Creatine: Safety, Benefits, and How It Works

Creatine. It is the most well known, as well as the most studied supplement in the industry right behind whey. There are studies going back decades with pretty conclusive evidence that points to creatine being extremely safe. But if creatine has so many studies, then why does it have so much opposition? My opinion is that most opposition is due to a lack of understanding. Average people do not understand creatine. When a 12 year old boy wants to start lifting weights and tells their mom they want to buy a magical powder that will make him big and strong, his mom is absolutely correct to worry. After all, something that makes you build muscle and strength is probably a steroid, right? Possibly. But that is not what creatine does.

Is Creatine a Steroid?

The short answer: Absolutely not. To understand why creatine is not a steroid, you must first understand what a steroid actually is.

What are Steroids?

Why is it that males are almost always more muscular than females? Why can a man naturally be 200 pounds of muscle, but a woman will never naturally reach that level of muscularity? Simply put, males naturally produce a hormone called testosterone. You have most likely heard of it. Testosterone is what makes a man a man. It’s what causes his deep voice, body hair, facial hair, strength, and what we think of as masculine instincts. It’s what causes males to fight over females, in human social settings and in nature. A performance enhancing steroid is basically synthetic testosterone, or other synthesized hormones that are actually more anabolic than testosterone. Some steroids are not even found in nature. Steroids can carry some nasty side effects and a lot of health risks later on in life.

What is Creatine?

So now that we have a basic understanding of what steroids are, what is creatine?

Creatine is found in almost every animal, including humans. We get it from meat and we naturally synthesize it. Creatine is a completely natural organic acid that provides cellular energy to your cells. It is found in the highest concentrations in muscle cells. Creatine and steroids can not even be compared. One works hormonally, one works inside of your cells naturally. Creatine will not make you superhuman like steroids. Steroids can push your body past physiological limits. With years of training and a perfect diet might be able to be a little over 200 lbs of lean muscle naturally. With steroids you can put on another 20-50 pounds. If you are pushing your body past a natural limit, you are putting multiple organs under extreme stress, especially your heart. Creatine does no such thing. Creatine will indirectly help you add strength and mass by allowing your muscle cells to work just a bit harder.

How Does Creatine Work?

If you were awake for high school biology, you probably learned about cellular energy. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP), glucose, cellular respiration, and all of that fun stuff. If not, I will give you the brief rundown.

You cells contain a bit of a molecule called adenosine triphosphate. You cell generates energy by breaking a phosphate bond in the mitochondria. Any time a bond is broken, energy is released. The adenosine triphosphate then becomes adenosine diphosphate (ADP), and needs to find another phosphate atom to bond with so that it can break it in the mitochondria. Creatine bond with phosphate and becomes phosphocreatine, which is stored in the cells. Phosphocreatine can rapidly turn ADP into much needed ATP. That ATP can then go break another bond for cellular energy.

Think of your cells as a steam engine train. The ATP represents a worker that has a shovel full of coal, while the ADP represents a worker with an empty shovel. The ADP worker has to go to the next car over to get a shovel of coal to put in the fire to keep the train running. Creatine would represent a supply of coal in the same car as the fire. The ADP worker would have to walk a few feet instead of to the next car over to get the much needed coal, which represents phosphate. It is a natural function of life. Creatine is already working in your body keeping your cells alive and energized.

So Why Supplement More?

The concentrations of phosphocreatine in your cells is not even close to the maximum. Your whole body can use about 5 grams of creatine. The concentration in your cells varies, but it is much lower. There comes a point in time during high exertion activities where your muscle cell’s phosphocreatine levels will come close to zero. That means your cells will have to rely on inefficient glycolysis for energy. That process is slow, generates very little energy, and causes more lactic acid buildup, which causes the burn you feel in your muscles. When you supplement with additional creatine, your phosphocreatine levels will stay higher for longer. This does not turn you into a superhuman and it won’t add 50 pounds to your bench. The additional phosphocreatine will give you a small, but noticeable boost in your workouts. You might be able to lift a few pounds more, or the same weight for a couple extra reps. This might not sound like much, but overtime if you are doing an extra 1-3 reps, you will build muscle and gain strength faster. However, creatine WILL cause you to gain weight right away. Gaining 5 pounds is not unheard of. This is not hard muscle gain though, that is extra water weight that the phosphocreatine adds to your muscle cells.

Why Do People Think Creatine Is Bad?

Creatine CAN cause some minor issues if you do not take it the right way. It can cause cramping, and minor stomach issues. Those are both due to dehydration. If you supplement creatine, your muscle cells are using more water, which means you definitely need to increase your water intake. Increasing your water intake will also lead to benefits in other areas of your life as well. Some people also say it is bad for your kidneys. The only slight possibility of that is from extreme dehydration. But for that to actually happen, you would need to be very dehydrated before starting your supplementation. There are also a small handful of people that will tell you creatine is bad for your heart. This is because those people have not taken the time to research and learn that it is NOT a steroid.

How to Supplement Creatine

Their are many forms of creatine, all with their own claim to fame. Most of these will work just as well, but they are much more expensive. The best and cheapest way to go is with normal creatine monohydrate. This is the most studied, most popular, and cheapest form. I prefer Optimum Nutrition Creatine Powder. Optimum Nutrition is one of the first brands in the supplement game. They make very pure and safe supplements for a great deal. This particular product is also the best seller in creatine.

Some people will tell you about a “loading phase”, which is a means you take about 20 grams for your first week, then reduce to 5 grams every day. I am not a big believer in the loading phase, but you are more than welcome to try it and let me know what you thought. I start with 5 grams every day and keep it that way. It might take a day or two longer to take effect, but you are saving money.