Tag Archives: muscle

5 Best mass-building exercises: A quick guide

Not all exercises were created equal. Compound exercises recruit the greatest amount of muscle fibre ultimately stimulating greater muscle growth when performed correctly. You will also be able to lift the most amount of weight compared to any other excercise hence why the bench press, squat and dead lift are the best measure of true strength.

In my opinion, compound exercises should always be your priority followed by isolation exercises which target individual muscles. Although pure bodybuilders spend a lot of time performing isolation exercises, almost all will include a mix of compound lifts in their training. The true greats like Ronnie Coleman swear by the big compound lifts.

All diagrams I’ve used have been taken from Strength Training Anatomy, a brilliant book which I was given when I first started lifting. Understanding how your body is put together is a massive bonus when ironing out issues in form.

I’ve included suggested weight goals at the bottom of each entry. In most circumstances, a larger, heavier person should be expected to lift more than someone smaller (if both have a descent muscle base). However, simply due to body layout, an extremely heavy person, even if very muscled will find it harder to lift twice their body weight than a smaller, but still heavily muscled person. In other words as your weight increases the amount you are expected to lift increases at a slower rate.

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For example a 60 kg man is expected to squat 126 kg to be considered in the advanced level.

A 100 kg man needs to squat  195 kg to be at the same level.

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I’m average height and fairly stocky so that plays to my advantage. If you are between 65-100 kg, the suggestions can apply to you. If you are oddly tall and or very heavy then you can find online calculators to help you determine your goals.

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#1 : Squat

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Debate still persists about the King Of Excercises. Is it the squat or is it the dead lift? Although I prefer squatting I still think the title belongs to the deadlift. However. There is no greater leg/lower body exercise overall than the squat. Hands down. I don’t think anyone would disagree.  The squat is a hard exercise to perform because it is so physically demanding. The proof? Everyone with tiny legs in the gym with a huge upper body. Bench pressing may be hard on the chest but it simply doesn’t compare to lower body work.

Squatting heavy and with good form will develop your glutes, quads, lower back and hamstrings (to a lesser degree). It also puts tremendous pressure on the core and will develop it accordingly. If you can, I would always avoid using a weight lifting belt until necessary to promote increased core strength which belt use may detract from.

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.Muscles used:

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squat

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Brief how to:

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squat-2

Key points to remember:

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  • Check your bar positioning – don’t rest it on the neck itself.
  • Head in a neutral position, don’t look down or too far up
  • Chest up and out
  • Tight and straight back with equal hand positions on the bar
  • Equally spaced footing (width is up to you) with feet slightly turned out
  • Drive through the whole foot, don’t rock onto the balls of the feet – this may force you to lean forward
  • Get nice and deep – cheat the depth and you cheat yourself

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Initial weight goal: Body weight +

Advanced weight goal: 2 X body weight

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#2 : Dead lift

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Argued to be the king of exercises,  the dead lift is another hard exercise which explains why lots of people neglect to perform it properly or simply don’t do it at all. The dead lift involves more muscles than any other exercise – because of this it could be considered the single greatest mass building lift. Huge pressure is placed on the legs, the entire back, core and also the shoulders.

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Muscles used:

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deadlift1

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Brief how to:

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deadlift2

Key points to remember:

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  • Neutral but tight back position- avoid rounding your back and shoulders
  • Don’t ‘squat your dead lift’ – pay attention to your hip positioning
  • Equally spaced grip – numerous grip types can work
  • Dont hyper extend at the top of the lift
  • Avoid bouncing the bar on the floor between reps – lift the weight from a ‘dead’ position

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Initial weight goal: Body weight +

Advanced weight goal: 2  and 1/2  X body weight


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#3 : Bench Press

 

This will probably rank as most casual gym users favourtie exercise and it is definately up there for me as well. Most men would kill for a large and well developed chest and the bench press is key in achieving this goal. The bench press puts major pressure on the pectorals but when performed correctly will also develop certain parts of the shoulder and of course the triceps.  The bench press can be performed in three main ways depending on bench position : incline, flat and decline. The flat bench is usually the ‘go to’ position but mixing angles will help help develop a well rounded chest and also contribute to greater benching strength overall. 

