What is it?
Creatine – a substance our bodies naturally produce – has been reported as one of the most commonly used dietary sports supplement, mostly for aiding muscle growth and strength gains alongside resistance training. As you will see after reading this article, its supplementation benefits can reach further than this, especially for women, older adults and vegetarians.
In its most basic form, creatine is an amino acid – a building block of protein. In our bodies, 95% of creatine is stored in skeletal muscle. Although it can be obtained from certain foods, mainly meat and fish, your average carnivorous diet would likely only provide small amounts each day, and even less if you are a flexitarian, vegetarian or vegan.
The main role of creatine in the body is to supply energy to your muscles in the form of ATP. Which acts as a quick energy source for muscle cells, during high-intensity, short-duration exercises, like weightlifting or sprinting.
What are the benefits of supplementing with it?
Longitudinal evidence indicates that creatine supplementation, in conjunction with resistance training, supports gains in muscular strength, power output, and performance[i]. The positive effects come from the body’s increased capacity to produce ATP, which in turn means increased energy availability, allowing you to work out longer and harder, leading to faster gains in strength and muscle mass.
Furthermore, creatine helps in drawing water into your muscle cells, increasing protein synthesis and leading to larger, more volumized muscles. Better cell hydration may increase muscle growth and reduce dehydration and muscle cramps, resulting in a faster recovery period post exercise.
It also has other benefits, to do with the brain that most people are unaware of or don’t think of when considering benefits of creatine. Creatine can guard the brain against two types of damage. The first is called excitotoxicity, a condition that harms the brain when certain chemicals get too active. The second is caused by beta-amyloid, a harmful substance that can build up in the brain and has been associated with Alzheimer's.[ii]
As with most scientific studies (and thus available evidence), they are directed and aimed towards males. Despite extensive research on creatine, evidence for use among females is understudied. Other than the benefits already stated above, there is some emerging evidence however for the use of creatine for women going through the menopausal transition[iii]. In addition to cognitive benefits, creatine supplementation could help support healthy bones and skeletal muscle mass, which is a common concern that comes with aging.
How to dose it
Creatine dosing typically involves a "loading phase" followed by a "maintenance phase". The objective of supplementing like this is to max out the amount of creatine in your muscles and maintain it from there – the point at which you will reap the most performing enhancing effects.
The loading phase typically involves consuming around 20 grams per day, split into four 5-gram servings throughout the day, for about 5-7 days (the splitting of the 20g will help to reduce any potential IBS discomfort). After the loading phase, the maintenance phase begins, involving a lower daily dose of creatine to maintain the elevated creatine stores. This dose is typically around 3-5 grams per day depending on the person. For reference, 100g of salmon or beefburger contain around 0.9g of creatine, and 100g of chicken or tuna contain around 0.4g of creatine. it’s important to state that cooking can cause meat to lose some creatine. The amount that decreases depends on the type and cut of meat, but it’s correlated with how long it’s cooked. A good amount of creatine moves to the juice of the meat during cooking so it may help to consume this by making a sauce or pouring it over the meat as you cook it.
It's worth noting that the loading phase isn't strictly necessary for the average gym goer. If you start with the maintenance dose right away, you'll eventually reach the same creatine levels in the muscles; it will just take a bit longer (around 3-4 weeks). It also doesn’t matter what time of day you take it, as long as it’s taken consistently to keep your muscles saturated.
What is the best type?
Creatine's effectiveness depends on its type, not its form. Both powder and capsules typically contain the same type - creatine monohydrate - so their benefits are similar. Both will have certain pros and cons to different people: the powder may absorb slightly faster, but the difference is minor. Capsules are more convenient, especially on the go, but they are often pricier. The taste or texture of powder might not appeal to everyone.
Is it worth it?
Numerous studies have demonstrated that creatine supplementation can significantly increase muscle strength and size, improve exercise performance, and enhance recovery. Beyond these well-known fitness benefits, emerging research suggests that creatine may also have a role in supporting brain health, bone health, and potentially even in managing blood sugar levels. Many supplements are often not worth the money or have the scientific backing, but the scientific support behind creatine makes it worthy of consideration. Before you begin supplementing with Creatine, you still need the right stimulus from resistance exercise to make use of the added performance benefits of Creatine, and first try and include a variety of lean cuts of meat such as beef, pork, fish and poultry if you eat meat for a food first approach.
By Abigail Attenborough
[i] Burke, R. et al. The Effects of Creatine Supplementation Combined with Resistance Training on Regional Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis. Nutrients 2023, 15, 2116. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15092116
[ii] Beal, M.F., 2011. Neuroprotective effects of creatine. Amino acids, 40(5), pp.1305-1313.
[iii] Kreider, R.B., Kalman, D.S., Antonio, J. et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 14, 18 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0173-z