How Creatine Can Improve Your Athletic Performance

creatine phosphate supplement in a scoop next to a pile on a black background

Powdered creatine supplements | Source: iStock

There’s no denying supplements are more popular than ever. Next time you’re in the gym, look to your left and we guarantee you’ll spot at least two guys with a shaker bottle nearby. Look to your right and someone’s bound to have a protein or energy bar in hand. Heck, some gyms are even scoring the latest supplements right there at the check-in desk.

One supplement that’s be on the circuit for a while now, but as of late is bulking up a lot of guys’ workout programs is creatine. Reports estimate that nearly $14 million is spent per year by Americans on creatine supplements, all in an attempt to increase lean muscle mass and lifting performance.

What is creatine?

fish on a fork

Fish | Source: iStock

Creatine is an amino acid that is both produced in the body (about 50% worth) by the liver, kidneys, and pancreas; as well as obtained from foods such as beef, chicken, pork, and fish. As you’ve likely guessed, creatine levels are found to be low in vegetarians and vegans. Fortunately, you can get your fill of this amino via supplements — powders, capsules, or as components of fitness bars and shakes. In some instances, the creatine used in supplements can be laboratory produced.

What purpose does it serve?

supplement store

Supplement store | Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Once you’ve got it flowing through your system, creatine is stored in the muscles ready to serve as an energy source — particularly with fitness performance.

Speed and power:

Sprinters have been found to shave seconds off their time when including creatine supplements in their training.  Powerlifters have shown improved performance when exploding through heavier strength-building movements.  Creatine serves little to no purpose in endurance style training. It’s all about intense, quick movements.

Muscle strength and mass:

There’s a reason bodybuilders have this stuff in their gym bags. A consistent creatine regimen may produce mass gains (mainly due to water retention) while increasing strength.

Sharpness (mental):

The focus that comes from complementing your diet with creatine translates from agility workouts in the gym to projects at work.

Varied health conditions:

Creatine may benefit those living with depression, muscular dystrophy, movement disorders, and cardiovascular conditions.

Keep in mind, if you’re the type of guy who already has a pretty solid store of creatine in your muscles you may not feel the boost when upping the supplement intake. To find out where your levels are at, simply make an appointment with your doctor for a full blood workup.

Is it effective?

While some researchers have drawn a ‘yes, it’s effective’ conclusion on the use of creatine supplements, others are still not convinced.

What most agree on though is:

  • It’s effective for power, speed, and strength training. As well as hypertrophy (muscle mass building).
  • It’s not effective for endurance training.
  • It’s effective for 20 somethings.
  • It’s not effective for individuals 60 years and older.
  • Loading – 20 grams daily for 5 days – may be an effective use of the supplement.
  • It’s more effective for vegetarians and vegans, as opposed to meat eaters or conditioned athletes.

However, it really comes down to you and your fitness goals.

What forms does it come in? Which is most effective?

Creatine comes in powder, tablet/capsule, fitness bars, chews, and shake/drink forms. Again, it depends on the individual and fitness goals, as well as the dosage, when it comes to the level of effectiveness.

protein powder and a shake

Protein powder | Source: iStock

When should creatine be taken?

This supplement should be taken at least a half hour before intended exercise or fitness activity. Since creatine absorbs better when paired with carbs, you may want to opt for a pre-prepared shake or drink with a creatine component.

A typical dose is 5 grams, 4 times a day for 2-5 days. You should be consuming around 64 ounces of water a day when taking a creatine supplement as the muscles will draw water throughout the body. This supplement should be taken in cycles and for no longer than 3 weeks when on a daily regimen.

What are the downsides of taking creatine?

There really aren’t that many downsides to this supplement, however side effects can include kidney damage, liver dysfunction, reduction in natural creatine production, muscle cramps, high blood pressure, dizziness, diarrhea, and weight gain. Most side effects typically appear after 6 months on creatine, hence why creatine should be taken in cycles.

You’ll also want to steer clear of consuming caffeine within a 5 hour period of supplementing with creatine, due to adverse reactions, such as stroke. And do not exercise in a hot setting when taking this supplement, as per risk of dehydration.

Avoid use if you are pregnant, have diabetes, high blood pressure, or kidney or liver disease. Speak with your doctor first if you are on any medications.

Ellen Thompson is a National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) certified personal trainer at Blink Fitness in New York City, where she serves as head trainer at the Penn Plaza location. Ellen’s approach to training is that “anything is possible.” Endurance, strength, and stability/agility training are at the core of her fitness programming. She holds a master’s degree in New Media Publishing and Magazine Editing from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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