As Part 1 of this series explained, creatine is one of the most well-researched supplements on the market. Study after study shows creatine is safe and effective for healthy adults—and especially effective for athletes in strength and power-based sports.
Today, most people have at least heard of creatine. This wasn’t always the case...
Creatine muscled its way onto the bodybuilding scene in the early 1990s, a time where Arnold Schwarzenegger was making way to newer, bigger bodybuilding celebrities like Dorian Yates and Ronnie Coleman. At the time, the supplement industry was monopolized by protein based products sold by Weider Nutrition. Weider nutrition was owned by Joe Weider, founder of the International Federation of BodyBuilders, Mr. Olympia, and various fitness publications like Flex, Muscle & Fitness and Men’s Fitness. In fact, Weider owned just about every possible means to market a product to bodybuilders and used it unsparingly to sell his shakes and powders.
Although creatine was discovered in the 1800s, it wasn’t considered as a supplement until 1992. This is when budding scientist Anthony Almada, in studying its potential benefits in strength athletes, manufactured and launched the first commercially-available creatine product through his newly-formed company (and now huge supplement brand) EAS.
At the time, the supplement industry was shifting. Weider’s macronutrient approach was being replaced by emerging science demonstrating the performance enhancing potential of micronutrients, such as creatine. This movement was being fueled by the writings of Bill Phillips, publisher of the well-respected "Natural Supplement Review" subscriber-based newsletter. In his writings, Phillips began summarising newly-published research studies showing that ingredients like HMB, glutamine and creatine improve muscle mass and strength performance. This led the way to a new age of science-fueled micronutrient supplement products, with creatine leading the way.
Creatine’s research profile
The amount of published research on creatine’s potential as a strength-building supplement grew almost as fast as Phillip’s bank balance after selling the first tub. The research predominantly focuses on strength athletes, but more recent research has also looked at creatine’s positive impact on disease conditions, and even cognitive function.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition now has some great reviews that cover and discuss the latest creatine research in great detail. Check out their most recent overview if you are interested in reading some of these studies.
Creatine for strength and power
Blonyx athlete Joe Scali making full use of creatine's explosive power at the 2015 CrossFit Games
In short, creatine’s research-record shows overwhelming evidence that if you take creatine with concurrent strength or power training, high-intensity anaerobic conditioning, or heavy resistance training, you can expect the following:
- Increased strength with strength training
- Increased power output for fast movements like sprinting or jumping
- Increased muscle mass (especially in the first month - see below)
- Quicker muscle adaptation to training
- A possible increase in neurological function
Specifically, creatine can increase maximum power and performance during high-intensity anaerobic training by up to 15 percent.
Beyond the above widely accepted outcomes of creatine supplementation, some studies also suggest creatine might even help speed up recovery time after suffering an injury by helping repair the muscle tissue, while others suggest creatine might help improve range of motion in certain cases.
Finally, some of the most recent studies also suggest that creatine might be beneficial for endurance performance, specifically by increasing blood volume, glycogen storage (glycogen is a primary source of energy for endurance training), and also reducing the reliance on oxygen to produce energy, possibly delaying the ventilatory threshold.
Creatine’s reported side effects and safety record
Although there are many creatine side effect myths, which we’ll get into in Part 5, science does show evidence of a couple common side effects.
- Weight Gain
Research results from a polish study done in 2001 by Warsaw Agricultural University in Poland, headed by Steve Nissen of Iowa State University showed that after taking 20 g creatine/day for a week, followed by 2 weeks of 10 g creatine/day and weight training 3-4 times/ week, the subjects showed a body weight increase, but also a significant increase in Lean Body Mass, i.e. they got heavier from muscle growth. They also got stronger.
Many people gain 1 to 2 kg of muscle weight, especially those who decide to do a loading phase, often recommended on product labels, where they take up to 20 g of creatine a day for a week, before cutting back to a 5 g a day “maintenance” dose. In extreme cases, a person can gain up to 6 kg, but that is rare. Generally, though, weight gain usually only happens in the first week or two of beginning supplementation. It is thought to be a result of increased muscle creatine levels, which initially pull water into the muscle. The muscle weight gain is desirable for a bodybuilder, or an all out powerlifter, but for those also wanting to retain their endurance performance or gymnastics skills, it may not be ideal.
- Upset stomach
A common complaint from athletes taking creatine is mild nausea and even diarrhea. Where this is rarely reported in the research, a recent study looking at creatine use in 59 soccer players concluded that doses of above 10 g are much more likely to cause these issues. Rowan Minnion, Blonyx CEO and writer of multiple creatine supplementation papers, believes that simple dosage management is key to avoiding this.
“I have only really seen digestive issues with either high doses, or when creatine is taken on an empty stomach. Two strategies will help: Spreading your dosage throughout the day, say after breakfast and dinner, and sticking to 5 g per day from the start. Loading up with creatine just isn’t worth the risk,” he said.
- Safety record
Creatine’s safety record is well-documented. Earlier research thought it might cause kidney damage and cramping, however; evidence is limited and more recent studies have not confirmed these risks.
One of the reasons early research believed there might be a connection between creatine supplementation and kidney damage is because ingesting creatine means the body will excrete higher-than-normal levels of a substance called creatinine. Increased creatinine in the urine happens to be one marker for kidney failure. Because of these higher levels of creatinine, a doctor could easily be misled and diagnose his client with a “false positive” for kidney failure. The best way to avoid this is to tell a doctor that you are taking creatine.
Stay tuned for Part 3: Types of Creatine, which are the best, and are any dangerous?
Here are links to all parts of this series:
Part 1: An introduction for layman
Part 2: Creatine’s history, it’s research record and it’s known side effects.
Part 3: Types of Creatine, which are the best, and are any dangerous?
Part 4: Making and marketing creatine supplements
Part 5: The myths and truths about creatine