 

Muscles used and a brief how to:

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bench-press

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Brief how to (variations):

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bench-2

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Key points to remember:

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  • Equally spaced hand grip – can experiment to target different parts of the chest
  • Use the thumbless grip at your own risk!
  • The bench press can be performed flat, inclined or declined – all have their benefits
  • Avoid extreme flared elbows
  • Don’t bounce the bar off your sternum
  • Keep tight legs and plant feet firmly on the ground
  • Keep butt on the bench – don’t arch your back and rise of the bench mid-lift
  • Both the eccentric (down) and concentric (up) part of the lift are important for maximum muscle growth and strength gain (this is true of most exercises)

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Initial weight goal: 80% body weight

Advanced weight goal: 1 and 1/2 times body weight

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#4 : Military Press

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Not a member of the ‘Big Three’, the military press is still a powerful compound lift that can build your shoulders and core (when standing) and should form part of your shoulder routine. The press can be performed seated or standing. Standing press has the added benefit of building quality core stength as the bar must be stabalised above your head whilst standing. I often switch to a seated position to really focus on shoulder contractions using a lighter weight after performing the standing variation. 

This is a tough exercise – lifting things directly above the head is difficult and a number of people at my gym have a decent bench press but possess terrible over head press strength. Developing your weakest lift will improve the others. If you feeel you shoulder size and strength are lacking then include standing military press in your workout.

The shoulder is a very complex joint jam packed with nerves (brachial plexus). Shoulder aches, twangs and pains are very common – often the result of poor exercise form or simply going far too heavy. If your form is good then military press is no more dangerous than any other compound lift.

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Muscles used:

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shoulder1

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Brief how to (variations):

shoulder-32

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Key points to remember:

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  • Use strict form for intial sets to maximise shoulder use – only use leg drive for those final reps (if you must)
  • Lower the bar all the way to the upper chest – half repping makes the lift much easier but wont result in the same strength or size gains
  • A wider grip puts greater strain across the shoulders
  • Squeezing the butt at the top of the lift can reduce lower back arch with heavier weights

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Key points to remember:

Initial weight goal: 60% body weight

Advanced weight goal: Body weight +

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#5 : Bent Over Row

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6 time Mr Olympia, Dorian Yates, swore by this exercise for building upper body depth. He’s certainly not wrong. The bent over barebell row is a quality exercise that stimualtes growth across the entire back. Although good mornings and romanian deadlifts stimualte the lower back to a greater degree, the bent over row is fantastic for the mid-upper back. Greater emphasis can be placed on different parts of the back depending on hip positioning.

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Muscles used:

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back

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Brief how to:

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backd1

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Key points to remember:

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  • Varying your grip can put increased pressure on different back muscles
  • Changing your hip position can also place empahsis on different parts of the back
  • Avoid rocking the weight upwards with momentum: this makes the lift easier and reduces muscle work
  • Keep the head up and back straight (always avoid curving the back)
  • Legs slightly bent
  • Training your back well can really help with arm development
  • The one armed variant is great for working specific parts of the back

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Initial weight goal: 80%body weight

Advanced weight goal: 120% body weight

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There we have it. The top 5 mass builders. They may be physically demanding but they are 100% worth it. if you aren’t already performing these exercises then make them part of your routine – you will notice massive improvements in your physique and strength over time.

Don’t forget to check out ‘4 common weight lifting mistakes’ and soon you will be king of the gym.

Feeling like you are missing something from your workout? Small changes in your technique and your equipment can make a massive difference to your lifts. Liquid lifting chalk massively improved my grip strength and entriely removes bar slip issues. It’s cheap and can be used in all lifts where a barebell is used – I never go to the gym without it!

                           

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Any questions? Reach me at ed@scienceguysupplements.com

-ScienceGuy

A guide to whey protein: Do you need it?

Whey protein supplements are the most popular and most widely sold of all fitness products. Gym-bros (and other users) pounding down the protein shakes have helped grow the value of the whey protein industry to a whopping 7 billion pounds. This is projected to exceed 10 billion GBP by 2020. So why are whey protein supplements so popular? As almost anyone can tell you, muscle is primarily composed of proteins. If your goal is to increase or maintain your weight and muscle mass then good levels of protein in your diet are absolutely essential. Whether or not you decide to obtain this protein from whey products is entirely up to you and I’ve written this guide to give you the general run down on what whey protein is and if it can ultimately help with your training.

