What Does Creatine Do?


Nearly everyone who gets into strength training or serious fitness encounters a slew of supplement recommendations to help optimize their workouts or athletic performance.

Among the most popular in every gym rat’s lineup are pre-workout caffeine powders and BCAAs, but chief among them has to be creatine—the ultimate powerhouse of supplements.

Taking one scoop of this fine white powder in your protein shake each day promises a host of scientifically-backed benefits, including increased muscle mass, quicker recovery, and improved athletic performance.

But if you’re curious how creatine works, how much to take, and other benefits it may have for your mind and body, don’t stop reading! We’ve got the creatine deep dive for you in this article.

Creatine: What It Is and How It Works

Creatine is a compound made from three amino acids––methionine, glycine, and arginine.

You can get creatine through your diet from protein-rich foods, such as red meat, animal dairy products, and seafood.

You can also create creatine through “de novo” synthesis as long as you are consuming the three aforementioned amino acids alongside the enzymes, l-arginine:glycine amidinotransferase (AGAT) and guanidinoacetate methyltransferase (GAMT).

These enzymes work together to form chemical reactions that make creatine.

What is Creatine? And How it works

Once creatine is either consumed or synthesized, 95% is stored in skeletal muscle, where it is used for energy. 

The other 5% is stored in the brain, heart, and testes, and around 1.5 to 2% is converted for use by the liver, kidneys, and pancreas.

Once creatine is in the cells, it is turned into adenosine triphosphate (ATP). 

If you recall from your high school biology classes, ATP is the compound used by our cells for energy when we exercise.

This is why creatine is primarily used by athletes to improve athletic performance by boosting anaerobic energy capacity (the process of breaking down glucose into energy without using oxygen) and reducing protein breakdown.

Together, these two functions can improve physical performance, speed up recovery, and increase muscle mass.

Additionally, creatine may increase the production of anabolic hormones such as human growth hormone (HGH), insulin, estrogen, and testosterone, which can help heal muscle tissue more quickly. 

Creatine also boosts water content in muscle cells, further improving the physical appearance of body composition and making athletes look more muscular.

While creatine is an incredible compound, we don’t consume or synthesize it in spades. 

The body’s liver, pancreas, and kidneys can make about 1 gram of creatine per day, and the typical omnivorous diet also provides about 1 gram of creatine.

The average person should consume around 2 grams of creatine per day, so this is sufficient for most individuals. 

However, it is recommended that athletes consume up to 5 grams per day to experience all the benefits of creatine. This is why many athletes consume creatine as a dietary supplement.

But it’s not just athletes that can benefit from creatine––this compound may also have many additional benefits.

Benefits of Creatine

Creatine is one of the most heavily studied sports nutrition supplements. 

As a result, we know that creatine supplementation is one of the most effective and safest ways to improve athletic performance.

But did you know creatine may also improve brain health and prevent age-related declines in both brain function and muscle mass?

Here are all the benefits of creatine that science has been able to discover so far.

Creatine health benefits

Increases Muscle Mass

One of the number one reasons to take creatine––for both casual gym goers and competitive athletes alike––is to increase muscle mass.

In a review of 16 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) on the effects of supplementing with creatine, the following conclusions were drawn:

  • Muscle growth is more effective in healthy young subjects taking creatine than others.
  • Sufficient training is still important when taking creatine.
  • Creatine may be used for injury prevention. 

However, even with so many studies having already been carried out, more research is needed. 

Longer-term RCTs with larger sample sizes consisting of older individuals and those with muscular diseases may help further define the scope of creatine supplementation on muscle growth in wider populations.

But how does creatine help us grow bigger muscles? Well, there are a few ways creatine helps. 

Keep in mind that creatine supplementation alone will not do all the work of building muscle. 

To see results, you also need to consistently perform resistance training and follow a diet high in protein, complete with complex carbohydrates and healthy fats.

Exercise Performance

When we say that creatine is well-studied, we are primarily referring to the numerous studies examining the effects of creatine supplementation on exercise performance.

To understand how creatine helps improve athletic performance, we first need to explain the basics of how our body produces and uses energy.

Essentially, when we work out, our body is using up ATP, the chemical our cells use for energy. 

Creatine helps to replenish ATP. 

With a larger store of creatine in our body and cells, we can replenish ATP more quickly. With oral supplementation of creatine monohydrate, athletes (such as this team of elite Brazilian soccer players and elite youth soccer players) can sustain higher energy levels for longer and perform better with increased strength and power output.

Injury Prevention

Creatine doesn’t just help build big muscles and improve our exercise performance; it may also be useful in preventing sports-related injuries.

Whether you’re playing basketball, weight training, or canoeing, you’re always at risk of injury, whether it’s due to a mechanical breakdown of tissues, dehydration, or freak accidents during training or competition.

Per this study, which researched the effects of creatine supplementation on NCAA Division IA college football players, there was a slight difference between the group of athletes who took creatine versus those who did not.

Injuries due to cramping, dehydration, muscle tightness, muscle strains, and non-contact and contact injuries were lower among players using creatine.

Improved Exercise Recovery

Exercise recovery also appears to be quicker in those who supplement with creatine. 

This is thanks to creatine’s ability to increase cell repair and growth and naturally increase anabolic hormone production.

