Build Muscle

A Complete Guide to the New Creatine

New twists on an old favorite make the already-effective creatine even better.

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Good Gets Better

Since creatine monohydrate is so effective, it might seem silly to bother with new forms like creatine ethyl ester or creatine-alpha-ketoglutarate. But if you follow this philosophy, you also might believe there's no benefit to having anti-lock disc brakes on a car. After all, both regular drum brakes and anti-lock brakes ultimately lead to the same outcome -- they stop your car. The difference is that anti-lock brakes do it more smoothly and faster. The same comparison can be made between creatine monohydrate and the recently developed types of creatine. Both increase muscle size and strength, yet the newer ones tend to do it more quickly and effectively than creatine monohydrate.

Regardless of the form you use, almost all of these products provide similar results in the end because they all supply creatine, an amino acid-like supplement made of the aminos arginine, glycine and methionine. Taking any form of creatine ultimately increases its levels in muscle cells, which offers numerous benefits. When creatine enters a muscle cell, biochemical machinery of the cell adds a high-energy phosphate to it, creating creatine phosphate (CP). CP holds onto the phosphate until it's needed for adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production during exercise.

ATP is the energy currency of every cell. This energy is used to fuel countless processes in the human body, including muscle contractions. When CP donates its phosphate to form ATP, it's done rapidly to supply immediate energy during periods of intense exercise, like weightlifting. In other words, creatine increases strength because more creatine equals more CP in the muscle and, in turn, more ATP available for muscle contractions. Therefore, you have more energy at the end of a set, allowing you to perform more reps or lift a heavier weight.

Creatine also helps muscle cells grow by increasing the amount of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) -- a hormone crucial for muscle growth -- in muscle cells. New research has found that when subjects boost their muscle creatine levels via supplementation, they also increase genetic expression of IGF-1. So it appears that creatine may enhance muscle growth by influencing critical genes in cells that regulate this growth.

Another way creatine affects muscle gains is through cell volumization. When creatine enters muscle cells, it pulls water into the cell with it. When a muscle is fully loaded with creatine, such as when you supplement with it, its cells fill with water like a balloon. This increases their size immediately and leads to long-term expansion in muscle size due to the stretch placed on the cells. The stretch also turns on growth processes that boost the amount of muscle protein produced.

Although creatine monohydrate performs all of these functions well, it's not perfect. In fact, it has a few minor drawbacks that the newer creatines minimize.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Creatine

Good, But Not Perfect

One problem with creatine monohydrate is its absorption in the intestines. When this product is consumed, it sits in the intestines before being absorbed into the bloodstream. Because creatine pulls in water (as it does in muscle cells), it can pull water into the intestines, causing diarrhea in people who don't absorb creatine monohydrate well. However, most new versions are absorbed much more easily, preventing the gastrointestinal problems associated with creatine monohydrate. If you've been sensitive to creatine monohydrate in the past, give one of the new kinds a try.

A second problem with creatine monohydrate is the way it's taken up by muscle cells. Since it relies on insulin to enter muscle cells, we typically recommend taking it with fast-digesting carbs, which cause insulin to spike in the blood. The insulin then opens pathways in the cells that allow creatine to pass from the blood into the muscle. However, it takes a significant amount of insulin to get 3-5 grams of creatine into these cells, and that means consuming a lot of carbohydrate -- about 20 grams per gram of creatine. So you need to ingest 60-100 grams of simple carbs when you take creatine monohydrate to optimize its uptake. That's fine when you take creatine immediately before and after training, but consuming that quantity of fast-digesting carbs on rest days or when you're dieting can be a problem. Many of the newer products don't rely on insulin to enter muscle cells, meaning you can take them without a boatload of carbs.