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Despite the widespread availability and growing popularity of whey protein, a good amount of misinformation still persists on the internet and especially in the gym. This article aims to explain the importance of proteins for muscle growth, delve into how whey is made, address concerns regarding whey protein side effects and finally determine if you even need whey protein at all.

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Protein and muscle growth

 

Proteins are an essential nutrient of the human body. They are formed by chaining amino acids together with peptide bonds. When consumed, proteins are broken down into smaller ‘chunks’ or chains by the actions of acid in the stomach as well as various protease enzymes. This protein break down is important for obtaining the essential amino acids (phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine, and histidine) which we cannot synthesise ourselves (1)

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Proteins are both a major building block for tissue and also a fuel source, providing as much energy as carbohydrates (fats are about double this, yay fat!) at around 4 kcal (17 kJ) per gram. Protein is only used as anaerobic fuel when carbohydrates are low, or as aerobic fuel when lipid resources are also low (2). Alongside their role in muscle building, proteins can be found in practically all cells of the body where they act as major structural components (3). When broken down into their amino acids, proteins are used as precursors to nucleic acids (essential for all forms of life…so pretty bloody important), co-enzymes and a variety of hormones to name just a few (4). Basically, without proteins you’d be a pool of slightly salty water.

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Not so big now are you puddle face
Not so big now are you puddle face

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.Protein is essential to develop and repair muscle tissue (5) and there is good evidence that athletes and active individuals require greater protein consumption, than the average person,  to power this growth and repair (6). However there appears to be a fairly clear upper-limit on protein requirements. Once protein needs are met (which will be higher if you are training), additional protein will not increase muscle synthesis and will instead be excreted as waste . This holds true for almost all biological nutrients and molecules including things like vitamins:

http://scienceguysupplements.com/the-multivitamin-hoax.

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So whats the ideal amount of protein to be consuming? It depends on your goals and your body type but the generally agreed ‘standard’ amount is roughly 0.7-0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. 

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For an average 72 kg man wanting to gain some muscle that would be about 128 g of protein a day. You may want to take 1 gram per pound for ‘safety’ but any more than that seems to have no positive effect on muscle growth (7,8,9)

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Surprisingly, research has shown that as long as you are meeting your protein requirements you are better off obtaining additional  calories from non-protein sources to increase your muscle growth even further (11,12,13).  Eating a very high protein but low carbohydrate diet isn’t all that great for muscle growth.

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Ah good old non-protein calorie sources
Ah good old non-protein calorie sources

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The best diet for muscle growth, as in most cases, involves balance. You want to be consuming 0.8-1 g/lb of body weight per day whilst also obtaining a good amount of your calories from carbohydrates and unsaturated fat. This will really help you power through heavier lifts. I’ve noticed very obvious drops in my maximal lifts when cutting down on my carbohydrates even when actively increasing my protein intake.

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Whey protein production 

 

I’ve summarised the process (very simply) in a little diagram:

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Producing whey protein is very cheap. Whey is essentially a by-product of cheese manufacturing. Initially, whey protein was, and still is, sprayed onto hay to act as a  cheap, protein rich supplement feed for live stock. Now that the supplement market has boomed companies now target the greatest prey of all…the human cow. Whey protein isn’t very expensive but it certainly isn’t cheap either. Considering it is manufactured in huge quantities for a small cost the mark-up we pay as consumers is in the thousands of percents.

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The diagram above is a very general outline of whey production but multiple forms of whey can be produced by changing steps in the process. Most of these forms are available as bodybuilding supplements:

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  • Concentrates have typically  low levels of fat and cholesterol but, in general, compared to the other forms of whey protein, have higher levels of carbohydrates in the form of lactose — they are 29%–89% protein by weight. This is the cheapest form of whey protein.

 

  • Isolates are processed to remove the fat and lactose. They are 90%+ protein by weight. Like whey protein concentrates, whey protein isolates are mild to slightly milky in taste. This type of whey protein is especially popular as a supplement probably due to the fat removal.

