Creatine: The Science Behind Supplementing With Creatine

Let’s talk about creatine.

As the fitness world has gained more popularity, so have workout supplements and ergogenic aids – creatine included. Many of these supplements claim to “improve energy, alertness, strength, power, and body composition”; creatine ticks many of those boxes (Outlaw et. al. 2014). But are these studies valid? Is there enough research to prove that creatine is a supplement worth taking?

Before I continue, I’m just going to warn you that this is going to be a wordy post so if you’re not a fan of reading lots of valuable information then scoot ya booty out of here.

What IS creatine?

Creatine is a natural substance that the body creates and receives through food (animal products, mostly). When creatine enters the body it is turned into creatine phosphate (phosphocreatine) which aids in the creation of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). If you’ve ever taken a biology class I’m sure you’ve heard of ATP before; it transports chemical energy around the body and is said to be the “energy currency of life”. Basically, ATP is used to give your body energy to do it’s thing.

I know that creatine is a controversial supplement to take. I know your mum thinks it’s a steroid. I’m here to prove to you that it isn’t. I going to hit you with some science so that you can make your own educated decision on whether or not creatine is for you.

FOR Creatine Supplementation

1. Increase in 1RM

In regular people talk:

Resistance training –> damage to muscles –> increase in protein synthesis

The increase in protein synthesis occurs as the body works to repair the muscles and make them stronger and more resistant to further damage.

Graph showing the changes in muscle protein synthesis after resistance training

Creatine causes water retention = swollen muscles = excess tearing in the muscles when combined with resistance training = further increase in protein synthesis

Flow chart of what happens to a cell when creatine is ingested

When Parkinson patients supplemented with creatine, their 1RM in bench and leg press increased by 21% and 18%, respectively (Hass et. al. 2007).

Similarly, Chrusch et. al. also reported that creatine supplementation resulted in an increase in 1RM in older men when used in conjunction with resistance training (2001).

But Louise, resistance training alone would elicit similar results seeing as the participants hadn’t been resistance training prior the studies, right?

Potentially, yes – BUT! Creatine supplementation in younger people has elicited similar results to the above studies. Bench press 1RM in healthy young males taking creatine increased by 22.6kg, and their squat increased by 34.4kg (Volek et. al. 1999).

Do you have to take creatine long term if you want to make gains in your 1RM? Maybe not

  • Antonio et. al. showed an increase in participants 1RM after 4 weeks (2013)
  • Kambis and Pizzedaz showed that women who supplemented with creatine for ONLY 5 days had an increase in quadricep leg extension strength (2003).
Combos and Pizzedaz also investigated the timing of creatine ingestion and found that both pre- and post-workout supplementation gave very similar results – meaning that you can take creatine whenever you feel is best for you (2003).

Overall it seems that creatine is an effective supplement to take if gaining strength is your main goal – let’s look at what else it can do…

2. Increase in FFM

We already know that creatine aids in strength gains, but what about muscle mass? That should go hand in hand, shouldn’t it?

Strength gains are created when there is an increase in muscle cell COUNT – this is known as hyperplasia.

Muscle size gains happen when your pre existing muscle cells get bigger, or swell – this is known as hypertrophy.

Visual of the differences between hypertrophy and hyperplasia in muscle cells

We already know that hyperplasia occurs with the consumption of creatine (see point #1), but does hypertrophy? Let’s look at the studies:

  • Volek et. al. (1999)
    • Creatine group gained 2.2kg more FFM than the placebo group
    • Interestingly, these participants had already been resistance training for over a year, and yet there was still a significant difference in FFM gained between the groups
  • Chrusch et. al. (2001)
    • Found that there were significant improvements in overall body composition (more FFM) when participants ingested creatine while resistance training
  • Brose el. al. (2003)
    • Men and women of all ages and fitness levels showed an increase in FFM while consuming creatine
  • Souza Junior et. al. (2007)
    • Saw an increase of 3.8kg in FFM in the creatine group compared to 2.5kg in the placebo group

So yes, creatine supplementation DOES give you an edge over someone that isn’t using creatine when it comes to gaining FFM. HOWEVER the edge isn’t much in terms of actual muscle mass. I think the mistake a lot of people make with this supplement is that they are under the impression that they are gaining muscle size due to their bodies retaining water, giving the impression of bigger muscles. Keep that in mind!!

3. Delay in fatigue

Creatine aids with the re-synthesis of ATP. Having a faster turn over rate of ATP would delay the onset of fatigue in an athlete which in turn would enable them to exercise for a longer period of time (Williams et. al. 2014). It also acts as a metabolic buffer, which helps keep the blood pH levels constant – this is important in exercise as it helps slow down the build up of lactic acid (Williams et. al. 2014).

Repeated Box Jump Height (RBJH) & Creatine

  • Elite volleyball players – increased RBJH by 1.9% compared to placebo group
    • (Lamontagne-Lacasse et. al. 2011)
  • Elite football players – increased RBJH by 2.4% compared to placebo group
    • (Claudino et. al. 2014)

Ok but what does it matter that they could jump higher? Wasn’t the point here regarding the length of time it look for them to fatigue?

