Creatine is the most well researched supplement on the planet. Used by athletes for decades to improve the results of their training, it has since become a staple in many gym-goers daily routine.
But how does it work, and what are its true benefits?
What Does Taking Creatine Do?
Creatine is produced naturally in your body from individual amino acids. Most of this creatine is stored in your muscle cells, where it is broken down and used for energy when you undertake intense or explosive exercise.
With this in mind, taking a creatine supplement simply increases the amount of creatine stored in your muscle tissue. This provides an additional ‘reserve’ of energy, which can improve your exercise performance.
Interestingly, small amounts of creatine are also stored in your brain, suggesting that the benefits of creatine supplements are not only limited to exercise performance.
Which leads us to our next section quite nicely…
What are the True Benefits of Creatine?
Because creatine can have a number of benefits in the body, it has become somewhat overhyped in the supplement industry, suggested to do everything from build muscle to cure male pattern baldness.
But which of these claims are true?
1. Increased Strength
Creatine is predominantly used for energy during short, intense, and explosive muscle actions. As a result, supplementing with creatine has been shown to cause notable increases in muscle strength on a per-session basis .
This means that if you were to take creatine before a weight training session, you will be able to lift more weight than you could without it. While this has obvious implications for things like strength testing, it also has long-term benefits.
See, if you are undertaking a long term strength training program while taking creatine, you will be able to lift more weight every single session. This can lead to greater training adaptations, and significant improvements in strength over time.
In fact, research has shown that supplementing with creatine can increase strength gains by about 8% more compared to those who are not taking creatine .
And when we compound this effect over the course of months or years, this increase becomes huge.
2. Greater Muscle Growth
In conjunction to improvements in muscle strength, creatine has also been shown to improve weight training performance at lower loads. It does this by increasing the number of repetitions you can do at a given weight.
For example, without creatine you might be able to bench press 80kg for 8 repetitions. However, when supplementing with creatine, you might be able to bench press the same weight for 10 repetitions.
This directly increases the amount of volume you perform each training session, which has shown to cause larger improvements in muscle size over the total course of a training program .
So, when it comes to creatine you can expect to see some serious results for both strength and size.
3. Enhanced Cognitive Function
Remember when I mentioned that creatine might also have some positive effects on the brain -- well, research would suggest that is the case.
In fact, studies have shown that creatine supplementation can reverse some of the negative cognitive effects that come from a lack of sleep. In this manner, individuals in a sleep deprived state who take creatine appear to function better at cognitively demanding tasks than those who do not .
Similarly, when people who get insufficient amounts of creatine in their diet (those who follow vegan and vegetarian diets, for example) take a creatine supplement, they see improvements in cognitive capabilities related to reaction time, memory, and decision making .
All of which suggests that supplementing with creatine may improve mental function by facilitating the production of energy in the brain.
Linking this back to training in the gym, it is not unrealistic to think that improved mental performance could further contribute to better physical performance, and a better workout. Moreover, taking creatine after a bad night sleep might help you train hard, even if you are feeling a little flat.
4. Increased Testosterone
Finally, on top of all of the above, there is also research demonstrating that creatine supplements can increase testosterone levels, which may have additional benefits when it comes to training .
However, it is important to note that this research is only in males, and may only occur to those individuals who already have low testosterone levels.
As such, this effect may not be applicable to all of you.
What Doesn’t Creatine Do?
It is hard to argue against the fact that creatine is a super supplement -- but one thing it cannot really do is help with fat loss.
As creatine does allow you to do more total work in the gym, it could cause a slight increase in energy expenditure per workout. If this was extrapolated over the course of a training year, it might result in some additional fat loss.
However, this impact would be relatively minor in the grand scheme of things.
Additionally, there is no evidence to suggest that creatine supplements can enhance fat loss by any other means -- which would indicate that it probably isn't a particularly effective fat loss supplement.
Although I should note that, practically speaking, taking creatine during a cutting phase is probably a good idea because it will help you retain strength. This is integral if you want to maintain as much muscle as possible while shedding weight.
Just don't expect any fat loss miracles here.
How to Take Creatine?
When commencing creatine supplementation, most studies use a loading phase, which is then followed by a maintenance phase .
This appears to be the fastest way to get the benefits of creatine, where it essentially requires you to take a higher dose of creatine for a few days. After this loading phase, you transition to a lower ‘maintenance dose’ for however long you decide to take the supplement for.
This typically looks something like this:
- Loading Phase: Take 20 grams of creatine per day for about 7 days. This should be spread out evenly throughout the day (i.e. take 5 grams four times a day)
- Maintenance Phase: Take about 5 grams of creatine per day, once per day, indefinitely.
It is worth highlighting that you can commence creatine supplementation without a loading phase. In fact, over the long term, this will result in similar long term training adaptations -- but your acute strength gains might take a little longer to come in.
Finally, some people suggest that you should ‘cycle off’ creatine at regular intervals because it might be bad for your kidneys.
While this suggestion is made with good intentions, research in athletes has shown that taking creatine for up to 5 years straight does not appear to have any negative implications for kidney health and function .
So really, ‘cycling off’ probably is not necessary.
What is the Best Type of Creatine?
Since its inception, a number of different types of creatine have appeared on the market, each suggested to be better than the one that came before it. But to be completely honest, none of them are any better than the OG of creatine supplements, ‘creatine monohydrate’.
Creatine monohydrate is the most well-researched version of the supplement. It is also the most readily available, cheapest, and arguably the most effective.
All of which makes it the perfect choice if you are looking for an evidence based training supplement.
Take Home Message
Creatine has become one of the most popular supplements on the planet -- and for very good reason too.
With evidence demonstrating that it can improve gym performance, enhance strength adaptations, boost muscle growth, and even increase cognitive function, it is one extremely effective supplement.
More importantly, it is cheap, easily accessible, and extremely safe.
Really, what more could you want?
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