 

  • Hydrosylates are whey proteins that are predigested and partially hydrolysed for the purpose of easier metabolising, but their cost is generally higher because of additional processing (14). Highly hydrolysed whey may be less allergenic than other forms of whey. Allergies are more commonly against the casein (a phosphoprotein) rather than the other proteins in milk.

 

I’ve always gone for ‘isolate‘ whey proteins as my goal is to take on as much protein per scoop of supplement as possible. I prefer to obtain my carbohydrates and fats from cooked food. However, if you are actively trying to ‘bulk’ and increase your weight or improve your maximal lifts then concentration whey protein might be more appropriate for your goals.

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The ‘anabolic window’: fact or fiction

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.The term ‘anabolic window‘ is thrown around the gym all the time if you mention protein shakes and other whey protein supplements. A lot of ‘gym bros’ frantically down a massive protein shake following a weight lifting session claiming that the protein is needed straight after a work out if you want to grow. The idea is that following a workout there is a small window of opportunity to intake protein which your body will use immediately to start synthesising muscle. If you miss this window, some will claim, you will either not grow as much or not grow at all depending on who you talk to. This protein doesn’t have to come from whey but it’s easier, faster and cheaper to have a protein shake with you than a chicken breast and a few eggs…

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anabolic-window-meme

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I myself am guilty of this. I always take a protein shake straight after a workout but I do this more out of habit and to have something in my stomach before I can get hold of real food. I’ve had periods at the gym on and off protein shakes and some of my most marked strength gains have occurred when NOT taking  protein supplements. Sometimes I would wait as long as 90 minutes after a work out to consume food suggesting immediate protein intake might not be necessary. However this is all anecdotal evidence. As always lets look to the science for answers…

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What does the science say about protein intake timing and the so called ‘anabolic window’?

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I’m not sure where this ‘myth’ first started but the idea of an anabolic window is pretty much entirely false and here’s why:

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In most situations, muscles don’t break down following training 

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When we lift weights our goal is to stimulate muscle growth. Following a workout, muscles show signs of tension damage (and low grade inflammation) and the goal is to repair them to a bigger and stronger state than before. However, your muscles won’t ‘break down’ if you don’t intake protein immediately. Insulin release plays an important role in preventing muscle break down and ingesting carbs and protein will raise your circulating insulin levels. In theory this should reduce muscle break down but the ‘breakdown’ is so minimal to begin with that the impact of insulin spiking is negligible (15). The only situation in which you should make sure to intake protein and calories as soon as possible is if you are training in a fasted state (16). I personally never do this as not eating at all before lifting weights makes me feel lethargic and weak.

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No good evidence supports the claim that post-workout protein increases muscle growth

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On the surface it seems to make sense that if you take on protein immediately after hammering your muscles then they will grow and repair at a faster rate than if you didn’t. However an in-depth meta-study (a study pooling data from multiple similar studies) found that this simply isn’t the case (17). So it seems as if the major touted benefit of post-workout supplementation i.e. faster and bigger muscle growth, probably isn’t true.

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Having looked more closely at the data, most of the cohorts in the studies are comprised of either obese or elderly people (as muscle maintenance is very important)  or those who don’t train frequently. Some studies do look at more active individuals and while a small benefit is seen in one or two (18), the most benefit is actually attributed to a full post-workout meal within a few hours of training.

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One study conducted in 2012, that does include exercise was conducted on a number of young men (19). In this study, 33 men with no previous weight lifting experience were put on a 3 week resistance training programme (enough time to see early signs of muscle growth). Half the men were assigned protein immediately before and after their workout and the other half received a placebo (in this case a similar powder but no protein content). After 3 weeks, the size,  one rep maximum and maximum voluntary force were all measured in the bicep and no differences between the PROTEIN or PLACEBO groups were observed.

 

The evidence suggests that there is no reason to ingest whey protein (or any protein for that matter) immediately in the post workout period. However, that is not to say that increased protein in general will not benefit your training and muscle gains overall.

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Whey protein side effects

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I wanted to briefly look at any side effects that may be associated with whey protein consumption.

