What Does Creatine Do?
Matt Paterson (B.Ex & Sport Sci)
If you’ve spent any time reading or talking about working out and muscle gain, you’ve probably heard of something called creatine. In fact, creatine is the most common dietary supplement used for improving sports performance. Most often, people use creatine for various physiological benefits, specifically increasing muscle mass and strength and improving exercise performance. If you’re curious about creatine and considering potentially trying it out for yourself, this guide will tell you everything you need to know about creatine as a dietary supplement.
What is Creatine?
Creatine is an organic compound naturally found in the human body. Its role is to help produce energy in the cells, especially in muscle tissue. Your body can produce creatine from the amino acids glycine and arginine, and nearly all of your body’s creatine is stored in your muscle tissue in the form of phosphocreatine. A small amount of creatine is also stored in the brain, kidneys, and liver.
There are several factors that impact how much creatine your body makes and stores including your diet, activity, hormonal profile, and muscle mass.
Most of the conversation about creatine is about it as a dietary supplement which athletes and bodybuilders commonly take to help them put on and maintain muscle and improve their strength. According to a 2018 article in Sports Health, the practice of supplementing with creatine to improve exercise performance gained mainstream popularity after the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. One 2012 National Health Interview Survey found creatine use among children and adolescents to be 34.1%.
What Does Creatine Do?
More than anything, creatine plays a supporting role in the chemical reaction that occurs when your body produces energy to help muscle contraction. The type of muscle fiber in which creatine is stored is type II fast-twitch, which is responsible for supporting quick, powerful movements like sprinting and lifting weights. That’s why supplementing with creatine is most effective for improving performance of short-duration, maximal-intensity resistance training, such as weight lifting with low reps.
How Does Creatine Work?
The goal of supplementing with creatine is to boost stores of phosphocreatine in the muscles. The more creatine you have stored in your muscles, the more adenosine triphosphate - or ATP - your body can produce. ATP is an energy-carrying molecule that captures chemical energy from food molecules and uses it to fuel cellular processes.
ATP is the primary energy source for activities such as heavy lifting and high-intensity exercise. Therefore, the more ATP available to your muscles, the more weight you can lift - both in terms of repetitions and duration. While ATP typically becomes depleted after 8–10 seconds of high-intensity activity, supplementing with creatine can allow you to continue working for a few more seconds, which can make a significant difference in activities such as resistance training.
Being able to work more in a single training session can help long-term muscle growth by allowing for greater hypertrophy. It can also aid in repairing muscles after a workout which, in addition to helping muscle growth, contributes to recovery and decreases soreness and fatigue.
Other favorable outcomes of supplementing with creatine that have been observed in various studies include:
- Improved cell signaling, which can help with muscle repair and new muscle growth
- Raised anabolic hormones such as IGF-1
- Increased water content within muscle cells, which causes a cell volumization effect that may play a role in muscle growth
- Reduced protein breakdown, which may increase total muscle mass
- Lower myostatin levels, which helps to avoid effects of slowing or inhibiting new muscle growth that high myostatin levels can have
- Increased phosphocreatine stores in your brain, which may improve brain health and prevent neurological disease such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, ischemic stroke, epilepsy, brain or spinal cord injuries, and motor neuron disease
Because one of the main natural dietary sources of creatine is animal products such as milk, red and white meat, fish, and mollusks, it is thought that vegetarians and vegans can particularly benefit from supplementing with creatine, even with non-exercise related outcomes. For example, one study of vegetarians showed that supplementing with creatine led to a 50% improvement in a memory test and a 20% improvement in intelligence test scores.
Can Creatine Be Harmful?
Naturally, many people are hesitant about any dietary supplements, including creatine. In particular, the most common concern is about a potential harmful impact to the liver or kidneys. However, multiple studies have shown no negative effects of creatine supplementation, both in the 21 months and four years after the fact. That being said, it is a good idea for anybody with preexisting liver or kidney problems to speak to their doctor before taking creatine.
In a Nutshell
The bottom line is that in both trained and untrained individuals, older and younger adults, and sedentary people or elite athletes, creatine has been shown to be one of if not the single most beneficial supplement for adding muscle mass, increasing strength, and improving athletic performance.
On top of that, creatine can also have a positive impact on the brain, playing a role in improving brain health and preventing neurological diseases. As such, it can be a useful supplement for athletes, older adults, and vegetarians alike.
Best of all, creatine is incredibly well-studied and research shows no long-term negative effects. In fact, it corroborates the supplement’s positive effects. Consequently, healthy people should feel safe taking normal doses of creatine to improve their health and sports performance.