What Does Creatine Actually Do?

The mention of creatine might conjure the image of a flavorless white powder that adds a certain sand-like quality to your post-gym protein shake, but the compound is also found in foods like milk, red meat, and certain fish. The human body also synthesizes creatine on its own in the liver, kidneys, and pancreas—up to 1 gram per day. If you think your body doesn’t contain creatine because you abstain from any powders or capsules—guess again, meathead. You contain creatine.

The recommended daily dose is 3 to 5 grams per day, and relying on food sources alone to hit this mark can be unwieldy (for example, it might take a heaping 32 ounces of steak). That’s why it’s popular as a standalone supplement.

Once ingested or synthesized, creatine is converted to creatine phosphate and stored mostly in skeletal muscle (your muscle muscles like biceps, quadriceps, etc.), but is also found in the brain.

There are many different types of creatine supplements, but the one that is most recommended and readily available is creatine monohydrate. There are other versions that are more expensive, but creatine monohydrate is the one that has been studied the most, by far—other formulations mostly vary in their price points and water solubility, as one Examine article points out.

Creatine is largely thought of as an ergogenic aid, simply meaning it enhances performance. Creatine evangelists will tell you that creatine is one of the most studied supplements of all time. And they’re right. But what does creatine actually do?

During high-intensity workouts, like a 5×5 lifting program or some 100 meter sprints, your body uses the phosphocreatine stored in your muscles as a source of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the unit of energy relied upon to carry out cellular processes. Having stores of phosphocreatine available in the muscle helps eke out a couple more reps during a heavy lifting session, increases muscle mass, and aids in muscle recovery, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Depending on your age and level of education in biochemistry (or lack of time logged on Bodybuilding.com) you might think creatine is a steroid-adjacent compound. Some of us were told by high school classmates that creatine is a steroid, one that you’re not supposed to take one that might’ve gotten you in trouble for taking as a high school football bulking protocol. This notion is likely a blend of myth and truth, as creatine is definitively not a steroid—but some high schools have historically discouraged its use or banned its promotion.

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