The general consensus is that whey protein, when taken by mouth (how else?!) is safe for both adults and children (20,21).

The issues arise when excessive amounts of whey protein are ingested and this can be said for very high protein diets in general.

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Side effects include:

  • Gastrointestinal distress: bloating, increased bowel movements, cramps
  • Nausea
  • Increased thirst
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches (maybe due to ‘hidden’ MSG in some cheaper whey supplements
  • Ketosis if coupled with little to no carbohydrates in the diet (22)
  • Increased risk of kidney stones (23)
  • Potentially carcinogenic (high chronic consumption) (24)

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These complications are fairly rare. When I first started taking whey protein years ago I did suffer mild gastrointestinal distress but this resolved quickly and hasn’t returned. Most of these complications results from excessive protein consumption or only result when other dietary changes are also made such as ketosis.

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.For the average person using whey to reach around the 1 g per pound of body weight value (discussed earlier), long term whey protein intake is safe. For those who are lactose intolerant you can chose supplements that have almost all lactose removed such as whey isolates.

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Will whey protein benefit me?

 

This does depend entirely on your goals. Whey protein isn’t a magic powder that will turn you into a Greek god but it is a great way to increase your protein intake if you feel your diet isn’t providing enough or if you just want to be taking slightly more. Some people suggest using whey protein to promote weight loss but I would avoid this. In most cases whey protein or similar shakes are suggested as meal replacements. When losing weight I don’t think supplements are necessary at all – meal replacement isn’t a good idea as it doesn’t encourage a healthy relationship with your food.

When bulking up (during the winter months like a big bear) whey concentrate powders, which have a good amount of carbohydrates and fats remaining in the product, are a good way of getting extra calories into your diet alongside protein.

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.Take home message: Nothing beats real food but whey protein is a fast and cheap ‘protein fix’.

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I say this in a lot of my articles because it’s very important. A lot of people starting out at the gym especially younger and smaller individuals  will spend a fortune on whey protein, creatine, BCAAs and everything else in the hope of packing on muscle fast but they neglect real nutrition. This simply doesn’t work. The bulk of your calories should be coming from real, nutritious food. Supplements should be used as a convenient way to squeeze in a bit more on top of everything else to give you an edge. This is especially true of whey protein.

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As an added note – whey protein is frequently used in a non-fitness capacity if you suffer from illnesses that are associated with muscle atrophy or that massively reduce appetite. These include established HIV and forms of cancer. Whey protein can also be taken simply if you have trouble  maintaining weight in general and doesn’t have to be associated with fitness or weight lifting.

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Top picks

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The choice of whey protein is staggering. The first thing to do is to look at if the product is a whey ‘concentrate’, ‘isolate’, or ‘hydroyslate’.

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Concentrates are great for general weight gain as they contain more calories per gram due to increased levels of carbohydrates and fats

Isolates are good if you’re looking for a high protein but low carbohydrate and fat product. Per serving you will obtain greater levels of protein but lower overall calories

Hydrosylates are the most heavily processed and expensive of the whey products. They have been designed in theory to be more easily digested.

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The products above are examples of ones I have used in the past and are some of the top choices in their category. Currently I have been using both My Protein Isolate Impact Whey and Olmpus Health Whey Concentrate.

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As always, thanks for reading and feel free to drop me an email at ed@scienceguysupplements.com for any further information,

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ScienceGuy

 


 

References

I recommend using Google Scholar for quick access to these studies.

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1) Genton, Laurence; Melzer, Katarina; Pichard, Claude (2010). “Energy and macronutrient requirements for physical fitness in exercising subjects”. Clinical Nutrition. 29 (4): 413–423

2) Nutrition Working Group of the International Olympic Committee (2003). “Nutrition for Athletes”. IOC Consensus Conference on Nutrition for Sport. Lausanne.

3) Van Holden and Mathews. ‘Biochemistry’.  Third Edition (1999)

4) Branden and Tooze ‘An introduction to Protein Structure’. Second Edition (1998)

5) Hermann, Janice R. ‘Protein and the Body‘. Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources • Oklahoma State University: T–3163–1 – T–3163–4.

