As a hard-training bodybuilder, you want to maximize your efforts for gaining size without packing on the lard. You want to look like a muscle monster, not a beached whale.
To reach that goal, certain bodybuilders rely on the use of illegal ergogenic aids, even after learning about the significant health risks associated with their use. But as science progresses relentlessly, new dietary aids are crowding out the illegal ones.
WHAT IS CREATINE? Creatine is an energy-rich metabolite found mostly in muscle. It is like a rechargeable battery that powers intense exercise. At rest, it becomes "charged" with phosphate groups to form creatine phosphate. These phosphate groups come in handy when, during intense exercise, ATP (adenosine triphosphate) loses phosphate to become ADP (adenosine diphosphate). Creatine phosphate supplies ADP with the phosphate it needs to be "recharged" to ATP so that exercise may continue.
The creatine system is the muscles' fastest way of replenishing spent ATP; glycolysis (sugar burning) kicks in after creatine phosphate, and fat-burning kicks in even later. However, after a few reps of weightlifting exercise, muscle creatine runs out of phosphate charges and rest is required to replace them during recovery. Then the creatine is "recharged" with high-energy phosphate molecules to become creatine phosphate once again in preparation for more exercise.
CREATINE INCREASES MUSCLE POWER Seven recent scientific studies analyzed the results of feeding large doses (20 grams daily for five or six days) of creatine to humans to see if it enhances exercise performance. Two of the studies measured the effects of creatine supplementation on endurance. The researchers discovered that for endurance events (e.g., running 6 km), creatine supplementation doesn't improve performance at all.
On the other hand, five other studies found that creatine supplementation significantly improves performance of short-duration, high-intensity bodybuilding-type exercise. Two of the studies in particular used exercise regimens very similar to those found in typical bodybuilding-type high-intensity exercise interspersed with one-minute rest periods.
Such studies document that peak and total power output (the maximum speed at which a given force can be exerted) can be enhanced by creatine feeding. Thus, creatine supplementation can be expected to be of significant benefit to power-lifters.
The total amount of work possible during a short burst of high-intensity exercise also appears to be enhanced by creatine supplementation. For bodybuilders, such an improvement in work capacity translates into 1) more repetitions possible at a given weight, or 2) the same number of repetitions with heavier weights.
CREATINE DELAYS FATIGUE One study measured the decline in exercise performance due to fatigue over the course of 10 short bursts of intense exercise. Creatine supplementation significantly reduced the performance decline so that on the 10th bout of exercise, performance was 8% better in the creatine supplemented group than in the placebo-control group. In conclusion, the creatine supplementation reduced fatigue.
HOW LONG DO CREATINE'S EFFECTS LAST? As a rule, creatine supplementation can be expected to provide the most benefit during the early to middle portion of each weight-training set. However, one study showed that benefits of creatine ingestion extended well past 30 repetitions.
The performance-enhancing effects of creatine may dwindle with each successive set of exercise, as suggested by two of the five studies mentioned. These studies suggest that after two to four sets of intense exercise, creatine can no longer benefit performance. Note, however, that only one minute of rest was allowed between sets of exercise in these experiments, yet it is known that creatine takes about five minutes to be fully recharged. At one minute of rest, creatine is only about 50% recharged with phosphate groups. So it seems likely that creatine supplementation can improve performance in the gym for the duration of a weight-training workout, provided that there is sufficient rest between sets.
CREATINE IMPROVES RECOVERY The more creatine a muscle is stocked with, the more high-energy phosphate charges it can mop up to replace those spent during exercise and the faster it can recover. In fact. creatine supplementation increases the rate of creatine phosphate resynthesis in muscle by about 35% during recovery, the increase is especially big during the second minute of rest. This great abundance of usable energy in the form of creatine phosphate hastens recovery after exercise.
CREATINE DECREASES LACTATE OR AMMONIA PRODUCTION Since creatine phosphate spares muscle glycogen, bodybuilders who use creatine might expect less lactic acid buildup; 70%, according to one study. Another study denied the result but claimed that the production of ammonia during exercise was significantly reduced with creatine supplementation. In my own anecdotal research, I noticed that I became winded much less easily than usual during a workout after creatine supplementation. To me, this implies a reduction in lactate buildup, oxygen debt and therefore the need for heavy breathing after weightlifting.
CREATINE INCREASES MASS Since creatine supplementation allows you to tolerate harder training, it might also help provide your muscles with more stimulus for growth.
