Creatine Explained – The Complete Overview

It’s the best-selling bodybuilding supplement of all time.

And these creatine facts will show you why, in an industry surrounded by hype, it sits unchallenged on the muscle building throne. 

I compiled today post because, despite it’s popularity, there are lots of people out there who don’t know what creatine actually does, and there are a number of questions which remain unanswered.

So today I’ll be answering them:

  • What does creatine do?
  • Is it steroids?
  • Is it for men and women?
  • And many more below.

So if you’ve heard the immortal line “you should get on that creatine, bro” from one of your gym buddies but were unsure what it meant, fear not.

What Is Creatine? (Video Overview)

Above is a collection of today’s points on creatine in a video shot for our YouTube channel. Enjoy! Continue reading to see each question broken down in more depth.

russ howe pti

Which Creatine Do I Use?

Before we get stuck into the science, let me answer what is by far the most popular question I get regarding creatine supplementation:

“Which one do you use, Russ?”

For those of you in the UK like me, I use this one when in a maintenance phase and this one in a fat loss phase.

There’s a bunch of nonsense surrounding creatine supplements, so if you are wondering why I don’t spend a fortune on this supplement and neither do my clients, it’s because you simply don’t need to.

I’ll explain below.

creatine facts

What Does Creatine Do?

Creatine is a naturally occurring substance which is already inside your body and you use it every single day.

Our body’s natural reserves of creatine are responsible for short bursts of explosive energy.

For instance, if you perform a sudden burst of sprinting right now you’d be using these reserves.

The problem is our body doesn’t have vast stores available, and they are quickly depleted.

When sprinting flat out, you’d probably find that you’d begin slowing after around 10-15 seconds. Beyond this point, lactic acid build-up – “the burn” -would take over and you’d begin coasting.

I use sprinting as an example here because creatine supplementation first rose to mainstream attention after sprint coaches used it at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.

creatine explained

Take the above example into a gym setting and you’ll see why athletes around the world use this supplement.

If your body’s natural creatine resources are responsible for short bursts of explosive energy – such as sprinting or lifting weights – imagine what would happen if you increased your body’s resources of creatine by supplementing it into your diet.

Now you’re getting it.

Over the years, supplementing with creatine has been proven to have significant effects on strength training.

In fact, a great review study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research noted that creatine supplementation across 22 other clinical studies resulted in an average 8% strength increase for test subjects. (1)

Similarly, weight lifting performance – that’s how many reps they could do at a given percentage of a max lift – was 14% greater with creatine supplementation.

The bench press 1RM – one rep max lift – ranged across the 22 studies from a 3% to 45% increase, while bench press performance – reps to failure – ranged from a 16% to 45% increase.

Simply put, creatine makes you go harder, for longer.

creatine facts

Are The Gains Permanent?

The reason this question is often asked is because it also performs another job.

As well as boosting explosive strength, it forces water into the muscle cells.

This gives your muscles a fuller, harder look.

However, this is a temporary benefit meaning if you were to stop supplementation your body would release the water which had been forced into the cells.

Of course, the gains you’ve made in size and strength are 100% real muscle gains.

The only thing you’d be “losing” is any water which had been pushed into your muscle cells while supplementing.

is creatine safe

Is Creatine Steroids?

Due to the amount of hype on product packaging, this question is commonly asked.

I mean, it’ll talk about your muscles “exploding” and your maximum lifts “going through the roof.”

It’s not surprising this makes people wonder if it’s connected to steroids.

But no it is not.

First off, I have nothing inherently “against” those who do use steroids.

Although I stay clear of them myself, I have trained individuals who have used them in the past. Hey, if you want to use them and you understand the risks, go use them. Your choice. But creatine and steroids are two totally different, unrelated things.

It is not illegal, nor does it impact the body’s hormones in the same way as a steroid.

It’s more like a vitamin.

But due to the fact that it’s so effective at boosting strength and gaining muscle, it’s easy to see why people initially worry.

When supplement companies then throw a mountain of hype on the pack, it just makes the situation worse.

is creatine steroids

Is Creatine Safe?

This is a naturally occurring substance which is perfectly safe to use as a supplement.

I’ve already mentioned that it’s in your body right now – regardless of whether you supplement with it or not– and it is also contained in both red meat and fish.

But like any other supplement, creatine is the subject of plenty of myths!

