What can we tell you about creatine that you don’t already know? I admit it — I am guilty of frequently recommending creatine. But I can live with that.
After all, creatine is one of the best supplements available, hands down. Few products give you the same mass and strength gains. And we’re not just quoting anecdotal reports from the guys at the gym; hundreds of studies support creatine’s effectiveness in everyone from teenagers to the elderly, both male and female. It has been shown to increase lean muscle mass and strength, boost brain function, reduce the risk of several diseases, work as an antioxidant and even help prevent sun damage to skin. As far as safety goes, numerous studies show that short- and long-term use of creatine in prescribed doses is safe and doesn’t damage the kidneys or cause muscle cramps or strains. Not surprisingly, weightlifting’s wonder supp has taken on a few upgrades over the years. Now, you have more options to choose from, all of which are solid choices.
Most of the research on creatine has been done with the simplest and cheapest kind you can buy — creatine monohydrate. But simple and cheap aren’t negative terms. They just mean this form doesn’t have any bells or whistles, and it’s very inexpensive. Better yet, it actually works.
For those who want to start out with the basics and stick with what they know works, creatine monohydrate is the answer. Just make sure you get micronized creatine monohydrate. (That means the crystals are ground down to the finest powder possible.) Take 3–5 grams with food before and after working out. On rest days, take just one dose with food.
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 antilock disc brakes on a car. After all, both regular drum brakes and antilock brakes ultimately lead to the same outcome — they stop your car. The difference is that antilock 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 insulinlike 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.
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.
Many new creatine products provide benefits beyond those experienced with creatine monohydrate. Consider the following five options:
It was only a matter of time: First, we got used to the amino acid arginine having alpha-ketoglutarate (AKG) attached to it in many potent nitric oxide (NO) boosters to improve its absorption. Other aminos followed, and soon manufacturers started adding AKG to creatine to aid absorption and uptake. Creatine-AKG is simply creatine bound to a molecule of AKG, a precursor of glutamine, which means creatine-AKG is not only absorbed better but also provides a source of glutamine (an amino acid crucial for muscle growth and health). AKG is readily absorbed by the intestines, which eliminates the possibility of gastrointestinal problems, as well as muscle cells, which means that creatine-AKG doesn’t need the help of the creatine transporter to enter the cells. These properties let you take less creatine with fewer simple carbs. Additionally, your body uses AKG for fuel between sets to replenish creatine phosphate levels.
Dose: Most creatine-AKG products provide 2–5 grams per dose.
» Creatine Gluconate
One of the newest products is creatine gluconate, which is comprised of creatine bonded to glucose. This combination improves creatine’s intestinal absorption because it’s absorbed in a manner similar to regular glucose, a fast-digesting carb. The glucose also allows the creatine to dissolve well when mixed in water and helps it enter muscle cells by increasing insulin release.
Dose: Taking 3–5 grams of creatine gluconate per dose should prove effective.
» Creatine Ethyl Ester
Creatine ethyl ester (CEE) is also known simply as creatine ester. It’s formed by the addition of an alcohol and an acid to the creatine molecule. Adding the ester group enhances creatine molecules’ ability to pass across cell membranes in the intestine (resulting in easier absorption) as well as muscle cells. CEE lets you take less creatine and skip all the carbs.
Dose: Most manufacturers suggest taking as little as 1–2 grams of CEE per dose.
» Creatine Methyl Ester
Creatine methyl ester is creatine with a methyl group attached to it. A methyl group consists of a carbon atom combined with three hydrogen atoms. This organic attachment prevents the creatine molecule from breaking down as it’s digested and metabolized; ultimately, this can lead to greater creatine uptake by the muscles. It also means that methylated products require less dosing than creatine monohydrate.
Dose: Most manufacturers suggest a dose of 1–2 grams of creatine methyl ester.
» Tricreatine Orotate
The name may sound confusing, but it just indicates creatine bound to orotic acid. Okay, maybe that’s not any less confusing. Orotic acid — a precursor of nucleic acids (the building blocks of DNA) — works by increasing carnosine levels in muscle. Carnosine is a compound of two amino acids (dipeptide) that helps muscle cells buffer the acidity that builds up during intense exercise. This keeps muscles contracting stronger for a longer period. Orotic acid also enhances the formation of creatine phosphate in muscle cells and improves muscle growth by supporting the production of key players in muscle-protein synthesis. By taking tricreatine orotate, you get all the benefits of creatine with the added benefits of orotic acid.
Dose: A typical dose of tricreatine orotate is 5 grams.
No matter what type of creatine you select, use these five tips to get the most out of it
1. Drink plenty of water That means at least half of your bodyweight in ounces — for a 200-pound guy that’s 100 ounces or just over 3 liters a day. In addition to its effects on strength and energy in muscle cells, creatine also acts as a volumizer, increasing the size of muscle cells by pulling water into them, expanding them like a balloon. Drinking plenty of water ensures cells have enough to draw in and expand with.
2. If you want immediate results, do a five-day creatine-loading phase during which you take the recommended dose 4–5 times a day with food (this includes pre- and postworkout shakes). After that, follow the typical dosing guidelines below.
3. On training days, take your creatine dose before and after a workout with your pre- and postworkout meals.
4. On rest days, take only one dose of creatine with a meal. You can occasionally skip a day because research shows that once the muscle is loaded with creatine, you can miss a day of dosing without compromising your muscle-creatine levels.
5. Give each type of creatine you try at least a full month before deciding whether it’s right for you. Either try each of the different types on their own, or go with a mixed creatine product that provides several types of creatine to cover all the bases.