When the weight lifting layman thinks of bodybuilding supplementation, they’re probably going to think of creatine. It got a lot of attention in the 1990s when it seemed like the entirety of Major League Baseball was taking creatine (among other things) to build their muscles. It’s also pretty ubiquitous on the shelves of supplement stores.
So it was popular then, but is it effective now? Just because something is popular doesn’t mean it works. In the case of creatine supplementation, however, you can be confident that increased muscle strength and less fatigue is possible. All thanks to a critical chemical reaction taking place in your muscle cells. Read on and learn how creatine works and why it lives up to that nostalgic ‘90s hype.
Whether you’re taking a supplement or not, creatine is already functioning inside you, doing its very important job. It’s an amino acid found naturally in the meat and fish you consume and, according to the Mayo Clinic, your liver and kidneys crank it out as well. The creatine is mainly stored as creatine phosphate in your muscles, ready for use in energy production.
According to BodyBuilding.com, adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is made up of a nucleotide bonded to three phosphate groups. When one of those phosphate groups is cleaved from the ATP molecule, a lot of energy is made available. That energy is used to fuel chemical reactions in cells, and ATP becomes adenosine diphosphate (ADP). Creatine enables the release of energy from stored ATP and is converted to creatinine.
About 1.5 to 2 percent of the body’s store of creatine is used and converted into creatinine every day. The end-product creatinine is transported through the blood and filtered by the kidneys and is considered an indication of skeletal muscle mass. (It is also an indicator of kidney function, but that’s a lesson for another time.)
Your body uses creatine for proper functioning every day, but supplementation can have its benefits outside of the ordinary. According to the Mayo Clinic, “oral consumption of creatine increases the creatine in muscle, which serves to regenerate adenosine triphosphate (ATP).” It is beneficial for short duration, intense, repetitive exercise.
Translation: your muscles are going to have more energy. The process of accessing that energy is so complicated, you almost need an organic chemistry degree to totally understand it. Yes, it’s complicated, but completely necessary for biochemical reactions like muscle contractions. And the more your muscle works, the more ATP is depleted and needs to be replaced for you to make progress toward your goals. With creatine supplementation, you can enhance your ATP regeneration and thus delay onset of muscle fatigue and work more intensely for a longer period of time. Little goes a long way in the pursuit of muscle gains.
Creatine supplementation may have hit its peak popularity in the 1990s, but it’s been around way longer than that. Michel Eugene Chevreul, a French philosopher and scientist, was the first person to successfully extract creatine from meat in 1832. And it’s been a hot topic ever since.
A German chemist, Justus von Liebig, built on Chevreul’s work and figured out that wild animals had more creatine in their muscles than lazy domesticated ones, coming to the conclusion that an animal’s level of physical activity influenced the amount of creatine they produced.
Harvard scientists started messing around with supplementation and found that it could help increase protein retention in muscles and weight gain. In 1926, Alfred Chanutin got gutsy and tested it on humans, determining that creatine had an anabolic effect and in the 1950s a synthetic supplement was created.
Creatine supplementation gained a lot of attention (and maybe a bad rap) when baseball players like Mark McGwire touted its benefits for their game.
These days we’re not sucking creatine out of a slab of meat to get our fill. Creatine supplements are simple, easy to consume and readily available. All you need to do, really, is shake it up, gulp it down and get on your way.
Although some have voiced concerns about kidney damage with creatine supplementation, it’s generally regarded as a safe supplement when taken responsibly. The Mayo Clinic advises against taking it if you have an allergy. When used properly, the incidence of potential side effects such as low blood sugar and dehydration, are minor in healthy people taking a safe dosage.
Creatine is old school and definitely hit a pop culture zenith, but that doesn’t make it out-dated or irrelevant today. Creatine supplementation gets results. For starters, one study from Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise confirms that creatine supplementation can enhance physical performance, claiming that it “exhibits small but significant physiological and performance changes.”
Small but significant is good. It’s especially helpful during short periods of extremely powerful physical activity, particularly if those short bursts of activity are repeated, as in weightlifting, sprinting or football, for example. The study also says that creatine supplementation is associated with enhanced strength gains in strength training programs, which could be related to the greater volume and intensity of training that you can achieve when you’re taking creatine supplements. Plus, according to the study, there’s no evidence of gastrointestinal, renal or muscle cramping complications – more good news.
Men’s Health touts its benefits, too, reminding folks that it pays to be informed before you put anything in your body and assuring that creatine isn’t a gateway supplement or a “Barry Bonds starter kit.”
“If you can lift one or two more reps or five more pounds,” Chad Kerksick, Ph.D. and assistant professor of exercise physiology at the University of Oklahoma told Men’s Health, “your muscles will get bigger and stronger.” It’s as simple as that and creatine can help get you there.
You’re going to gain some weight, though. First you’ll pack on an initial water weight gain of about two to four pounds, according to Paul Greenhaff, Ph.D. in the Men’s Health article. After that, your gains are true muscle gains, bumped up because of the increased workload you can handle.
So don’t be afraid of creatine. Supplementation can give you an advantage in the gym, to help you develop muscle and you won’t be suspended from your major league baseball team for doping.