In this video, we talk all things creatine. We start with the history of the supplement industry, and then delve into what creatine is and what it does. We discuss the different types of creatine, the benefits of it, its drawbacks, and different loading protocols. We end with the verdict on whether or not you should take it.
Welcome back to the Fitness Edda! I am your host, Erik Castiglione, owner, and head coach of Viking Athletics. And this week we’ve got for you, “Should you take creatine?” This was actually a question from one of our members at Viking Athletics, and I am so thankful that we got it because it means that at least somebody is actually paying attention to the content we’re putting out there.
As always if you have questions or topics that you would like to see covered, please don’t hesitate to comment. We’re here to help, and we’re here to answer your questions. Otherwise, we’re going to keep putting out topics that we hope are relevant. We can definitely make it a lot more relevant if you’re the ones asking. So, thank you for that. As always if you enjoy this content please give us a like, give us a subscribe, and we’ll keep trying to educate people.
Our overview today: we’re going to go over a little bit of an introduction into supplements in general. We’re going to talk about creatine – what it is, the different types of creatine, the benefits of it – both heavily researched and ones that are showing preliminary possibilities, a couple of drawbacks, and then we’ll talk about loading protocols and how to take creatine.
I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole here – I could talk for hours on the subject, but if you’ve ever been in a GNC or Vitamin Shoppe, or any other supplement store, and you look at any of the bottles in there that make some kind of claim, there’s usually a cross or a star next to it. And it says, “these statements have not been evaluated by the food and drug administration.”
Prior to 1994 that didn’t exist. If a supplement was sold, it was evaluated by the FDA to determine whether or not the claims that are made for that product held water. If they didn’t live up to their claims, they weren’t sold. In 1994, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act was passed. The big driving senator of that was Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah.
The intended effects, and I put that in quotations for a reason, were to allow for naturopathic medicines and herbs to be sold. Now why is that in quotations? The cynic in me likes to look at the donor lists, and two supplement companies, they were not naturopathic, they made dietary supplements, were two of Senator Hatch’s biggest donors. So, I believe this was more of a money making tool. Because after this act was passed the supplement industry became a multi-billion dollar industry. So, those were the so called intended effects.
The unintended consequences were that the entire supplement industry became completely unregulated. The FDA cannot investigate a supplement unless it has been shown to cause harm. They can’t do anything preventative; they’re completely reactionary. Also, a lot of supplement companies – it truly is the wild west – you can get away with selling anything as long as you call it a “proprietary blend.” now the act specifically says that if you are going to list something as a proprietary blend you must give the weight of that in the supplement. And you must list the active ingredients in that blend by weight.
But what a lot of people do to market things, is, they’ll take a supplement that’s been shown to work – creatine is a perfect example, and we’ll get to this when we get to the types of creatine – and if they want to save money, they’ll take the active ingredient, cut it with something cheap like flour, and call it a blend. This allows them to save cost and sell it for a higher price because they’re now selling something “proprietary.”
Again, the FDA has no power to go in and actually test these supplements. So, we must be careful when it comes to supplements, because until something happens, “these statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.” And the other reason that I put intended in quotations is there was another proposed act that came about in 2002 that was going to give the FDA a little bit more power to regulate supplements and Senator Hatch was a big opponent of it and helped it get shot down. So, I’m a little skeptical as to his motivations.
In 2003, an MLB pitcher named Steve Beckler died during spring training. The autopsy found that he had died of heat stroke – his body temperature was 108 degrees Fahrenheit. And against the advice of his wife and his doctor he was taking both ephedra and creatine. This is when the FDA actually banned ephedra, which if you don’t know anything about ephedra, it’s synthetic adrenaline. It was already banned in the NCAA, the NFL, and I forget which other organizations had banned it, but the MLB had not.
At that time, it was also readily available in a lot of dietary supplements as a weight loss drug. I shouldn’t say drug – weight loss supplement. If you ever took Xenadrine, or Ripped Fuel, or any of those pre-2003, ephedrine or ephedra was the active ingredient. And these things worked because it was synthetic adrenaline, you’re basically taking a very powerful stimulant. And it absolutely helped people lose weight. Now because Steve passed away, and this was shown to be a quote contributing factor to his death, this allowed the FDA to ban ephedrine.
