Creatine For Muscle Building: The Science of Why & How to Use It

Most people reading this article have likely already heard of supplementing with creatine; and most people in the exercise/fitness community know that creatine for muscle building can be very effective.

What most don’t know is WHY and HOW creatine supplementation does this.

In this article I am going to dive into creatine; what it actually does in the human body, the different types of creatine supplements, the benefits & disadvantages to creatine supplementation and how creatine builds muscles!  Big Muscles!

Creatine, A Brief History:

Creatine is a naturally occurring substance within all mammals.  It is produced by our livers & kidneys and is stored mostly in skeletal muscle.  It is estimated that most of us produce about 1 gram per day naturally.

The more active a person is, the more creatine they will naturally produce, and vice versa.  Those of us who eat meat also gain additional creatine from our diets as animals store it in their muscles too.

Important side note:

More creatine will be found in “wild”, game meat and in grass fed organically raised meat than in meat raised in the standard way and fed grains.  

Creatine has literally been in humans for over 6 million years, but we didn’t discover it until 1832.  It was identified when extracted from skeletal muscle and named creatine because in Greek that literally means muscle.

The use of creatine as a supplement did not become popular until almost 100 years later when a study found ingestion of creatine increased the amount of creatine in skeletal muscle.  Shortly thereafter, other studies found ingestion of creatine could increase muscle size.

Still no creatine supplement was created until about 1970 when a synthetic form was mastered by scientists.

In the early 1990’s creatine became a “thing” and athletes all over were shortly using it and seeing the benefits.  Creatine exploded on the market and still remains one of the most used and safest sports supplements.

How Creatine Works:

As a doctor and health & fitness expert I get lots of questions about supplements; does creatine build muscle?  Is creatine necessary?  How much does creatine help?  And so on….

By the end of this section you will clearly see the answers.

Creatine is very simple to explain.  Creatine gives YOU more energy!  Well, it’s a little more complex than that, but that really is the gist of it.

Creatine hangs out mostly in skeletal muscle; there is a bit extra that will be in the blood and some in the brain, but for the most part, think skeletal muscle.

Skeletal muscles are called “skeletal” muscles because they attach to the skeleton, or bones of the body and move the body through space allowing us to do all the fun things we do in life.

Structure of skeletal muscle

In addition, skeletal muscles are the ones we go to the gym to pump up!  Usually just pecs and biceps…..kidding….Hopefully.

Turns out all this moving takes a bunch of energy and the muscles have a currency called Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) that is used to make movement happen.  ATP can be produced in one of three ways; all have fancy names, stick with me for a second while we chat science….

System 1; Aerobic System or Krebs Cycle

This system produces the largest amount of ATP, but takes the longest to do so, and requires oxygen.  As the name implies, this system is used for “aerobic” based work, meaning lasting longer than 90-120 seconds and not maximal effort, think jogging or walking.

System 2; Glycolysis

This system is fast way to produce ATP, but it produces less and is mostly used for near maximal efforts lasting between 30-90 seconds.  This is where weight lifting can fall, as well faster pace runs (sprints) or sports like hockey, all out for 60 seconds then rest.

System 3; The creatine-phosphate system (CP System)

This system is the fastest route to ATP and is used in all out, short bursts lasting less than 30 seconds (Robergs & Roberts 1997). It is here that all power moves in weight lifting, most sets with fewer than 10 reps and all out sprints will fall into.

Quick re-cap of that; 3 ways to make ATP.  Creatine-Phosphate system is the one we really care about here.

More boring science to ensue…

When ATP is used for energy it becomes adenosine diphosphate (ADP).  Creatine will attach itself to a phosphate creating a creatine-phosphate (CP) molecule and drag it over to the ADP that has been split.  Creatine hands off the Phosphate to ADP and BOOM!  You have ATP again!

How does creatine work?

This happens very quick, and as you guessed, the more creatine you have hanging out in your muscles the faster you can make this happen and you can train harder & longer.

Ever get that burning sensation in the gym and feel like you need to stop pushing?  Creatine to the rescue! 

That burning sensation is a build-up of byproducts from muscular contraction.

And guess what; the more creatine hanging around in your muscles, the less byproducts you have hanging around to cause that burning (McConnel, et. al).  This in itself allows us to push a little harder and longer too!

Here’s the bottom line takeaway from all the science mambo-jumbo…..

Creatine helps you eek out a few extra reps, can take milliseconds off a sprint or give you that final little push.

We all know, it isn’t the first rep in the set that matters, it’s the last.  And creatine helps you push that marker.  That’s where change happens!

