Creatine does it all: increases muscle mass, builds strength, and enhances endurance, according to a growing body of scientific research. (1-6). We’ve been doing our own trials here as well and have seen impressive results . What is creatine, and how does it work? For background, the immediate source of energy for all cellular activity, including muscle contraction, is a mol-ecule called ATP.
This stands for adenos-ine triphosphate. ATP is formed from the chemical energy contained in food. Food is oxidized, or burned, in the body to re-lease energy. This energy is used to form ATP, which then goes on to power cellular activity. The body’s stores of ATP are very limited. In fact, each muscle cell contains only enough ATP to power contractions for a few seconds. Therefore, ATP must be continuously regenerated . That’s where creatine fits in. When ATP is broken down to as part of the en-ergy-producing process, creatine (in the form of creatine phosphate, or CP) steps in and chemically regenerates ATP (1). This allows high energy muscle contractions to continue. After about 45 seconds to 2 min-utes (depending on the intensity of effort) the creatine phosphate is also used up, and power production by the muscle rapidly declines. This is what happens when you fail at the end of a set – you’ve used up all your ATP and CP, which means you’re out of fuel. This is also why high intensity weight lifting sets usually last about a min-ute before you fail. After the CP is used up, ATP cannot be regenerated fast enough to maintain a high level of intensity.
Lower intensity exercise (aerobic exercise like bike riding) can be continued almost in-definitely because you can generate CP and ATP fast enough to keep up with the energy demands of the activity. You’ll notice supplemental creatine comes in the form of creatine monohydrate. Why isn’t creatine phosphate or ATP itself used as a supplement instead? Simply put, because it doesn’t work. Molecules such as CP and ATP are not absorbed through the intestine . Creatine monohydrate, on the other hand, is readily absorbed and does in fact reach the muscle cell when administered orally (2). This is why it can be used as an effective supplement. Once inside the muscle cell it is converted to creatine phos-phate. What about the sublingual route? This is bogus, since the molecule still has to cross cell membranes to reach the circu-lation. What about liquid creatine? Doubly bogus, since creatine tends to break down when stored as a solution. So how exactly does creatine increase muscle size and strength? It increases strength by increasing the intracellular lev-els of creatine and creatine phosphate, which allows more rapid ATP production.
This means more energy is available to the cell, allowing it to work harder. This same mechanism explains why creatine increases endurance performance too. If you increase the creatine pool inside the muscle this increases the cell’s energy reserve, allow-ing longer, as well as more powerful, con-tractions. Creatine is very popular among endurance athletes, and is widely used in track and field. Creatine increases muscle size because it attracts water. Creatine is absorbed into the muscle cell and pulls a lot of water along with it, causing the muscle to swell. This results in larger, firmer muscles and a better pump. Please realize that creatine itself does not directly increase muscle protein. As with all supplements, it is vital that you use creatine in conjunction with a solid bodybuilding diet. You need protein to build muscle tissue and carbohydrates to provide energy. Creatine itself is not burned to produce energy, rather it acts as an energy buffer to transfer the energy derived from carbohydrate and fat oxida-tion to ATP. Creatine is not incorporated into protein. It will, however, indirectly increase the protein mass of muscles over time by allowing you to perform higher in-tensity workouts.
That is, of course, if you are eating enough lean protein and quality calories to support muscle gains . What can you expect from creatine? Typically in hard-training bodybuilders, we observe an increase of 4-14 pounds of lean mass during the first month of using creatine. This is remarkable. This does not mean you have to consume 4-14 pounds of creatine. Remember, most of the weight gain and size increase comes from water. Creatine is stored in muscle cells, where it attracts water. The more muscle mass you have to start with, the more creatine you can assimilate and the more weight you will gain from using creatine. Small bodybuilders usually gain 4-6 pounds and the really big guys gain 10-14 pounds. We have verified that this weight gain shows up as an increase in lean body mass when you do body composition testing. Remember that lean mass is a measure of everything in your body that’s not fat, including the skeleton and muscle, including water.
