Training in the gym inevitably leads to plateaus in gains. And those plateaus can lead to discouragement and possibly abandonment of your workout routine.
Sometimes you need a little help to get you over the hump and creatine supplements are one option.
Creatine supplement have been shown to be safe at moderate levels when taken in cycles throughout the year. You should not stay on creatine all of the time.
I should point out that taking creatine is not just for people wanting to get bigger. I personally have used creatine powder twice in my life for no more than a month at a time. I found that it did aid my workouts for a variety of reasons which I will discuss later.
In this article I will discuss the basics of creatine and offer practical advice on how and why you should take it in moderate levels and what you can expect as far as side effects and results.
First, what is it?
What is Creatine?
Creatine is a chemical compound made up of several amino acids that is produced naturally in the body by the liver. It is composed of three amino acids: L-arginine, glycine and L-methionine.
The purpose of creatine is to supply energy whenever needed. When it is produced and released by the liver, it is transported through your circulatory system and used immediately, or stored for use later.
Not only can you get it in your system through supplements, but it is also found naturally in some types of food, mostly lean meats such as fish, chicken and turkey, but also virtually any wild game meat.
If you do not eat a lot of meat, or are not able to kill any wild boars or pheasants, creatine powder might be the best bet.
Why Would I Take a Creatine Supplement?
Because of the chemical compounds ability to store energy, hard training athletes take creatine supplements to improve their performance. The increased energy stored in muscle cells allows athletes, or any non-professional training in the gym, to push through another set or two more than they otherwise would. If that sounds like a lot of marketing hype, it is not. Study after study has shown that increased creatine levels do improve performance in the gym.
Is there a placebo effect at work here?
Perhaps to a certain extent, however, blood test results show that creatine levels are higher than normal when taking supplements and it is a proven energy source.
So perhaps both are at work, however, the end result is positive. If taking the supplement makes you think you are stronger as well as actually providing you a little more energy to push through another few reps, then the supplement is accomplishing its goal.
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How to Take Creatine
In order to get the most benefits out of creatine supplements, you have to take the right type for you, the right amount, at the right time. The way you take it and the time you take it are very important to getting the best results.
Types of Creatine Supplements
- Creatine monohydrate is bound with water
- Creatine phosphate - adds phosphate to become phosphocreatine
- Creatine Citrate - more water soluble to aid in absorption
For the average person training in the gym, a creatine monohydrate powder is the best choice since these supplements can get pricey.
Other types of delivery methods have not been tested as much as powders, and they are more expensive. Plus, if you are like me and hate taking pills, the powder will go down much easier mixed in a glass of water, juice or smoothie drink.
In fact, taking creatine with some type of juice has been shown to be more effective than just taking it with water. This will cause an insulin release faster which helps the creatine get to the storage cells faster. If you like sugary juices, this is the time to drink it guilt-free.
Each manufacturer provides a recommended dosage on their packages.
When is the Best Time to Take Creatine?
There are two theories for getting the most from creatine.
- Take it an hour before a workout to get it in your circulatory system
- Take it immediately after your workout so your depleted muscles will soak it up
In reality, it really doesn’t matter when you take it since it is stored in the muscles for use later. There are no definitive studies that show an advantage one way or the other.
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How Much Creatine do I Need?
The short answer is, it depends. Not helpful?
Well, the ideal dosage for your body type and your training method will be obtained through trial and error. This is because the amount of the supplement your body actually uses depends on a lot of natural factors beyond your control. Some people simply digest it more slowly so it takes longer to work its way into your system for use later, or not at all.
There is an initial period called loading where you take higher dosages around 20 to 30 grams a day. However, those loading periods should be kept to a minimum since the long-term effects are not known.
During the majority of your creatine cycle, you will be taking a lower dosage of between 2 to 5 grams a day.
If you are just starting out, begin with five grams a day if you weigh less than 200 lbs. If you use more than your body can process, it will simply get rid of it in your urine. Your muscle energy cells can only store so much creatine, so when you take more than your body can process, you are simply flushing your money down the toilet, as well as putting an additional strain on your kidneys.
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What is Creatine Loading?
Loading is simply the process of taking a higher dosage of creatine for the first week, then backing off. The theory behind loading suggests that when you first begin taking creatine supplements, your muscles do not have large stores of it, so the more you put into the cells initially, the more you will saturate them.
For the first five to seven days, many creatine users take between 20 – 25 grams a day.
Does it work?
Yes, but it may not be necessary. Studies have shown that loading does help with your energy initially, however, longer term studies suggest that you can get the same effect with smaller dosages from the beginning over a creatine cycle.
In short, loading will get your to your max energy potential faster, while lower dosages will take longer, but offer the same creatine levels in the blood after 30 days.
What is Creatine Cycling?
The best results you will obtain on creatine powder will come in the first month. The idea behind cycling is to stay on it for short periods of time, then cycle off for a few months, then cycle back on which will give you the opportunity to experience those first month results again.
Staying on creatine for long periods of time is not recommended.
Well, creatine is produced naturally in the body, however, supplementing the body with certain substances over long periods of time has been shown to shut off the body’s own ability to produce it in some cases.
If you take it for short periods, there is no evidence that it affects the body’s natural production of the chemical compound.
Side Effects of Creatine Supplements
During my times taking creatine, I have not had any issues except one major side effect. Dehydration. Creatine will draw water out of your muscles.
It is extremely important to drink a lot of water when taking these supplements or you will wake up in the middle of the night with a cramp in your calf, for instance, that will be about as painful a thing as you have ever experienced. You will not be able to move for several minutes while your muscle twitches.
I can honestly say that I had never had a cramp in my life until three weeks after I had been on the supplement. So I know that is what caused it.
If you have never had a muscle cramp, hope you never get one because it is painful and that area will be sore for days.
So the best thing you can do is drink a lot of water, and eat a lot of bananas. The potassium will do wonders to prevent cramps.
- Can lead to an upset stomach in some people
- Will cause cramping if large amounts of water are not consumed
There is no evidence that creatine is harmful in the long-term if taken in moderate amounts and cycled on and off.
So with that information in hand, determine whether creatine supplements in small cycles are right for your workouts.