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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Creatine

Our expert breaks down everything you need to know about this important supplement for mass gain.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Creatine

Creatine is one of, if not the most popular sports supplements in the world for mass gain. Surveys performed on creatine use in athletes indicate that creatine is used by over 40% of athletes in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and that athletes from about 20 different NCAA sports reportedly use creatine. Creatine use in power-sport athletes may be even more prevalent, with up to about 75% of powerlifters, boxers, weightlifters, and track and field athletes reportedly using the supplement. And a survey of gym/health club members conducted in 2000 reported that about 60% of members are creatine users.

Why is creatine so popular among athletes and gym-goers? Quite simply because it works, and it works well. Literally hundreds of studies have been done on creatine showing its effectiveness for increasing muscle strength, muscle power, muscle size, overall athletic performance and even enhancing certain areas of health.

Creatine Basics

Creatine is a nonessential dietary protein-like compound found in high abundance in meat and fish. It is synthesized in the body, primarily in the liver, from the three amino acids, arginine, glycine and methionine. Muscle tissue does not produce creatine, and therefore it must take up creatine from the bloodstream. Once inside muscle cells, creatine gets a high-energy phosphate attached to it and is then known as phosphocreatine (PCr) or creatine phosphate. It is this high-energy molecule that is one of the most critical components of creatine’s beneficial effects in the body. That’s because creatine donates its high-energy phosphate to create ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is used by the muscle for the rapid energy it needs for muscle contraction, such as during weight-lifting. Supplementing with creatine is reported to increase the content of PCr in muscle by approximately 20% (see Figure 1). Having more PCr in muscle cells means more ATP can be rapidly produced during exercise, which can lead to gains in strength, power, speed and muscle growth.

Figure 1:

Phosphocreatine (PCr) Levels in Muscle Before and After Creatine Supplementation

This graph shows the average change in PCr levels in muscle after taking creatine.

Creatine Boosts Muscle Strength

Numerous studies have reported significant improvements in one-rep max strength of subjects taking creatine. For example, Belgian researchers reported in a 1997 issue of the Journal of Applied Physiology that untrained subjects taking creatine while following a 10-week weight-training program increased their one-rep max on the squat by 25% more than those taking a placebo while following the same program. A 1998 study by University of Nebraska (Omaha) researchers found that trained collegiate football players taking creatine while following an 8-week weight-training program gained a 6% increase in their one-rep bench press strength, while those taking a placebo experienced no strength gains at all. A review on creatine printed in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research reported that out of 16 studies investigating the effects of creatine on one-rep max strength, the average increase in strength was about 10% more in those taking creatine as compared to those taking a placebo (see Figure 2).

Studies also show that creatine enables subjects to complete more reps with a given weight. University of Queensland (St. Lucia, Australia) researchers reported that competitive powerlifters taking creatine while preparing for a competition increased the number of reps they were able to complete with 85% of their one-rep max by 40%, while those taking a placebo experienced no change in the number of reps they were able to complete with the same weight. In the 2003 review paper discussed above, the researchers determined that out of the 16 studies, the average increase in reps performed while taking creatine was about 15% more than those taking a placebo (see Figure 2).

Figure 2:

Percent Increase in Muscle Strength

This graph shows the average percent increase in muscle strength and repetitions completed when subjects supplemented with creatine as compared to a placebo.

Creatine Boosts Muscle Growth

There are a plethora of studies showing that creatine significantly boosts muscle growth. The University of Queensland researchers found that the powerlifters taking creatine gained an average of over 6 pounds of lean body weight, with some subjects gaining as much as 11 pounds of lean body weight in less than four weeks, while those taking a placebo had no change in body weight at all (see Figure 3). Since creatine supplementation likely does not increase bone mass or organ mass, the increase in lean body weight is more reasonably the result of a gain in muscle mass. A study by researchers at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale reported in a 2000 issue of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that trained weight-lifters taking creatine gained almost 5 pounds of lean body weight in six weeks, while those taking a placebo experienced no change in body weight (see Figure 3).

Figure 3:

Increase in Lean Body Weight

This graph shows the average increase in lean body weight (muscle mass) that subjects gained while taking creatine and following a weight-lifting program. Both studies found no change in lean body weight in subjects taking a placebo.

Creatine Boosts Athletic Performance

Most of the studies performed on creatine indicate that supplementing with it significantly enhances athletic ability due to its ability to produce higher muscle force and power during short bouts of exercise. The subjects used in these studies have mixed athletic ability and training status, from relatively untrained novices to competitive college-level athletes. Some of the exercise performances that are improved include: various types of short-term, all-out cycling, sprinting, repeated jumping, swimming, soccer, kayaking, rowing, and of course weight-lifting, which was discussed above. The greatest improvements in athletic performance seem to be found during a series of repetitive high-power output exercise bouts. For example, following a short rest period (20–60 seconds) after a short sprint, speed may be increased on the second bout of sprinting. Athletic performance during these latter bouts of exercise can be increased by 5-20% with creatine over the placebo group. This means that athletes in sports such as football and soccer, in which continuous play typically lasts for only a few seconds, can expect a significant boost in performance from creatine. 

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