In addition, creatine can increase body mass regardless of training. I gained four pounds in about two weeks on creatine without using drugs or changing my training regimen. Two scientific papers document an average weight gain of 2.2 pounds after six days of creatine supplementation at 20 grams daily. More dramatic weight gains have been shown in animal studies.
The unfortunate fact is that most of this weight gain is due to water retention because a good deal of water is retained along with creatine. When I stopped taking creatine, I lost nearly all of the bodyweight I had gained after one week. Since water retention reduces muscular definition, bodybuilders should stop taking creatine 12 days before a contest to be on the safe side.
It has been suggested that some of the weight gain resulting from creatine ingestion may reflect muscle mass. This is due to the fact that muscle wasting caused by a medical condition called gyrate atrophy, which involves defective creatine synthesis, is reduced by low-dose, long-term creatine supplementation. However, it is not clear whether healthy individuals can similarly benefit.
DIETARY SOURCES OF CREATINE The average person eating a mixed diet should receive about one gram of creatine a day, derived most from meat and sources. A fresh, uncooked steak (2.4 pounds) provides about five grams of creatine, though some creatine is destroyed during cooking. Vegetarians show the greatest increase in muscle creatine levels as a result of intake as their muscles have less creatine than meat eaters to begin with.
MUSCLES CAN STORE EXTRA CREATINE It is well documented in the scientific literature that muscles can store and use more creatine than both diet and synthesis can provide. More important, the amount of creatine phosphate and thus the amount of immediately available energy in muscle can be increased just by consuming more creatine. For example, the creatine phosphate content of human muscle is increased by an average of 25% after a week of creatine monohydrate supplementation at 20 grams daily. Also, since creatine is stored chiefly in fast- versus slow-twitch muscle fibers, it makes sense that people with greater-than-average numbers of fast-twitch fibers (e.g., bodybuilders) can retain more creatine than average. In some individuals, total muscle creatine content can be increased by as much as 50%.
HOW MUCH CREATINE IS ENOUGH? There is an upper limit to the amount of creatine that can be stored in the body. It is not beneficial to take in more than 0.14 gram per pound of body-weight (0.3 gram per kilogram) per day. For someone who weighs 200 pounds, this would amount to about 27 grams per day.
Also, there is evidence to suggest that this high quantity can be reduced after six days to 0.014 gram per pound per day (0.03 gram per kilogram) or 2.7 grams for the same 200-pounder, while yet retaining saturated muscle creatine levels. Such a tapering regimen can be a real money saver.
HOW TO INGEST CREATINE Since creatine has no taste, it can be ingested as is and washed down with water, though this can be a gritty experience. It dissolves with difficulty in cold water, better in warm water. Since high temperatures destroy creatine, hot water should not be used. Creatine can be dissolved in fruit juice, with cranberry juice being preferable to orange juice.
In all of the studies documenting the effects of creatine supplementation mentioned in this article, the creatine was administered in four divided doses throughout the day (five grams four times per day). Dividing the doses in this way is probably a good regimen for maximizing creatine absorption, as there is evidence that only so much creatine can be absorbed into muscle at one time.
It is useful to remember that one packed teaspoon (5 mL) of creatine monohydrate powder weighs approximately 3.3 grams, and one packed tablespoon (15 mL) of creatine is 10 grams. Thus a 200-pound bodybuilder taking 27 grams of creatine spread over four does would take two packed teaspoons of creatine (6.75 grams) four times per day.
CREATINE ABSORPTION Since exercised muscle absorbs creatine better, one daily dose should be taken after exercise. Also, it has been shown that insulin enhances creatine absorption, so ingesting carbohydrate (which causes insulin release) just before creatine supplementation can be expected to increase the muscle's absorption of creatine. In addition, animal studies have shown that vitamin E deficiency reduces uptake of creatine, though this is probably not relevant to humans where such a deficiency seldom occurs.
TOXICITY Aside from water retention, creatine has no known toxicity. Nonetheless, researchers have yet to study long-term high-dose regimens. Prudence is advised.
COST One hundred grams of creatine monohydrate, about five days worth, can generally be obtained for about $25. However, switching to the maintenance regimen after five days or so as outlined earlier will lessen the creatine supplementation considerably.
CONCLUSION Creatine supplementation without proper training is a useless regimen. Virtually all gains in muscle mass are the result of resistance training combined with sufficient rest and a good nutritional program. For the amateur athlete, money spent on creatine to enhance muscular development would be better invested in a gym membership or training manual for best results. Nonetheless, advanced bodybuilders and power athletes may find creatine to be a useful training aid