If you’ve been reading Muscle & Strength articles for a while now you probably saw the title to this article and thought, “Oh yay, yet another creatine article…Yawn.” Well take it from someone who’s written several articles about creatine that it deserves the attention it gets. With all the other esoteric, less-validated supplements out there I’m not surprised people often forget to keep creatine somewhere in their supplement stash.
Creatine (monohydrate) is undoubtedly one of the most efficacious, well-researched sports supplements available. I mean c’mon, people often mistake it for a steroid (for God knows what reason), so it must really be doing something positive for athletic performance and/or muscle building if that’s the case.
While the benefits of creatine supplementation are always being elucidated through new research, this article will be focusing on one of the more popular topics—that being creatine supplementation and its effect on muscle recovery (both during and after exercise).
We will cover the basics of how creatine works as a biomolecule for energy production and discuss how supplementing with it can benefit your recovery both in and out of the gym.
What is creatine and how does it work?
I’m sure most readers are familiar with the molecule known as adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP), which is essentially the energy currency for the cells in your body. Muscle cells are repeatedly exhausting and restoring ATP levels in order to perform work (i.e. contract).
Theoretically then, anyway to augment the restoration process of ATP would be conducive to increasing a muscle’s capacity to perform work.
Well, lo and behold, this is precisely what the phosphocreatine energy system does in skeletal muscle tissue. This is achieved upon donation of a highly energetic phosphate molecule from a phosphocreatine molecule to an adenosine di-phosphate (ADP) molecule, thus forming a new ATP molecule. Phosphocreatine, as you may have derived already, is a creatine molecule bound to phosphate.
Supplementing with creatine and its effects on muscle recovery during exercise
Intuitively, supplementation with creatine should in fact elevate creatine concentrations in muscle tissue and thus allow for increased resynthesis of phosphocreatine molecules, yielding enhanced capacity to perform work (as we just discussed above). This has indeed been shown to be the case in research settings.[1,2]
Increasing the rate of creatine phosphate resynthesis during intense exercise appears to lower blood lactate accumulation and ammonia levels, both byproducts that inhibit peak performance output. [3,4] Furthermore, supplementation with creatine seems to most beneficial for individuals performing intermittent, high-intensity bouts of exercise (which is right up most weight lifters alley) since the main energy system being used is the phosphocreatine system.
Creatine supplementation and delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS)
So if creatine can indeed bolster recovery during exercise, you might be wondering about its effects after training/muscle damage has occurred? Most readers are likely familiar with the phenomenon known as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), ya know, that wonderful feeling of sitting down on the toilet during the days succeeding a hard leg workout.
After exhausting a muscle sufficiently through anaerobic pathways, the cells will actually be damaged and acquire a generous buildup of metabolites in the surrounding tissue. This leads to an inflammatory-repair response (i.e. DOMS) in the interim after training has occurred.
While DOMS is certainly not a “bad” thing, it is definitely a hindrance when someone is trying to maintain a frequent training regimen. For example, some people like to train certain muscles 3+ times per week, and if DOMS is constantly nagging those specific muscles than it becomes very challenging, if not dangerous and painful, to keep training those muscles without sufficient time to recover.
While creatine supplementation can enhance recovery during weight training, it doesn’t appear to have much of a role in reducing the severity and duration of DOMS after training had occurred. Reason being is that the mechanisms behind DOMS aren’t derived from intracellular creatine levels.
DOMS does indeed appear to increase certain metabolites and elevate plasma enzymes indicative of muscle damage, such as creatinine (the byproduct of creatine) and creatine kinase (the enzyme that catalyzes conversion of creatine to phosphocreatine). [6,7]
One could actually make the argument that creatine could in fact indirectly potentiate the DOMS that ensues after weight training because you work output may be increased from supplementation of creatine, which would allow for further muscle damage to occur. However, this is certainly not a reason to avoid creatine use since performance increase is the main reason you want to use it for to begin with.
Moreover, as was alluded to earlier, DOMS is not necessarily a “bad” thing (aside from its hindering effect on repeating a workout with the affected muscle groups) since it’s simply the body’s response to repairing the damage you incurred on the skeletal muscles you trained. Again, the goal of many trainees shouldn’t be to avoid DOMS altogether, but for those who train more frequently it is best to find ways to shorten the “repair” process so they can repeat the necessary exercise(s) without issues. Alas, mitigating DOMS is a rather long topic and beyond the scope of this article.
The key point to take away from this article is that creatine supplementation can certainly enhance performance output, especially anaerobically, and it does this through a variety of mechanisms (one of which appears to be by enhancing recovery during intermittent, high-intensity exercise). However, creatine supplementation doesn’t have much role in reducing DOMS nor recovery time after training has occurred, and in fact could possibly intensify DOMS from increased training output. Again, this isn’t to say creatine supplements should be avoided since performance increases and DOMS are ultimately conducive to muscle growth.
1) Hultman, E.. Bergstrom, J. & McLennon-Anderson, N. Breakdown and resynthesis of phosphorylcreatine and adenosinetriphosphate in connection with muscular work in man. Scand. J. Clin. Lab. Invest. 1967; 19, 56-66
2) Greenhaff, P. L., Bodin, K., Soderlund, K., & Hultman, E. (1994). Effect of oral creatine supplementation on skeletal muscle phosphocreatine resynthesis.American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, 266(5), E725-E730.
3) Balsom, P. D., Ekblom, B., Söerlund, K., Sjödln, B., & Hultman, E. (1993). Creatine supplementation and dynamic high‐intensity intermittent exercise.Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 3(3), 143-149.
4) McConell, G. K., Shinewell, J., Stephens, T. J., Stathis, C. G., Canny, B. J., & Snow, R. J. (2005). Creatine supplementation reduces muscle inosine monophosphate during endurance exercise in humans. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 37(12), 2054.
5) Roth, Stephen. "Why does lactic acid build up in muscles? And why does it cause soreness?: Scientific American." Science News, Articles and Information | Scientific American. N.p., n.d. <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=why-does-lactic-acid-buil>.
6) Miles, M. P., & Clarkson, P. M. (1994). Exercise-induced muscle pain, soreness, and cramps. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness,34(3), 203.
7) Armstrong, R. B. (1984). Mechanisms of exercise-induced delayed onset.Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 16(6), 529-538.