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How Creatine Works?

June 17 2008

How Creatine Monohydrate works? Out of the thousands of supplements out there, creatine and protein are the only two which has been scientifically proven to work ti increase muscle mass growth and strength.

What was the purpose of the creatine study?

The mechanism by which creatine helps in improving strength is pretty clear; however, the effects of creatine in increasing muscle growth/mass and its underlying mechanisms are still questioned. Hence the study was conducted to find out how creatine helps in increasing muscle mass.

What do we know & do not know about creatine?

Water Retention: Creatine has shown to pull water into the muscle which obviously makes the muscle look bigger. This unique ability of creatine seems to have convinced many that the increase in muscle mass with creatine intake is simply due to water retention.

Muscle Fiber Growth: Nonetheless, studies have clearly shown a significant increase in actual muscle cross sectional (across all fiber types) with creatine intake plus strength training.

This creatine study not only shows an increase in fiber cross sectional area but also for the first time reveals an important mechanism behind this increase in muscle mass with creatine intake.

What is that unique mechanism of Creatine?

Understanding this unique mechanism will also reveal why I picked this study or why creatine is rightly called the “poor man’s steroid”.

Unique Creatine Mechanism: Unlike other cells in the body, muscle cells (or muscle fibers) are multinucleated. Considering how a muscle cell is way larger and complex than the rest of the cells in the body, it makes a lot of sense to have more than one nuclei to control the complex tasks in the muscle.

For instance, if your favorite restaurant was a muscle and the cooks the nuclei, it’s pretty safe to say that the number of cooks sets the limit to the size of the restaurant. Similarly (or somewhat), the size of your muscle is ultimately limited by the number of nuclei you have in your muscle.

Simply put, you cannot grow bigger muscles without additional nuclei to take care of the extra muscle.So where do we get these nuclei from?

muscle fiber showing nucleus and satellite cells

Figure: A muscle fiber with nuclei shown in blue and satellite cell shown in red.

These muscle nuclei sprouts from specialized cells around the muscle called satellite cells. So any increase in satellite cells means some of these cells could be “blossoming” into new nuclei.

Anabolic steroids have clearly shown to increase the number of satellite cells and muscle nuclei even without any strength training stimulus to facilitate the addition of nuclei. Now, guess what happens when you combine steroids with training.

What were the results of the Creatine study?

  • Creatine intake along with training was shown to cause a substantial increase in the number of satellite cells and myonuclei compared to strength training alone and strength training with protein intake.
  • Further, creatine intake with resistance training showed the greatest increase in muscle fiber size compared to other groups.

What was the creatine dosage?

  • Loading Phase: Creatine monohydrate loading (4 times a day) for 7 days.
  • Maintenance Phase: creatine (6gms) was supplemented once everyday with carbohydrates (14 gms) for 15 weeks.

Anyhow, to keep a long story short, creatine works in increasing muscle mass, and it works really well too! 

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Mumford | Sat February 28, 2009  

Great article, Anoop

i’ve noticed that there are alot of creatine types out there
Creatine Ethyl Ester, Creatine HCL, Kre-Alkalyn, all boasting higher absorption rates into the body
Is Monohydrate still the way to go, or am I simply getting gyped by these sales?

Anoop | Sun March 01, 2009  

Hi Mumford,

What else do you expect from supplement companies?

None of the formulations have shown any advantage over creatine monohydrate. Creatine monohydrate & dextrose is the only one shown to have a greater absorption.

In fact, there is a recent study which tested creatine ethyl ester. Esterification is used in pharmacological industry to boost absorption rate of drugs. And guess what, total muscle creatine & serum creatine levels were much lower with creatine ethyl ester compared to regular creatine monohydrate.

So stick with creatine monohydrate. It works and is cheap as dirt!

Mumford | Mon March 02, 2009  

Dextrose? i looked around, and someone recommended oats instead, as simple sugars “pack on the fat”. are oats as effective in delivering the creatine as dextrose? Does the GI index have any bearing on creatine absorption?

Mumford | Mon March 02, 2009  

and additionally, even without creatine would high GI foods after workout be smart along with protein for muscle growth?

Anoop | Mon March 02, 2009  

Good question. I don’t know.

The GI index has a bearing because the increase in absorption is partly because due the insulin spike.

But I would say forget about using dextrose. The studies which looked at dextrose and creatine and found better absorption used like 100 gms of dextrose for 5 gms of creatine which is pretty insane. And I don’t know if that little increase is worth all that sugar.

Anoop | Mon March 02, 2009  

Yes. High GI foods along with protein is the way to go after your workouts. The insulin spike mainly helps in lowering protein breakdown.

Though some recommend low GI (like Alan Aragon), most studies have shown all the good things with dextrose or quick acting sugars.

Also check the new forum.

matt | Sat March 21, 2009  

This is a great site, thanks. My question regarding creatine monohydrate; is it subject to your protein conclusions on effectiveness as to when it is taken with regards to your workout?

I ask because I typically take it in the morning with my oatmeal and work out in the evening after work.

Regarding your protein intake article. You seem to overstate the protein recommended amounts in comparison to other educational studies I have read, and even over your own resource references. Is excess protein stored as fat? Shouldn’t that be the cutoff point which others say is ~.7 grams per pound for an average male that exercises frequently, but is not an elite athlete?
Double the RDA amount

Anoop | Sat March 21, 2009  

Hi Matt,

Thanks for the comment.

Regarding your creatine question, there was one or two studies which showed increase creatine uptake if taken around your workouts. Bit I don’t think it will make a noticeable difference.

Excess protein could be stored as fat if you are in a hyper caloric state. Regarding the high protein, the whole article was all about why “high protein” is better. Do you have anything specific about the issues I raised in that article?

Anatoly | Thu April 09, 2009  

Cycling creatine usage.
Is there any seance to make a break of creatine use from time to time? Or I can use it constantly?
Thanks, Anoop.

Anoop | Sat April 11, 2009  

Hi Anatoly,

I haven’t come across any studies which show any benefit to cycling creatine.

And physiologically speaking, there are no receptors involved in creatine uoptake to suspect an agonist-induced receptor desensitization. One reason why you have to increase dosage or cycle thermogenics (or other drugs which is receptor mediated) is because the receptors get desensitized because of all the stimulation.

If creatine need to be cycled, it makes a case for cycling protein too. But I don’t see a good reason. Have you felt anything different with cycling creatine?

Anatoly | Sun April 12, 2009  

I use creatine in my first time, so I can’t say nothing. I just saw some articles on creatine usage that recommends cycling.
Thanks, Anoop

Shane | Thu April 30, 2009  

so, would you reccomend creatine to a 16-year-old who has only been weightlifting for about a year?

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