Think about this situation; your doing a set of heavy bench, you rep 315lbs three times and your spotter needs to help pull you up.  Now you have extra creatine hanging around because you chose to supplement with it and magically you can do a fourth and possibly even a fifth rep before your spotter needs to jump in!

Creatine helps you push that one last rep!

The questions we often hear are simple to answer now;

Does creatine build muscle?  Absolutely yes!

Is creatine necessary?  Well no but creatine for bodybuilding and creatine for muscle gain will only be a huge plus.

How much does creatine help?  It helps where it really counts, those final few pushes.

Types of Creatine & How Much to Use

What is the best creatine for muscle growth and sport?

Every new form of creatine that comes out is trying to put a twist on creatine monohydrate.

Companies will do things like attach a particular solute to it to help with absorption and muscular uptake, pre-dissolve it in water, or completely change the biochemical make-up in other ways.

For the most part the results have been lacking, and nothing really seems to beat good ol’ creatine monohydrate.

There are a few notable exceptions over the years.

– Micronized Creatine

This is creatine monohydrate, just split into much smaller bits to help it absorb better.  Therefore, it will be better taken up by your body and more will be available for use.

– Buffered Creatine

Again, this is creatine monohydrate, just “buffered” so it can be absorbed better.  The buffer just means that is will be more stable as it passes through your guts.  If creatine is more stable it has a better chance of absorption.

The buffer used typically is sodium bicarbonate, also known as baking soda.  Baking soda in itself is a supplement worth trying….Yea, that’s right, baking soda can increase athletic performance across the board. (Carr, BM, et al. 2013)

– Glycosolated Creatine

Also known as polyethylene glycosylated (PEG) creatine is a molecule bonded to creatine monohydrate.  This bond makes the creatine better absorbed in the body.  Studies have shown that PEG creatine is just as effective as regular creatine monohydrate but in smaller doses (Camic CL, et al. 2010).

To answer the question directly; what is the best creatine for muscle growth & sport? 

It would be creatine monohydrate.  One of the 3 twists I mentioned here may help it get to your muscles that much easier.

How Much to Take And When:

How much creatine you take is dependant on what your taking it for.  If it’s for general health purposes as I’ll discuss later, typically 1-3 grams per day should be effective.

If your taking creatine for muscle building it is recommended you do a loading phase consuming 20-25 grams of creatine per day, split into 4-5 separate servings.

After the loading phase you can do about 5 grams per day and maintain creatine levels.  Some creatines don’t require the loading phase, and it is usually best to follow the manufacturers recommendation with dosing.

Timing is a bit of a controversial topic.

There is no real wrong answer, but again, this depends on the purpose of your supplementation.  The argument is to take it before or after a training session.  If you do the loading phase it really shouldn’t matter, but post-workout may be best to help with recovery (where muscles actually grow).

If no loading phase was done it would be best to take the creatine before the workout so it’s available to your muscles during the workout.

Unfortunately there is no concrete answer for timing, but the best thing to do again is follow the manufacturers recommendation and remember to take it everyday, including rest days.

Creatine For Muscle Building:

The big question:  How does creatine build muscle?  As I explained earlier in the sciencey section, creatine helps you get out a few extra reps.

When you push through and get out those few extra reps you break down your muscles just a bit more, creating micro-tears in the muscle fibers.

This tearing is a great thing because it is stimulation to your nervous system to tell your body “HEY!  We need to be better prepared for this next time”.  As a result, when you rest after a workout your body goes to work starting the repair process and doing some really cool things.

First, your body will actually start to add new neural connections to the area so your brain can better communicate with the muscle.  Better communication means better use, aka, stronger.

Second, there is actually an increase in muscle size and the number of contractile units within the muscle. This process is called muscle hypertrophy and this is where the creatine muscle gain happens.

Muscle fiber and hypertrophy

Isn’t creatine just all water weight in muscles?  And your size gains go away after you stop using it?  NO!

Although it is true that creatine pulls water into your muscles, it is not true that creatine just gives you big floppy water sacks on your arms.

Your muscles literally will swell with water when you are taking creatine, for the same reason you would swell if you had a meal high in salt; water follows salt….or water follows any creatine in this case.

Extra water in muscles is a good thing!  When you hold extra water in your muscles, or anywhere for that matter, it helps clear junk.  We build up lots of junk in our muscles while exercising and the more efficient we can clear it the better our muscles can work.

Creatine For Muscle Recovery:

Recovery is important at two times.  One, between sets and two, post-workout.  Good news, creatine helps with both!

Between sets creatine is helping you just as much as it is during a set.  As mentioned earlier, creatine helps clear the byproducts of musclular contraction.  Recall, it is the byproducts that cause the burning sensation.  Between sets, the faster this stuff clears the faster you are ready for your next set.

