Creatine. It is the most well known, in addition to the most researched supplement in the business right behind whey. There are studies going back decades with pretty conclusive evidence that points to creatine being exceptionally safe. But if creatine has so many studies, then why does it have so much opposition? My opinion is that the majority of opposition is due to a lack of understanding. Average people do not understand creatine. When a 12 year old boy wants to start lifting weights and informs their mom they would like to purchase a magic powder that will make him big and strong, his mom is completely correct to worry. After all, something which makes you build muscle and strength is probably a steroid, right? Possibly. But that isn’t what creatine does.
The short answer: Absolutely not. To understand why creatine is not a steroid, you must first understand what a steroid actually is.
What are Steroids?
Why is it that males are almost always more muscular than females? Why can a man naturally be 200 lbs of muscle, but a girl will not naturally reach that level of muscularity? Simply put, males naturally produce a hormone called testosterone. You have most likely heard of it. It’s what causes males to fight over females, in individual social settings and in nature. A performance enhancing steroid is basically artificial testosterone, or other synthesized hormones that are actually more anabolic than testosterone. Some steroids are not even found in nature. Steroids can carry some nasty side effects and a lot of health risks later on in life.
What is Creatine?
Creatine is found in virtually every animal, including humans. We get it out of meat and we obviously synthesize it. Creatine is a completely natural organic acid that offers cellular energy to your cells. It is found in the greatest concentrations in muscle cells. Creatine and steroids can not even be compared. One works hormonally, one operates inside of your cells obviously. Creatine will not make you superhuman like steroids. Steroids can push your body beyond physiological limits. With years of training and a perfect diet might be able to be a little over 200 lbs of lean muscle naturally. With steroids you can put on a different 20-50 pounds. If you’re pushing your body beyond a natural limit, you are putting multiple organs under extreme stress, especially your heart. Creatine will help you add strength and mass by enabling your muscle cells to work only somewhat harder.
If you were awake for high school biology, you probably heard about cellular energy. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP), sugar, cellular respiration, and all that fun stuff. Otherwise, I will provide you the brief rundown.
You cells have a tiny molecule called adenosine triphosphate. You cell generates energy by breaking up a phosphate bond in the mitochondria. The adenosine triphosphate then becomes adenosine diphosphate (ADP), and needs to get another phosphate atom to bond with so it can break it in the mitochondria. Creatine bond with phosphate and becomes more phosphocreatine, which is stored in cells. Phosphocreatine can rapidly turn ADP into much needed ATP. That ATP can then go break another bond for mobile energy.
Think about your cells as a steam engine train. The ATP represents a employee that has a shovel full of coal, while the ADP represents a worker with a vacant shovel. The ADP worker has to go to another car over to get a shovel of coal to put in the fire to keep the train running. Creatine would signify a supply of coal in the exact same car as the fire. The ADP worker would need to walk a few feet rather than to another car over to get the much needed coal, which signifies phosphate.
So Why Supplement More?
The concentrations of phosphocreatine in your cells is not even close to the maximum. Your entire body is able to use about 5 grams of creatine. The concentration on your cells varies, but it is much lower. There comes a point in time during high exertion activities where your muscle cell’s phosphocreatine levels will come close to zero. That means your cells will need to rely on ineffective glycolysis for energy. That process is slow, generates very little energy, and causes more lactic acid buildup, which causes the burn you feel in your muscles. When you supplement with additional creatine, your phosphocreatine levels will stay higher for longer. This doesn’t turn you into a superhuman and it will not add 50 pounds to your bench. The additional phosphocreatine will give you a small, but noticeable boost in your workouts. You might be able to lift a few pounds more, or the same weight for a couple extra reps. This might not seem like much, but overtime if you are doing an additional 1-3 repetitions, you will build muscle and gain strength faster. However, creatine WILL make you gain weight straight away. Gaining 5 pounds is not unheard of. This isn’t hard muscle gain however, that is additional water weight the phosphocreatine adds to your muscle cells.
Why Do People Believe Creatine Is Bad?
Creatine CAN cause some minor issues if you do not take it the ideal way. It can cause cramping, and minor stomach issues. Those are both because of dehydration. Should you supplement creatine, your muscle tissues are using more water, so you really need to increase your water intake. Increasing your water intake will also lead to benefits in different areas of your life as well. Some people also say it’s bad for your kidneys. The only slight possibility of that is from extreme dehydration. However, for that to really happen, you would have to be quite dehydrated before starting your supplementation. There are also a small handful of people that will tell you creatine is bad for your heart. This is because those people haven’t taken the time to research and learn that it is NOT a steroid.
The majority of these will work equally well, but they are much more expensive. The best and cheapest way to go is with normal creatine monohydrate. This is the most studied, most popular, and most affordable form. I favor Optimum Nutrition Creatine Powder. Optimum Nutrition is among the first brands in the supplement game. They create very pure and safe supplements to get a great deal. This particular product is also the best seller in creatine.
Some people will tell you about a “loading phase”, which is a way you take about 20 grams for your first week, then reduce to 5 grams daily. I am not a huge believer in the loading phase, but you’re more than welcome to try it and let me know what you thought. I start with 5 g every day and keep it like that. It might take a day or two longer to take effect, but you’re saving money.