Creatine: Strength King or Gym Fail?
Creatine is a naturally occurring compound that is made in the liver and pancreas however 95% of it is stored in skeletal muscle. It's in the skeletal muscle where it is stored as phosphocreatine (PCr), which is used to fuel short bursts of high intensity exercise such as sprinting, weightlifting and jumping. Supplementing with creatine therefore, allows your body to sustain maximal intensity efforts for longer which may lead to greater training adaptations due to an enhanced volume and quality of work performed.
Creatine has proved to be the most effective dietary supplement currently available in terms of improving strength and anaerobic capacity. Thus far, several hundred peer-reviewed research studies have been conducted to evaluate the efficacy of Creatine supplementation in improving exercise performance. Almost 70% of these studies have reported a significant increase in exercise performance, while the others have generally reported non-significant gains in exercise capacity (Kreider, 2003).
The most commonly followed protocol is described as the 'loading' protocol which is characterized by an intake of 0.3g/kg/day of Creatine Monohydrate (CM) for 5-7 days (e.g. 5g taken 4 times a day) and 3-5 grams/day thereafter (Williams et al, 1999). Alternatively, people tend to favor a more gradual approach of ingesting 5 g/ day which has shown to be sufficient for increasing muscle Creatine (Hultman et al, 1996). This protocol is equally effective at increasing muscle Creatine compared to the loading phase however the increase is more gradual and as such, the ergogenic effect does not occur as quickly.
It takes days/weeks to maximize our muscle Creatine stores and so there is no optimal time of day to take it. The best approach is to maintain consistency and ensure you take it every day including your rest day. If you choose to 'load' with Creatine then it's best to space it out such as 4 x 5g rather than ingest it all at once. If you only choose to take it once a day then again, there is no right or wrong answer here but I personally would choose to take it post-workout given the increase in blood flow to our muscles.
Creatine is found to be partially excreted through urine and so one desirable aim would be to retain the Creatine we ingest. Indeed, research has shown that ingesting Creatine with other macronutrients such as carbohydrate or protein has shown to augment muscle retention of Creatine (Green et al, 1996) (Steenge et al, 2000). The release of insulin from ingesting these macronutrients increases muscle uptake of Creatine and as such may enhance the benefits of training. Therefore I would recommend people consume their Creatine with either a fruit juice or a whey protein shake.
Despite Creatine having recently been accepted as a safe and useful ergogenic aid, several myths have been reported about Creatine supplementation. These myths have all been debunked by scientific research however mass media continues to spread inaccurate nutritional information such as:
- It's unethical and/or illegal to use Creatine supplements.
- Long-term effects of Creatine supplementation are completely unknown.
- Creatine supplementation causes cramping, dehydration, and/or altered electrolyte status.
- Creatine supplementation causes renal distress.
- All weight gained during supplementation is due to water retention.
Moreover, Creatine's involvement in a number of metabolic pathways has generated interest in potential therapeutic uses of Creatine. This has expanded to include those with Creatine deficiencies, brain and/or spinal cord injuries, muscular dystrophy, diabetes, high cholesterol, pulmonary disease and even concussion. Further research is needed to determine the extent of its clinical value however, some promising results have been reported in a number of studies which suggest that Creatine may have a therapeutic benefit in certain patient populations.
Steve O’Mahony, BSc MSc
Green AL, Hultman E, Macdonald IA, Sewell DA, Greenhaff PL: Carbohydrate ingestion augments skeletal muscle creatine accumulation during creatine supplementation in humans. Am J Physiol 1996, 271:E821-6
Hultman E, Soderlund K, Timmons JA, Cederblad G, Greenhaff PL: Muscle creatine loading in men. J Appl Physiol 1996, 81:232-237.
Kreider RB. Effects of creatine supplementation on performance and training adaptations. Mol Cell Biochem. 2003;244:89–94.
Steenge GR, Simpson EJ, Greenhaff PL: Protein- and carbohydrate-induced augmentation of whole body creatine retention in humans. J Appl Physiol 2000, 89:1165-71. 24.
Williams MH, Kreider R, Branch JD: Creatine: The power supplement. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers; 1999:252.