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Creatine and the Theory Behind Supplementation

Before we dive into the topic of creatine supplementation, I must allude to the Chinese proverb I used in the first Nutrition for the Power Athlete article:

“He that takes medicine and neglects diet wastes the skill of the physician.”

I just want to open this way because most supplements, like most medicines, are not as effective if the diet is poor. So if you have not yet read the Nutrition for the Power Athlete articles, I encourage you to do so.

The next thing I’d like to bring up before diving into the supplement world is…the bell shaped curve.  If you have ever studied statistics, or even if you haven’t, you have most likely heard of it as it is the most prominent probability distribution used in statistics. Statistics was not my favorite class in undergraduate or graduate school, but I did learn many things that were/are practical and applicable to my life in general, but also my diet and training specifically. Without going into too much detail, and trying to keep things simple and relevant to our topic…the bell shape curve (sometimes called a normal curve) represents a normal distribution, and is an easy way to view how a specific variable or property has an “effect” on a group of people or population. Again, this is by no means a complete explanation of normal distribution, but it will serve our purposes. If you want to learn more, just watch a few videos on YouTube by searching “bell shape curve” or “normal distribution curve.”  Or you can read a stats book…

bell curve
Creatine and the bell curve: Works for most, then a small percentage of non and super-responders!

Anyway, the basic premise is that an effect of a specific variable will be distributed throughout a group in the shape of a bell curve. This means, for example, that the response to a specific stimuli is not exactly the same for every person in a group. If you think about it like a spectrum, and using creatine as an example, the majority of a group will have some significant response to creatine supplementation, while a small portion will show a non-significant (non-responder) response and another small portion on the opposite end of the spectrum will show a very significant response. If you have ever seen the movie Unbreakable, (spoiler alert!) you’ll understand how Mr. Glass and the main character are both the minority at opposite ends of the human spectrum, with the majority of humans somewhere in between.

Back to the point: even when research shows a supplement to be “effective”, there are, most often, “statistical outliers” that are either not dealt with statistically or are only mentioned in passing.  Since creatine has been studied so heavily, we understand that the majority of people respond quite well to its use…while others seem to show little to no response at all.  All that to say…if you try using it and it doesn’t seem to work, you may have poor quality creatine or you may just be a “non-responder”.  As an example, Eric Cressey explains on his blog that he is a “non-responder” with regard to supplements, specifically mentioning that he does not gain “water-weight” often associated with creatine supplementation.

no stronger
If you aren’t getting any stronger using creatine, it’s not that it doesn’t work, you might just be a non-responder, or need to buy less shady supplements!

Theoretical premise of Creatine supplementation:

The main theory behind the use of creatine comes down to turning ADP back into ATP. For most body cells, but specifically muscle cells, energy that is immediately available is stored in the form of a high-energy phosphate called ATP (adenosine triphosphate).  Unfortunately (in my opinion) cells store only enough ATP to fuel max effort muscle contraction for a very limited time…like a few seconds.  The process of generating fuel from ATP is called hydrolysis, because water is required for the reaction to occur.  A very simplified version of how ATP serves as energy or fuel is as follows:

An enzyme, called ATPase separates one of the three phosphate bonds on ATP (adenosine triphosphate) which makes available energy for contraction, but also yields a proton, heat, entropy, and an inorganic phosphate.  This reaction turns ATP into ADP (adenosine diphosphate) since the enzyme ATPase broke one the of the phosphate bonds.


ATP + water (and the enzyme ATPase)  =  ADP + an inorganic phosphate + a hydrogen ion (proton) + heat + entropy + free energy.

How energy is created in muscle

A bit of an aside…but this is just another reason water is still the most important “ergogenic aid” out there. Without proper hydration, both this reaction to create energy as well as the ability to dissipate the heat created by this reaction could not occur. Dehydration = limited hydrolysis + over heating.

Water: Is it in you?

To maintain high intensity muscle contraction, the body’s cells act to re-synthesize ATP from ADP and a high energy phosphate. Creatine phosphate (CP, also called phosphocreatine, PCr), which is also stored in very small quantities in muscle (enough for another couple seconds of max effort muscle contraction), is a major player in the reaction that turns ADP back into ATP so that the hydrolysis reaction can occur to release more energy for contraction.   


CP + ADP + a hydrogen ion (proton) = creatine + ATP + heat

ATP life cycle
The ATP life cycle

So the theory is that ingesting creatine monohydrate will increase cellular levels of CP, which would then allow for more immediate resynthesis of ADP and ATP and thus improve muscular strength and endurance.

And what do you know?  After 1000+ studies on creatine supplementation, the theory is quite sound and supplementation quite safe.

Though we now understand that creatine supplementation may have performance benefits for most (if not all) athletic activities, the potential benefits for the Power Athlete are quite clear. As I alluded to before, creatine supplementation increases the stored levels of CP (creatine phosphate) in the muscle.  This means energy production for maximal effort activity can be maintained for longer than normal. Creatine supplementation may only allow for the maintenance of maximal sprint speed for a fraction of a second longer than normal, or the ability to complete 1 more rep when weight training, but when these gains are compounded over multiple training sessions, the results will speak for themselves. 

Another way creatine can improve your athletic performance is by allowing more CP to be available for recovery between sets or bouts of a specific exercise or activity. For example, recovery between sets of squats or sprints can occur faster with creatine supplementation, allowing for a reduction in time between training sessions or an increase in the quality of each training session.

That’s all for now…but stay tuned for Creatine Part 2.

In the next article I’ll discuss the What, When, Why, and How of creatine supplementation, along with a few other details that research has brought to light on the topic.


Balsom, P.D., Soderlund, K., Edblom, B.  (1994).  Creatine in Humans with Special Reference to Creatine Supplementation. Sports Medicine. 18:  268-280.

Krieder, R.B.  (2008).  Sports Applications of Creatine.  In J. Antonio, D. Kalman, J.R. Stout,M. Greenwood, D.S. Willoughby, and G.G. Haff (Eds.), Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplements (pp. 417-439). Totowa, New Jersey:  Humana Press

Scott, C.B.  (2008).  Thermodynamics, Biochemistry, and Metabolism.  In J. Antonio, D. Kalman, J.R. Stout, M. Greenwood, D.S. Willoughby, and G.G. Haff (Eds.), Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplements (pp. 3-20). Totowa, New  Jersey:  Humana Press

Bio: Kevin Kuhn, M.S.Ed., is the head strength and conditioning coach for the Indiana Invaders professional running club in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is also the sole proprietor of Kuhnesiology by Kevin Kuhn LLC, where he contracts out of Fitness Garage, located in Zionsville, Indiana. He specializes in athletic performance with great interest and experience in running-specific strength and conditioning, corrective exercise, exercise and sport nutrition, as well as general fitness and weight-loss. In 2009 he earned his B.S. in Exercise Science from Cedarville University and in 2011 he earned his Master’s degree in Exercise Physiology with an emphasis in Strength and Conditioning from Baylor University. He plans to begin his Ph.D. in Sport Physiology at East Tennessee State University In the Fall of 2012. Kevin has been certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and by the International Society of Sports Nutrition as a Certified Sports Nutritionist (CISSN). While in college, he competed in both Cross Country and Track and Field, specializing in 800 meters, 1500 meters, and 3k Steeplechase. Follow Kevin’s blog at:  kuhnesiology.blogspot.com

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