How to Gain Lean Muscle Mass With Creatine

This bodybuilding supplement enhances tolerance and recovery time

GNC Creatine on a shelf
Andrew St. Clair

Creatine is a metabolite produced in the body that is composed of three amino acids: l-methionine, l-arginine and l-glycine. About 95 percent of the concentration is found in skeletal muscle in two forms: creatine phosphate and free chemically unbound creatine. The other 5 percent of the creatine stored in the body is found in the brain, heart and testes. The body of a sedentary person metabolizes an average of 2 grams of creatine a day. Bodybuilders, because of their high-intensity training, metabolize higher amounts than that.

Creatine is generally found in red meats and to some extent in certain types of fish. But it would be hard to get the amount of creatine necessary for performance enhancement from food because even though 2.2 pounds of red meat or tuna contain about 4 to 5 grams of creatine, the compound is destroyed with cooking. Therefore, the best way to get creatine is by taking it as a supplement.

How Does Creatine Work?

While there is still much debate about how creatine exerts its performance-enhancing benefits and increases lean muscle mass, it is commonly accepted that most of its effects are a result of two mechanisms: intra-cellular water retention and creatine's ability to enhance ATP production.

Once the creatine is stored inside of the muscle cell, it attracts the water surrounding the cell, which enlarges it. This super-hydrated state of the cell causes positive side effects, such as an increase in strength, and it also gives the appearance of a fuller muscle.

Creatine provides for faster recovery between sets and increased tolerance to high-volume work. The way it does this is by enhancing the body's ability to produce adenosine triphosphate or ATP. ATP is the compound that your muscles use for fuel whenever they contract. ATP provides its energy by releasing one of its three phosphate molecules. After the release of a molecule, ATP becomes ADP (adenosine diphosphate) because it now has two molecules.

The problem is that after 10 seconds of contraction time, the ATP fuel extinguishes and to support further muscle contraction, glycolysis (glycogen burning) has to kick in. Lactic acid is a byproduct of that mechanism. Lactic acid is what causes the burning sensation at the end of the set. When too much lactic acid is produced, your muscle contractions stop, forcing you to stop the set. By taking creatine, you can extend the 10-second limit of your ATP system because creatine provides ADP, the phosphate molecule that it is missing. By upgrading your body's ability to regenerate ATP, you can exercise longer and harder because you minimize your lactic acid production. You will be able to take your sets to the next level and reduce fatigue levels. More volume, strength and recovery equal more muscle mass.

How to Use Creatine

Most producers of creatine recommend a loading phase of 20 grams for five days and 5 to 10 grams thereafter. Recall that the creatine is stored every time you take it. So by taking it every day eventually you will reach the upper levels that provide the performance enhancement. After you reach that level, you could get away with just taking it on your weight training days because it takes two weeks of no use for the body's creatine levels to get back to normal.

Side Effects

The Food and Drug Administration does not hold supplements, such as creatine, to the same standards and testing as over-the-counter or prescription drugs. Therefore, you cannot be sure that any supplement is safe. Long-term side effects of creatine are not yet known. Most healthy people seem to have no major issues while taking creatine, but the University of Maryland Medical Center reports that the following side effects are possible:

  • Weight gain
  • Muscle cramps
  • Muscle strains and pulls
  • Stomach upset
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • High blood pressure
  • Liver dysfunction
  • Kidney damage

The FDA advises that you should check with your doctor before taking creatine about the proper dosage and to be sure it will not interact with any medications you are taking or adversely affect any medical conditions you might have.