Open any muscle magazine and you will find a plethora of products offering to increase muscle, boost performance and a range of other reasons why you should buy the product and use it. Some of these products are nothing but junk, others are tried and tested.
Over the past fifteen years one of the true stand out products appears to be creatine, ingested via protein powder, with one of the largest backing from real life users and clinical efficacy. As such lets take a look at the protein powder creatine powerhouse of dietary supplements.
Creatine (Methyl guanidine-acetic acid)
Creatine is a naturally occurring compound that is found in certain dietary sources and can also be synthesized in the body from the amino acids arginine, glycine and methionine. Within the body it is predominantly stored within the muscle as phospho-creatine.
(Creatines chemical structure)
Its main use is to provide quick energy by donating its phosphate in order for ADP to be converted to ATP (the bodies direct energy source). Considering this Creatine phosphate is the first store of energy and provides quick energy predominantly during high intensity activites.
For the strength athlete and physique conscious individuals' creatine supplementation has been proposed as beneficial for several reasons
Increased creatine stores, faster creatine resynthesis, Spatial Buffer
Increased creatine stores, ingested via the protein powder product, will mean higher intensities will be able to be maintained for longer before fatigue sets in. This higher workload will mean a greater stimulus is applied to the muscles and hence a greater hypertrophic response.
It has been shown that higher creatine concentrations within the muscle result in a faster resynthesis of creatine phosphate within the mitochondria of the muscle. This means subsequent repeat bouts of high intensity activity will be less likely to see a drop off in performance. Its thought that increased levels of free creatine will increase mitochondrial respiration.
Creatine enables ATP generated from aerobic metabolism to be shuttled from the mitochondria where it is produced across the cytosol to the working myofilaments in order for contraction to commence.
Creatines structure lends itself to buffering metabolic acidosis (an increase in acidity, in this case through lactate and hydrogen ions when working at high intensities). There are two possible mechanisms by which lactate can inhibit contractions (Foss and Keteyain 1998), the first is due to lactate increasing H+ concentration and decreasing pH which would inhibit the excitation contraction coupling process by decreasing the amount of calcium released by the sarcoplasmic reticulum. Secondly the increased H+ concentrations inhibits phosphofructokinase, which is an enzyme involved in anaerobic metabolism which would slow further glycolysis and subsequent ATP production during high intensity exercise.
It has been suggested that creatine phosphate has a chemical structure that would enable it to act as a metabolic buffer (Troop 2000) which would enable sustained high intensity contractions during activities which last longer than the ATP-PC energy system but is still anaerobic. This is still equivocal as some feel lactate is just a confounding factor in muscular contraction fatigue Coupled with the above mentioned creatine, ingested via the protein powder product, would again enable higher intensities to be maintained for longer.
Much as in the same way carbohydrate when stored in the muscle draws in water, creatine also appears to aid in hydrating a muscle. From an aesthetic point of view this will make a muscle larger and will contribute to sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. However the benefits don't end there as increased cellular hydration may benefit a strength athlete in two ways;
Increased protein synthesis - cellular hydration has been said to be a switch for protein synthesis meaning a hydrated muscle is likely to be more anabolic in terms of muscle accretion and amino acid retention.
Increased glycogen synthesis - like wise increased cellular hydration has been linked to an increased stimulus for carbohydrate synthesis within the muscle. This would mean improved recovery ability between workouts which is principally dependent upon glycogen synthesis.
What the papers say
If you type a search in any of the medical online databases for creatine you will get a lot of hits - it's probably one of the most researched supplements over the last decade! Most of the initial work started in the eighties and nineties with researchers such as Harris and Greenhaff. There initial work showed that an initial loading period of 15-25g of creatine daily split into 3-5 doses saturated the muscles stores of creatine and thereafter 5-10g daily maintained these stores. Recent work has shown that creatine store saturation will occur with lower doses but takes longer. Considering this taking the maintenance dose for around a month will probably give you the same effects long term but without the potential waste that might occur with supraphysiological dosages.
Whilst 5-10g a day is the usual amounts it normally takes in the region of four weeks of no supplementation for muscle levels to return back to normal, considering this taking 5-10g , ingested via the protein powder product, on training days (i.e. 3-5 times a week) may be enough to maintain muscle stores for the more conservative trainees out there.
Is it dangerous?
It has been proposed that supplementation with creatine, ingested via the protein powder product, poses potential health risks. There are several theories as to how creatine monohydrate supplementation may be dangerous; one of these includes kidney damage. It is proposed that because creatine causes an increase in creatinine excretion (Greenhaff 1986) which is often used as an indirect means of assessing kidney function and therefore is evidence that there is a pressure upon renal function. However the increase in creatinine excretion is correlated with the usual increase in muscle creatine stores and is just a side note in increased creatine degradation (Hultman et al 1996) rather than the perceived burden or abnormal function of the kidneys and renal system. Similarly Almada et al (1996) state that high dose supplementation with initial loading parameters followed by ten grams a day for fifty one days showed no effect on serum markers of adverse renal function.
The second proposed adverse side effect of creatine supplementation is that creatines hydrophilic properties would lead to cramp, however it has been suggested that there is no effect on plasma electrolytes or blood volume (Williams et al 1999) contrary to the anecdotal accounts. The only possible sited side effect is that of weight gain and its possible detrimental effect on endurance athletes (troop 2002), but the increase in performance may offset this
FAQ about creatine
Isn't creatine a steroid?
In short -no! creatine monohydrate, ingested via the protein powder product, is just a high energy compound its not a hormone or doesn't effect hormones and isn't banned
Wont creatine cause my kidneys to explode or damage my health?
Again no - as stated above this is a misconception as the waste product of creatine is used as a marker for kidney function. You kidneys are healthy but something else is making the marker change
Should I cycle my creatine use?
Currently there is a lot of debate about whether creatine needs to be cycled with periods of non usage and even some suppliers of creatine are suggesting this. Part of the reasoning for this is due to some evidence showing that with creatine use natural production slows down. Typically creatine production returns to normal shortly after cessation of creatine supplementation.
If a user did stop the period would need to be greater than a month as creatine is a fairly stable compound and muscle cells will stay saturated above pre use levels for two to four weeks after cessation of the product. As such stopping, ingesting creatine via the protein powder product, for a week or two would have little physiological value.
Wont creatine cause me to hold water and look puffy?
Creatine is a hydrophilic compound meaning it attracts water and as such considering that creatine monohydrate gets stored in the muscle this should pull water into the muscle and away from the skin, as such it should not make you hold water and look puffy theoretically.
Part of this in the authors opinion comes down to marketing from supplement companies who don't want to sell cheap basic creatine but would rather over hype some other creatine compound that they are trying to sell. Having said that it may be possible that cheaper impure brands have impurities like sodium etc which might affect water retention as such sourcing a decent 100% creatine, ingested via the protein powder product, would be the way to go
In conclusion the vast benefits of creatine, ingested via the protein powder, with the minimal apparent negative side effects would make creatine one of the first non food supplements (i.e protein, carbs and oils) to be added to the authors' nutritional toolbox when trying to gain size or strength. Creatine can be found in the exceptional formulation MM5 - the premier protein powder all in one sports nutrition drink.
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