What exactly is Creatine?
Creatine (Cr) is a naturally occurring amino acid found in muscle tissue of humans and animals. It plays an important role in fueling muscles. The human body has 100 to 115 grams of creatine stored in the form of creatine phosphate or phosphocreatine. Approximately 95% of the body's creatine supply are found in the skeletal muscles. The remaining 5% are scattered throughout the rest of the body, with the highest concentrations in the heart, brain and testes. Creatine is easily absorbed from the intestinal tract into the bloodstream. When dietary consumption is inadequate to meet the body's needs, a limited supply can be synthesized from the amino acids arginine, glycine and methionine. This creatine production occurs in the liver, pancreas and kidneys. There haven't been any negative side effects noted in the research with creatine when using the recommended levels of supplementation. But you should be aware that creatine creates a byproduct called creatinine. Creatinine is harmless but it might show up on medical tests as a false indication of kidney problems. Always let your doctor know that you're taking some kind of supplementation when taking medical tests. The human body gets most of the creatine it needs for maintaining its bodily functions from food or dietary supplements. Red meat is the best food source of creatine, however there is only about 1 gram/lb. of meat. Therefore, to notice any positive effect from creatine, you need to supplement. And the only kind of creatine that works well in humans is creatine monohydrate.
How does it work?
Creatine is combined with phosphorus to form creatine phosphate (phosphocreatine) in the body. The high-energy phosphates stored in creatine phosphate are then used to rapidly convert ADP (adenosine diphosphate) back to ATP (adenosine triphos-phate). Like ATP, creatine is essential for short duration, high intensity exercise. When muscles are used to lift weights or to perform any kind of work, ATP is broken down to ADP and energy is released. The amount of ATP stored in the muscle will only fuel a maximum effort such as lifting a weight for 10 to 15 seconds. After that, the muscle must rely on creatine phosphate to restock its supply of ATP. Creatine promotes intense lifting by replenish the necessary energy molecule ATP. Another benefit is that creatine buffers the development of lactic acid allowing for a more enduring workout. In conclusion: by supplementing creatine, you will be able to do more reps with a given weight, or the same number with a heavier weight. A little note: Don't be fooled by creatine phosphate or ATP supplements on the market. They don't work! They're destroyed during digestion. Only creatine monohydrate will work.
What kind of gains can I expect?
Creatine increases the availability of instant energy. It increases muscle strength. It improves endurance and delays fatigue. Creatine will force a little bit more fluids into your muscles, giving a good pump and making them a little bit bigger. This is known as cell volumization - leading more water inside the cells, making muscles bigger and firmer. Do not confuse this with water retention that happens outside the muscle cells, making the muscles look smooth. It's not uncommon to gain 6 to 10lbs during the first two weeks. This gain is largely due to the increment of body fluids in the muscles. This environment makes it easier for the body to gain muscle mass. You should also start experiencing strength gains after the first week. Please note that some people already have high creatine levels due to their dietary intake or some people may have high efficiency or inefficiency in producing ATP. These people may get minimal or no effects from creatine.
What happens when I stop taking Creatine?
Once you stop taking creatine, it will take about two months before your body clears it out 100%. After that, you'll probably lose some of your weight and strength gains due to loss of water inside the cells.
How to supplement creatine
After researching and consulting with Fredrik Paulún (Swedish nutritional physiology expert), I'm convinced that the best way to supplement creatine is by small doses over a longer period. A lot of weightlifters use this approach with great success. (Don't buy into those outrageous recommendations printed on the bottles. You don't need that much creatine to get a good effect. They just want to sell you more creatine.) I would recommend about 5 grams a day (3 grams minimum). Depending on your body weight, you might want to increase this dosage. People above 220lbs might need 10 grams or more, while someone at 120lbs might only need about 3-4 grams. There are a lot of scientists that have reached the same conclusion. Here is one quotation:
"In conclusion, a rapid way to "creatine load" human skeletal muscle is to ingest 20 g of creatine for 6 days. This elevated tissue concentration can then be maintained by ingestion of 2 g/day thereafter. The ingestion of 3 g creatine/day is in the long term likely to be as effective at raising tissue levels as this higher dose."
Hultman E, Soderlund K, Timmons JA, Cederblad G, Greenhaff PL Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, University Medical School, Queen's Medical Centre, Nottingham, United Kingdom.
Since the body wastes about 2 grams every day, supplementing this way makes sense. It might be a good idea though to go through a loading phase the first time you use creatine. This is best achieved by taking 20-30 grams divided into 5 grams doses throughout the day. The loading phase should last for 5-6 days. A loading phase will saturate your system with creatine and also cause a rapid weight gain.
