Creatine Benefits: How This Supplement Works for More Than Muscle
By: Dave Asprey
July 9, 2019
- Creatine isn’t just for bodybuilders. Creatine supplement benefits your mitochondria, your brain, and your muscles.
- Creatine increases energy production in your mitochondria. That extra energy enhances brain function, muscle strength, and your overall performance.
- Contrary to myths floating around online, creatine is safe and effective, and it’s loaded with benefits. Keep reading for dosage recommendations.
The fitness community goes back and forth on creatine like doctors go back and forth on eggs and butter. Some athletes say creatine is crucial, others say it’s not necessary. Then, there are the ones who say it’s dangerous, and you should stay away.
Those kidney worries? Unfounded. People tend to think that if you pee something out, it’s a hit on your kidneys. That’s not always true — there’s no documented evidence that creatine hurts your kidneys.
Now that you know that creatine works and that you don’t have to be afraid of it, let’s unpack the science behind creatine and why it’s one of the cheapest, easiest biohacks you’ll find anywhere.
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Creatine improves mitochondrial function
Since mitochondria are commonly called the battery packs of your cells, you might think of your mitochondria as tied to your energy, as in, how awake you feel. It’s more than that. Mitochondria determine how heavy you lifted at your last gym session, whether your work flowed today or you stared at a blinking cursor, whether you remember where you left your car keys, and whether or not you develop depression or cancer.
These teeny tiny tyrants run your life. But, you’re not at their mercy. There are things you can do to keep your mitochondria strong so that they work for you, not against you.
There’s a lot of mitochondria love happening inside your muscle fibers. Resistance training is one way to increase the number of mitochondria you have, and you feel the extra power not just in your workouts but in your mental clarity and focus, too. Creatine, the same creatine that athletes hotly debate in the weight room, helps your mitochondria work more efficiently, in two major ways.
1. Creatine helps make adenosine triphosphate, aka ATP, aka energy
When you contract your muscles, the first energy supply your muscles dip into comes through the phosphagen system. This is the system you use when you need a quick surge of force — for example, you need to lift a dresser into the back of a truck. You get your energy from the small amount of ATP that’s ready in your muscles, and it lasts less than a minute — far less than a typical exercise session.
After that’s depleted, your body activates the phosphacreatine system for energy. When you use adenosine triphosphate (ATP) for energy, it breaks down into adenosine diphosphate (ADP), which you don’t use as energy because it doesn’t have the right number of phosphates.
ADP will eventually recharge into usable ATP, but it takes a while. That’s where creatine comes in. Your body stores creatine in your muscles as phosphocreatine, which lends phosphate groups to recycle those used up parts (ADP) into a shiny new ATP.
Resistance training helps energy creation along because it essentially damages your muscle tissue, which releases the enzyme to get energy creation moving. The goal with weight lifting is to create micro-tears in your muscle fibers that repair stronger than before. When your body detects damaged muscle, you release creatine kinase — an enzyme that jumpstarts the conversion of phosphocreatine to creatine, freeing up phosphates to reattach to ADP to make ATP.
So, creatine kinase transports phosphate groups from mitochondria, where you produce energy, to the muscles that will use it. You would eventually make more ATP, but creatine shortens the time that ADP regenerates into ATP.
To ensure your body carries out this process as seamlessly as possible, you can increase your phosphocreatine stores in your muscles by consistently taking a creatine monohydrate supplement.
2. Creatine activates AMPK
The second way that creatine improves mitochondrial function is by increasing adenosine monophosphate kinase (AMPK) signaling. When your energy drops, AMPK activates glucose and fatty acid uptake for energy. If you’re in ketosis, this is the part where you burn lots of fat.
One study showed that creatine activates AMPK and turns on genes that make new mitochondria, and also release enzymes that sweep away damaging free radicals. Both processes protect your mitochondria from damage.
Creatine to build muscle mass
The research is solid — creatine helps you build muscle mass more efficiently than diet and exercise alone.
Your limiting factors in the weight room are fatigue and failure, and both relate directly to how much energy your mitochondria can make. You use ATP faster than you recycle it so using creatine to make this process more efficient will make your entire resistance training program more efficient. More energy means you can work out more intensely and get better results.
Energy aside, creatine activates several muscle-specific cellular pathways that lead to muscle growth:
- Combined with weight training, creatine increases myonuclei, the nuclei in muscle fibers. More myonuclei mean more growth. The coolest part — you get to keep the extra myonuclei you make, even if you take a break from training and lose your strength.
- Supplementing with creatine while resistance training increases insulin-like growth factor, which stimulates muscle growth.
- Creatine activates protein kinases that assemble skeletal muscle-building proteins
If it’s beach muscles you’re after, creatine increases muscle mass by drawing water into the muscles. You’ll notice a difference as soon as you saturate your muscles — meaning, they’ve taken in all they can hold.
Creatine draws criticism here because it’s water weight, not muscle mass. Some people don’t care, because bigger muscles are bigger muscles. The extra water isn’t just for rounded, full muscles, though. Hydrated muscle cells prevent protein catabolism, always a concern among athletes who want to add mass — or at least, not go backward.
Over time, as long as you’re increasing training intensity, you’ll see real improvements in muscle size and strength from all of the extra ATP.
How do I get creatine into my muscles?
Your body makes creatine, so you always have some at the ready. For a boost, eat grass-fed beef, lamb, and pork. Make sure it’s the muscle meats — organ meats don’t have much. Wild-caught fish also contains creatine, though it has less than red meat and pork. You can also supplement five grams of creatine monohydrate per day.
Do I need to do a loading phase?
You can speed up results if you do a creatine loading phase — 10-20 grams for the first week. Whether you load or not, at the 3-4 week mark, your muscles will saturate, which means they will have taken in all they can hold.
Can you eat beef and take a creatine supplement on the same day?
Sure. Or, you can skip supplementing that day. Nothing bad will happen either way. If you end up with excess, you’ll pee it out.
Will creatine chew up my kidneys?
Nope. That’s a widespread weightlifter’s myth. Creatine doesn’t affect your kidney function even if you take it long-term. Fun fact: I only have one kidney, and I’ve been taking creatine for years with no issues.
Are my gains just water weight?
At first, yes. Creatine draws extra water into the muscle, causing weight gain and muscle swelling from water alone. After a few weeks, your gains come from those extra sets you were able to rep out, and those extra weight plates you were able to throw on. You get real strength increases from the extra ATP you’re pushing into your muscle fibers.
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