Creatine is a naturally occurring amino acid found in the muscle tissue of red meat and seafood. But it is best known in fitness communities as the supplement used to rapidly regenerate energy in muscles during intense activities such as sprinting and weightlifting.
It's been quite a while since the Get-Fit Guy article called Do Muscle Building Supplements Work first touched on the topic of creatine, so I figured it was time to do a deeper dive.
Creatine remains one of the most popular muscle building supplements of at least the last ten years. Surveys have shown that Americans alone spend about $14 million per year on creatine supplements.
What Is Creatine?
Creatine is an organic acid produced in the liver, pancreas, and kidneys that helps supply cells, especially the cells in muscle tissue, with energy. You can also get exogenous (from outside sources) creatine from eating meat (including fish) but the majority of fitness enthusiasts tend to get theirs in supplement form (powder or capsule).
The truth is that creatine isn't really all that fancy or magical. It is just an amino acid. It's usually stored as creatine phosphate in your muscles until it gets used as energy during high-intensity activities (or workouts) that last less than about 30 seconds. Yes, it is a fast burner.
Uses for Creatine
Ingesting creatine from any source enhances the energy available through what is called the phosphagen pathway (very rapid-rate production of ATP), which is why many people use it in the weight room.
Since your body uses creatine as a high-intensity and short-duration energy source, it has been thought that it may also help build muscle. The hypothesis is that if you can benchpress 150 pounds for eight repetitions without creatine, if you pop some creatine before the workout you may be able to bench press 150 pounds for 9 (or maybe 10) repetitions. That slight boost in performance during your workout can actually help you build some extra muscle.
But as you probably guessed, creatine doesn't magically build muscle if you don't also crush a workout or at least engage in some intense physical activity. And although many studies have shown a muscle gain and performance benefit from creatine, not every person seems to respond the same way to it, and there are some people who experience no benefits. Some people have naturally high stores of creatine in their muscles and just don't get the energy-boosting effect from taking extra. Vitamin B is similar. Having too little in your system can make you feel sluggish but getting more than you need does not make you super energetic—despite what the energy drink industry will tell you. Check out the Nutrition Diva's article called Do B Vitamins Give You Energy for more info on that.
There have been a few creatine supplementation studies done on runners and cyclists and, although it seems promising for its boost of energy, one major drawback is that it often causes some non-muscle weight gain which can in itself slow you down. A study of creatine supplementation by a researcher named Ziegenfuss showed that creatine ingestion results in a higher amount of intracellular water (water weight) which can amount on the scale as one to two kilograms of weight gain. So even if a sprinter has more energy from the creatine, it is likely going to be wasted on propelling that extra water weight down the track.
Anti-aging and Creatine
An interesting use of creatine is in helping you stay fit as you age. A study called creatine supplementation and resistance training in vulnerable older women found that older women who took creatine supplements displayed significant improvements in lean muscle mass and muscle function.
Other studies on creatine have found it to be useful for cognitive function as well. According to the Mayo Clinic, people also use oral creatine to treat certain brain disorders, congestive heart failure, and topical creatine might even be used to treat aging skin.