We have so many different supplements and nutrients that we can take during exercise that it can be overwhelming.
We’re always being sold on some new formula or concentrated vitamin that is supposed to help us, yet a lot of folks come back to old reliable: creatine.
Creatine is an organic compound that helps with strength, exercise, performance, and has other positive benefits such as protecting the body against serious neurological diseases.
Does our body crave it, or do we crave the ability to be stronger?
There’s more to creatine than meets the eye, so let’s take a look at what it is, what it can do for you, and whether you should use it or if you’re better off without including it in your exercise diet.
What is Creatine?
At its base, creatine is one of many substances that we can find in muscle cells. The whole point of creatine is that it helps your body produce energy and synthesize protein, which is why it’s extremely common among bodybuilders and hardcore athletes.
Extra energy and claims of accelerated muscle growth accompanied by better gym performance are all-powerful claims.
Creatine is also found in your kidneys, your liver, and in your brain, although it’s a nominal amount compared to an overwhelming majority of 95% in your muscles.
So what happens when you take creatine powder or supplements? Phosphocreatine, the creatine in your muscle cells, gets a nice boost in their supply.
It allows you to perform better during exercise, train for longer, and push yourself (within reason of course) without fatigue getting the best of you early on.
But is it safe? So far, we can find little to no evidence of creatine being harmful, as long as it is taken as prescribed.
Even then, claims that an increased dose over the recommended amount will cause issues with your kidney function are lightly supported at best.
With how widespread creatine is, it appears to be completely safe based on all the current science and publicly available information.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t watch out for other ingredients that are packaged along with creatine, though. Drink mixes can have fillers that can harm your body, but that’s another conversation entirely.
Types of Creatine
There are a total of six types of creatine that you should know about, and the slight differences that most of them have.
Liquid Creatine: Liquid creatine is in short supply because it’s in even shorter demand. This actually becomes less effective because the properties aren’t preserved within the confines of a powder, so if you use this, it’s actually less effective than monohydrate creatine.
Buffered Creatine: This basically has alkaline powder mixed into it with the hope that it would stay in your stomach for longer and digest slower. However, there’s no real difference between this and monohydrate creatine (other than cost and what you receive). This is just over-glorified monohydrate creatine.
Creatine Magnesium Chelate: As the title kind of gives away, this has magnesium infused with it. From the few studies that were done, this is on-par with monohydrate creatine and doesn’t provide any better (or worse) attributes.
Creatine Monohydrate: This is the most common type of creatine that you’ll find. This is dissolvable in water, making it one of the best options for creatine-enriched pre-workout formulas.
Creatine Hydrochloride: This tends to be like the big brother to monohydrate because it’s much more water-soluble, and there are claims—claims with no evidence or studies to back it up—that you can take a lower dose of hydrochloride than monohydrate with the same level of effectiveness.
Creatine Ethyl Ester: This is generally believed to be absorbed by the body more easily, though there is little evidence to back this claim. It can be difficult to know if this actually gets as much creatine to your muscles as monohydrate, so it’s not often recommended to use.
Basically, we should all opt to stick with monohydrate since it’s the most-used on the market and the most-researched.
We can somewhat anticipate the results of using monohydrates based on mass consumption and scientific studies—it’s the best option on the list.
What Does Creatine Do to Your Body?
Your body holds onto creatine inside of your muscles. It turns into energy and improves athletic performance, though these results vary from person to person.
But there’s also something else you should know about what creatine does when it’s in your system.
Creatine is responsible for a good deal of water retention. While we want our muscles to have plenty of hydration, this is excessive enough that it can add as much as five pounds alone. All from creatine.
Water retention isn’t the worst, especially if you’re someone who likes to pump and get that nice muscle bulge when you’re at the gym.
It’s just good to know so that you don’t step on the scale and think you’ve made amazing gains in the last few days, but fail to understand why you can’t hit the next set on the barbell. Just wanted to give you a heads up.
How Does Creatine Help Building Muscle?
In your body, you have phosphocreatine, which is described by the Oxford Dictionary as “A phosphate ester of creatine found in vertebrate muscle, where it serves to store phosphates to provide energy for muscular contraction.”
That’s what we’ve been talking about through this article, but it’s talking about contraction and energy. So how does it help you build muscle if it’s just to provide energy? There are a few ways.
Keep Your Proper Form: Ever feel like you’re slouching towards the back half of your workout? You might be. Seriously, your posture might suffer, and lethargy might be making some of your workout unbearable (or at the very least, ineffective). Having that burst of energy means you’re more likely to maintain your form and get in some extra reps, without overdoing it of course.
Enthusiasm: Sometimes it takes a few minutes into our workouts to actually mentally get into the game, but because creatine helps with energy (in a very short amount of time, by the way), you may already enter the gym feeling enthused about your workout. If it starts off with more energy and doesn’t feel like a chore, it makes the entire experience more enjoyable from top to bottom.
