Ask Stew: Should I Supplement with Creatine?

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Because creatine occurs naturally in food, such as steaks, and is not a drug, it is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
Because creatine occurs naturally in food, such as steaks, and is not a drug, it is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Brian Jeffries/U.S. Navy photo)

I decided to answer a question I have been receiving, for more than 10 years, from people using my workouts to prepare for military and Special Forces training.

"Your training programs are effective. I have been following the routines and can do a rather large amount of sit-ups and push-ups! The question I would like to ask is -- would this program be more effective if I took creatine while doing these workouts? And would you see a difference in a short period of time?"

During the early 1990s, creatine supplementation hit the scene, and gyms, nutrition stores and supplement companies jumped on the creatine explosion. Creatine, like all other supplements sold online or in nutrition stores, is unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration. The reason is that creatine -- like protein, amino acids and vitamins -- occurs naturally in our food and is not a drug.

Creatine is found in the meat we eat. Taking a daily recommended supplement of creatine is equivalent to eating more than 10 steaks. In my mind, that goes against all that I have taught with respect to moderation, whether you are trying to lose or gain weight. Besides, the long-term effect of creatine supplements has yet to be fully determined.

Creatine has been (and still is) being promoted as a way to enhance muscular performance in just about every athletic activity there is. So why not supplement to perform better in military physical fitness training.

Right? Wrong.

Take a look at the testing procedures of military or special operations troops. You are required to perform for several minutes of high intensity while doing push-ups, sit-ups and pullups. Then almost immediately, you are required to swim, run, or ruck for miles.

The military person is a cross between an endurance athlete and a gymnast. The requirements of several hours of endurance activities, along with short, explosive, body-weight movements, make taking creatine detrimental to the military person (if you want to be able to perform a wartime mission). If you want to be a bodybuilder or bench press a truck, go for it. Creatine can help you.

Physiology of creatine in exercise

Without getting too technical, creatine is best used by the muscles when performing short, high-intensity, explosive exercises like powerlifting, sprinting and other anaerobic sports. Creatine can help the body grow muscle mass for short bursts of 6-10 seconds of full-exertion movements. Once you step into the aerobic or cardio zone with longer, slower runs, creatine offers little assistance.

While preparing people for SEAL training, with 24- to 36-hour days of constant activity, the military members taking creatine were "locked up." They experienced deep cramping in the major muscle groups (thighs, hamstrings, glutes and lower back). These were typical athletes -- football players, track sprinters, powerlifters and people who liked to lift weights to look good.

In a nutshell, they did not make the cut and were released from the program. Their muscles did not allow them to finish. It was always entertaining to see the look on these athletes' faces when three- to five-mile runs were next on the agenda. Even the 1.5-mile run, which is really a sprint, is considered long distance to an athlete training with creatine.

Training with weights is not the enemy. It is good to have some muscle fiber capable of short bursts of speed and strength in the military. However, you must couple that with higher-repetition training and longer-distance running. And studies have not produced any positive results on the use of creatine in endurance athletes.

Since I am not a doctor, I found one. His statement confirms my reservations about the supplementation of creatine.

"Creatine, and other such supplements, are not regulated by the FDA," said Mark A. Jenkins, an internal medicine specialist at Rice University. "No published investigation has been conducted on creatine to determine what impurities might be present in creatine supplements, and what their long-term effect might be. The bottom line is that no one can confidently state that prolonged creatine supplementation is safe, and its use would best be avoided until more data can be compiled. Prolonged administration is, in essence, an uncontrolled toxicity study and might yield harmful results. Is it worth the risk? Remember, it's your body."

I am sure to receive many responses from people disagreeing with me on this one. My philosophy has always been "everything in moderation" when it comes to weight gain, weight loss and training. I have not taken any supplements, other than vitamins, during more than 20 years of training. I have powerlifted and bench-pressed more than twice my body weight and run a sub-18-minute time for three miles.

You can do both types of exercises. I merely am stating that creatine supplementation does not allow you to do both very well. This is my opinion, formed from years of witnessing the negative performances by creatine-supplemented athletes in challenging military training. ("Challenging" includes the standard military physical fitness test, as well as 1.5-, two- or three-mile runs).

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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