Pros and Cons of Creatine Cycling
I received some letters about cycling creatine or not. Well, both methods work. But there's is no real reason for cycling creatine. It isn't toxic and it won't screw up your bodily functions. Once you get of creatine supplementation, your creatine levels will return to normal. You could experiment with small loading phases every 6-8 week to ensure proper saturation, but there's no scientific evidence that this will have any effect.
The best time during the day to take creatine is directly after a workout. Mix it into your post-workout shake, which should contain 80-150 grams of high-GI carbohydrates, depending on your bodyweight. If you're taking more than one dose a day the second best time is directly in the morning, 30-min. before breakfast. Always split the creatine into doses of about 4-5 grams. Bigboys (+220lbs) might want to double the dosages. The same goes for people who are extremely active and has a physical job.
How to take Creatine for best effect
Since there's a lot of different creatine mixtures on the market, I decided to describe the procedure of taking pure creatine monohydrate powder and the average carb-creatine powder formula.
Pure Creatine Powder
Begin with consuming roughly 20-30 grams of high GI carbohydrates, preferable glucose, which is also known as dextrose. This will cause a small insulin spike that will help to get the creatine across the cell membranes more effectively, where it is usable by your body. You can also take some Taurine with the creatine to help maximize the results. After you have consumed this "boost" combination it's time to prepare the creatine. The best way to do this is to mix your creatine in boiling hot water (about 100 degrees Celsius. Don't worry, creatine degrades at 303 degrees Celsius). When it has solved itself, you can add some cold water to the solution to make it drinkable. This will help to dissolve the creatine properly during digestion. Please keep in mind that creatine is stable in powder form. Once mixed in liquid, the mixture must be consumed within 48 hours or the waste product creatinine develops, making the creatine quite useless.
Creatine Powders containing carbohydrates
These powders have become popular over time. It all started with the EAS Phosphagen and the loading formula HP. Nowadays, most companies has their own "secret formula" for increasing muscle creatine uptake. Some of them might work a little bit better than regular creatine, which you mix with glucose on your own. But I doubt that the effect is noticeable. The advantage of these powders is that you don't need to mix your own "insulin spike" drink. I find this very convenient when I'm out travelling, which I do a lot in my work. On the other hand, these powders might be a bit more expensive since you also pay for the "secret formula". A good tip is to read the label and see how much creatine the bottle really contains. Some manufacturers put in a lot of crap that you don't need in expense of the creatine content (creatine is the most expensive ingredient). I would also recommend heating the water before solving the creatine, no matter what the label says on the bottle. Simply add some cold water after the creatine has solved itself to make the solution drinkable.
When you're taking creatine, you should drink as much water as possible. If you're not well hydrated, creatine monohydrate will not be properly absorbed, resulting in poor gains. I recommend a water consumption of 4-6 liters a day for the normally active athlete.
Caffeine and Creatine
There have been some rumors that caffeine will limit the effects of creatine. A lot of people have claimed that this is pure BS. However, there have been studies on this subject. The first group supplemented with creatine alone (Cr), the second group supplemented with both creatine and caffeine (Cr+C) while the third group was given a placebo. Here is a quotation from that study:
"Muscle ATP concentration remained constant over the three experimental conditions. Cr and Cr+C increased (P < 0.05) muscle pcr concentration by 4-6%. Dynamic torque production, however, was increased by 10-23% (p < 0.05) by cr but was not changed by cr+c. Torque improvement during cr was most prominent immediately after the 2-min rest between the exercise bouts. The data show that cr supplementation elevates muscle pcr concentration and markedly improves performance during intense intermittent exercise. This ergogenic effect, however, is completely eliminated by caffeine intake."
Vandenberghe K, Gillis N, Van Leemputte M, Van Hecke P, Vanstapel F, Hespel P Faculty of Physical Education and Physiotherapy, Department of Kinesiology, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium
Conclusion: Keep your caffeine intake to a minimum while you're using creatine. Only use it if you need a boost before a hard workout.
Which brand is the best?
I don't really think it makes much difference where it comes from. As long as the product contains 99% pure pharmaceutical grade Creatine Monohydrate powder, it shouldn't matter. Go for the cheapest certified brand by mail order. Beware of extremely cheap powders though!
At last, allow me to kill some false rumors about creatine that have been haunting the 'net.
Creatine is not destroyed in warm water. It should be solved in warm water! Creatine degrades at 303 degrees Celsius. Orange juice or other sources of citric acids will not degrade creatine into creatinine. If this were the case, creatine would never survive in our stomach which is much more acidic than citric acid. However, these juices will only deliver a medium insulin spike, for the best effect go for dextrose.