Creatine – one of the most popular sports supplements ever. Used by weight trainers and bodybuilders – who desire gains in strength and muscle mass – to elite athletes who use it to improve performance, and gain a competitive edge over their opponents.
But what is creatine used for, once it’s in your body?
Learn how creatine works – and you’ll be able to make a better, informed decision on whether creatine is the right supplement to help you achieve your muscle-building and aesthetic goals.
Let’s first focus on how creatine is used naturally in the body, and then move on to how creatine supplements can work for you.
What Is Creatine?
Creatine is an organic acid – a naturally occurring compound in your body – that’s used
in the process to supply energy to your muscles. It isn’t a steroid nor a drug, but a dietary supplement, meaning it’s use isn’t banned by any professional sports governing body.
You’ll find natural sources of creatine in the meat of animals and fish. The human body also creates its own creatine supply. It uses the three amino acids: glycine, arginine and methionine – to produce creatine. Most of this is made in your liver – but also in the kidneys and pancreas.
So how does creatine get into your muscles?
Via the bloodstream.
Almost all the creatine is transported to your muscles – which is a good thing to know, if you’re looking to increase muscle mass. A small amount of creatine contributes to your brain and heart functions.
There are two types of muscle fiber in the human body: slow-twitch and fast-twitch.
“Fast-twitch” muscle fibers are high-energy-demanding tissue, and it is within these fibers that creatine is stored and used so effectively when required.
Muscles contract … thanks to ATP
For muscles to contract and do work, they need a supply of energy from somewhere.
The big sources of energy in the body come from carbohydrates and fat. But when muscles suddenly contract – say during a sprint or the lifting of weights- the energy used doesn’t come from carbs or fat.
Instead, muscles use an instantly-available energy source that comes from something called ATP.
ATP is short for Adenosine Tri-Phosphate.
It’s a compound of molecules that exist in all your cells. They contain a lot of stored energy, and this energy is released during biochemical reactions in the body.
ATP molecules contain three, high-energy “phosphate” groups – and these play a key role in muscle contractions.
For your muscles to contract rapidly – ATP in your muscle tissue reacts like this:
- One of the three phosphate groups in each ATP molecule, breaks off, creating energy and leaving behind ADP – Adenosine Di-Phosphate.
- The energy created by this breakdown of ATP is used by the muscle to contract.
- Once ATP breaks down to ADP – it’s spent. Its job is done…for the moment.
Creatine regenerates ATP in the Muscles
So how does creatine help to generate energy for these muscle contractions?
Creatine – made in your liver, combines with phosphates to form Creatine Phosphate (also called Phosphocreatine). Once in this form, it moves to your muscles via the bloodstream – and is ready for use.
As your muscles begin to work, ATP breaks down to ADP and the energy created, goes to the muscles.
The Creatine Phosphate that’s present in your muscles, then “donates” its phosphate group to ADP – so converting it back into ATP again for use by the muscles (see picture below).
As intense exercise continues, the available creatine phosphate is rapidly used up to fuel continuous ATP production.
This is known as the Phosphagen System, and it can provide energy at very high rates for a few seconds only – as limited stores of creatine phosphate become depleted.
What is Creatine Monohydrate?
Creatine monohydrate is the most used form of creatine supplement around. No doubt you’ve seen it on the shelves of most sports nutrition/health food stores.
It’s one molecule of creatine bound to one molecule of water (‘mono’ – one, and ‘hydrate’ – with water).
It’s manufactured this way to make it more stable, and comes in powder form. In weight terms, creatine monohydrate is 88% creatine and 12% water. This means that in a 500 gram tub of the stuff – 440 grams will be creatine.
These products are sold directly by Amazon – and there is the bonus of free shipping if you spend over $35.
What can Creatine Supplements do for me?
Now that you know what creatine is used for, the million dollar question is … will you benefit by supplementation?
When you take creatine as a supplement, what you are doing is increasing the stores of creatine phosphate in your muscles.
The more creatine phosphate molecules available within your muscle fibers – the more ATP can be re-synthesized from ADP during short, intense bouts of exercise (see the picture above).
In practice, this means:
- your muscles will be able to contract intensely for longer, before they get fatigued.
- you will able to complete more reps, and push more weight during the demanding sets of your workouts.
- you will need less time to recover between sets.
The potential increase in muscle mass and power, with the ability to perform explosive movements – this is effectively what you are paying for, when you buy creatine supplements.
This is why it benefits powerlifters, sprinters and other sportsmen whose muscles need to apply force over short periods of time – i.e. bursts of muscle power.
It isn’t beneficial for those who do endurance-type sports.
To reap the benefits of the extra creatine in your system, you must put in the effort and push yourself harder in training. If you’re a novice, or someone who is just getting back into some sort of shape in the gym – you should probably hold off the creatine supplements for a while.
If you’ve been training for several months – and you want to step up the level of intensity of your workouts, then creatine supplementation is going to be more effective. In this scenario, your muscles will have already adapted to training, and you should have made some gains in muscle.
Creatine will help you perform that extra 10-15%, and these are good margins to have, in order to improve and build more muscle.