Since creatine also prevents the breakdown of muscle protein, creatine may also help preserve lean tissue mass when exercising.

It can also counteract declines in skeletal muscle if immobilized for long periods due to injury or age-related decline.

Improves Symptoms of Aging

Creatine may also improve or even prevent the occurrence of sarcopenia.

Sarcopenia is defined as a loss of muscle mass, decrease in strength (dynapenia) and physical performance, reduced bone mass, and elevated low-grade inflammation.

There is increasing evidence that creatine can help prevent sarcopenia and dynapenia with and without resistance training. 

In particular, creatine can preserve and even increase muscle mass and strength in the upper and lower extremities as we age.

Creatine supplementation has also shown the potential to enhance bone mineral density by activating the cells involved in both bone formation and resorption.

Finally, creatine also has the potential to decrease the risk of falling in aging adults, which can lead to fatal fractures and injuries.

Brain Health

Besides creatine’s benefits for muscle growth and athletic performance, there is also evidence that this compound could positively impact brain function and cognitive processing and help us recover from trauma such as traumatic brain injury.

This is due to the energy demands of the brain, which makes up nearly 20% of our body’s total resting energy despite it making up only 2% of our total body mass.

This means that our brain cells require large quantities of ATP, which––if you remember from our little science lesson earlier––is required for our cells to produce energy.

By supplementing with creatine, our brains might function better when under metabolic demand, such as when we are sleep-deprived or if we are suffering from mental health disorders or neurological diseases.

However, to see a pronounced impact on the brain, long-term creatine supplementation is required to build up creatine accumulation in the brain.

Who Should Take Creatine

Creatine is a versatile supplement with benefits extending beyond the realm of professional athletes, meaning that even if you’re a casual gym-goer or daily walker, anyone can benefit from taking creatine. 

In particular, though, adolescents and young adults have been found to benefit from creatine supplementation.

However, even older adults can benefit from creatine as long as they have no underlying medical conditions (such as kidney or liver dysfunction or high blood pressure).

How Much Creatine To Take

Determining the optimal creatine dosage depends on various factors, including individual needs and fitness goals. 

There is no official recommended dosage; however, the typical recommendation for the average person is around 2 grams of creatine per day.

You can usually get at least half of this amount from your average omnivorous diet or synthesize it naturally in your body. 

However, athletes aiming to experience the full spectrum of creatine benefits might want to consider supplementing with up to 5 grams per day. 

This higher dosage is particularly common among those engaged in intense physical activities, such as weightlifting (resistance training) or high-intensity sports.

Typically, when beginning to take creatine, there will be a larger loading period where you will take around 20 grams of creatine spread across four doses (so 5 grams per dose) throughout the day for five to seven days.

After this first week, you can then reduce your intake to just 5 grams per day.

You can continue to take creatine as long as you like, as there are no major contraindications for the average healthy adult. 

Just be aware that if you go a long period without taking creatine, you will have to do the loading period again.

Potential Side Effects of Creatine

While creatine is generally regarded as safe for healthy individuals, there are some potential side effects to be aware of.

A common side effect belabored by creatine naysayers is that creatine causes weight gain

While this is technically true, what people ignore is where that weight is being gained and how.

Yes, creatine does increase water retention intracellularly, contributing to weight gain. However, it’s crucial to recognize that this effect primarily occurs within muscle cells. 

This water retention, while it does increase your weight, will lead to an overall positive impact on muscle appearance and enhanced physical performance. 

Additionally, while creatine does increase anabolic hormone production, organizations like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) allow athletes to use creatine supplements during competitions.

So, competitive athletes in regulated sports divisions need not worry about taking creatine. The only caveat is that athletes should always make sure they are getting their creatine supplement powder from brands that perform third-party testing.

The primary group of people who should avoid taking creatine are individuals with kidney disease or disorders.

Supplementing with creatine can place undue stress on the kidneys if they are not properly functioning, so these individuals should consult their primary care physician before incorporating creatine supplements into their sports nutrition routine.

Individuals with high blood pressure and liver disease should also avoid taking creatine.

Creatine FAQs

What are the benefits of taking creatine?

Creatine offers a myriad of benefits, including increased muscle mass, improved exercise performance, enhanced exercise recovery, and potential positive effects on brain health. Scientific studies have demonstrated its effectiveness in various aspects of sports nutrition and overall well-being.

Does creatine make your muscles bigger?

Yes, creatine has been shown to increase muscle size through various mechanisms. It enhances intracellular water content in muscle cells, stimulates cell growth, increases energy availability, reduces muscle breakdown, and speeds up muscle repair, all contributing to noticeable gains in muscle mass.

Does creatine have side effects?

Creatine is generally safe for healthy individuals when taken as directed. However, some individuals may experience mild side effects such as gastrointestinal discomfort. It’s crucial to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any supplement regimen, especially for those with existing health conditions.

Is creatine safe, yes or no?

Creatine is considered safe for healthy individuals when used within recommended dosage guidelines. It has undergone extensive research, and reputable sports organizations, including the IOC and NCAA, permit its use by athletes during competitions.

Is creatine OK to take every day?

Yes, creatine is safe for daily consumption, and regular use is often recommended to experience its full range of benefits. However, as with any supplement, it’s essential to adhere to recommended dosages and consult with a healthcare professional if there are any concerns or underlying health conditions.

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