When I first started my career as a physique and bodybuilding coach, like everyone else that starts out, my clientele consisted of mostly beginner and first time competitors. As with most beginners and first time competitors they would always want to know what are the most important and basic supplements they should take. The most basic and common question I used to get from clients is “which form of creatine is best?”.
As the years have gone by and I have been fortunate to have some success as a coach, my clients have gotten much more advanced and now I rarely have any first time competitors. Now the clients I typically work with are professional bodybuilders or bodybuilders that are in the hunt for earning pro status. As time has gone by some things have changed and some things have not.
Even though my clientele is far more advanced than it used to be, one of the most common questions I get from my client is still “which form of creatine is best?”
Every newbie in the weight room can now take comfort in knowing that many pro bodybuilders are just as lost and misinformed as them when it comes to creatine supplements. So let’s see if we can’t clear up a bit of the confusion for the new and experienced alike.
What is Creatine and how does it work?
Believe it or not I still encounter people that think creatine is a steroid, they just know that it makes you bigger and stronger, so it must be a steroid. Then there are others that don’t care how it works, they just know it makes you bigger and stronger, and they want that! Well, it is not a steroid and I also never recommend using something without knowing how it works. To understand how and why creatine is useful you must first understand a bit about how energy is used in a muscle during training.
Adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP) is the energy source used by muscle cells to fuel muscle contraction. ATP is broken down and a phosphate is released along with adenosine di-phosphate (ADP). The ADP will be recycled as a phosphate will be reattached and ATP is formed again.
The mitochondria of each cells is charged with the job of energy production. The mitochondria convert glucose, fatty acids, and ketones into ATP through the Krebs Cycle or TCA cycle.
Creatine interacts with an enzyme process called creatine kinase (CK) where it picks up a phosphate molecule and becomes creatine phosphate also called phosphocreatine (CP). Creatine kinase will then remove the phosphate molecule from CP and it is donated to ADP to create ATP.
During high intensity activity the ATP-CP system becomes extremely important as this is the energy system that will kick in even before the glycolytic system (where glucose is used to produce ATP) (1-2). When activity begins we already have a large supply of ATP and CP, but muscle cells use up the store of ATP very quickly. This leaves ADP available which is converted back into ATP by the stores of creatine phosphate. Unfortunately this process can leave creatine phosphate levels nearly entirely depleted (3).
Creatine phosphate is needed to continue to recycle ADP into ATP and make is available for energy by the cells. This process also prevents intracellular levels of ADP from elevating which can decrease power output by decreasing cellular respiration and speeds up energy requirements (4).
Here is where we get into how creatine supplementation is useful. The ATP-CP system is short lived and only provides roughly 5-10 seconds as the primary energy source during a set before glycolytic pathway takes over the bulk of the burden of ATP replenishment (5-7). Beyond this point the phosphocreatine system still provides energy but just to a lesser degree and continues to decrease as exercise continues.
Creatine is effective at improving high intensity efforts that are less than 30 seconds in duration because at this intensity, fatigue is caused by an inability of Type II fibers to maintain the high rate of ATP resynthesis that is required to maintain a high power output.
When phosphocreatine stores are rapidly depleted, glycogenolysis is not able to make up for the decrease in energy production and power output will decrease. Creatine supplementation has the ability to delay fatigue caused by depleted phosphocreatine stores by increasing the storage of creatine phosphate. So for sets under 30 seconds creatine supplementation will enhance power output (5).
Now besides the benefits of creatine as an energy source and its ability to increase power output, it also has several other benefits. Creatine has the ability to increase cellular hydration or “cell swelling”. Increased cellular hydration is thought to reduce protein catabolism and increase the synthesis of DNA (8). It has also been shown to increase growth of MHC type I and type II fibers (9) as well as act as an anti-catabolic by decreasing myostatin (10), which is a muscle growth inhibiting gene within the human body.
So as you can see, creatine is WITHOUT A DOUBT an effective supplement that offers benefits to athletes and physique athletes through several mechanisms of action.
There is a reason that creatine is the most researched supplement there is on the market.
It has been proven to work, time and time again, and offers advantages that are multifaceted. Clearly something that should not be overlooked.
This is where many people get lost. It seems that every few months there is a new “advanced creatine” that is hitting the market. They all have some amazing adjective and adverb laden name like “Super Mega Ultra Advanced Creatine Delivery Technology Breakthrough”. All the marketing for these different forms claim to be the best, and all tell you that they have the scientific research to back it up. Well, let’s get down to the nitty gritty and see what the research really says about some of the more popular forms of creatine.
Creatine Monohydrate- Creatine monohydrate is possibly the most researched supplement in history. Time and time again it has been proven effective and safe. It has become the standard against which all other creatines are judged. It is rather inexpensive making it an excellent supplement option even for those on a budget.
Effervescent Creatine- Effervescent creatine is made up of creatine monohydrate along with citric acid and bicarbonate. It is often touted as being more stable in liquid form as well as well as having a greater retention rate in the body. Unfortunately research has shown that it is unstable in liquids just like other forms of creatine (11) and it also has no greater retention than creatine monohydrate (12).
