Creatine – What Is It and What Does It Do?

Creatine is the number-one supplement for improving performance in the gym.

Studies show that it can increase muscle mass, strength and exercise performance

Additionally, it provides a number of other health benefits, such as protecting against neurological disease

Some people believe that creatine is unsafe and has many side effects, but these are not supported by evidence

In fact, it is one of the world’s most tested supplements and has an outstanding safety profile

This article explains everything you need to know about creatine.

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What is creatine?

Creatine is a substance that is found naturally in muscle cells. It helps your muscles produce energy during heavy lifting or high-intensity exercise.

Taking creatine as a supplement is very popular among athletes and bodybuilders in order to gain muscle, enhance strength and improve exercise performance

Chemically speaking, it shares many similarities with amino acids. Your body can produce it from the amino acids glycine and arginine.

Several factors affect your body’s creatine stores, including meat intake, exercise, amount of muscle mass and levels of hormones like testosterone and IGF-1

About 95% of your body’s creatine is stored in muscles in the form of phosphocreatine. The other 5% is found in your brain, kidneys and liver

When you supplement, you increase your stores of phosphocreatine. This is a form of stored energy in the cells, as it helps your body produce more of a high-energy molecule called ATP.

ATP is often called the body’s energy currency. When you have more ATP, your body can perform better during exercise

Creatine also alters several cellular processes that lead to increased muscle mass, strength and recovery

SUMMARYCreatine is a substance found naturally in your body — particularly in muscle cells. It is commonly taken as a supplement.

How does it work?

Creatine can improve health and athletic performance in several ways.

In high-intensity exercise, its primary role is to increase the phosphocreatine stores in your muscles.

The additional stores can then be used to produce more ATP, which is the key energy source for heavy lifting and high-intensity exercise

Creatine also helps you gain muscle in the following ways:

  • Boosted workload: Enables more total work or volume in a single training session, which is a key factor in long-term muscle growth
  • Improved cell signaling: Can increase satellite cell signaling, which aids muscle repair and new muscle growth
  • Raised anabolic hormones: Studies note a rise in hormones, such as IGF-1, after taking creatine.
  • Increased cell hydration: Lifts water content within your muscle cells, which causes a cell volumization effect that may play a role in muscle growth.
  • Reduced protein breakdown: May increase total muscle mass by reducing muscle breakdown.
  • Lower myostatin levels: Elevated levels of the protein myostatin can slow or totally inhibit new muscle growth. Supplementing with creatine can reduce these levels, increasing growth potential.

Creatine supplements also increase phosphocreatine stores in your brain, which may improve brain health and prevent neurological disease.

SUMMARYCreatine gives your muscles more energy and leads to changes in cell function that increase muscle growth.

Effects on muscle gain

Creatine is effective for both short- and long-term muscle growth

It assists many different people, including sedentary individuals, older adults and elite athletes.

One 14-week study in older adults determined that adding creatine to a weight-training program significantly increased leg strength and muscle mass.

In a 12-week study in weightlifters, creatine increased muscle fiber growth 2–3 times more than training alone. The increase in total body mass also doubled alongside one-rep max for bench press, a common strength exercise.

A large review of the most popular supplements selected creatine as the single most beneficial supplement for adding muscle mass.

SUMMARYSupplementing with creatine can result in significant increases in muscle mass. This applies to both untrained individuals and elite athletes.

Effects on strength and exercise performance

Creatine can also improve strength, power and high-intensity exercise performance.

In one review, adding creatine to a training program increased strength by 8%, weightlifting performance by 14% and bench press one-rep max by up to 43%, compared to training alone.

In well-trained strength athletes, 28 days of supplementing increased bike-sprinting performance by 15% and bench-press performance by 6%.

Creatine also helps maintain strength and training performance while increasing muscle mass during intense over-training.

These noticeable improvements are primarily caused by your body’s increased capacity to produce ATP.

Normally, ATP becomes depleted after 8–10 seconds of high-intensity activity. But because creatine supplements help you produce more ATP, you can maintain optimal performance for a few seconds longer.

SUMMARYCreatine is one of the best supplements for improving strength and high-intensity exercise performance. It works by increasing your capacity to produce ATP energy.

Impact on your brain

Just like your muscles, your brain stores phosphocreatine and requires plenty of ATP for optimal function.

Supplementing may improve the following conditions:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Ischemic stroke
  • Epilepsy
  • Brain or spinal cord injuries
  • Motor neuron disease
  • Memory and brain function in older adults

Despite the potential benefits of creatine for treating neurological disease, most current research has been performed in animals.

However, one six-month study in children with traumatic brain injury observed a 70% reduction in fatigue and a 50% reduction in dizziness.

Human research suggests that creatine can also aid older adults, vegetarians and those at risk of neurological diseases.

