Creatine is hands-down the most widely researched performance-enhancing nutrient on the market. It’s prevalence within the supplement industry leaves us wondering: can you get stronger without supplementing with creatine?
Yes, you can get stronger without taking a creatine supplement. However, since creatine has proven to have significant performance benefits, you should aim to consume 1-2g of creatine per day through natural food sources, such as eating red meats and fish, if you don’t take a creatine supplement.
To understand exactly what is required in order to get stronger without taking a creatine supplement, we first need to understand how our body uses creatine to build muscle and what other factors are required in order to build muscle. As well, we’ll discuss how much creatine is effective and what foods to make sure we have in our diet to naturally boost our creatine stores (and save some money in the process!).
If you don’t want to take a creatine supplement, we discuss 30 natural food sources of creatine.
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What is Creatine and How Does it Work?
Creatine is an amino acid naturally produced by the body, in the kidneys, liver and pancreas. Naturally, we produce about 1-2 grams of creatine each day.
We have three energy systems that work in tandem to help us get work done in the gym:
The ATP-PCr System: the primary system for high intensity, extremely short duration activities, like a 1RM lift or 50-100m sprint
The Glycolytic System: the primary system for high intensity, short duration activities, like a 400m sprint
The Beta-Oxidative System: the primary system for low intensity, long duration activities, like a marathon run or a long dose of circuit training.
The ATP-PCr system is the one that uses creatine for energy, as well as adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP helps carry the energy that is broken down by food to parts of the body that need that energy. Because building muscle requires energy, ATP is responsible to help drive that process. ATP energy comes from the breakdown of food and is used to fuel other cellular processes, such as building muscle.
Within this system, ATP that is stored in our muscle cells is used for the first few seconds of intense exercise. Our muscle cells can only hold so much ATP, so when we run out of ATP our cells try and produce more. In order to make more ATP, our cells need creatine. The ATP that is created with additional creatine can provide fuel for a total of up to 10 seconds of intense exercise.
Essentially, more creatine means more ATP, which can improve performance for those short duration, high intensity activities like heavy lifts or short sprints. Longer duration, lower intensity activities rely on the glycolytic system and the beta oxidative system, and thus are not affected by creatine intake.
In other words: creatine will help a sprint, but not a marathon.
Benefits of Creatine on Strength, Recovery, and Muscle Growth
In addition to helping muscle cells produce more energy, creatine also contributes to increases in strength, muscle recovery and muscle growth. It does so by triggering various cellular processes that lead to muscle growth.
Creatine helps us build muscle and get stronger more efficiently in the following ways:
Creatine enables more volume in a single training session which leads to muscle growth. This is because the more energy our cells have, the more weight we are able to lift which provides more stimulus on our muscle cells and helps them grow faster (Becque, 2000).
Creatine can improve the activation of muscle cells, which aids muscle growth (Dangott, 2000).
Creatine can increase the total volume of the cell by drawing water into it, increasing strength over time. Research shows that increased muscle volume provides a favourable environment for muscle growth (Haussingger, 1993).
Creatine can reduce protein breakdown (i.e. using our own muscle cells as energy) which can help preserve muscle mass (Parise, 2001)
How to Get Stronger Without Creatine
In order to get stronger, we need to build muscle. In order to build muscle, we need to apply stress to our muscles through progressive resistance or strength training. This process requires energy, and creatine supplies a primary source of energy for this process.
Therefore, ensuring we are consuming an adequate amount of creatine is essential if we want to progress. Does this mean that we need to supplement in order to maximize our creatine stores?
No, you can still build muscle and get stronger without supplementing with creatine by relying on a progressive resistance training program and a diet rich in natural sources of creatine. We’ll cover natural sources of creatine later in this article, but first, how much do you need to see a performance benefit?
How Much Creatine Do You Need?
If you are following a progressive resistance training routine and choosing to eat an appropriate amount of calories with sufficient protein sources high in creatine, then you will be able to get stronger without creatine supplementation.
Research shows that in order to maintain sufficient creatine stores to get stronger, the body needs to replenish 1 – 3 grams of creatine a day, depending on muscle mass. About half of this amount is typically obtained through our diet, and our body naturally produces the other half (Kreider, 2017).
Therefore, to ensure you are getting enough creatine in your diet, you should aim to consume 1-2 grams per day of creatine from natural protein sources.
Foods High in Natural Creatine
Since creatine is a natural compound that is naturally produced in our bodies, it is also produced naturally in other animals. Therefore, we can absorb that creatine when we consume meat and fish products.
