With thousands of studies validating its safety and effectiveness, creatine is one of the best supplements you can take to increase your muscle strength and power. When combined with the proper nutrition and resistance training regimen, creatine supplements have been proven to boost lean muscle mass, enhance athletic performance, protect the muscles recover quickly, and much more.
But what does creatine do, and how does it work?
In this comprehensive guide, we will break down what creatine is, how creatine supplements work in the body, and how they can benefit you.
- Creatine supplements work by increasing your muscle creatine stores, allowing you to generate more ATP to fuel your muscles through bouts of high-intensity exercise.
- You can achieve full muscle saturation by following a loading protocol or non-loading protocol.
- Based on scientific evidence, creatine monohydrate is the gold standard of creatine. It has consistently proven to enhance athletic performance, muscle mass, strength, recovery, and cognitive functions.
WHAT IS CREATINE
Creatine is a substance naturally produced by the body from amino acids.
It helps supply energy to the muscles to help us power through the first ten seconds of high-intensity exercise or heavy lifting.
HOW CREATINE SUPPLEMENTS WORK IN THE BODY
Around 95% of creatine in the body is stored in the skeletal muscle, primarily as creatine phosphate (phosphocreatine). The remaining 5% is stored in the brain and testes.
If you eat a non-vegan diet consisting of about 1-2 grams of creatine per day, your muscle creatine stores are only 60-80% saturated, according to a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
Consistently taking a creatine supplement can increase intramuscular creatine levels by 20-40%, allowing your muscles to reach full saturation. This has been proven to increase our strength during training which, in turn, can increase muscle mass.
According to a recent 2021 study published in the journal Nutrients, taking creatine supplements can also increase brain creatine levels by 5-10% and, as a result, improve cognitive processing and overall brain function.
THE SATURATION PHASE: WHICH IS FOR YOU?
To reap the full benefits of taking a creatine dietary supplement, you must saturate your muscles with it. Depending on how fast you’d like to increase your muscle creatine levels, there are two protocols you can use: the loading protocol or the non-loading protocol.
The loading protocol, also known as the “loading phase'' is preferred by many because it can rapidly increase your muscle creatine levels, allowing you to reap the benefits much faster. However, both are highly effective at maximizing your muscle creatine levels.
During a loading phase, you will consume large amounts of creatine daily to supersaturate your muscles. In particular, it involves taking five grams of creatine four times per day for a total of 20 grams of creatine per day. You repeat this for seven days.
Doses are divided throughout the day because taking large amounts of creatine at one time may cause abdominal discomfort and bloating.
After loading, you can drop to three grams daily to maintain your elevated creatine stores.
The non-loading phase is a method that gradually increases your muscle creatine stores until they are fully saturated. It involves sticking with three grams of creatine per day from the beginning.
Using this strategy, you can expect to experience the benefits of oral creatine supplements within three to four weeks.
For example, one study found that a gradual dosing strategy of three grams per day leads to full muscle saturation after around 28 days of consistent supplementation. You will need to continue this dose to maintain muscle saturation.
WHAT DOES CREATINE DO?
As previously discussed, creatine supplements increase creatine phosphate stores in the muscles. The extra stores can generate more adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the primary energy source during intense workouts.
Creatine also helps improve athletic performance in the following ways.
MUSCLE GROWTH - Creatine can cause both short-term and long-term muscle growth.
Soon after taking creatine, you will likely notice an increase in muscle size. This is because creatine draws water into your muscle cells, contributing to muscle swelling. Over time, the increase in cell hydration can boost muscle growth.
Creatine can also enhance your strength and allow you to train longer, which can increase your muscle mass.
IMPROVED PERFORMANCE - Creatine increases your exercise capacity, leading to improved athletic performance and better quality workouts.
Studies show that creatine supplementation can improve high-intensity exercise performance by 10-20%.
INCREASED WORKLOAD - Because creatine can supply your muscles with more energy, it can help you lift heavier or increase your amount of reps.
One study found that creatine supplements improved the maximum amount of weight lifted in squats and leg presses by 8% and 3%.
REDUCED MUSCLE BREAKDOWN - One study carried out over four weeks found that creatine supplementation during a cutting phase paired with intense training reduced muscle breakdown and damage.
Study participants who took creatine also experienced improvements in strength, body fat percentage, power, and overall performance.
IMPROVED RECOVERY - Studies show that creatine may improve recovery because it can reduce post-exercise inflammation, thereby reducing soreness and muscle damage.
One study also found that creatine monohydrate supplements can decrease muscle cramps by as much as 60%.
IMPROVED BRAIN HEALTH - Creatine plays a vital role in brain health.
Studies show that the brain uses a large amount of ATP when performing challenging tasks.
Although more research is needed, new studies suggest that creatine may reduce mental fatigue, which may improve coordination, reaction time, motor control, and decision making.
CREATINE FOR ANIMAL BASED ATHLETES
Although creatine is found in animal foods, it can be very difficult to obtain the amounts needed to increase strength and performance.
As mentioned earlier, a standard non-vegan diet provides 1 to 2 grams of creatine, which is about half of what we need to maximize our muscle creatine stores. To help you put things into perspective, one pound of uncooked beef or salmon has 1 to 2 grams of creatine.
Supplementing with creatine is a great way to help fill dietary gaps and ensure your muscle stores remain saturated.
CREATINE FOR PLANT-BASED ATHLETES
Because creatine is found in animal tissues, vegetarians and vegans have a lower intake of creatine than non-vegans. As such, vegans often have reduced muscle creatine stores, which can negatively impact their athletic performance and strength.
Even though creatine is found in animal products, creatine found in most dietary supplements is synthesized from cyanamide and sarcosine, which does not contain any animal byproducts and is considered to be “vegan-friendly.”
One 2020 review of studies examined the benefits of creatine supplements for vegans and vegetarians. Researchers found that creatine increased lean muscle mass, brain function, athletic performance, and muscular strength and endurance. Although vegetarians clearly benefit from creatine supplementation, research on whether vegetarians experience greater benefits than omnivores remains mixed.
WHAT IS THE BEST FORM OF CREATINE?
If you go to a supplement store, you’ll notice several different types of “new and improved” creatine powder as well as liquid creatine supplements available. Most of them promise enhanced absorption, quicker results, and better energy levels. While these products are marketed in a way to make them appear superior, scientific research suggests otherwise.
Additionally, one recent systematic review from 2021 published in the Journal of Strength Conditioning Research examined the effectiveness of eight popular forms of creatine. Researchers concluded that creatine monohydrate supplementation remains superior as the most extensively studied form of creatine that shows safety, effectiveness, and affordability.
Creatine supplements are one of the most heavily studied dietary supplements on the market. Creatine monohydrate is considered superior in terms of effectiveness, safety, and affordability.
Although a loading phase is not required, it is the quickest way to achieve full muscle saturation and see faster results.
Most of the benefits of creatine supplementation come from its ability to regenerate ATP, which allows individuals to do more work during short bouts of high-intensity exercise. As a result, this improves athletic performance and enhances muscle mass and strength.
Creatine can also improve cognitive function, shorten recovery time, and reduce muscle breakdown.
To see maximum results, it is important that you take your supplements consistently, even on your off days.