He was also taking creatine and the verdict was unclear. People didn’t know if that was a contributing factor to his death, so some organizations started to ban creatine around 2003 as well. I went to Conard High School, and I was in high school at that time. We always called it the “Blue Book.” It was behavioral guidelines for student athletes. If you broke blue book by drinking alcohol, or doing any other drugs, or using banned substances, you would be kicked out of the sport and possibly expelled from school.
So, after Steve Bechler died both ephedra and creatine were added to that list. It was actually a banned substance when I was in high school. Since that time, creatine has become the most heavily researched supplement of any of them. I think caffeine is a close second, but it’s been very, very heavily researched.
So, what is creatine? It’s a naturally occurring organic compound found in vertebrates. What does organic mean? in this context, when we are talking about chemistry there is two definitions. Either it has a carbon-hydrogen or carbon-carbon bond. Or, in a more generic sense, it’s just a compound that contains carbon. This meets both definitions, hence organic compound.
It occurs naturally in the human body. And it just goes to show that when they banned it, they really didn’t understand what it was. Even though it was first discovered in, I want to say in 1938. I might have had my date wrong; it might have been even earlier than that. But we’ve known about it for a long time. Call it an overreaction. People didn’t understand what it did, so it became a banned substance.
It is the primary component of phosphocreatine. That word should sound familiar to anybody that’s ever taken the CrossFit Level 1 or read any of my blog posts in the past. We frequently talk about energy systems. Phosphocreatine combines with ADP to create ATP. ATP is our energy currency for our cells. It is literally what we use to power our bodies. The phosphocreatine system in particular powers high energy demand tissue and activity. So if we go to our energy systems here, the phosphagen system is basically an impulse. We’re talking about activity lasting less than 10 seconds that is high output. So, a 1 rep max lift, or a 10 second all out sprint. That is the phosphocreatine system. Again, all three energy systems are working simultaneously, we just bias which one we’re using most depending on the activity and the effort that goes into it.
95% of our body stores of creatine are in skeletal muscle cells. That makes sense; it is powering the phosphocreatine, that one rep max, high intensity, very short duration effort. So of course, it’s going to power muscle cells. The remainder is in the blood and the brain – and that becomes important a little bit later – and other tissues. In men you’ll find it in the testes and various other tissues. But primarily skeletal muscle. After that, it circulates in the blood to get to the muscles. It’s also in the brain.
Different types of creatine: creatine phosphate aka phosphocreatine. We just talked about it. That is what is stored in the human body. Creatine monohydrate: it is a creatine molecule combined with a single hydrogen atom, hence creatine MONO-hydrate. This is the particular type that has been most heavily researched. It is a supplement that most people take. It is dirt cheap, and it is ubiquitous because it’s been shown to be so effective. We’ll get to the benefits of it in a minute.
There’s also a subcategory -creatine anhydrous. That’s where they dehydrate creatine monohydrate. It’s just pure creatine as opposed to having hydrogen in there. Micronized creatine – you might see that creatine monohydrate is usually sold as micronized creatine. It just means that very small particles easily dissolved in water. Creatine anhydrous – obviously same thing. You need to dissolve it in water in order to consume it.
Then we have some other ones. I’ll jump around here – creatine magnesium chelate, Crea-Trona, creatine ethyl ester, and creatine hydrochloride, also known as creatine HCL. All of these, what they’ve done is replaced the hydrogen molecule with something else. And the claim with a lot of these is that they are more easily absorbed into the body. Research does not back that up. These are basically excuses for people to sell you things and jack up the price. So, if you’re going to take creatine stay away from those. Focus on the creatine monohydrate.
The one exception to that – when we get into some of the drawbacks of creatine, some people have reported a little bit of gastrointestinal discomfort. If that is you and creatine makes you feel sick to your stomach, that’s where the buffered creatine comes in. Or the Kre-Alkalyn creatine. That has been shown to alleviate some of that. For most people, creatine monohydrate is where it’s at. Buffered creatine would be a substitute if the first one causes you discomfort.
Liquid creatine – it has creatine pre-dissolved in it, and supposedly that makes it more readily absorbable in the body. The problem is, creatine is best stored in powder form. The longer it sits there in liquid, it’s actually been shown to be less effective than powdered versions. So those are the different types.
