Creatine: The Truth?

I'm writing this piece for 2 reasons:
I get a whole lot of questions about creatine, and
my opinion on creatine has changed greatly in the last year.

Myths about Creatine

Stomach upset/cramps - I have never experienced this myself, but have heard of it happening. The most probable reason for this would be taking too much. 5 grams is recommended, even up to 10 grams. But keep in mind a 250 pound guy is going to handle 10 grams better than a 90 pound girl. If your stomach gets upset or cramped, try using less at a time. I won't rule out that some people just may not be able to tolerate it, though this would be the exception, not the rule.

Dehydration - This is a possibility. The fact is, creatine causes your muscle cells to retain more water, and if you don't drink enough, it will get that water from your body, resulting in dehydration. To avoid this, you just have to drink more water, which you should be doing anyhow if you want to train seriously. Stats show something like a 30% decrease in strength associated with a 10% decrease in hydration (numbers may be off, but I think you get the point).

Death - I've never heard of anybody dying from it, and can't even fathom how it might come about. Sure they might be freak coincidences, like they don't drink enough, do some diuretic thing, and swallow 50 grams of creatine, but really, I doubt it!

Cycling - I've heard of this as well, but usually only on some 'hard core' web sites, which think that since it increases mass, it must be treated like steroids. Creatine is a nutritional supplement, not a hormone, so your body doesn't adapt to it. Just like carbs, you don't have to cycle them do you? Well, that raises an interesting point, because if you were to cycle carbs, you'd improve insulin sensitivity, so when you started taking them again, you're muscles would absorb more glycogen, and water, and your muscles would look and feel bigger and more pumped. So who knows, there may be some minor benefit to cycling, but I doubt you'd ever notice.

Put on 10 pounds of lean mass in a week! - You'll see this or something very much like it on many creatine adds. Sure you'll add 10 pounds, and no it won't be fat, but it definitely isn't lean muscle either. It's water, pure and simple. There's just no way a human can build up 10, or even 5 pounds of muscle in 1 week. Stop using it, and the weight will slowly melt off.

Creatine works, doesn't it?

My personal opinion on creatine has change a lot in the last year. I currently don't use it at all. If you've ever used it, then I'm sure you've heard that it is more effective when taken with simple carbs, because the resulting insulin spike results in more uptake into cells. I like to maintain a low-carb diet most of the time, which doesn't jive well with creatine at all, which is why I stopped using it.

When you first start taking creatine, you go on a loading phase, 5-7 days of 5 times 5 gram servings a day, preferably with simple carbohydrates. Assuming you're drinking it with juice or something, that probably means you're increasing your carbohydrate intake by about 150 grams a day. Even if you didn't include creatine, the carbohydrates alone would cause you to 'bulk up', and look and feel bigger and stronger. But would you drink simple carbs 5 times a day?

Say you do load up on creatine and gain 10 pounds in one week, pretty amazing isn't it? But do you really think you grew 10 pounds of muscle? No. The fact is, that extra weight is due to more water retention in your muscles (not the bad water retention that makes you look puffy), and if you stop taking creatine, you'll lose the water and be back where you started.

Chances are, after loading up on creatine, you'll also feel stronger. I won't argue that creatine is used to immediately replenish ATP in a working muscle, but is this necessarily a good thing? Say after one week you can lift 20% more weight, impressive for sure. But what about your tendons? Did they get stronger? No, so suddenly you exposing your tendons to forces much heavier than they've ever dealt with before. What about your nervous system? Too much heavy training leads to burn out and overtraining.

An interesting question about weight training is, does lifting heavier weight cause you to grow faster? Think about that. Sure, lifting some weight for 10 reps to failure is going to make you grow faster than lifting a lighter weight for 30 reps not even close to failure. But what if you lift 200 pounds for 10 reps to failure, then load up on creatine, and lift 240 pounds for 10 reps to failure? Isn't that the same amount of effort? Wouldn't you be recruiting and stimulating the same percentage of your muscle fibers? Just because an experienced bodybuilder can lift 200 pounds, but a beginner can only lift 150, does the experienced bodybuilder grow faster? Not likely.

Probably the only potential long term benefit of creatine would be if it helps you build muscle faster. As you can tell by now, I don't believe the extra strength causes faster muscle growth. Some articles say the increased hydration may cause more protein synthesis. But really, protein synthesis is controlled by DNA and hormones like GH and testosterone, not water! I could argue it this way: wouldn't more water in the cell dilute the testosterone, causing less contact with binding sites, therefore less protein synthesis? This is an iffy area, and I have never heard of a study claiming increased muscle growth. Even advertisements don't claim this, they just say 'Gain 10 pounds of muscle in a week!". Sure, add water to muscle and it's heavier. Big surprise.

But what about the studies? And the magazines? Why would they all support creatine? The truth is, the same people that own the magazines, own the supplement company's, who also happen to fund the various studies showing how great creatine is. Any magazine that isn't closely associated with some supplement line is probably too poor to fund its own studies, so they just go along with what the big boys say.

Creatine has gotten so much hype about being the 'real thing', steroid alternative, etc., and here's why: The add says 'Put on 10 pounds of lean mass in 10 days!', the bodybuilder goes to the store and buys some. He (or she) follows the directions, and 'loads up' on creatine for a week (ingesting the associated extra 150-200 grams of carbs per day), and to his pleasant surprise, he weighs 10 pounds more! What about the strength gains? Well, it's done everything it said it would so far, and I am bigger, why wouldn't I be stronger? And sure enough, they go to the gym and break personal bests.

Creatine does everything it says it will, of course the supplement companies are gonna pounce all over it! They're gonna dig up study after study to tell you how great it is, and if they can't find one, they'll fund one. Do they just want what's best for you? No, they just want what's in your wallet.

My advice: save your money. Comments? I'm all ears (or eyes rather)!