If creatine were a celebrity, it would undoubtedly be Tom Brady.
Like the Patriots’ former quarterback, its performance in sport and fitness is beyond question.
But it’s also the focus of so much fallacious hearsay that it can be tough to figure out what to believe, and whether it’s even worth your attention.
Indeed, many people who tout creatine’s ability to delay fatigue, enhance strength and power, and boost muscle growth will also tell you that it can damage your kidneys, cause cramps and bloating, and turn women into linebackers.
Fortunately, it’s also one of the most researched substances in the history of sports nutrition, and the weight of scientific evidence is clear.
“It’s one of the safer supplements that has ever been studied,” says Francis Stephens, Ph.D., a Beachbody scientific advisor and an associate professor of metabolic and molecular physiology at the University of Nottingham, in England.
“It’s also one of the few proven ergogenic [performance enhancing] aids, and it works in multiple sports settings—from football to sprinting to weight training.”
(And women, the odds of it transforming you into a 250-pound human bulldozer are roughly equivalent to you being abducted by aliens.)
Studies even suggest potential recovery benefits for endurance athletes, and that broad applicability fuels a growing demand for a supplement that already brings in more than 400 million dollars a year.
Still, creatine isn’t for everyone.
So how can you determine whether it belongs in your supplement stack, and how to best use it to achieve your goals? Read on.
WHAT IS CREATINE?
Creatine (or methyl guanidinoacetic acid) is a combination of three amino acids (L-arginine, L-glycine, and L-methionine), and is produced naturally by the body in the liver, kidneys, and pancreas.
A healthy, active person makes about two grams of it a day, and most people (except vegans and many vegetarians) consume an additional gram or two per day from animal products, including fish, chicken, pork, beef, and lamb.
(Fruits and vegetables don’t contain creatine, which is derived from the Greek word for meat, kreas.)
The vast majority of creatine in the body is stored in muscle cells, where it picks up a phosphate molecule to become creatine phosphate.
It holds onto that phosphate until cells run low on fuel as a result of highly anaerobic exercise, like weightlifting or sprinting.
In such circumstances, your muscles’ demand for energy outstrips your body’s ability to produce it with oxygen (as it does during, say, a long run or bike ride), so creatine steps in, donating its phosphate to help replenish your body’s primary energy source, adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
That’s why creatine supplementation can have such a dramatic effect on workout performance—it increases the amount of creatine phosphate you have on tap to produce energy.
“You can think of it like an energy pool,” says Stephens. “And the greater the size of that pool, the longer you can maintain peak strength and power.”
BENEFITS OF TAKING CREATINE
In addition to increasing your ability to perform high-intensity work (e.g., bang out more reps, sprint a few more yards, clear a few more Tough Mudder obstacles), creatine supplementation is associated with a host of other benefits, including at least one for endurance athletes that just came to light this year.
Increased Muscle Mass
When creatine enters a muscle cell, it takes water with it. In addition to increasing the cell’s volume, many believe the increase in water triggers an uptick in protein synthesis, enhancing muscle growth.
Regardless of whether or not this is actually the case (the science isn’t clear), the fact remains that creatine supplementation is strongly associated with an increase in muscle size and strength.
“We may find that there is some sort of anabolic signaling taking place,” says Stephens. “But what we do know is that by increasing your capacity to perform work, it can increase your potential training load and volume—and the more work you can do, the faster you are likely to see results.”
Faster Recovery Between Sets
Enhancing your creatine stores through supplementation can allow you to not only perform more reps, but also replenish ATP faster between sets.
“That, in turn, reduces the recovery time needed between them,” says Nima Alamdari, Ph.D.
You know the rest: The less recovery you need, the more work you can do, and the faster you are likely to see results.
Quicker Recovery Between Intense Aerobic Workouts
If you’re an endurance athlete, your body primarily uses oxygen and glucose or fatty acids to produce ATP.
But creatine can play a key role in recovery, helping your body replenish muscle glycogen (the stored form of glucose) faster after intense exercise, according to a study in the journal Amino Acids.
Indeed, glycogen resynthesis was 82 percent higher in participants who supplemented with 20 grams of creatine a day than in those who did not.
But the benefit only lasted 24 hours. After that, muscle glycogen stores between both groups began to even out.
“The takeaway is that if you’re an endurance athlete, and you have back-to-back days of especially intense training or competition, creatine supplementation can benefit you,” says Alamdari. “But during normal training periods, it likely won’t make much of a difference.”
Creatine may also activate bone-synthesizing cells called osteoblasts, according to Canadian researchers.
Their study only focused on postmenopausal women, but the women who added creatine to their training program for one year lost 69 percent less bone than those who took a placebo.
POTENTIAL SIDE EFFECTS
“There are reports that creatine supplementation can cause water retention, but it really is one of the safer supplements out there,” says Stephens.
Indeed, even if you go a little overboard, taking more than the optimal dosage, all you get is creatine-enriched urine.
Which brings us to one of the most common myths about creatine supplementation: That it can cause kidney problems.
“Creatine is broken down by the body into creatinine, and blood creatinine levels can be an indication of kidney function,” says Alamdari.
If your kidneys are impaired, creatinine builds up because your kidneys aren’t functioning properly.
But if you’re supplementing with creatine and exercising intensely, elevated levels are more likely due to the fact that it’s taking your kidneys a bit longer to work through the higher volume of creatinine that you’re producing.
“And that can be misinterpreted as impaired renal function,” says Alamdari.
The truth is that if you’re a healthy adult with healthy kidneys, the likelihood of creatine harming them is similar to that of winning the Mega Millions Jackpot, which is to say almost nonexistent.
Even if you have impaired kidney function, it’s unlikely that creatine will cause any problems, as nearly every creatine study focusing on renal function has found no change with supplementation (but still check with your doctor before taking it).
There’s also a false notion that creatine has steroid-like effects, stimulating unnatural muscle growth, especially in women. This belief simply isn’t true.
In fact, women who supplement with creatine can realize the same performance-enhancing benefits as men without bulking up, according to another study by Canadian researchers.
They found that while both male and female participants gained significant amounts of strength, only the males’ muscles increased in size.
Why? Science is still working on an answer.
WHAT KIND SHOULD YOU TAKE?
Creatine monohydrate. It’s that simple.
“Other forms are touted as having better absorption or bioavailability, but the reality is that those claims don’t have much science to back them up,” says Stephens. “No other form has been studied more rigorously or extensively than creatine monohydrate, no other form has been shown to be more effective, and no other form has been shown to be safer.”
HOW MUCH SHOULD YOU TAKE?
The answer depends entirely on how quickly you want to realize creatine’s benefits, and how consistently you’re willing to take it.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to “load” creatine (i.e., take extra high doses of around 20 grams per day) to max out your body’s stores. “As long as you exceed the amount you get in your diet, you’ll get there eventually,” says Alamdari. “But if you load, you can get there in as few as five days.”
Alamdari recommends taking four 5g servings per day for five to seven days.
In practice, that might include one serving with breakfast — mixed into juice or a smoothie, for example — another serving with lunch or dinner, and two more servings sandwiched around your workout (one 30 to 60 minutes beforehand, another within 30 minutes afterward).
Once you complete the loading phase, you can scale back your daily dose.
“A single 5g serving per day will keep your creatine stores topped off,” says Stephens, adding that you shouldn’t be alarmed if you initially gain a little weight. “It will likely be water weight, but if you’re in a weight-sensitive sport, like cycling, it’s worth considering.”