Creatine: 7 Things You Should Know Before Taking It
If you’re interested in building muscle, you’ve probably taken or thought about taking creatine. But do you really know what it is and how it works? If you answered “no”, then you should read this article before spending your money.
You’ll learn about 7 important aspects of creatine that will make you a more informed buyer:
7 Things to Know About Creatine:
- What it is
- What it does
- Different types
- When to take it
- Loading & cycling
- Water retention
- The best one to use
1. What is Creatine?
Athletes and bodybuilders have been supplementing with creatine since the 1990’s to enhance performance and gain more lean muscle. I’ve personally been using it on and off since 2000 (…wow I’m getting old).
It’s one of the most studied supplements on the market today. Yet it’s still widely misunderstood by the general population. So what is it?
Creatine is a molecule produced by the body for cellular energy. It’s primarily formed in the liver but it’s also found in foods. Animal protein is the main source with beef having the highest amount. Okay, that’s simple enough. But how does it work?
2. What Does Creatine Do?
Glycolysis is a process in which glucose from carbohydrates gets broken down to produce adenosine triphosphate or ATP. This ATP is used as energy during intense exercise lasting for durations of about 10-15 seconds. Think of sprinting or weightlifting.
Once ATP is used as fuel it gets converted to adenosine diphosphate or ADP, and it can no longer be used for energy. Creatine works by donating a phosphate group to ADP to turn it back into ATP so it can be used for energy again.
This process is called the phosphagen system since it relies on phosphates. Supplementation increases the amount of phosphocreatine available in the phosphagen system. This allows for faster regeneration of ADP into ATP. Resulting in greater power output and strength. Both good things when the goal is better performance and increased muscle growth.
Image Courtesy of Joseph Calihan – Biochemistry PhD Student
Now you should have a basic understanding of what creatine is and how it works. That’s a good start. But there are dozens of variations on the market today. So before you spend your hard earned money let me explain the difference between the most common types.
3. Types of Creatine
Creatine Monohydrate is the most common and most studied version. It’s the standard to which all other variations are compared. Monohydrate itself comes in two varieties, anhydrous and micronized.
Anhydrous is a form in which the monohydrate component has been removed, making it 100% creatine by weight. The higher concentration makes it easier to package in smaller volumes such as pills. But it has no real benefit in terms of effectiveness.
Micronized creatine undergoes a mechanical process which reduces the particle size. The benefit is that the smaller particles are more soluble in water. But with regards to effectiveness, it’s equivalent to regular monohydrate.
AKG is a molecule added to creatine to increase absorption in the intestines and theoretically increase the amount absorbed in the muscles. More creatine in the muscles should result in greater strength and size gains.
But studies are inconclusive on the ability of AKG to increase muscle gain compared to monohydrate. So the jury’s still out until more data becomes available.
HCl is a variant in which the creatine molecule has been bound to hydrochloric acid. The intent is to get the same effect as monohydrate but with a lower dose.
But this result is not proven. And it seems to be unnecessary since stomach acid naturally contains an abundance of HCl.
You’ll see this form sold as a sports drink. Unfortunately, the creatine molecule is not stable when suspended in solution and breaks down into an unusable form called creatinine.
This is not a concern when mixing your shakes at home because degradation of the molecule takes a few days. But you should avoid liquid versions due to their short shelf life.
This version has an added ethyl ester molecule. Creatine ethyl ester, or CEE, is designed to increase absorption and extend the life of the molecule within muscle cells.
Interestingly, studies comparing CEE to monohydrate found that it was actually less stable in the muscle. Other studies showed that CEE resulted in less strength and muscle gains compared to monohydrate.
4. When to Take Creatine
The best time to take creatine is around training. You can take it before a workout, after a workout, or both.
Although taking it before a workout with caffeine may limit its effectiveness. While taking it after a workout with carbohydrates may have a synergistic effect on glycogen uptake and protein synthesis. And that can lead to greater muscle gain.
A typical dosage is 5 grams per day. But this could be more or less depending on body size.
You may read about using very high dosages or periodically stopping use. This is what’s known as loading and cycling respectively. So let me explain each in more detail.
5. Loading and Cycling
The practice of taking very high doses (around 20-25 g per day) for a short period of time to “saturate” the muscles is called loading. While this may work if creatine levels are very low to start, it’s not necessary.
There’s only so much that the muscles can hold. And any excess is simply excreted by the body. So you could be literally flushing your money down the toilet! In the long run, loading isn’t needed.
Cycling, or periodically stopping use, is sometimes advised in order to prevent the body from building a tolerance. But this is also an unnecessary practice and you can take creatine continuously if desired.
6. Water Retention
Creatine causes water to be pulled into muscle cells which increases their volume. Some people may confuse this water weight gain with bloating or accumulation of water under the skin.
But pure creatine cannot cause bloating. So if bloating does occur it’s most likely the result of added sugar or other compounds that cause the body to hold water. And that’s a sign that the supplement is not pure.
7. The Best Creatine to Use
When it comes to proven results, plain old monohydrate reigns supreme. It’s also way cheaper than the modified varieties so you get a lot more bang for your buck.
Some good flavored options are available. But pure unflavored monohydrate is an excellent choice. It mixes easily with your pre- or post-workout shakes and doesn’t change the taste.
One of my favorites is Naked Creatine. No frills or gimmicks. Just pure creatine monohydrate at a reasonable price. Click the link below to buy it on Amazon.
Full disclosure: If you choose to buy this product I do get a small kickback. However, I only recommend products I’ve personally used and that I stand behind. So you can be sure you’re getting a great product and a good deal.
So there you have it. Now you know way more about creatine than the average gym rat. And you can spend your money wisely if you decide to reap the benefits.
You can learn more about effective muscle building and fat burning supplements by downloading my free Supplement Guide.
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About the Author:
Jeremy Fox – Founder of Nutritioneering, Engineer, CPT, Bodybuilder, Coach