Creatine Supplementation: How does it work?
Creatine is by far the most popular and widely used of all supplements that are geared towards performance enhancement and it is probably one supplement that is used poorly or wrong. If you were to ask people why they took creatine you would most likely hear reasons like: “To become stronger.”, “To gain muscle mass.”, or even, “To look leaner.” You might even hear some reasons that are bound in research such as wanting to run faster, jump higher, or lift more weight. It is relatively true to say that creatine can make one faster, stronger, and even more powerful when producing greater amounts of work such as sprinting, jumping, and performing other intermittent activities that last less than 45 seconds 1, 3, 4, 5, 7 . It has also been discovered in research that creatine can help individuals gain lean muscle mass, increase total muscle mass, and improve lifting power 3, 5. It is also thought that supplementation might also benefit long term energy production at low intensity 3; though this last statement has not been tested in the lab. In this first of a series of articles on creatine we will look into the science behind the benefits of creatine.
Creatine is most commonly referred to phosphocreatine (Pcr) by most exercise scientists and is found in the skeletal muscles of all living organisms 3. It is a necessary chemical (like carbohydrates, protein, and fats) in energy production for high intensity exercises that require brief burst of energy that only last a mere 30 seconds or less. Once creatine supplies are used up it can take up to 3 - 4 minutes to resynthesize. Once it is resynthesized it is sent to the muscles via the bloodstream for use in energy production again. Creatine is a nitrogen based compound that is synthesized in the liver with smaller amounts synthesized in the kidneys and pancreas 4. Though Pcr is naturally created within the body, supplementation can increase the amount of creatine stored in the body which can in turn enhance power production in fast twitch muscles allowing athlete to run faster, jump higher, and produce greater power in most athletic activities 5.
Creatine is broken down in the body with the help of creatine kinase, and it helps in rephosphoralizing adenosine diphosphate (ADP) into the body’s energy source adenosine triphosphate (ATP) 4. To put it simply creatine is second in command when it comes to energy production. First the body looks to stored ATP to jump-start energy production. Stored ATP can run out in as little as 10 seconds and brakes down to become ADP, so soon after the body will look to creatine for energy production. Unfortunately, creatine is broken down nearly as quickly as ATP, this would then explain why sprinters will start to see a performance decrement towards the end of a 100 m sprint 5 or repetitive jumpers would fatigue after about 20 - 30 seconds of high intensity jumping.
Here are a few points of scientific reasoning that is believed to support the notion of creatine supplementation. When you increase the amount of creatine in the body’s system while the body is at rest the body can improve the phosphate transport system for ATP production in necessary mitochondria both during and after activity 5, thus increaing the ability to produce more Pcr naturally at rest. Also, this change in Pcr resynthesization can decrease the acidity levels in muscles by creating better hydrogen buffering 5. This last statements supports why some athletes that supplement are able to run faster longer or jump higher more often with less musclular soreness. However, it doesn’t answer why creatine has been shown to increase muscle mass or increase lean body mass in individuals.
Changes in body mass, including muscle size, for the most part is not certain. It is known though that creatine is a water hungry molecule, so changes in lean mass tissue and body weight may be attributed to water weight gain or proportionately attributed to gain in muscle tissue 2. It has also been found that feeding protein in conjunction with creatine supplementation leads to an increase in protein synthesis by 40%, but creatine appeared to have no effect in body mass changes 2. Since most athletes supplementing with creatine also tend to increase their protein intake it is understandable why some individuals state that creatine helped in their body compositional changes. One thing that is common in research is that changes in lean mass and muscle mass are more common in amateur athletes and non-athletes, so elite athletes may not see the changes that others might notice. It is also thought that creatine’s need for water also increases the risk for heat related illnesses, dehydration, diarrhea, and gastrointestinal distress, however, there is little evidence that supports that there is a major risk to using creatine in supplementation 7, 8.
Whatever your decision on creatine is, one thing that is necessary to know is that there are several types of creatine out there. It appears that the easiest form for the body to absorb is creatine monohydrate and this form has been shown to have a 100% absorption rate 4,6. Also, don’t just fall for those ads that state that you will see fast results. There are a lot of misleading ads out there, and even more horrible products. Do your research on each product and read the reviews. Also, ask your friends about the products that they have used, and find out if they liked the results that they got. Rule number one is always to know your product before starting a supplementation protocol.
1. Faraji, H., Arazi, H., Vatani, D. S., & Hakimi, M. (2010). The effects of creatine supplementation on sprint running performance and selected hormonal responses. South African Journal for Research in Sport, Physical Education and Recreation, 32(2), 31- 39.
2. Francaux, M., & Poortmans, J. R. (2006). Side effects of creatine supplementation in athletes. International Journal of Sports Physiology & Performance, 1(4), 311 - 324
3. Gutierrez-Sancho, O., Moncada-Jimenez, J., Salazar-Rojas, W., & Robinson, E. (2006). The effect of creatine supplementation on biochemical, body composition, and performance outcomes in humans: A meta-analysis. International Journal of Applied Sports Sciences, 18(2), 12 - 38
4. Hoffman, J. R. (2010). Creatine and ß-alanine supplementation in strength/power athletes. Current Topics in Nutraceutical Research, 8(1), 19 - 31.
5. Hosseini, S. S., Rostamkhany, H., & Panahi, M. (2011). Effect of plyometric training and creatine supplementation on some fitness factors in athletes. Annals of Biological Research, 2(6), 19 - 31.
6. Lamontagne-Lacasse, M., Nadon, Raymond, & Goulet, E. (2011). Effect of creatine supplementation on jumping performance in elite volleyball players. International Journal of Sports Physiology & Performance, 6(4), 525 - 434.
7. Lopez, R. M., Casa, D. J., McDermott, B. P., Ganio, M. S., Armstrong, L. E., & Maresh, C. M. (2009). Does creatine supplementation hinder exercise heat tolerance or hydration status? A systematic review with meta-analysis. Journal of Athletic Training, 44(2), 215 - 223.
8. Ostojic, S. M., & Ahmetovic, Z. (2008). Gastrointestinal distress after creatine supplementation in athletes: Are side effects dose dependent? Research in Sports Medicine, 16(1), 15 - 23.