The use of nutritional supplements is well established within multiple athletic and fitness fields. For athletes seeking to gain an edge in their performance and recovery, the wide array of supplements on the market gives them plenty of options to choose from. The best known and most popular among them is creatine. Creatine was discovered in 1835 when a French scientist named Chevreul discovered a component of skeletal muscle that he later named creatine after the Greek word for flesh, or Kreas. Given its immense popularity and widespread use, creatine has become one of the most researched supplements in history. So what’s all the fuss about?
What exactly is Creatine?
Creatine is a nonessential dietary protein-like compound found in high abundance in meat and fish. Because muscle tissue doesn’t produce creatine, it has to be absorbed from the blood stream. Once inside the muscle cells, creatine gets a high-energy phosphate attached to it and is then known as phosphocreatine (PCr) or creatine phosphate. This high-energy molecule is critical to creatine’s beneficial effects as it helps to create ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is used by the muscle for the rapid energy it needs for muscle contraction, such as during weightlifting or other exercises that require short bursts of power. Supplementing with creatine significantly boosts the content of PCr in muscle cells, which means more ATP can be rapidly produced during exercise, which can lead to gains in strength, speed and muscle growth, to name a few.
What are the benefits of using Creatine?
As I mentioned, creatine phosphate greatly assists the bodies ability to execute high-intensity, explosive work through the creation of ATP. PCr helps to supply the type 11b muscle fibers (fast-twitch high-glycolytic) with immediate energy, ensuring these muscles do not prematurely fatigue, and strengthening the muscular contraction of these fibers. As a result, an athlete will be able to sprint faster, pump out more reps, or execute whatever movement or exercise they are doing with greater force. As such, it should come as no surprise that a side effect to being able to perform more reps with greater power is an increase to muscular strength. In fact, a 2003 review published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research analyzed 22 studies on the effect of creatine supplementation (combined with ‘resistance training’) on muscle strength and weightlifting performance. The review found that the average increase in muscle strength (1, 3, or 10 RM) following creatine supplementation was 8% greater than the average increase in muscle strength following placebo ingestion during resistance training (20 vs. 12%). Similarly, the average increase in weightlifting performance (maximal repetitions at a given percent of maximal strength) was 14% greater than the average increase in weightlifting performance following placebo ingestion during resistance training.
Though creatine has traditionally been crediting with improving strength, power and athletic performance, more recently studies have shown that taking creatine can be advantageous for its post-exercise muscle regeneration properties. A 2004 study published in Life Sciencesanalyzed the effects of creatine supplementation on muscle cell damage in experienced endurance athletes running a 30-kilometer race. Researches closely monitored indicators of cell damage and muscle soreness in their sample of 18 male athletes (who used 20 grams of creatine monohydrate per day for five days, mixed with 60 grams of maltodextrin) and 16 control subjects (who took only the maltodextrine). While all the runners finished the race in a time equivalent to their personal best, the control subjects presented a far high level of cell injury and inflammation post race than the athletes who had been taking creatine. Though more precise analysis is needed in this area, the suggestion is that creatine is an effective supplement in maintaining muscle integrity after intense prolonged exercise.
Boosts brain function
Though most people are familiar with creatine’s ergogenic properties, many would be surprised to learn that the supplement can also improve neurological health and performance.
Energy metabolism and the production of Reactive Oxygen Species (very small molecules that can result in significant damage to cell structures, such as oxygen ions, free radicals and peroxides) are thought to be the root cause behind many nuerodegenerative disorders, and creatine is thought to enhance the brains ability to survive the metabolic and physical trauma associated with these conditions. A 2002 study published in Neuroscience showed that creatine displayed neuroprotective effects in several animal models of neurological disease, such as Huntington’s disease and Parkinson’s disease—which points to a close correlation between the functional capacity of the creatine system and proper brain function. Another study from the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London – Biological Sciences found that creatine helped to improve brain function—specifically short-term memory.
There are several other benefits one can enjoy from using a creatine supplement, including reducing the onset of sarcopaenia (age related muscle loss), improving bone healing and boosting testosterone levels. However, it’s not all roses and butterflies. Creatine has been criticized for causing weight gain—but that’s kind of the point. Creatine pulls H2O into your muscles, which causes water-weight gain and makes muscles look bigger initially. But after the first few days of supplementation, this effect starts to dissipate and you will start to see a positive effect towards the amount of pure muscle mass gained. It’s also theorized to cause gastrointestinal upset, but this very rare, and more and more studies are showing that if creatine is used correctly, it is a perfectly safe substance.
As with any supplement, some people may respond more positively than others. But seeing that the numerous, diverse benefits of creatine, I would recommend that you should at least give it to try to see if it can make a difference for you—if you’re not using it already.
Article by: William Imbo
William Imbo is an Associate Editor at BoxLife magazine