Post-workout, the faster it clears the faster your muscles re-build and are ready for the next workout.  Creatine does this because it sucks water into the muscle bellies and extra water means extra cleaning.  So when on creatine you can think of your muscles as squeaky clean!

After a workout it has been shown that creatine helps bring more glycogen into a muscle (Roberts, et. al). Glycogen is a fancy way of saying “food” for muscles.  Glycogen is carbohydrates and it is stored only in your muscles and liver.

As you know, food gives you energy; well it does the same for your muscles.  Glycogen is what is used to make ATP, your muscles energy source.  If there is extra muscle food around more ATP can be made, muscles are ready to be used again more quickly, they can clean-up quicker and repair quicker

Creatine also increases muscle protein sysnthesis (cooke, et. al). This is really just a fancy way of re-stating that creatine helps build muscle…..but it’s also saying a bit more.

Protein synthesis is literally your body making more protein.  And when we say specifically “muscle protein synthesis” it means your making more muscle!  It also means your repairing muscle.  Another way creatine helps you recover and get bigger!

Another Fun Creatine Fact:

Creatine makes you smarter!  And helps you remember things!  According to a 2003 study by Rae C. et al.; brain function increases with creatine use for the same reason it helps your muscles perform better.  Creatine produces more ATP faster.  When you are doing a daunting mental task creatine can help you perform better, it will also help with mental fatigue so you can recall things and work through problems with more ease.

One other brain thing; it is also proven that creatine may help prevent neurodegenerative diseases.  (Wyss & Schulze 2002).  This seems like a miracle supplement!!  

DANGER!  3 Common Creatine Myths

Creatine had a bad rap for a moment.  It was said to be bad for your liver and kidneys.  Turns out this wasn’t really the fault of creatine, but rather the fact that creatine makes your body retain water.  So it may be easier to become dehydrated.  And dehydration is bad for EVERYTHING.

To avoid issues just drink at least half your body weight in ounces everyday.  You should be consuming this much water anyway, but needs increase with creatine.

In Conclusion

Creatine is a great supplement!  Creatine for muscle building is an excellent idea and as more and more studies come out creatine is proven to be a great supplement for many more reasons too.

The Most Important Takeaways

Here are the most important takeaways from this article:

  1. Creatine is naturally occurring in your body, supplementation just adds more.
  2. Creatine gives your muscles more energy to push a bit further.
  3. The best creatine is creatine monohydrate.
  4. Creatine will help you build muscle and perform better all around.
  5. Creatine is safe.

Happy exercising!

References:

Robergs, Robert A., and Scott O. Roberts. Exercise Physiology: Exercise, Performance and Clinical Applications. Mosby, 1997.

McConell, G. K., Shinewell, J., Stephens, T. J., Stathis, C. G., Canny, B. J., & Snow, R. J. (2005). Creatine supplementation reduces muscle inosine monophosphate during endurance exercise in humans. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 37(12), 2054.

Carr, Benjamin M., et al. “Sodium Bicarbonate Supplementation Improves Hypertrophy-Type Resistance Exercise Performance.” European Journal of Applied Physiology, vol. 113, no. 3, 2012, pp. 743–752., doi:10.1007/s00421-012-2484-8.

Camic CL, Hendrix CR, Housh TJ, Zuniga JM, Mielke M, Johnson GO, Schmidt RJ, Housh DJ:The effects of polyethylene glycosylated creatine supplementation on muscular strength and power. J Strength Cond Res 2010, 24:3343-3351

Roberts, Paul A., et al. “Creatine Ingestion Augments Dietary Carbohydrate Mediated Muscle Glycogen Supercompensation during the Initial 24 h of Recovery Following Prolonged Exhaustive Exercise in Humans.” Amino Acids, vol. 48, no. 8, 2016, pp. 1831–1842., doi:10.1007/s00726-016-2252-x.

Cooke, M.B., et al. (2009). Creatine supplementation enhances muscle force recovery after eccentrically induced muscle damage in healthy individuals. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 6:13.

Wyss, Markus, and Andreas Schulze. “Health Implications of Creatine: Can Oral Creatine Supplementation Protect against Neurological and Atherosclerotic Disease?” Neuroscience, vol. 112, no. 2, 2002, pp. 243–260., doi:10.1016/s0306-4522(02)00088-x.

Rae C, Digney AL, McEwan SR, Bates TC. Oral creatine monohydrate supplementation improves brain performance: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over trial. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 2003;270(1529):2147-2150. doi:10.1098/rspb.2003.2492.

Caroline RaeAlison L DigneySally R McEwan, and  Timothy C Bates

Creatine For Muscle Building: The Science of Why & How to Use It

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