Vegetarians tend to have low creatine stores because they don’t eat meat, which is the main natural dietary source.

In one study in vegetarians, supplementing caused a 50% improvement in a memory test and a 20% improvement in intelligence test scores.

Although it can benefit older adults and those with reduced stores, creatine exhibits no effect on brain function in healthy adults.

SUMMARYCreatine may reduce symptoms and slow the progression of some neurological diseases, although more research in humans is needed.

ther Health Benefits

Research also indicates that creatine may:

  • Lower blood sugar levels
  • Improve muscle function and quality of life in older adults
  • Help treat non-alcoholic fatty liver disease

However, more research in these areas is needed.

SUMMARYCreatine may combat high blood sugar and fatty liver disease, as well as improve muscle function in older adults.

Different Types of Supplements

The most common and well-researched supplement form is called creatine monohydrate.

Many other forms are available, some of which are promoted as superior, though evidence to this effect is lacking.

Creatine monohydrate is very cheap and is supported by hundreds of studies. Until new research claims otherwise, it seems to be the best option.

SUMMARYThe best form of creatine you can take is called creatine monohydrate, which has been used and studied for decades.

Dosage instructions

Many people who supplement start with a loading phase, which leads to a rapid increase in muscle stores of creatine.

To load with creatine, take 20 grams per day for 5–7 days. This should be split into four 5-gram servings throughout the day.

Absorption may be slightly improved with a carb- or protein-based meal due to the related release of insulin.

Following the loading period, take 3–5 grams per day to maintain high levels within your muscles. As there is no benefit to cycling creatine, you can stick with this dosage for a long time.

If you choose not to do the loading phase, you can simply consume 3–5 grams per day. However, it may take 3–4 weeks to maximize your stores.

Since creatine pulls water into your muscle cells, it is advisable to take it with a glass of water and stay well hydrated throughout the day.

SUMMARYTo load with creatine, take 5 grams four times per day for 5–7 days. Then take 3–5 grams per day to maintain levels.

Safety and side effects

Creatine is one of the most well-researched supplements available, and studies lasting up to four years reveal no negative effects.

One of the most comprehensive studies measured 52 blood markers and observed no adverse effects following 21 months of supplementing.

There is also no evidence that creatine harms the liver and kidneys in healthy people who take normal doses. That said, those with preexisting liver or kidney problems should consult with a doctor before supplementing.

Although people associate creatine with dehydration and cramps, research doesn’t support this link. In fact, studies suggest it can reduce cramps and dehydration during endurance exercise in high heat.

One 2009 study found that creatine supplementation is associated with an increase in a hormone called DHT, which can contribute to hair loss. More research is needed, but people who are predisposed to hair loss may wish to avoid this supplement.

SUMMARYCreatine exhibits no harmful side effects. Though it’s commonly believed to cause dehydration and cramps, studies don’t support this.

The bottom line

At the end of the day, creatine is one of the cheapest, most effective and safest supplements you can take.

It supports quality of life in older adults, brain health and exercise performance. Vegetarians — who may not obtain enough creatine from their diet — and older adults may find supplementing particularly useful.

Creatine monohydrate is likely the best form. Try out creatine today to see if it works for you.

THE BEST SUPPLEMENTS FOR MIDDLE-AGED GUYS WHO AREN’T READY FOR THE DAD BOD

Our CEO HAZIQ QURESHI isn’t ready to lose all of his hard-earned muscle and definition just yet! Haziq explains the supplements he uses to stay fit and young.

In a lot of ways, I am your typical middle-aged guy. I have a moderately stressful corporate job but on the other hand, as a competitive bodybuilder and strength athlete, I am far from typical. Aside from people asking me, “Where do you find the time to train?” questions, I am most frequently asked questions about the supplements I use. I wanted to take this time to demystify the world of supplements and give you my two cents on supplements for guys like us.

THE TOP THREE SUPPLEMENTS FOR OLDER MEN

The supplement industry is robust and has products and formulas intended to help consumers in all aspects of life, but when it comes to staying athletic and fit, especially when you’re out of your 20s, there are some go-to products that rise above all of the others. In my opinion, these are protein powderscreatine, and immune system support. I personally use these in my daily routine and would recommend them to all the other 30 and 40 something dudes out there trying to cling on to their youth.

PROTEIN, PROTEIN, PROTEIN

Protein powder, specifically whey protein or whey protein isolate, is so crucial in my daily diet that I really consider it more like a food versus a supplement. A quick Google of protein will convince you that protein is the key “macronutrient” for building and maintaining muscle. Unlike carbohydrates, proteins are rarely seen by the body as “empty calories”; in fact, quite the opposite is true. It’s sometimes a challenge to get enough protein into your daily diet, and this is where the convenience of protein powders comes in. Protein powders generally provide the body with large amounts of quality protein, but with little to no calories coming from carbs or fats. These powders make it easy to get the nutrients you need without any extra calories. I generally consume one or two protein shakes a day; I typically mix two scoops of protein powder in water and consider it a meal. This is a quick, easy, and tasty way to get a quality meal in while in an office environment.