I have a post coming up soon which debunks the most well-known ones for you, but one of the benefits of a supplement being decades old is that a wealth of scientific research already exists documenting it’s safety.

Several key studies confirm the safety of creatine supplementation. (2, 3, 4, 5)

can women use creatine

Can Women Use Creatine Too?

Given that its reputation as a quality muscle building supplement, it is hugely popular with guys.

But it is really intended for anybody who partakes in strength training – regardless of gender – looking to boost their maximal strength.

Women should not – and need not – be fearful of this supplement.

In fact, on the whole women tend to eat less red meat than men and therefore their natural reserves of creatine are much smaller.

Therefore, supplementing with it is indeed a wise move.

Studies also show that ladies tend to gain less body mass through creatine supplementation than men. (6)

It is thought this is due to the fact that ladies hold less creatine in muscle cells than men.

This suggests that it will have less of an impact than it would for a guy, but still substantial enough to allow you to reap great rewards. (7)

creatine

Is Creatine Safe For Teens?

Yes.

A resounding yes, in fact.

Ask this question in any gym and you’ll be met with mixed answers which cause more confusion than clarification, but this confusion comes despite there is solid scientific evidence documenting the safety of creatine in teens.

A 1996 Canadian study reported zero negative side effects in a group of children using creatine at double the recommended loading phase for adults, while a further trial reported in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition tracking the effects of creatine consumption in young competitive swimmers concluded that the male and female participants experienced only positive results. (10, 11)

what is creatine

When Should You Take It?

It couldn’t be easier.

5 grams after your training.

That’s it.

There’s no need for a bigger serving, either. You can even mix it with your protein shake.

creatine

Do You Need A Loading Phase?

Most products recommend a “loading phase” before you begin regular use.

It’s not as complex as it sounds.

They’re basically advising you to take bigger servings – upto 20g per day – for the first week or so, before moving down to the recommended daily dose of 5g.

This is done to saturate the muscle cells.

The earlier your muscles reach saturation point, the faster results occur.

But it isn’t completely necessary. (8)

Many studies have used the daily dose of 5g without preceeding it with a loading phase, and still reported the full benefits of creatine supplementation.

You see, even at a smaller dose, creatine levels in the muscle cell will eventually reach their maximum potential anyway. It’ll just take slightly longer.

The main benefit of a loading phase from a supplement manufacturer’s perspective is that you’ll use up your product faster and order some more.

Do You Need To Cycle Creatine?

Many folks believe you must stop usage after 6-8 weeks.

Back in the day, it was thought that this would elevate results.

This was done as a precaution when the product first hit the bodybuilding market, as there wasn’t sufficient research to say whether continued usage would cause adaptation or perhaps even begin inhibiting the body’s ability to produce it’s own creatine.

However, science shows there is no need to do this.

Nowadays, many athletes supplement all season long.

creatine

What’s The Best Type Of Creatine?

This is where the supplement industry will hit you like a ton of bricks and try to empty your wallet.

Every major supplement manufacturer offers at least one creatine supplement.

In some cases, a manufacturer will offer multiple choices.

That’s because there are many different forms of creatine available, including – but not limited to – monohydrate, ethyl esther, kre alkalyn, nitrate, hydrochloride, malate, effervescent.

For example, click here.

So once you’ve decided on a brand to go with, you then have to decide which formula to use.

And this is where most people get completely lost.

Thankfully, after reading this post, you’ll never get lost with creatine supplements again!

So, while everyone else blasts through their monthly wage on the latest products, let me rock your world with some science.

The best form of creatine on the market today is the same as it was 25 years ago – creatine monohydrate.

Click here to see it.

That’s right – monohydrate.

The cheapest one.

The one which started the creatine craze decades ago.

creatine facts

Despite the massive advancements the sports supplement industry has made since then, it has never came close to improving on the original formula of creatine.

But if it’s really the best, why are other products charging quadruple the asking price?

Well, this is how the supplement industry makes it’s biggest money.

You see, it didn’t take long for it to become public knowledge just how cheaply monohydrate could be manufactured. And with supplement companies scrambling to increase profits, suddenly the market was swamped with various other blends.

And, of course, all of these blends were hailed as “superior” to monohydrate.

While there’s nothing “wrong” with using a different formula the fact remains that, even all these years later, none of them – yes, zero – can show any evidence to being superior to the original formula.

You may be wondering why I mentioned that I occasionally use creatine HCL (hydrochloride) at the start of today’s post.

