Exercise Photo of creatine powder in a large container

Published on March 20th, 2013 | by SixPackAbs.com


What Creatine is and isn’t Good For

When I was a rookie weightlifter I took creatine supplements because “everyone else is doing it.” I quit after a week for reasons you don’t want explained. Suffice to say it involved the words “gastrointestinal,” and “distress.”

Apparently that’s a rare reaction, because creatine is a popular dietary supplement for the athletic crowd.

The reason? It works. For certain types of sports, at least, creatine supplementation can make the different between the podium and also ran. I mean, “also sprinted” – more on that in a moment. First let’s look at who is taking it.

Athletic organizations such as the International Olympic Committee and the National Collegiate Athletic Association permit creatine as a dietary supplement. And supplement they do. A 1999 survey of 806 NCAA Division I athletes by researchers at the University of North Carolina and published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine found that 48% of men used it (compared with only 4% of women). However, when the survey focused on strength and power athletes the rate of use climbed to 80%.

A 2007 survey of 61 NCAA Division III athletes representing John Carroll University in Cleveland was completed as part of a graduate thesis and found 43% creatine use. It was most popular in football players.

Another survey of 1,349 high school football players published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine in 2001 found 50% of 12th grade footballers taking creatine. It’s popular in the weightlifting crowd as well; in the last 20 years creatine became a staple on supplement store shelves, rivaling sales of protein powder for those looking to be bigger, stronger and faster. One 2004 survey published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism of 222 regular folks who exercised at a gym in New York found that one-third of them had taken creatine, with 13% being regular users.

There have been ongoing debates about creatine’s efficacy and safety, so let’s clear things up.

Creatine only enhances performance for certain sports: those involving short and intense bursts of effort. To understand this, you must comprehend the body’s energy systems, but not the kind you’ll hear about in a Deepak Chopra seminar.

There are three, and creatine only boosts one of them: the phosphogen system, which provides energy for intense, all-out effort that lasts less than 30 seconds. However, I must clarify that you can switch between systems during an activity. A basketball player, for example, can play for several minutes, but there are periods of maximum output lasting only seconds. Higher levels of creatine can help this athlete by providing extra cellular energy stores during such instances.

For a distance runner or cyclist, however, who engages in no short bouts of maximum intensity, creatine supplementation won’t help.

Now think back to middle school biology and recall that part of the cell called mitochondria. Referred to as “the powerhouse,” it generates adenosine triphosphate (ATP) – the fuel for maximum-intensity exercise. Creatine is a critical component of creating ATP. If your cells are loaded on creatine you’ve got more ATP, which means more energy for maximum-intensity training.

We get creatine from foods such as meat and fish, but to make sure cells are saturated it takes supplementation. A 1996 study of 31 men published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found supplementation can increase muscle creatine stores by approximately 20% – where saturation is reached – and that this can be sustained with only a few grams per day. Taking more than this leads to expensive urine.

It’s that saturation that leads to more short-burst energy, which leads to higher performance.

Say you bench press 200 lbs, and at this weight can lift eight repetitions. Then you start taking creatine and after a few weeks the cells are saturated. Because of the extra ATP, your cells now have the energy to lift it ten times, not just eight.

That’s the primary benefit of creatine: increased energy enabling additional maximum-intensity work.

Because of the extra ATP you can lift more, complete further repetitions, train harder, get stronger, build more muscle etc. This allows you to make your muscles grow larger, gives you faster sprints and higher jumps, more powerful throws and harder punches. No love for the marathoner though.

And there is ample proof. Bogus supplements come and go, but creatine sales remain strong because of market demand. Myriad studies confirm it’s benefits, and in 2007 the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) did a review of the research and issued a position stand which referred to creatine as “the most effective ergogenic [increasing work output] nutritional supplement currently available to athletes in terms of increasing high-intensity exercise capacity and lean body mass during training.”

“You get a good half inch in girth everywhere from creatine,” says Alan Aragon, a sought-after nutrition consultant whose clients include not only bodybuilders and physique models, but the Los Angeles Kings, the Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Lakers. “Your arms will fill out T-shirts more. Being on creatine can really stroke a guy’s ego.” Aragon did mention that some of the size comes from creatine also pulling water into your muscle cells. Beyond the added bulk, this hydration has an added bonus of increasing protein synthesis into muscle tissue.

Some media outlets question the safety of the supplement, asserting potential cramping, dehydration, liver and kidney damage as well as potential drug interactions, but Aragon states, “Creatine has shown an amazingly consistent safety profile even after dosing people with a [high] loading dose for months and months.” The 2007 ISSN position stand agrees, asserting that there is no scientific evidence of creatine supplementation leading to adverse affects in otherwise healthy individuals. Gastrointestinal issues can be mitigated by lower doses and taking longer to reach saturation.

Still, take note of that “otherwise healthy individuals” part. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention potential contaminants.

“The biggest risk of contamination comes from blended supplements that include creatine rather than pure creatine,” says Paul Klinger, executive director for Informed Choice, a supplement testing body that looks for contaminants banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Klinger says that prohormones such as androstenedione and DHEA, as well as stimulants such as DMAA, can end up in creatine-containing supplements via cross-contamination due to poor manufacturing practices. “It’s probably not enough contamination to enhance performance,” Klinger told me, “but it can cause an athlete to fail a drug test.”

More disturbing is that both a 2003 study published in the European Journal of Sport Science and a 2006 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports reported finding high levels of the anabolic steroid metandienone in some creatine blends.

I loathe fear mongering. Just don’t buy supplements off the street from some guy with a face tattoo and pierced eyelids. Aragon recommends looking for the “Creapure” label to ensure an uncontaminated source. You can also see if the manufacturer is registered with Informed Choice, which checks for 147 banned substances.

For those looking to bulk up, get stronger, or improve their short-burst performance, creatine can safely get the job done if you’re careful about supply. As for me, I hit the iron hard, but still don’t take it.

It’s a Zen thing; I don’t dig supplements. I’ve been dedicated to fitness going on two decades, and seen supplement-scarfing friends wax and wane in their motivation while I always stayed on track. Part of me believes it’s from never putting any responsibility for my results in the hands of a supplement manufacturer. Besides, my wife says I’m big enough already. (Don’t read anything into that.)

That’s just me though. Alan Aragon doesn’t take it because his wife says it makes his face puffy. I Googled and found message boards rife with complaints of facial esthetics taking a hit from supplementing with creatine.

Now I’ve got another reason not to take it. I wouldn’t want that hint of a chin dimple to disappear.

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