It’s hard to imagine anybody happier than a bodybuilder who gains 10 pounds of lean mass in one month .Regarding performance, we’ve seen ath-letes experience a 5-15% increase in strength on their maximum lifts, and an increase of about 2 reps per set with their working weight. This increase in training intensity allows you to put a greater load on the muscle, which will indeed increase your gains in muscle protein mass over time. The amount of strength gain each in-dividual can make may differ considerably, because the strength of your tendons also determines how much weight the muscle can lift. While it seems clear that creatine will allow faster and greater gains in size and strength over the long-term, firm num-bers cannot be attached at the onset. A lot depends on whether you are eating enough protein and calories to support gains. If you don’t eat enough to support muscle gain, you won’t see any, it’s that simple. But with a solid, high-calorie, high-protein diet and intense training, your muscle gains can be incredible. Regarding endurance exercise, we’ve seen athletes experience a 5-10% increase in speed and a 10-20% increase in time to fatigue.
As with nearly all supplements, actual usage will vary from person to person and will likely change as your body and train-ing changes. To start out, I recommend for the first one to two weeks you use 20-30 grams a day divided into even servings taken with each meal, or with a Hi-Pro-tein/Pro-Carb drink. This is the loading phase . One scoop or heaping teaspoon is five grams, so one of these with each meal is about right. Use the lower end of these ranges if you’re 150-200 pounds, and the upper end if you’re over 200 pounds. We recommend one to two weeks, but the load-ing phase may take as many as four weeks. When you find that you’re really getting a good pump, the loading phase has filled the creatine stores in your muscle. After that, 5-10 grams a day is enough to maintain your creatine stores. Cycling creatine is of no advantage. If you stop taking creatine, you simply deplete your existing store, which takes 4-8 weeks. Creatine can be mixed in plain wa-ter too. Don’t be concerned that creatine doesn’t dissolve fully; just drink the sus-pension.
It gets absorbed very well. Don’t’ mix creatine in water too far in advance of when you take it, however, since it begins to break down. A great way to pack creatine is to take a shaker bottle with a scoop of Hi-Protein or Pro-Carb, plus a scoop of cre-atine and put it in your gym bag or cooler. Then just add water, shake, and drink. An-other convenient way to use creatine is to mix it into oatmeal. Creatine has no flavor, but it is a little grainy. Are there any medical concerns with taking creatine? If you have any blood work done you might find that creatine elevates your creatinine level. Doctors use the creatinine level in the blood as an index of kidney function. If your doctor notices an increase in your creatinine level and ex-presses some concern about your kidneys, tell him or her that you’re using creatine . Creatine does not damage the kidneys in any way, but is contraindicated if you have pre-existing severe kidney disease (for ex-ample, renal dialysis or kidney transplant patients). People with severe kidney dis-ease have trouble eliminating creatinine, and creatine supplementation would in-crease creatinine levels further.
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2. Greenhaff PL. Creatine and its ap-plication as an ergogenic aid. International Journal of Sport Nutrition 5: S100-S110, 1995 .
3. Crim MC, Munro HN. Proteins and Amino Acids. Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease 8: 9-10, 1994 .
4. Greenhaff PL, Casey A, Short AH, Harris AC, Soderlund K, and Hultman E. Influence of oral creatine supplementation on muscle torque during repeated bouts of maximal voluntary exercise in man. Clin. Sci . 84: 565-571, 1993 .
5. Harris RC, Viru M, Greenhaff PL, and Haltman E. The effect of oral creatine supplementation on running performance during maximal short term exercise in man. J. Physiol. 467: 74P, 1993.
6. Ernest CP, Snell PG, Mitchell TL, Rodriguez R, and Almada AL. Effect of creatine monohydrate on peak anaerobic power, capacity, and fatigue index. Med. Sci. Sports. Exerc. 26: S39, 1994.