The most important thing to know before you take a supplement is why you are taking it. If you are clear about what your goals are, it is easier to determine if a supplement will help you get there or if it’s a complete waste of money (spoiler alert: most are).
There are no short cuts in life. You can’t gain muscle by drinking a ton of protein shakes and you can’t lose weight and keep it off by popping a “fat burner” every day. That being said, there are some “extras” you can start to incorporate once you are eating well and in a good exercise regimen that you enjoy. That has to come first. Just throwing supplements at the problem without first addressing the behaviors that need to change won’t get you anywhere.
There are a million supplements out there that are complete junk. Unlike a food or food additive, there is no requirement to prove the safety or effectiveness of a supplement before it is sold. The FDA must prove beyond a doubt that a supplement is dangerous before removing it from market. Essentially, supplements are “innocent before proven guilty.” What this means: I can dig up dirt from my yard and sell it as Moon Rock Metabolism Enhancing Powder. If I get a few people to take before and after photos and Dr. Oz picks it up on his show, I’m a millionaire.
There are a few things out there, however, that are backed by research and actually do what they claim. In a previous post, we discussed BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids) and protein powder. Today I’m covering creatine, what it does and doesn’t do, and which brand(s) to look for if the purpose fits your goals.
What does it do?
A popular myth in athletics is that creatine builds muscle. What creatine actually does is give you that little extra push during a workout by helping you do those last 2 reps that you couldn’t get before, which in turn increases strength and helps to build muscle.
Creatine is naturally produced in the body and stored in your muscles to help produce ATP, your bodies source of fuel. Behind caffeine and protein, it is one of the most popular, effective, and researched sports supplements.
Who should take it?
Creatine is most beneficial for high intensity workouts that include quick bursts of massive output followed by short rests. If you do a few 30 minute walks a week (and you’re not a vegan or vegetarian) you probably don’t need creatine.
Vegans and vegetarians have been shown in multiple studies to have low or depleted creatine stores compared to carnivores. That is likely because meat and fish contain creatine, so carnivores are getting more creatine from their food on a daily basis. Vegetarians supplementing with creatine were able to replete their stores, increase lean muscle tissue, and improve performance.
Creatine is also beneficial for people in a strength training program focused on building muscle mass.
One study showed that creatine decreased various markers of cell damage and inflammation after athletes completed a 30 kilometer run, which may mean that creatine not only helps with increasing strength but recovery as well. Supporting evidence on creatines ability to decrease muscle soreness is limited.
If you are an active vegan or vegetarian, a crossfitter, regularly do HIIT (high intensity interval training) or strength training with the goal to increase muscle, keep reading on how to start incorporating creatine to get the most out of the supplement.
How much should you take?
You have two options. You could take 20 grams per day (broken up into 4 doses of 5 grams evenly spaced) for one week to re-establish your creatine stores if you think you might be depleted, then continue taking 3-5 grams daily thereafter. Loading with 20 grams per day in the first week saturates your body with the max amount of creatine stores but can also cause temporary water retention. If that messes with your head, you can take 5 grams daily for 28 days. Without a loading phase, it will take longer to maximize your stores but you will eventually get there with 5 grams per day. You can then maintain those stores by continuing to take creatine daily at 2-5 grams per day.
Larger athletes may need up to 10 grams per day to maintain optimal capacity.
Some people are creatine non-responders, meaning you may not see a difference. Many people experience temporary water retention during loading phase. Skipping the loading phase can lower the water retention. Larger doses can also cause stomach cramps.
Studies on long-term safety show report no adverse effects when taken in recommended doses.
What should you look for in a creatine supplement?
There are several different types of creatine and more on the market every year. Creatine monohydrate is the most studied form of creatine and backed by years of evidence of safety and efficacy. Some people recommend newer forms of creatine like creatine esters, but the studies are mixed. I’m sticking with monohydrate for now.
Look for a creatine without any weird additives. You don’t need artificial sweeteners like sucralose or artificial colors in your creatine. It should be a white powder that comes in 5 grams per dose serving sizes. Stir the 5 grams with water and drink immediately.
Muscle Tech– Super cheap (runs about $11 for 80 servings). After your loading phase, take 5 grams with water before a workout.
Prime Build Best BCAA– Combines 3g of creatine with BCAAs. If you want to take both before a workout, this is an easy way to combine them.
Creatine helps to increase your exercise output by providing your muscles with energy. Increased output = increased strength = muscle growth.
Creatine does not help with weight loss. Increasing muscle mass will change the shape and tone of your body, but can also increase your weight. Don’t expect the scale to go down from taking creatine.
Taking creatine without training hard will not do anything. You have to put in the work to get the results.
Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition
Sports Dietitians Australia
Creatine supplementation with specific view to exercise/sports performance: an update
Today’s Dietitian: Ergogenic Aids
About the author: Megan Poczekaj, RDN, LD, is a registered dietitian nutritionist in Orlando, FL. She owns the private practice, Nutrition Awareness, where she teaches other entrepreneurs how to maximize their productivity and performance with nutrition. She is the author of the book The Optimized Life: A Nutrition Guide for Entrepreneurs and co-host of the Nutrition Awareness Podcast.