Disclaimer: I am in no way endorsing creatine use.  Personally, I use it and I think it’s safe as long as you’re smart about it.  However, I know that a couple of my teachers would be shaking their heads at me right now because they won’t endorse it until long-term research comes out.  With that in mind, please take it at your own risk.

Background

Creatine is a supplement that gets a lot of attention these days, and it’s really no wonder why.  It actually works.  Surprise!

Also, upon further research, we’ve found that it’s a fairly safe supplement.  At least, that’s what we’ve found so far based upon short-term studies.  We don’t have research yet on the long-term effects.  However, if they do turn up to be negative, it’s likely to be because somebody took too much and stressed their kidneys even further by not drinking enough water to help the kidneys do their job.

Before you even think about taking creatine, you should be sure to plan to drink some extra water with it.  How much water do you need?  Well, under ordinary circumstances, nutrition textbooks say to get 1mL per calorie you eat.  If you’re eating 2,500 calories a day, then you need 2.5 liters.  Add another half or full liter (2 to 4 cups) of water, and you should be fine.

So, although the bulk of the supplement industry seems to be a joke that uses photo-shopped pictures, “proprietary blends” (which enable them not to tell you how much of an ingredient is really in there. The whole “this supplement is actually 90% sugar pill” probably wouldn’t fly too well if the consumer knew about it), and research that is designed to make anything look good, their creatine sales are actually legitimate.  Unlike most supplement ingredients, creatine has been rigorously tested in clinical, double-blind studies at universities.  It has shown to be effective over and over again.  The following two sites are two of the best resources I know for checking a supplement’s validity.  If you can’t find your supplement ingredient on these two sites, chances are it’s bogus.  Research “creatine” on both of these two search engines.

http://scholar.google.com/

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/

Before taking any supplement, you need to have a general understanding of how it works.  Creatine helps your body store adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is the main type of energy your body uses at a cellular level.  So, since creatine helps your body store ATP, it’s something like putting a larger gas tank on your muscles.  Since there’s more gas there, your muscles can fire a little longer.  It’s not magic or anything, but it helps you get another rep or two.  Then, as a result of those two extra reps, you’ll hopefully be able to stimulate a little more muscle building.

Contrary to popular belief (at least back at my high school), creatine is not a steroid.  It doesn’t get involved in your hormones at all.  Steroids are synthetic versions of testosterone.  So, with steroids you’re adding more of what your boys down under supply you, but it comes with risks.  Creatine’s risks are nothing near those of steroids, and they won’t result in any of the unpleasant side-effects of steroids.

How to Take It

Finally, how to take creatine.  First off, I’m not a big believer in the “loading phase” of taking 20g per day.  Sure, if you want a little extra risk, go for it.  However, after a couple weeks, your muscles will be as full of creatine as they can possibly be whether you took 5g or 20g per day.  It’s just a function of how fast you want to fill up all of your muscle fibers with creatine.  The faster you pump them full, the more likely you are to dehydrate yourself and hurt your kidneys.  Obviously, I’m more of a believer in the 5g (typically one scoop) of creatine per day.  I think it’s the most responsible way to take it.

I take products that are “Creatine Monohydrate” and nothing else added.  Why?  Because everything else they put in them hasn’t been tested rigorously.  If I can’t read about it in my university Sports Nutrition textbook, then I don’t care.  Save your speech for the next guy that walks into your supplement store.  However, there is one exception to this rule.  That’s when the supplement companies put “maltodextrin” or “dextrose” or anything else that is just a fancy word for “sugar” in their creatine products.  They do this in order to spike your insulin with the idea being that since insulin helps push things from your bloodstream into your cells, it will help push creatine into your cells, too.

Well, the idea is sound.  I’m not sure if universities have tested sugar and creatine solutions, but it makes sense.  And since after your workout, your body’s primary need is to restore its muscular stores of glycogen (carbohydrate) because you used them all during your workout, you need some fast-acting carbs anyway.  Drinking some fruit juice or chocolate milk after your workout is a good idea.

The supplement companies put sugar in with their creatine, but they charge you a lot more for the added sugar although sugar costs almost nothing.  So, the smart consumer will just buy the bulk creatine by itself and stir it in with some juice or chocolate milk to drink after their workout.  Thanks for teaching me frugality, Mom.

Summary

1.  Buy bulk creatine by itself.  Added ingredients typically aren’t tested well and may be deceptively marketed.

2.  Take 5 grams a day (even on days you don’t work out) in order to minimize your risk while still getting the majority of the benefit.

3.  If you want to try the theory that taking creatine with sugar helps it get absorbed more fully, then drink your bulk creatine with fruit juice or chocolate milk.  You’ll get the same benefit as designer creatine products for a much lower price.  For added benefit of the whole concoction, drink it within thirty minutes of your workout.  That’s when your body needs all of the carbs the most.

4.  Drink extra water!

Example Products:

I’m not getting compensated for this. I just want to show a couple examples of products that are legitimate. God knows that I would have liked to have this information when I first started out.

http://www.vitacost.com/Vitacost-Creatine-Powder-Creapure-5-000-mg-per-serving-2-2-lbs-1-000-g

or

http://www.vitaminworld.com/creatine-combinations-596/creatine-hardcore-powder-000908

Conclusion

Good luck on your creatine quest.  Creatine isn’t going to instantly rocket your bench press from 225 to 315, but it does provide a little extra push of assistance.  Combined with a good exercise program and a few hundred extra calories a day, it should be able to help you gain some muscle mass.  Be sure to drink extra water with it, though!

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