?

1. Improved Performance During Intense Activities

A notable benefit of creatine is that it can improve our training performance during intense activities like weight training and sprinting. High-intensity workouts are characterized by the need for many ATP molecules and quick access to them. By promoting faster synthesis, creatine allows us to perform slightly better.

2. Potential For Better Results Down The Road

A direct benefit of improving your training performance is that you could achieve better results in the long run. According to research, training volume––the amount of work we do inside a workout or training week––is tightly correlated with muscle gain. So, by doing more work (in the form of sets and reps), you can cause a stronger stimulus and grow more effectively.

3. It Can Promote Recovery

The third notable benefit of creatine is that it can promote recovery between sets and workouts, thanks to the favorable effect on ATP synthesis. As discussed above, ATP molecules are the energy currency for all cells in the body. Synthesizing them more quickly provides energy for muscle contractions, which are carried by the muscle cells (fibers).

4. It Can Promote Bone Health

Like our muscles, bones are metabolically-active tissues capable of adapting to external demands. When a person starts lifting weights, they don’t just strengthen their muscles but also their bones, making them better able to handle external loads.

Interestingly, a year-long study found that creatine supplementation might have favorable effects on bone mineral density. Short-term studies fail to replicate these results, but one reason could be that bone simply takes longer to remodel. So, a study that lasts one month can’t possibly show improvements in that time.

5. It Can Improve Brain Function

Creatine’s benefits for cognitive function might come as a surprise, but there is a fair amount of logic behind the effects. The brain is a power-hungry organ that requires large amounts of fuel each day to carry out its millions of processes. Since it promotes quicker and more efficient ATP re-synthesis, it could mean that the brain has more energy molecules to power its cells. 

According to some data, the brain can account for up to 20 percent of our basal metabolic rate (BMR)––the number of calories your body burns to power its internal processes. For the average person, that results in 300 or more calories burned daily just to support brain function.

Can Creatine Be Harmful to Your Health?

A common objection against supplementing with creatine is that it could be harmful to our health. One of the common arguments is that it leads to kidney problems that could result in devastating health consequences down the road. 

Luckily for us, that doesn’t seem to be the case. As briefly mentioned above, creatine is one of the most thoroughly studied supplements, with hundreds of human trials dating over five decades

None of them have suggested that creatine is harmful to our kidneys, heart, liver, or any other major organ or system. On top of that, creatine is one of the most popular supplements globally, and millions of people take it regularly. Even if the overwhelming number of studies somehow missed creatine’s adverse impact on our health, at least some percentage of customers should have reported health issues due to the supplement.

The only people who should be careful with creatine are those with pre-existing renal issues. Such people would be better off consulting their doctor.

How to Take Creatine

There are many recommendations for creatine intake, but the beauty of the supplement is that you don’t have to follow a fancy scheme. One option is to take three to five grams of creatine daily when it’s most convenient for you, be it in the morning, at noon, or before bed. Some research suggests that taking creatine with some protein can improve the retention of the substance. Still, the effects don’t seem to matter for people who take it regularly and achieve saturation.

Regular intake will lead to gradual saturation of your muscles with creatine. According to research, the process takes up to a month, which is when you should start noticing the benefits of creatine.

Another option is to do a loading phase initially. Doing so will lead to quicker muscle saturation levels and faster benefits from supplementation. For example, you can take 20 grams of creatine daily for five to seven days and then reduce your intake to three to five grams daily. 

The only problem with loading creatine is that it can lead to stomach distress, bloating, and nausea. You can offset these effects by taking your 20 grams in multiple doses–-for example, five in the morning, five at noon, five in the afternoon, and five in the evening.

Should You Cycle Creatine?

Another common concern people have with creatine supplementation relates to cycling. Specifically, folks often wonder if they should cycle creatine because taking the product daily for years seems dangerous. A common argument is that supplementing for too long would hinder the body’s natural ability to produce the substance, which scares people.

Yes, studies find that supplementing with creatine lowers your body’s natural production of the substance. But, each shows that the body renews its production of creatine once supplementation stops. It isn’t the same as exogenous testosterone, which can lead to long-term problems, so you shouldn’t worry. 

You might consider cycling creatine if you’re sick of taking it every day or if you don’t feel like spending money for another bag or tub of the supplement.

What Type of Creatine is Best?

Creatine monohydrate is the most popular form of the studies. It is also the most affordable and widely-studied form of the substance, with hundreds of studies showing its safety and efficacy. Yet, despite its popularity and proven effectiveness, monohydrate is far from the only creatine form on the market.

Aside from monohydrate, we also have buffered creatine, ethyl ester, liquid, nitrate, and other forms, each promising to be better than the rest. The problem with each of these forms is that they don’t offer anything a simple creatine monohydrate can’t provide, regardless of their mechanisms and chemical structures. Sure, there are explanations for why these supplements should be better, but no research finds them superior in practice.

Plus, none of the ‘superior’ creatine forms solve an issue. Monohydrate is perfectly capable of promoting muscle saturation, which is the whole point of the supplement. In simpler terms, buying more expensive creatine would be a waste of money, and you should stick with the affordable and effective monohydrate.

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