by Brett Klika
As performance-enhancing supplements are making their way to the forefront of athletic news, I am often asked, by parents and athletes alike, as to the safety and effectiveness of creatine supplementation. In communicating with these individuals, I have found many misnomers, incorrect assumptions, and just plain bad information in regards to creatine, and sports supplements in general. When considering creatine, it’s important to understand what it is, what it does, and what supplementation is supposed to do.
First of all, Creatine is not a steroid! Creatine is an organic acid naturally produced by the body. It can also be obtained from food or supplementation. It plays a critical role in forming the specific energy needed to create muscular force and movement. Depending on your muscular need for force, your body uses different primary fuels. When you are doing something for a long time at a low intensity, your body likes to use fat as its main fuel. As you crank up the intensity, your body looks to stored carbohydrates for energy. When you are doing things at a very high intensity of muscular force, lifting weights, short sprints (under 8-15 seconds or so), plyometrics, etc., your body uses a very specific method for obtaining the large amounts of energy rapidly needed. Creatine is one of the primary “fuels” involved with this process. Let’s take the bench press for example. As you lift a fairly heavy weight, your body creates explosive packets of energy from creatine in order for your muscles to contract to push the weight. Since creatine stores are limited, and the body can only create energy so fast, you will reach a point, around 8-10 seconds, where your force of muscle contraction rapidly declines, and you can’t do any more repetitions. The theory behind taking a creatine supplement is that if you are able to saturate your muscle and blood with creatine, the stores will last longer, allowing you to do a couple more seconds of high intensity activity. This may mean an extra couple of reps of a lift, a couple more maximal sprints, jumps, etc. Since your body responds to the “volume” of work you do in a training session, the idea is that creatine allows you to do more maximal work in a workout. Your body would then respond by adapting, muscles getting bigger, stronger, faster, etc. It’s important to note, however, that the initial increase in muscle size is largely due to the fact that creatine supplementation draws extra water into muscle cells, making them appear bigger. The above theories are well-supported with quite a bit of refereed, scientific literature.
One concern with creatine supplementation is that the process of drawing water into the muscles cells can cause dehydration. This happens with some users but doesn’t happen with others. In addition, creatine, whether natural or supplemented, is broken down and excreted by the kidneys. There is concern that with extra amounts of creatine needed to be broken down, the kidneys are placed under extra stress. Although the research revolving around these concerns is largely inconclusive, the biggest concern with creatine supplementation is the lack of any long-term studies done on its use. Although it may not do anything adverse in the short term, no one is completely sure what may happen with long-term use.
So, should youth athletes take creatine? Let me preface my answer with this: I make it a goal to present information with complete honesty and integrity. My knowledge is based on careful research, self experimentation, and working with thousands upon thousands of athletes of all ages and levels. I don’t just “go with what everyone else is saying” nor do I go out of my way to be the black sheep and “shock” people. Based on this, my answer to young athletes taking creatine is “no” 99% of the time.
Do I think creatine is dangerous? I can truly say I do not. I would be beyond surprised if they were to find any long-term adverse effects of basic creatine supplementation (less than 5 grams per day). Do I think its “fake” or just a gimmick? Nope. I’ve used it, many of my athletes have used it, and there is a ton of research to say that it works. The reason I steer almost all young athletes away from creatine and many other supplements is that it’s effectiveness for performance enhancement is so minimal compared to proper sleep, good nutrition, and commitment to a training program.
One thing I know about 98% of youth athletes is that they sleep like crap, eat like crap, and train like crap. Play video games till midnight, get up at 6 for school, skip breakfast, go to the gym with buddies and bench press for a week, then take a month-long hiatus from training. What creatine will do for this athlete is provide him or her with muscles full of water, and a way for him or her to spend money. In addition, although it appears safe, why take ANY risk, no matter how small, if you are not creating a situation where there could be benefits?
If a young athlete wants to gain muscle and strength they need to focus on the following, before they even think of adding anything else:
Sleep: At least 8 hours per night, more if possible. During sleep is when the body repairs and builds. Little sleep, little muscle repair. In addition, an alert, rested body is able to perform at a higher level!
Nutrition: Energy and nutrients from calories is the ONLY thing that provides building blocks for muscle. Eat 4-6 nutrient-dense meals per day, focusing on gettiing protein, complex carbohydrate, and unsaturated fat. Better nutrition, more energy, more intense workouts!
Training: Training provides the stimulus for your body to use calories from food to repair and become bigger and stronger. A training program should be safe, progressive, challenging, and well-balanced. Most of all, it needs to be consistent. Usually 3-4 days per week is ideal for weight training to see maximum benefits. Hire a professional to design it; don’t get it out of a magazine.
These 3 things will yield 10-fold the results that creatine, or any other legal supplement, will. Before I ever recommend creatine to a pre-college athlete, I require them to regiment and record these three things for 2 months. In 11 years and thousands of young athletes, I have had less than 3 meet this criterion.
As a parent or athlete, realize that the only way to improve athletic abilities is through consistent, well-designed, hard work and discipline in every aspect of training. This must be the foundation of your training, and your life. Spend your training time, money and focus on things that will create this foundation.
Coach Brett Klika is the Director of Athletic Performance at Todd Durkin’s Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, CA. He specializes in youth fitness and athletic performance, overseeing a staff of 8 strength coaches developing programs for over 300 youth per week, both athletes and non-athletes. He presents around the world to both trainers and corporations with Todd Durkin Enterprises on a variety of health, wellness, and athletic performance topics. Brett contributes monthly to the award-winning “TD Times” newsletter. If you would like to sign up, you can do so by visiting www.FitnessQuest10.com, www.ToddDurkin.com or use the contact form below: [easy-contact]