Have you been considering using creatine, but aren’t sure what exactly it’s used for, or how it can help you with your fitness goals? In this article, we’ll be discussing one of the most heavily studied sports nutrition supplements on the market - creatine.
We’re going to help demystify this extremely popular supplement, by discussing what exactly creatine is, and how it works to help you with your fitness goals.
Any regular or aspiring gym-goer has likely heard of creatine - but few people know what it actually is. Creatine is an amino acid, but one that isn’t actually used to make protein. It is found 100% naturally in meats such as beef, pork and fish - as well as our own bodies! That’s right, even as you read this article, your body’s cells are producing creatine - which should be evidence of it being a completely natural and healthy part of your metabolism, rather than an artificial substance.
Due to creatine primarily being naturally produced in animal muscle cells, meat-eaters generally have a higher level of creatine than vegans. Despite this, don't consider consuming meat as a main source of creatine, since you would need to eat nearly 1.3kg of beef in order to consume the same level of creatine as you could from 1 scoop of creatine monohydrate powder. In addition to being extremely expensive, this would come with ~1,500 extra calories. Creatine supplement usage can be a great solution for this very reason, and can increase the amount of creatine in your muscles by 20-40%.
An additional advantage of buying creatine supplements is that they are vegan-friendly, being produced from the synthesis of sarcosine and cyanamide. As mentioned, vegans tend to have lower creatine levels than meat eaters, so the vegan-friendliness of these supplements serves as a great way to level the playing field for exercise performance.
Now that we’ve explored what creatine is, let’s discuss what exactly it can do for our pursuit of improved fitness. Creatine’s key benefit is its role in energy production, specifically high-intensity energy production - the kind used for short, quick, explosive movements such as weightlifting. Humans generate energy using a molecule called ATP (adenosine triphosphate - when ATP gives off its energy during exercise, it loses a phosphate group and becomes ADP (adenosine diphosphate). Creatine is found in the muscle, attached to a phosphoryl group, and is able to supplement ADP with additional phosphate to return it to ATP. Through this, our muscles are given a steadier supply of energy for high-intensity work. Essentially, having a higher concentration of creatine in your muscles enables you to perform harder and for longer periods. In effect, this means that creatine can enable you to benefit from improved exercise performance in a number of ways, including improving sprint performance, lifting more weight, doing greater volume during workout, and improving the synthesis of glycogen in your muscles (enabling a steady source of energy for continued exercise). Creatine is able to improve your threshold for anaerobic exercise (your ability to perform high-intensity, quick exercise), and may even help improve aerobic capacity as well.
Additionally, creatine has been shown to improve muscle recovery - thereby indirectly helping you build more muscle. Allowing your body to recover better after training harder and with higher quality training volume is a surefire recipe for muscle growth.
One study had two groups undergoing resistance training over a 10 week period - with one group using a placebo, and the other using creatine. The group using creatine were found to experience a 25% increase in maximal strength compared to the placebo group. They also saw a 60% increase in their fat-free mass (including muscle). Considering this, it's easy to see how creatine can be of benefit in any sporting activity that has a high-intensity component - including sprinting, swimming, tennis, rugby, powerlifting, martial arts and soccer.
A common misbelief about creatine supplementation is that it directly increases muscle mass. The two indirect ways that muscle mass can increase through creatine use, are through more energy being provided for higher output (in turn providing a greater stimulus for muscle protein synthesis), and by retaining water, which might make muscles seem bigger.
A less-known potential benefit of creatine is that it can also benefit brain health and cognition. This is due to the brain being an extremely energy-hungry organ that creatine is able to supply with energy (just as it does for muscles), leading to better brain function. For example, creatine has been demonstrated to significantly improve working memory, and cognitive processing tests for intelligence. Creatine is being used by a lot of older people for similar reasons, as it’s been shown to help slow down cognitive decline and assist with keeping elderly people’s brains functioning optimally.
The above reasons highlight why creatine is considered as one of the best supplements available for improving physical (and potentially mental) performance. Regardless of your exercise of choice, you should consider creatine when aiming to reach your physical potential.