Creatine Nitrate- Creatine nitrate is creatine that has been bound to a nitrate group. Creatine nitrate has been found to be about 10x more soluble than creatine monohydrate which may allow it to cause less gastric distress to those that sometimes experience stomach issues with regular creatine monohydrate. However, the claims of creatine nitrate being more effective for increasing strength or power have not been shown to be true.
Creatine Citrate- Creatine that has been bonded with citric acid. It is often claimed that creatine citrate is more absorbable and therefore more effective at increasing muscle creatine stores. However, research has shown this is not the case and only appears to be as effective as creatine monohydrate (13).
Creatine Ethyl Ester (CEE)- Creatine ethyl ester is commonly called an “advanced creatine” and that it “increases uptake” over standard creatine monohydrate. It is funny that this is the common marketing claim because the truth is that creatine ethyl ester rapidly degrades into the metabolite creatinine in the intestines, almost completely in fact (14,15). Therefore making it FAR LESS effective than its cheaper counterpart creatine monohydrate. This is an extremely ineffective supplement. Don’t waste your money on this.
Buffered Creating (Kre-Alkalyn)- This is also known as Buffered Creatine. The buffer is actually sodium bicarbonate, more commonly known as baking soda. The marketing claim for buffered creatine is that you don’t have to take as high dosages as regular monohydrate because more of the product will pass through the stomach and GI tract through less degradation. Unfortunately Kre-Alkalyn is negated by stomach acid and turns into a basic creatine molecule. The claim that regular creatine monohydrate needs to be buffered in order to prevent it from breaking down into creatinine with the body is inaccurate. High acidity environments, like in your stomach, will actually slow the conversion of creatine to creatinine. So once you take creatine there will be very little degradation (16). This makes Kre-Alkalyn no more effective than regular creatine monohydrate. In fact, one study even showed Kre-Alkalyn less LESS effective at promoting changes in muscle creatine content than regular creatine monohydrate (17). This was body at the recommend lower dose for Kre-Alkalyn as well as an equivalent dose of monohydrate. This is a little disappointing when you consider it is also more expensive.
Magnesium Creatine Chelate- There is some research that shows creatine magnesium chelate enhances uptake of creatine into muscle cells as well as intracellular water (18). However, at this time any performance benefits are still yet to be shown.
Creatine Pyruvate- There is actually some mixed research on creatine pyruvate. Creatine pyruvate was found to be more effective than creatine citrate (19) which is promising since creatine citrate appears to be as effective as creatine monohydrate. Other research also shows that creatine pyruvate raises plasma creatine levels to a greater degree than monohydrate BUT it was no more effective in terms of absorption (20). Another study also showed that creatine pyruvate intake failed to improve cycling performance both in an endurance capacity as well as sprinting (21).
Creatine Malate- This is creatine that has been bound with malic acid. This form of creatine has yet to be researched to determine its effectiveness. However, malic acid may have performance enhancing benefits on its own (22).
Creatine Hydrochloride (Con-Crete)– Creatine Hydrochloride is typically marketed as being more soluble and also absorbs more rapidly in the GI tract. While it is true that hydrochloride typically bound to amines will have these abilities, this has not yet been proven to be the case with creatine hcl. There are as of yet no studies to show superior absorption of creatine hcl or improved performance.
Which one is best?
As you can see from reading the list above, many of the so called “advanced creatine” products are not so advanced after all. While creatines like creatine nitrate may ease gastric distress for the few that have this issue, and magnesium chelate can enhance intracellular water, at this time there is no reason why you should use anything other than good old creatine monohydrate. None of the other formulations have outperformed creatine monohydrate in terms of a performance aspect and all of the claims of poor absorption of creatine monohydrate are not accurate. Creatine monohydrate has clearly been shown to clear the stomach be absorbed intact.
I know you are probably thinking, “You made me read all that just to recommend boring creatine monohydrate?”
Well, now you know the truth behind all the fancy claims of each product.
Pills, Powders and Liquids….OH MY!
One last thing to consider in your choice of creatine is whether to buy it in the form of pills, powder, or liquid. Here are some things to consider.
Creatine Powder- Creatine powder is often cheapest, it mixes easily, and most forms have no taste at all (unless it is flavored). This is a very good form to buy as you can easily add it to many beverages or just drink it alone. To get an effective 5 gram dose it is typically only 1 heaped teaspoon.
Creatine Capsules- Creatine capsules have the advantage of traveling a little easier if that is of use to you. They are equally effective as the powder. Sometimes pills can cost a bit more than powder, but not much more. The only other downside is that commonly it will require taking 3-5 pills to equal a 5 gram dose. For those that don’t like taking a lot of pills this is not a good option.
Liquid Creatine- STAY THE HELL AWAY FROM LIQUID CREATINE! Given the fact that creatine is unstable in aqueous solution and will eventually degrade into worthless creatinine, I find it very disturbing that companies would actually sell liquid creatine. It is often claimed that this enhances absorption but the truth is that by the time you take liquid creatine, it has more than likely completely degraded into creatinine.