For 1g of creatine, you would need to consume:
1 average steak (8oz)
½ a salmon filet (8oz)
2 chicken breasts (10oz)
When Should You Consider Creatine Supplementation?
As we know, our body naturally produces 1-2 grams of creatine each day and creatine is also found in meat, fish and other animal products that those who consume an omnivorous diet are able to absorb. We also know that in order to maintain sufficient stores of creatine, we need to replenish 1-3 grams of creatine each day. Therefore, research shows that those who follow a vegan, vegetarian or lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet are likely to have a decreased muscle creatine concentration compared to those who normally consume meat and fish in their diet.
Those who follow a plant based diet and are trying to get stronger should therefore consider supplementing with creatine to ensure they are replenishing baseline stores each day.
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Supplementing and Maximizing Our Strength with Creatine
Research strongly suggests that supplementing with creatine can help us maximize our strength by making building muscle more efficient. If you can’t get the minimum daily recommended dose of creatine from natural sources, you might want to consider supplementing with creatine.
So what is the best way to supplement with creatine?
Over 500 research studies have looked at the effects of creatine supplementation on muscle growth and exercise performance. Here is what you should know if you are considering supplementing:
Short-term creatine supplementation (i.e. 20g per day for up to a week) can increase total creatine stores by 10-30% and can improve strength by 5-15%
Supplementation with 3g/day and greater is associated with muscular growth and improved performance in high-intensity exercise
Taking a consistent daily supplementation of 3g/day and greater has shown to have the greatest effects over loading phases or creatine cycling. During a loading phase, you would supplement with a large amount of creatine for a short period of time to fill up your muscles, and then reduce the dose to maintain your creatine stores. For example, this would typically look like taking 20g of creatine per day for up to a week, and then reducing that to 3-10g per day.
Higher doses (up to 10 g/day) may be beneficial for people with a high amount of muscle mass and high activity levels or for those who are non-responders to a lower dose (Kreider, 2003)
The amount of creatine we produce naturally is sufficient for us to continue to get stronger, but supplementation can be considered if you are looking to maximize your strength potential.
Training Considerations For Getting Stronger Without Creatine
In order to get stronger, we need to build muscle. In order to build muscle, we need to apply stress to our muscles through progressive resistance or strength training.
Here are some things to when creating a progressive training program to ensure you get stronger:
Training at high relative intensity is best for stimulating strength gains and muscle growth. For example, 70% of your 1 rep max for 5 reps is going to be a lower relative intensity than 70% for 10 reps, even though it’s the same bar load. Therefore, we need to push that 70% load for rep ranges that challenge us.
Progressing your training volume over time is necessary for muscle growth. For example, making sure that each week you progress the total volume of weight lifted or resistance used by way of more reps, sets or load.
Include compound movements in your training routine. Compound movements are exercises that work multiple muscle groups at the same time. For example, a squat is a compound exercise that works the quadriceps, glutes, and calves. You can also do compound exercises that combine two exercises into one move to target even more muscles (for example, a front squat to push press combo). Compound movements recruit more muscle than isolation movements which gives more stimulus for muscle growth.
The Fitbod app can control all of these variables for you, using a training algorithm that understands what you need to do in the gym in order to get stronger. It builds custom workouts for you to get stronger, by studying your past workouts and filling in your sets, reps and weight for each exercise based on the principles of strength training best practices. As you get stronger, Fitbod pushes you harder to make sure you maximize your strength potential.
It is possible to get stronger without a creatine supplement. Without supplementing, we get creatine two ways: naturally produced by our body and through an omnivorous diet. However, in order to get stronger regardless of what we are eating or what supplements we are taking, it is essential to follow a progressive resistance training program in order to build muscle. Therefore, in order to get stronger without supplementing with creatine, you’ll need to train at high relative intensities, increasing volume over time and include compound movements. Additionally, consuming a diet high in creatine, getting 1-2g of creatine per day from high quality animal and fish sources will ensure you have enough creatine to build muscle and get stronger.
What To Read Next?
About The Author
Maggie Morgan is a level 1 PN certified nutritionist who specializes in sport, exercise and performance nutrition, a strength training coach, and an elite level athlete. Maggie has competed in bodybuilding, and is an international-level powerlifter. Currently undertaking her Masters in Counselling Psychology, Maggie is not only able to lead others in strength and aesthetics through her personal experiences and scientific nutritional foundations but additionally by addressing the psychological and behavioural implications of exercise and nutrition. Through her writing and work with clients, Maggie works to provide information that’s responsible, rational and backed up by research, science and fact within the health and fitness industry.
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