Benefits! The ones that have been most studied are the physical benefits. We see improved strength and power output. That makes perfect sense. Creatine helps fuel the phosphocreatine system – that high impulse energy system. If we are saturating our muscle cells with it, we can easily replenish the phosphocreatine system. It makes sense that our strength would improve as would our power output.
Especially in older adults. What happens with older adults, usually we see a loss in muscle mass. I have less muscle mass and 95% of our body’s creatine is stored in muscle cells, it makes sense that creatine is going to be a little bit lower. If older adults are supplementing with creatine, they see greatly improved strength and power output. It’s also true for general populations, but older and other people that are possibly lacking in creatine benefit most. I would throw vegans and vegetarians in there as well. It depends on what you’re taking and what your protein sources are – you can find a lot of creatine in red meat, but a lot of vegan and vegetarian supplements may be fortified with it as well. So, you may see a better improvement in strength and power output with vegans and vegetarians supplementing with creatine as well.
Increased lean mass – this makes sense as well. If I’m improving my strength and power output – we did a video on the four ways in which you can grow stronger, and one of them was increased lean mass. We call that hypertrophy. If I get stronger, naturally I’m going to increase my lean mass as well.
That was true for both trained and untrained populations. Also, in trained populations, they have seen a reduction in body fat. If you’re brand new to training, creatine is not going to help with that in particular. The training that you are doing in general may help with that, but the creatine itself won’t.
Helping improve anaerobic performance. So again, if we go back to our energy systems, we have 2 – glycolytic and phosphagen. These 2 energy systems, anything that’s happening in the 0 to maybe 2 minute range, is primarily dominated by these 2 energy systems. Given that our phosphagen is replenished by creatine it makes sense that we would see improved anaerobic performance. We’ll
get to aerobic in a minute, but again aerobic is in the presence of oxygen. Anaerobic is without oxygen. The phosphocreatine system is powered anaerobically – there is no oxygen in that.
We also mentioned that in addition to being stored in muscle tissue, creatine is stored in the brain. A much lesser studied benefit of creatine is the cognitive benefits. There is preliminary research to show some of this, but it is not nearly as overwhelming as the physical benefit research, so take this with a grain of salt, but this is the next field of research with creatine supplementation.
Reduced mental fatigue – particularly in high stress situations and when you are sleep deprived or older adults. So again, kind of makes sense if you think about it. Creatine helps fuel high energy systems. The brain is very high energy.
Possible improvement in depression -especially people with bipolar disorder. Again, take this with a grain of salt. I’m not diagnosing anything, I’m not trying to treat anything here, I’m just stating what the research has shown. And possible reduction in concussions.
So, these are the benefits. The physical are very, very well researched. I would say as close to definitive as possible as we can get in the scientific community. The cognitive benefits, they’re still doing research so take that with a grain of salt.
Drawbacks – there really aren’t many. Gastrointestinal discomfort occurs in some people. When we get to the loading protocols, particularly people that are doing a front loaded cycle, if they’re taking
a lot at once, they may experience some gastrointestinal discomfort. There are ways around that. Number one would be to change the loading protocol, which we’ll get to in a minute. The other, number two, would be to switch out creatine monohydrate for the buffered creatine.
Water retention has been a complaint from some people. This is mostly anecdotal. You will see an increase in water weight – we’re looking at possibly up to four pounds when you first start. The longer you stay on it, things even out. You get used to it. So, for people that are concerned with aesthetics, water retention leads them not looking or feeling as quote unquote tight. They just feel bulkier.
Due to the possible increase in weight, there has been in some cases a reported decrease in aerobic performance. And again, that makes sense. Especially if we’re talking runners. If I’m heavier, I’m probably going to run slower. I can tell you anecdotally that as I have put on muscle mass and focused more on strength as opposed to conditioning, I definitely feel it in movements that I have to move my own body weight. Running, jumping, burpees. Rowing and biking – the machine is bearing my body weight. Not a big deal. But I’m guessing that those that reported a decrease in aerobic performance were runners. And again, they’re carrying a little bit more weight than they’re used to.
So not a whole lot with drawbacks here. If you’re a marathoner and you’re experiencing a serious decrease in aerobic performance because of 4 extra pounds, maybe it’s not worth it. But for most people this is a very small trade off. Intestinal discomfort usually happens with people that are following the front loaded loading protocol.