CREATINE IS STILL KING

If protein powders transcend the supplement world and are more of a food to me, then I can honestly say that creatine is the most important supplement in my nutrition plan. To me, fighting middle-age means maintaining the same body composition I had in my 20s. Creatine, which WebMD mentions can help “improve strength, increase lean muscle mass, and help the muscles recover more quickly during exercise,” is an amazing tool. Maybe I am still stuck in the 1990s, but no supplement has ever helped me to gain/keep strength better than creatine! It is inexpensive to buy but it is time-tested and effective. Creatine really is the perfect weapon in the war against aging. I will usually consume five grams of creatine a day for six to eight weeks and then take a month off before starting a new cycle.

TAKE YOUR VITAMINS FOR IMMUNE SUPPORT

It’s no secret that we are unfortunately living in the age of COVID-19 and everyone from physicians to TV reporters have been recommending things like zinc, vitamin C, elderberry, and other natural vitamins and minerals to supercharge everyone’s immune systems. If you are like me though, you have work responsibilities and a team in the office that makes total sequestration at home impossible. I believe that it is important to take these vitamins and minerals to boost your immune system as a preventative measure, particularly those of us working in an office environment during the coronavirus global pandemic. You should look for an all-in-one supplement that contains all the above ingredients, and perhaps even some other ingredients that have also been proven to help fight off colds and support immune defense.

THE KEYS TO SUCCESS

In conclusion, success in fitness, requires some planning and strategy. I know that finding the right supplements to fit into your lifestyle and fitness goals can seem overwhelming but do not overthink it. In my opinion, you should start out with structuring a healthy diet and nutrition plan for yourself and then see where the supplements fit in (like finding the right time to consume a protein shake). Also, you need to remember the value that daily exercise brings to the battle against growing old and how leveraging the supplement as tools can help to support healthy muscle function (like incorporating creatine). Remember to always stay focused on staying healthy, particularly with flu season starting and COVID-19 lingering.

FIND OUT WHY YOU SHOULD BE TAKING BCAAS

You hear about amino acids and BCAAs all of the time but do you really know what they do and how they help your performance in the gym? X FREAK FITNESS CEO HAZIQ QURESHI gives you the simple breakdown on branched-chain amino acids and explains why aminos should be taken by all athletes.

So, what’s so great about BCAAs? Picture yourself as one of the millions of sports nutrition consumers who have walked into a Vitamin Shoppe store and been overwhelmed by the endless number of products intended to help you reach their fitness goals. From energy drinks and pre-workouts, to diet and keto supplements, to vitamins and beyond, there’s literally hundreds of thousands of pills and powders available that it can often be overwhelming. In this sea of vitamins and supplements, you’ll see that amino acids, specifically branched-chain amino acids (also known as BCAAs), is one of the largest categories available.

UNDERSTANDING WHERE AMINO ACIDS FIT IN THE FOOD CHAIN

Before we jump down the BCAA wormhole, it is important to put context to the broader amino acid category, all the way from complete proteins down to individual amino acids. At the simplest level, anyone who can remember high school science class (or use Google) will be able to provide the default definition that amino acids “are the building blocks of proteins.”

While that sounds great and is 100% correct, what does it mean? I look at the definition like this, there are three major “macronutrient” categories: fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Within these macronutrient categories there are plenty of levels to drill down into. For example, people generally understand that carbs can be simple sugars or complex carbohydrates; the same is true for protein. You can look at protein as a whole or as individual amino acids, hence “the building blocks of protein” definition.

In published research found on thoughtco.com, Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D., offers a typical technical definition of amino acids:

An organic compound characterized by having a carboxyl group, amino group, and side-chain attached to a central carbon atom. Amino acids are used as precursors for other molecules in the body. Linking amino acids together forms polypeptides, which may become proteins.

For those of us who aren’t Ph.Ds, I would translate that to mean that aminos are the smallest and most basic compounds found in all living things, from microbes to humans; therefore, amino acids are found in the foods that we eat.

I also want to mention that outside of the food/dietary contest on which this blog focuses, amino acids are used to build a variety of molecules essential for life; for instance, amino acids are used as neurotransmitters and lipid transports. Amino acids are so abundant and important to the human body that they only come second to water but you will have to read about that in a blog from someone else because I’m not capable of understanding the technical chemistry stuff.

 

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE AMINOS?