Well, this has been shown to provide the same effects as monohydrate, with one key difference.

In order to draw the best results from creatine monohydrate, it should be consumed with a serving of carbohydrates. That’s because carbs will help it to shuttle into the muscle cells.

Attaching a hydrochloride to the formula, however, removes the need for carbohydrates – making it the ideal formula for those on lower carbohydrate diets(9)

So while it’s certainly not “superior” in any way – performance wise – users can expect to achieve the same results without needing the serving of carbs.

Click here to read my piece on this supplement.

The current “hot topic” in this area is creatine nitrate, which is constantly being touted by supplement companies as the next big thing.

But, once again, no scientific studies have taken place to determine it’s effectiveness.

creatine monohydrate

Beware The Bullshit

After reading that last segment, you could be forgiven for thinking:

So if none of these more expensive blends are able to defeat the original, why make them?

Without any scientific research to back up their claims, you’d think they’d struggle to sell these overpriced products in a marketplace which already has it’s clear winner, right?

Yet they don’t.

All they had to do was deploy the oldest trick in the book – propaganda.

Supplement manufacturers would much rather have you paying £35 a month for a product than something you could pick up in raw form at around £4 a month.

So the ads for newer blends would often be accompanied by statements like:

  • “this formula gives you all the benefits but without the bloated look you get from monohydrate”
  • “this formula is absorbed much better, unlike monohydrate”
  • and many more

All these things are myths which have been debunked by science, yet still appear on popular new products to this very day.

And it works.

Because suddenly we have people quadrupling their monthly supplement bill to avoid problems which aren’t even there.

Are the supplement manufacturers to blame on this?

Absolutely. Without a doubt.

But it’s a money game.

Think of it like a razor company.

Today you’ll see their new advert hailing their new razor as the best shave ever designed. It’ll tell you that everything else is terrible in comparison, and it’s 10x better than their previous model.

creatine monohydrate review

That same previous model which they were advertising only last week as the best thing ever.

Do they offer you any scientific proof?

No.

Because nobody asks for it.

The supplement industry ran pretty much ungoverned for decades, allowing these manufacturers to say whatever they liked without ever needing to show proof.

Thankfully, that’s starting to change, but more work is definitely needed.

The Bottom Line

If you are trying to boost your strength and build lean muscle by hitting the gym, you should be using creatine.

It is proven. It is safe. It is effective.

Add 5 grams to your post-workout whey protein shake.

It’s really that easy.

And if you are performing regular weight training – such as my free routines here – watch your results soar inside the gym.

russ howe pti creatine explained

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References:

1. Rawson, E.S., et al. “Effects of creatine supplementation and resistance training on muscle strength and weightlifting performance.” J Strength Cond Res. 2003 Nov;17(4):822-31.
2. Groeneveld GJ, et al. “Few adverse effects of long-term creatine supplementation in a placebo-controlled trial.” Int J Sports Med. (2005)
3. Greenwood M, et al. “Creatine supplementation during college football training does not increase the incidence of cramping or injury.” Mol Cell Biochem. (2003)
4. Lopez R.M., et al. “Does creatine supplementation hinder exercise heat tolerance or hydration status? A systematic review with meta-analyses.” J Athl Train. (2009)
5. Shao, A., et al. “Risk assessment for creatine monohydrate.” Regul Toxicol Pharmacol. (2006)
6. Mihic S., et al. “Acute creatine loading increases fat-free mass, but does not affect blood pressure, plasma creatinine, or CK activity in men and women.” Med Sci Sports Exerc. (2000) 32(2):291-6.
7. Branch J.D. “Effect of creatine supplementation on body composition and performance: a meta-analysis.” Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. (2003) 13(2):198-226.
8. Pearson D. R., et al. “Long-Term Effects of Creatine Monohydrate on Strength and Power.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1999, 13(3), 187–192
9. Miller, D. “Oral bioavailability of creatine supplements: Is there room for improvement?” Annual Meeting of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2009.
10. Stöckler, S., et al. “Creatine replacement therapy in guanidinoacetate methyltransferase deficiency, a novel inborn error of metabolism.” Lancet. 1996 Sep 21;348(9030):789-90.
11. Grindstaff, P. D., et al. “Effects of creatine supplementation on repetitive sprint performance and body composition in competitive swimmers.” Int J Sport Nutr. 1997 Dec;7(4):330-46.

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