Creatine - What It Is and How It Works
If you’re involved in any kind of strength sport then the chances are that you’re already taking creatine or have been advised to do so. But is it really as helpful as people say? Luckily creatine is one of the best researched supplements around, and we have good news - it works. So what is creatine exactly and how can you get the most out of it?
Creatine is a compound of three amino acids - glycine, arginine, and methionine, and over 90% of your body's stores of it are inside of your muscle tissue. Because creatine is what is known as an “osmotically active” substance it pulls water into your muscles from your bloodstream. This in turn speeds up protein synthesis and increases your body’s ability to produce energy.
Because so much of the creatine in your body is stored in your muscles, taking creatine supplements dramatically increases the concentration of creatine in the fibres and this is why it is so beneficial for athletes. Like the amino acids it is built from creatine protects muscles and makes them more durable, allowing you to do more before you start to feel tired.
Though anyone can benefit from creatine supplements you’ll see the best results if you can incorporate some intense, explosive exercises like sprints or weights into your training routine. Whatever you’re doing though, having a higher concentration of creatine in your muscles will allow you to do more of it. Your muscles will have the energy to do more reps, or run that little bit further, so they will get bigger and stronger faster.
This increase in metabolically active muscle tissue and the increased maximal strength that comes with it has a secondary benefit - taking creatine supplements alongside your training will help you to burn fat. Well hydrated cells tend to be more metabolically active than normal cells, and your increased muscle endurance will mean you’ll be burning more calories during your training sessions.
People taking creatine find that they put on weight, particularly if they go for a “loading” phase, but this is almost entirely fat free mass. During the first week a lot of the extra weight is water, but any subsequent gains will be muscle. It’s important to keep this in mind if you need to keep to a weight class - loading creatine can help you make a higher weight. Similarly, if you find yourself a few kg’s heavier than you need to be, you can cycle off of creatine to drop some of the water weight - usually about a month before the weigh in.
There are a few things you can do to get even more out of the creatine you’re taking too as certain substances increase the rate at which it is taken up by the muscles. Higher insulin levels increase creatine uptake, so sugary drinks can help, while sodium bicarbonate also has a synergistic effect with creatine.
Eventually the kidneys break creatine down into creatinine, so this supplement shouldn’t be taken by anyone who has impaired kidney function. At the same time, very little research has been done on how it affects children who are still growing, so until we know more we wouldn’t recommend it for people under 18. Other than this though, there is no evidence that creatine supplements can cause any complications in healthy adults and lots of evidence that it an extremely important supplement for anyone looking to boost their strength and endurance, and increase their athletic performance.