AND IF YOU DON’T KNOW…NOW YOU KNOW
It may be cliché but knowledge truly is power. The less informed will always be at the mercy of those that are more informed. In your efforts to arm your body with muscle tissue so must we arm our minds with knowledge. So the next time you walk into the supplement shop and the salesman tries to sell you the new “Triple Strength Hyper Max Creatine” product, you can confidently walk over to the creatine monohydrate and know you are making the right choice.
1. Bangsbo J, Graham TE, Kiens B, Saltin B. Elevated muscle glycogen and anaerobic energy production during exhaustive exercise in man. J Physiol. 1992;451:205-27.
2. Boulay MR, Lortie G, Simoneau JA, Hamel P, Leblanc C, Bouchard C. Specificity of aerobic and anaerobic work capacities and powers. Int J Sports Med. 1985 Dec;6(6):325-8.
3. Sargeant AJ. Structural and functional determinants of human muscle power. Exp Physiol. 2007 Mar;92(2):323-31. Epub 2007 Jan 25. Review.
4. Saks VA, Kongas O, Vendelin M, Kay L. Role of the creatine/phosphocreatine system in the regulation of mitochondrial respiration. Acta Physiol Scand. 2000 Apr;168(4):635-41.
5. Branch JD. Effect of creatine supplementation and performance: a meta-analysis. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2003
6. Bangsbo J, Krustrup P, González-Alonso J, Saltin B. ATP production and efficiency of human skeletal muscle during intense exercise: effect of previous exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2001 Jun;280(6):E956-64.
7. Maughan RJ, Gleeson M, Greenhaff PL. Biochemistry of exercise and training. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
8. Haussinger D, et al. Cellular hydration state: an important determinant of protein catabolism in health and disease. Lancet. 1993
9. Deldicque L, Atherton P, Patel R, Theisen D, Nielens H, Rennie MJ, Francaux M. Effects of resistance exercise with and without creatine supplementation on gene expression and cell signaling in human skeletal muscle. J Appl Physiol. 2008 Feb;104(2):371-8.
10. Saremi A, Gharakhanloo R, Sharghi S, Gharaati MR, Larijani B, Omidfar K. Effects of oral creatine and resistance training on serum myostatin and GASP-1. Mol Cell Endocrinol. 2010 Apr 12;317(1-2):25-30.
11. Ganguly S, Jayappa S, Dash AK: Evaluation of the stability of creatine in solution prepared from effervescent creatine formulations. AAPS PharmSciTech 2003, 4:E25
12. Greenwood, M; Kreider, R; Earnest, C; Rasmussen, C; Almada, A. Differences in creatine retention among three nutritional formulations of oral creatine supplements. Journal of Exercise Physiology Online . May2003, Vol. 6 Issue 2, p37-43. 7p.
13. Jäger R, Harris RC, Purpura M, Francaux M: Comparison of new forms of creatine in raising plasma creatine levels. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 2007, 4:17
14. Child R, Tallon M, Creatine ethyl ester rapidly degrades to creatinine in stomach acid. Abstract presented at 4th annual conference of the ISSN 2007.
15. Spillane M, Schoch R, Cooke M, Harvey T, Greenwood M, Kreider R, Willoughby DS: The effects of creatine ethyl ester supplementation combined with heavy resistance training on body composition, muscle performance, and serum and muscle creatine levels. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 2009, 6:6.
16. Deldicque L, Décombaz J, Zbinden Foncea H, Vuichoud J, Poortmans JR, Francaux M. Kinetics of creatine ingested as a food ingredient. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2008 Jan;102(2):133-43.
17. Jagim AR, Oliver JM, Sanchez A, Galvan E, Fluckey J, Riechman S, Greenwood M, Kelly K, Meininger C, Rasmussen C, Kreider RB. A buffered form of creatine does not promote greater changes in muscle creatine content, body composition, or training adaptations than creatine monohydrate. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012 Sep 13;9(1):43.
18. Brilla, L. R., et al. “Magnesium-creatine supplementation effects on body water.” Metabolism 52.9 (2003): 1136-1140.
19. Jäger R, Metzger J, Lautmann K, Shushakov V, Purpura M, Geiss K, Maassen N: The effects of creatine pyruvate and creatine citrate on performance during high intensity exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 2008, 5:4
20. Jager R, Harris RC, Purpura M, Francaux M: Comparison of new forms of creatine in raising plasma creatine levels. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 2007 Nov 12; 4:17
21. Van Schuylenbergh R, Van Leemputte M, Hespel P: Effects of oral creatine-pyruvate supplementation in cycling performance. Int J Sports Med 2003 Feb;24(2): 144-150
22. Wu, J., Wu, Q., Huang, J., Chen, R., Cai, M., & Tan, J. (2007). Effects of L-malate on physical stamina and activities of enzymes related to the malate-aspartate shuttle in liver of mice. Physiological research, 56(2), 213.