The effectiveness of many popular sports supplements may be more theoretical than factual, but not where creatine’s concerned. Creatine is perhaps the most popular sports supplement sold today—and for good reason. Since its market introduction in 1993, the science behind it has been steady and consistent. It works for 80 percent of those who use it.
The 20 percent for whom it’s been deemed ineffective are those who are habitual meat eaters. Meat is the richest natural source of creatine, and those who regularly eat meat experience a natural, gradual creatine load in their muscles. So when they supplement with it, it doesn’t do much. Their muscles are already loaded.
For most creatine users, however, the supplement is remarkably effective, and ongoing research is revealing new properties. Its primary advantage is that it acts as an energy backup in muscles. It’s like having a second battery in your car. All energy-providing nutrients eventually convert into the most elemental form of energy for muscular contraction: adenosine triphosphate. ATP provides energy when chemical reactions break off one of its three phosphate groups. Creatine is stored with phosphate in muscle, and when the ATP degrades, the stored creatine replaces the missing phosphate, thus maintaining the body’s energy. In addition, creatine provides a buffering activity in muscle, reducing the metabolic acid that leads to muscle fatigue and failure. More recent studies show that creatine aids muscle protein synthesis by boosting insulinlike growth factor 1 in muscle.
Whether creatine also plays a role in exercise recovery was the subject of two recent studies. In one study, 14 untrained subjects were randomly divided into two groups. The first group took creatine with carbohydrate while the second group got carbohydrate only, five days before and 14 days after all subjects engaged in weight training. They did four sets of 10 eccentric-only (lowering the weight) reps, using 120 percent of their maximum concentric (raising the weight) one-rep maximum on the leg press, leg extension and leg curl. Eccentric muscle contractions cause more muscle damage and soreness than concentric muscle contractions. To assess muscle damage, the researchers monitored the release of two muscle enzymes into the blood.
Those who used the creatine-and-carb combo fared far better than the carb-only subjects. Specifically, isometric muscle strength was 21 percent higher in the creatine group, and isokinetic muscle strength was 10 percent higher.
Although the study didn’t examine the precise mechanism of beneficial change, the authors suggested that creatine enhances calcium buffering in muscle. That would lower intracellular calcium, which in turn helps suppress muscle degradation. Creatine also boosts muscle protein synthesis and supports the enhanced muscle stem cell proliferation that in turn supports new muscle fiber formation. The result is enhanced muscle recovery following training.
The other study explains the likely reason that prior short-term studies of creatine and muscle recovery haven’t shown much benefit. The researchers compared the effects of providing creatine for seven and 30 days. As in the previous study, the subjects performed eccentric muscle contractions. Some subjects loaded 20 grams of creatine for seven days, followed by six grams a day for 23 days. Another group took a placebo.
Creatine had no effects on measures of muscle damage after seven days, but maximum isometric muscle force was greater in the creatine group after 30 days. The conclusion: The primary increased muscle recovery provided by creatine occurs after 30 days of supplement use. Studies of shorter duration, such as seven days or less, showed no creatine-related recovery because, apparently, its effects are cumulative.
It all adds up to a new notch on creatine’s effectiveness belt: increased muscle recovery and the ability to train harder with time.
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Cooke, M.B., et al. (2009). Creatine supplementation enhances muscle force recovery after eccentrically induced muscle damage in healthy individuals. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 6:13.
Rosene, J., et al. (2009). Short and longer-term effects of creatine supplementation on exercise-induced muscle damage. J Sports Sci Med. 8:89-96.
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