Our goal when supplementing with creatine is to saturate our muscles with it, it’s readily available to replenish the phosphocreatine system. The way to front load is, we’re taking 15 to 20 grams per day for one week. A typical scoop of creatine monohydrate is 5 grams, so we’re talking 3 to 4 scoops per day for a week. If you do that and feel some gastrointestinal discomfort, spread it out throughout the day. Don’t take it all at once. Do 10 grams in the morning, and 10 grams in the evening. And that’s the way around the gastrointestinal discomfort. After one week, your muscles are saturated. 3 to 5 grams per day after that that will keep them saturated. So again, that achieves saturation in one week, and it’s just maintenance after that.
Then there’s the constant loading protocol which is 3 to 5 grams per day. You will achieve saturation in one month. You can keep doing 3 to 5 grams per day after that. You’re still in maintenance. So it’s really just a matter of what you want to do; there’s no wrong answer here. Just bear in mind that the people that usually experience the gastrointestinal discomfort are doing the front loaded protocol. Again, you can switch out for buffered creatine or just try to separate your doses throughout the day.
The other thing that we used to see in the past was, you know, “oh we’re going to do creatine for 8 weeks. I’m going to load for 1 week. I’m going to maintain for a few weeks, and then I’m going to cycle off it.” Yeah, that is a thing of the past. We don’t ever need to cycle off creatine.
The only things that you really need to cycle off are anabolics. We’re talking about steroids and things like that. That is well beyond my area of expertise but from what I know of it, if you are constantly taking anabolics, that is when you suffer hormonal side effects. That is when you, for men in particular, they get the shrinkage that everyone is afraid of, bacne, and hair growing in odd places. And usually that’s reversible as soon as you cycle off of it. So, the cycling of a supplement is usually reserved for anabolics. Creatine does not fall into that category, so you do not need to cycle off of it.
Verdict: YES, you should take it. At worst it’s a placebo and doesn’t do anything. I do believe that even endurance athletes, you have bouts of high power, you’re running up a hill, you’re doing a sprint to the finish, if your muscles are saturated with creatine, you will be able to use it. And again, given the cognitive benefits, like I said its not well researched right now, but at worst again it’s a placebo. I’m a big proponent of taking creatine, especially if you’re doing any kind of resistance training or training in general.
For most people, take creatine monohydrate. For those that have the gastrointestinal discomfort take the buffered creatine. As far as where you should get it from, it doesn’t really matter. Just take a look at the ingredient list, make sure it is pure creatine monohydrate and they don’t have any other additives. Creatine monohydrate is dirt cheap. I believe I get my one pound tin for like 17 bucks. It might be 2 pounds, I don’t remember. But it’s cheap.
The stuff that is more expensive is usually what leads to water retention, because there’s all sorts of additives and other shit in there. You don’t need any of that. No matter what the claims are, more readily absorbed, etc., none of that is true. That is all marketing bullshit to get you to spend more money .
Creatine monohydrate is readily available, it is dirt cheap, it has a slew of benefits, not many drawbacks, and honestly at worst I say it’s a placebo. I am a big proponent of it, but again that’s me. I get no money for doing this. I wish I did, but mostly we just want to inform people. And as I said, it was a banned substance when I was in high school, and I know a lot of people that went through that as well, and they are still curious about it.
So, I hope that’s helpful. For other questions on supplements, I recommend going to examine.com. They do a great job of breaking down all the research surrounding supplements. They talk about benefits, they talk about the weight of those benefits, and the statistical significance within studies. If you’re scientifically literate that’ll make sense to you. The magnitude of the effect is a big one.
So, for a while apple cider vinegar was pushed as a supplement. You know, if you take a tablespoon of that a day you can mobilize some brown fat and burn it a little better. They have that on their site, and it is listed as a very small effect. If you’re taking apple cider vinegar, you’re getting probably a marginal benefit if any at all. And the drawback is, the acid eats away at your teeth enamel. Probably not worth it in the long run. That’s why I like this site. They do a very good job of kind of weighing the costs and the benefits of it.
And as far as creatine is concerned, in my opinion the benefits greatly outweigh any potential costs. So, I’m all for it, especially for older populations.
I hope you found this helpful. If you have any questions, if you don’t think I covered something clearly, please comment. We’re happy to answer. As always, if you enjoy this content, give us a like, give us a subscribe, give us suggestions for things we should cover. We want to hear from you. Thanks for tuning in. We’ll catch you next time!