What is Creatine and Why Do Athletes Use It?
If you’re an active person or are part of the athletic community, chances are high that you’ve tried — or at least heard of — creatine. Next to protein powders, creatine is one of the most widely used supplements to improve athletic performance and increase strength.
But you might be wondering, what exactly is creatine? Let’s examine what you’ll find inside a bottle of creatine, plus my recommendation for the best type of creatine to support your athletic goals.
What is Creatine?
While it is best known as a popular supplement, creatine is actually a naturally occurring compound in certain foods, like meat and fish. It’s also produced in your body by amino acids like glycine, arginine, and methionine. Your pancreas, liver, and kidneys are primarily where creatine is synthesized.
On average, your body can produce around 1-2 grams of creatine per day. As for the creatine content of meat and fish, the amount is pretty small. In fact, you would need to consume approximately 1 pound (16 ounces) of these foods to obtain 1-2 grams of creatine.
What is Creatine Used For?
When creatine is consumed or produced in your body, approximately 95% of it is stored in your muscles as phosphocreatine. From there, it can be used as a quick energy source for short bursts of high-intensity activities as well as replenish your ATP stores (the primary energy for cells).
When you’re doing high-intensity activities, like sprinting, jump-roping, or burpees, the energy demand can be greater than the speed at which your ATP stores are repleted. This is where creatine shines, providing that fast fuel and contributing to ATP storage.
In other words, when supplementing with creatine, you’re increasing the phosphocreatine stores within your muscles anywhere from 10-40%, allowing your body to work at a higher intensity for a longer period of time.
That’s why so many athletes who are looking to increase high-intensity exercise capacity and lean body mass choose creatine. For this purpose, creatine is the safest and most effective nutritional supplement currently available.
It’s important to clarify that while supplemental creatine is helpful for high-intensity workouts, it’s not going to be super beneficial for endurance exercises like running long distances.
What’s the Best Type of Creatine?
When choosing a creatine supplement, know that there are several types. The most widely used and researched is creatine monohydrate, but other forms include creatine ethyl ester, buffered creatine, and creatine hydrochloride (creatine hcl).
All of them work in a similar way, but each one has its own distinct characteristics, like how quickly they’re absorbed. You can also generally find them in a variety of forms, whether it’s a powder to mix with water, a chewable tablet, or capsules to take before a workout.
Here’s a more detailed breakdown of each type of creatine you may come across:
Creatine monohydrate: This is a white, crystalline powder that is quickly absorbed and transferred from your blood to your muscles to be used for energy. It typically has no odor or flavor.
Creatine ethyl ester: This form has been chemically modified with an ethyl group in order to boost its bioavailability. While it claims to be more effective than other forms of creatine, the evidence is mixed.
Buffered creatine: Also called Kre-Alkalyn, this type of creatine has had its pH adjusted to be less acidic compared to other forms, particularly creatine monohydrate. It also claims to be more stable, better absorbed, and have fewer potential side effects. Buffered creatine typically comes in capsules and powder.
Creatine hcl: This newest form of creatine has been modified to improve its solubility. The addition of hydrochloric acid is intended to help boost its absorption in your digestive system. In terms of creatine hcl vs monohydrate, this form is often recommended at a lower dose because of its purported better absorption, but the evidence for this is limited.
Creatine monohydrate has been around the longest and therefore we have the most data on its benefits and efficacy for athletic performance. Creatine hcl is the newest version and while promising, more research is needed.
At the end of the day, creatine monohydrate is proven to be the most effective form of supplementation. It’s also the most affordable.
One 2022 analysis of the safety, cost, and effectiveness of the several forms of creatine concluded that creatine monohydrate still comes out on top. The authors agree there’s not enough evidence yet to support the claims made by the other forms being sold, particularly when their price point is often higher than creatine monohydrate.
Creatine is a safe and effective nutritional supplement used by countless athletes. It works best when your goal is improving your high-intensity exercise capacity and increasing your lean body mass. When choosing one, I recommend creatine monohydrate as the best type of creatine.
Opt for a product that has been independently tested for quality, safety, and purity and bears a seal from NSF Certified for Sport or Informed Sport. This assures what's listed on the package is what's actually in the product, which is critical for athletes trying to avoid banned substances.
If you want more details about how to take creatine, check out this blog post. If you’re wondering whether a creatine supplement makes sense for you or are seeking other sports nutrition guidance, grab a spot on our waitlist for nutrition coaching.