Now that we have some context on what amino acids are, things get a lot easier to understand. Remembering that amino acids are the building blocks of protein, it is important to understand that the difference between essential amino acids and non-essential amino acids. In total, there are twenty amino acids; we typically get all of them in our diet and some are even made by the body, but a few are not…

• 11 of the 20 amino acids are known as “non-essential” because they can be synthesized by the body (as in made from stuff already floating around in our bellies). These aminos include alanine, arginine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine.

• The other nine of the 20 amino acids cannot be synthesized in our bodies and we need to make sure to consume them through our diets; accordingly, this set of aminos are called “essential.” These include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.

For the most part, if you are following a specific or limited nutrition plan, you will get all the essential aminos you need from the protein in the food you eat. It is important to note, however, that some foods are known as having “incomplete proteins” because they do not contain all 20 amino acids. This is a particular challenge for vegetarians since most vegetable proteins often fall into this category. This issue can be easily managed and evaded by combining two different protein sources together; for instance, you could combine beans with rice. This combo would give you all the 20 aminos your body needs to function.

Now I will drill down a level deeper and speak to you about branched-chain aminos specifically. The three aminos that are known as branched-chain amino acids (or BCAAs) are leucine, isoleucine and valine. Back in the day, when I first started getting into supplements and nutrition, my first question was what the heck does “branched-chain” even mean? The clearest technical definition I found was on PubMed, stating that a BCAA is “an amino acid having an aliphatic side-chain with a branch (a central carbon atom bound to three or more carbon atoms).” Basically, the phrase “branched-chain” refers to the chimerical structure of these three aminos. This is good to know but it does not really shed much light on the performance benefits of this special group of amino acids.

BOOST PERFORMANCE, LEAN MUSCLE BUILDING, & RECOVERY

As said above, the first and most obvious reason why athletes love BCAAs goes back to the fact that they are part of the essential amino group and cannot be formed in our bodies. When you really get into it, BCAAs’ real superpowers are the ability to dominate in the metabolic process of muscle protein synthesis.

I am going to try to explain muscle protein synthesis in my own words so please pardon some broad strokes. Through the stress of exercise, muscles are constantly being broken down and rebuilt. The breaking down part comes from your body pulling the amino acids out of the muscle protein and using (or synthesizing) them for energy or some other metabolic function. The process of synthesizing proteins back into the muscle for repair and rebuilding is where athletes make gains because theoretically, the muscles are going to build back a little stronger each time, and BCAAs play a crucial role in all this.

After a long run, hard WOD, or killer workout, you are probably going to be sore. Sometimes people refer to this as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). It is that feeling you get in the days after your workout, where your muscles are fatigued and in recovery mode. Whatever you call it, you know you need to recover from the workout, rebuild the muscles, and if all goes according to plan, come back better! Numerous studies have shown that BCAAs, particularly leucine, are the most important dietary requirement in sparking repair. There are dozens of studies proving this, including the Front Physiol study from 2017 where participants who consumed a BCAA drink with ~5g of BCAAs saw a 22% increase in muscle protein synthesis (meaning faster and stronger recovery).

Complementing this, several other studies, including one by Am J Physiol in 1994, have shown that supplementing with BCAAs may also help reduce the amount of protein breaking down during exercise. Studies from Alexandre Fouré and David Bendahan, along with a 2013 international study in the Journal J Exerc Nutrition Bioche, led to the conclusion that supplementing with BCAAs before exercise may speed up recovery times.

In sifting through a wealth of studies and articles online, I found endless articles showing that BCAAs may have performance boosting benefits for runners, soccer players, football players, cyclists, cross-fitters, bodybuilders, and powerlifters. All of this research really showed that BCAAs brought value to athletes from all parts of the fitness spectrum; I must say, I was really blown away by the amount of research available on branched-chain amino acids.

Another interesting thing about BCAAs that I noticed when doing my research for this blog is the amount of research regarding BCAAs and weight loss. To sum up all the stuff I read, there’s general support that BCAAs aid in weight loss. Most articles attribute this to the fact that supplementing with BCAAs helped curb hunger for people on a calorie restricted diet. There were also articles showing that BCAAs helped women lose weight, but those were often “in conjunction with an exercise program.” It seems to me that since BCAAs deliver a negligible amount of calories while also helping with physical performance, muscle function, and gut satiety, that they are a logical inclusion in a weight loss plan for both men and women.

NOW YOU KNOW!

“No pain, no gain” is one of the best fitness clichés ever stated. Yes, strenuous exercise leaves a person feeling sore but science has learned that recovering from that soreness (or the “pain”) is what’s going to add pounds to your bench press, and/or take a few seconds off your time in a 5K. Protein and the amno acids it contains, specifically the three branched-chain aminos, light the fuse for the recovery part of that equation and get you back in the gym, or on the track, ready to race into the next round of gains.

– CEO HAZIQ QURESHI