Creatine is a molecule synthesized naturally by humans and found in muscle cells, but it is also one of the most widely researched – and safest - supplements available. In supplement form, it is creatine monohydrate, and most people only know that it can help you “get big.” But that isn’t creatine’s only story. Of course, if you want to use it as an aid to gain muscle mass and size, you can do that. But you can also use it simply to make you a better athlete. We asked nutritionist Jennifer Gargiulo, RDN, CSSD, to answer eight common questions about this popular supplement.
What is it, and how does it work?
Creatine is a molecule made naturally in the body from the amino acids glycine, arginine and methionine, which are broken down from the proteins we eat. The body then turns creatine into creatine phosphate, which in turn fuels the production of adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. ATP stores and transfers energy in our cells. The more energy we have in our cells, the better we are able to perform during exercise. “During an intense workout, creatine is what provides the energy to recharge our ATP stores,” says Gargiulo. “Taking a creatine supplement helps to increase the stores of phosphocreatine within the muscles to allow your body to work at a higher intensity for a longer period of time.”
If we can make it ourselves, why supplement?
Creatine is naturally found in high quantities in beef, pork, and salmon, but according to Gargiulo, we have to consume 16 ounces of meat or fish to produce one to two grams of creatine each day. Not many of us eat that much protein. “A normal dose of a creatine supplement would be three to five grams per day, which is much more than most of our bodies are capable of synthesizing from the foods we eat,” Gargiulo says. Gargiulo also notes that a vegetarian or vegan athlete will have considerably lower stores of phosphocreatine than a meat-eating athlete and may therefore benefit from supplementation; while some creatine supplements contain bovine gelantine, many, like AI Wellness’ Creatine CP, are chemically synthesized and therefore vegan.
Who can benefit from a creatine supplement?
Creatine helps athletes increase high-intensity exercise capacity; think sprinting, or working on a one-rep max. It will not, for example, help long-distance runners increase their endurance. “Creatine helps to increase maximal strength and power,” Gargiulo explains. “It allows your body to quickly replenish the ATP in your muscles. Otherwise, if ATP is depleted, we need to utilize other forms of energy.” However, those other forms – the carbohydrate glycogen or the oxygen we take in through respiration – require many more chemical reactions to be converted into energy and are therefore less efficient. Some food for thought: our muscles only naturally contain enough ATP to fuel around three seconds of high-intensity activity before ATP stores need to be replenished.
How much should you take?
Old research suggested a “loading dose” of creatine of 20 grams, two times per day for five to seven days, but Gargiulo says new research has proven that to be unnecessary. “Taking three to five grams per day is more than sufficient,” she says. There is also no benefit to cycling on and off of creatine for workout gains, but Gargiulo recommends supplementing for six to eight weeks, then taking a few weeks off and restarting to ensure your body continues to respond to the supplement.
Will creatine make female athletes bulky?
Creatine increases the rate of muscle protein synthesis and gives you the energy to work harder in your workouts, so you will most definitely increase lean muscle tissue and lose fat, which will give you more muscle definition. But it will not make you “bulky.” “Women are not going to get bulky from creatine unless their testosterone level is through the roof, they are lifting really heavy weight, and have a particular body type,” Gargiulo says. “But women will see an increase in strength, power, and lean muscle mass.”
Does creatine make you dehydrated?
Since creatine draws water into muscle cells, it is often incorrectly thought to be dehydrating. “This is a myth,” Gargiulo says. In fact, several studies have shown creatine can actually increase the total amount of water in your body, which helps to maintain hydration. Still, Gargiulo recommends following regular hydration guidelines.
Should creatine be taken alone or mixed with protein?
Most creatine powder, including AI Wellness Creatine CP, is flavorless and can be mixed into water, juice or a protein shake. “You can certainly combine creatine with protein powder, but it’s not necessary for any additional benefits,” Gargiulo says. Gargiulo simply recommends taking creatine along with the rest of your supplements, be it a pre-workout or protein shake, for ease and convenience, but it can also be taken alone.
How long does it take for creatine to work?
Creatine is not used instantaneously upon consumption. Rather, it takes a while to saturate the muscle cells, where it is stored for future use. So, you may need to take it for a week or so before you see any more strength in that third set of back squats. However, there are other factors at play. Athletes with more fast-twitch muscle fibers, like sprinters and power lifters, often respond more quickly to creatine supplementation. Body composition also plays a role; the more lean muscle mass you have, the better your response to creatine will be. And because most strength adaptations occur in the recovery phase, it is also important to ensure you’re giving your muscles enough protein to repair damaged tissue. So how do you know it’s working? Says Gargiulo: “If your training volume and output increase, you’ll know it’s working for you.”