Yes, however these results were based on REPEATED box jumps – as in it leads to the conclusion that during short burst of exercise, creatine supplementation enables the athlete to perform for longer, while keeping quality (the height of the jump).

I think your chances of increasing your stamina for short bursts of exercise are good when taking creatine.

AGAINST Creatine Supplementation

Ok, I wouldn’t say this is an argument against creatine. I don’t believe that creatine is bad for you – nor does the research. What I really mean is that it seems as though creatine works better for some goals more so than others, and that is what I’m going to discuss here.

1. Delay in fatigue – Or not?

Ok, so we’ve discussed delays in fatigue for short periods of exercise, but what about longer periods?

Williams et. al. wanted to see if the fatigue-delaying effects of creatine could translate into an actual sports game (2014). They mimicked a 90 minute football game and it was found that there was no difference between the creatine group and the placebo group, which leads researchers to believe that the effects of creatine only last for so long (i.e. less than 90 minutes).

Tired football player laying on the grass

BUT – WHAT about during resistance training??

Fatigue IS delayed with the supplementation of creatine in strength endurance resistance training exercises (Brose et. al. 2003). Participants in a study done on older adults increased their muscular endurance (or had a delay of fatigue) in:

  • Leg press (increase of 31 reps)
  • Knee extension (increase of 13 reps)
  • Arm flexion (increase of 13 reps)
  • Chest press (increase of 12 reps)

It is important to look a little closer at this study though:

The participants in this study were older adults who were not currently participating in any resistance training. Anyone well versed in the effects of resistance training would be able to see that the increase in repetitions performed may not be entirely due to the creatine alone, but the fact that these people were put on a resistance training program after not lifting weights for a long period of time.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not convinced that creatine is very responsible for large gains in the stamina for exercise lasting over 60-90 minutes. My conclusion here is that if you’re a long distance runner, or someone who participates in a sport that requires you to be playing for a long period of time (think: football, rugby, triathletes) then using this supplement probably won’t help improve your performance much.

2. 1 Rep Meh?

Maybe more like unreliable study meh. When doing research it is important to look deep into the articles, not just at the abstract ( I hate myself a little bit for sounding SO MUCH like my uni professors – but it’s true). Although an article may seem one way on the surface, once you delve a little more into it you are better able to see if the outcome of their study is legit or not.

The following two studies – in their abstracts – showed that there was no significant change in 1RM between a group taking creatine, and a group that was not:

  • Syrotuik et. al. (2000) – when creatine is combined with a “periodized resistance training program”, there was no increase in 1RM or total volume lifted.
  • Ferguson (2006) – women taking creatine supplements had no significant change in their 1RM while resistance training

Now let me explain the flaws I found in these two studies

  • Syrotuik et. al. (2000) – During the 32 day training period, the training load was not altered once
    • Without altering the intensity or volume of a resistance training plan, there is no added stimulus/overload which can lead to a plateau (aka no change in 1RM)
  • Ferguson (2006) – Every single participant followed the EXACT SAME weight lifting program
    • Training programs are not one size fits all and some women may not have responded while other women did

So although I cannot say that these studies are wrong, you can see why I have my doubts about the end results. I still believe that creatine is a reliable supplement to take if you are looking to make gains in your 1RM.

A final tidbit

Something to note is that many of the studies that I mentioned varied in the number of training sessions per week the participants were instructed to do,. For example:

  • Hass et. al. (2007) – 2 sessions/week
  • Chrusch et. al. (2001) – 3 sessions/week
  • Volek et. al. (1999) – 4 sessions/week

I just want to point out that you shouldn’t be fooled by these variances. If you’re a young, healthy, able-bodied person who is well versed in the resistance training department, you won’t get away with working out 2x/week just because you’re drinking creatine.

Those who go from not participating in resistance training, the elderly, or those with degenerative diseases, who suddenly begin a regimented training program are more likely to gain muscle mass and strength quicker than those who have being training for a while – regardless of the creatine supplementation (see graph below).  The young adults in Volek et. al. (1999) were experienced resistance trainers, which means they needed a higher stimulus in their muscles to elicit a result – hence the 4 sessions per week.

So basically what I’m saying is don’t expect the creatine to do all the work – you have to put in to get back.

Ok, so what conclusions have we drawn?

Is creatine worth the time and $$? If strength gains (1RM, short plyometric exercises) and muscle gains (FFM gain) are your goals – I would say yes. There are not many long term studies on the effects of using creatine for a long period of time, but so far I don’t believe anything negative has been reported. However, my guess is that you will need to continuously use it if you want to see consistent gains – so be prepared for that.

If you’re an endurance athlete, or you’re on a relaxed workout program with the a singular goal of just being active, I would say a creatine supplement is not worth it. Try eating foods that have a higher creatine content if you want to increase the levels in your body without drinking it from a shaker bottle:

Chart showing the creatine content in Herring, Beef, Salmon, Port, and Milk

Did you like this style of blog post? Was it too wordy, long, boring? I’d love to hear your feedback so I can continue to make this blog a user friendly place!

For more information packed posts, check out these:

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Until next week,



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