Stronger Grip: Like we said, it helps with muscular contraction. That means more bicep curls, more push-ups, and more side steps in the gym, not to mention all the benefits of deadlifts and barbell presses. You won’t feel a weakness in your muscles nearly as quickly if you’ve been steadily taking in creatine.
This will also help you build up a natural endurance for exercise and the gym so that it becomes a habit.
You can ditch the creatine in two months if you’d like, once you’ve established these good routines, but it can definitely help you get to your goal a little quicker and a little less painfully.
What Should I Avoid in Creatine Powders and Supplements?
Creatine is good, but there are plenty of bad companies out there that are simply looking to get the most out of you.
This is a quick guide to tell you how to avoid crummy creatine powder mixes, pre-workouts, and supplements.
Stay Away From Proprietary Blends: Proprietary blends make us think, “Wow this must be so good that they don’t want anyone else to know about it”, but the truth is that the FDA barely regulates supplements as it is. The FDA likely doesn’t know what’s in that blend, and if you don’t know what you’re consuming, don’t consume it.
Laundry List of Ingredients: Ever notice that some formulas specifically advertise that they only have X amount of ingredients, while others will boast about all the amazing ingredients they have, and the list goes on and on? That’s because these companies are trying to reach out to two different audience types. If you gawk at a long list of ingredients and think that equates to it being useful, you’ve got another thing coming. Companies will put needless, inexpensive filler items in their mixes to reduce costs on creatine and other beneficial supplements while driving the price up. Stick with a short, detailed list of ingredients for the best results (and so you can actually track everything you’re consuming properly).
Minimize Dyes and Sweeteners: They say a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, but as it turns out, a spoonful of artificial sweetener makes your value go down. You don’t have to love the taste of your creatine powder, but it should at least be beneficial for you. Avoid excessive food dyes (preferably find dye-free blends) and try to ditch anything that’s jamming artificial sweetener into your mix and bringing down the quantity of actual quality ingredients.
Overcrowded Labels: There’s a chemical name and a consumer name for things, such as caffeine. If a label is going through the hassle of including the chemical name for caffeine, they’re trying to pull some smoke in mirrors (or their marketing guy is terrible). There’s no need to do this. They should be straightforward with their ingredients so you, the purchaser, can know that there’s nothing hidden between the lines.
Can You Build Muscle Without Creatine?
Yes, you absolutely can. Just because creatine helps doesn’t mean that it does everything. In fact, some publications and papers suggest that it only aids in about 5% to 10% of muscle growth in the average person.
Still, if you have the money and don’t mind taking the supplement, an extra 10% muscle mass for the same level of effort sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? In some athletes, creatine may do nothing at all, of course on a case-by-case basis.
The only way to really know if it’s going to work is to try it out, but you absolutely do not need creatine to build quality muscle. The main benefits of creatine and muscle building come into subjective talking points:
Energy Levels: Some of us can feel fatigue and work through it, some of us are really affected by it. If the slightest bit of fatigue bothers you and makes you feel extremely lethargic, creatine may help you more than the average athlete.
Limited Time to Work Out: That extra 5% to 10% is a lot more impactful if you don’t have as much time to work out right now as you would like. Take that into consideration and time your creatine formulas if that’s what you decide to do.
Determination: Is there a hard-hitting reason that you’re exercising and trying to get some serious gains? Is it purely aesthetic? Either one is okay, but if you have a high level of determination to get these gains, you’re more likely to succeed than someone who has loose reasons for doing it. Determination beats supplements every time, so if you want the faster track, creatine is a good idea.
Which Path is Better?
With currently available information at the time of writing, creatine helps, but doesn’t supply a ridiculous boost of muscle mass gain.
It’s perfectly acceptable to skip using creatine altogether, especially if you’re wary based on claims of impaired kidney function and an increased risk of kidney stones.
You don’t need it to bulk up. It can be helpful, but that depends on you because supplements react to each individual person differently.
If you’re not 100% sure if it’s the right choice, you can avoid taking creatine and make up your mind at a later date. You won’t suffer a huge detriment to your muscle growth in the meantime.
Which Will You Choose?
Creatine has its benefits, and the negative aspects are few and far between (with very little scientific data to back it up). Overall, it seems like a good idea, so what will you do when it comes to your workout?
Will you include it and reap the rewards, or is there a reason that you want to avoid it? Either way, it’s an option that’s on the table for just about everyone with very few restrictions.
Justin Rodriguez has spent most of his adult life inspiring people to take their fitness more seriously. He is not new to the business of providing practical solutions for those looking to set and smash their fitness goals. From sharing professional tips and tricks to recommending awesome products, Justin Rodriguez helps just about anyone who wants to get the best out of their workout routines.Having gathered a lot of experience both in and outside the gym, Justin Rodriguez uses DSW Fitness as a medium to show you exactly how to get that great-looking body with toned muscles you’ve always wanted.