6) Lemon, Peter (2000). “Beyond the Zone: Protein Needs of Active Individuals”. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 19 (5): 513–521

7) Lemon PW, Tarnopolsky MA, MacDougall JD, Atkinson SA. ‘Protein requirements and muscle mass/strength changes during intensive training in novice bodybuilders’. J Appl Physiol (1985). 1992 Aug;73(2):767-75.

8) Lemon PW. ‘Beyond the zone: protein needs of active individuals’. J Am Coll Nutr. 2000 Oct;19(5 Suppl):513S-521S.

9) Phillips SM, Van Loon LJ. ‘Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation’. J Sports Sci. 2011;29 Suppl 1:S29-38. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2011.619204.

10) Rodriguez NR, DiMarco NM, Langley S; American Dietetic Association; Dietitians of Canada; American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009 Mar;109(3):509-27.

11) Campbell B, Kreider RB, Ziegenfuss T, La Bounty P, Roberts M, Burke D, Landis J, Lopez H, Antonio J. ‘International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise’. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2007 Sep 26;4:8.

12) Tipton KD, Wolfe RR.‘Protein and amino acids for athletes.’ J Sports Sci. 2004 Jan;22(1):65-79. 

13) Rozenek R, Ward P, Long S, Garhammer J.’Effects of high-calorie supplements on body composition and muscular strength following resistance training’. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2002 Sep;42(3):340-7.

14)  Foegeding, EA; Davis, JP; Doucet, D; McGuffey, MK (2002). “Advances in modifying and understanding whey protein functionality’‘ Trends in Food Science & Technology. 13 (5)
15) Kumar V, Atherton P, Smith K, Rennie MJ: Human muscle protein synthesis and breakdown during and after exercise. J Appl Physiol 2009, 106(6):2026-39.

16)  Pitkanen HT, Nykanen T, Knuutinen J, Lahti K, Keinanen O, Alen M, Komi PV, Mero AA: Free amino acid pool and muscle protein balance after resistance exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003, 35(5):784-92.

17) Aragon, Alan Albert, and Brad Jon Schoenfeld. Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 10.1 (2013): 5.
18) Phillips SM (February 2011). “The science of muscle hypertrophy: making dietary protein count”. Proc Nutr Soc(Review). 70 (1): 100–3.
19) Erskine RM, Fletcher G, Hanson B, Folland JP: Whey protein does not enhance the adaptations to elbow flexor resistance training. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012, 44(9):1791-800.
22) Smith, Jack L.; Gropper, Sareen Annora Stepnick; Groff, James L. (2009). Advanced nutrition and human metabolism. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
23)  Food and Nutrition Board (2005). A Report of the Panel on Macronutrients, Subcommittees on Upper Reference Levels of Nutrients and Interpretation and Uses of Dietary Reference Intakes, and the Standing Committee on the Scientific Evaluation of Dietary Reference Intakes. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients). THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES PRESS, Washington, D.C.

24)  Levine et al. ‘Low protein intake is associated with a major reduction in IGF-1, cancer and overall mortality in he 65 and younger but not older population’ Cell Metabolism. March 2014. 19 (3) p407–417.

 

The Science of Creatine

 

During my time in the gym I’ve overhead numerous talk of creatine being illegal, a steroid, a protein, an ab-specific weight loss aid (eh??)…The list is endless and almost everything I’ve overheard is incorrect. I thought it would be useful to provide a clear piece of information that tells you what creatine actually is, how it impacts you on a physiological level, exaggerated side effects and if it can aid in your training.

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Creatine is perhaps the most well researched supplement on the market today.  Initially, fairly ‘low-dose’ creatine supplements where the norm but specific creatine supplements designed specially for strength training where not developed until the mid 1990s. The first such product was named Phosphagen by a company called EAS (1). Since then creatine supplements have exploded in popularity.

 

 


 

WHAT IS CREATINE?

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Creatine is a nitrogenous organic acid that aids in generating energy for cells, the most immportant being muscle cells. Creatine is not an essential nutrient and is produced naturally by the body from the amino acids glycine and arginine (2). The biosynthesis reaction is pretty tastey:

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Nothing boring about that...
Nothing boring about that…

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Almost all of this reaction occurs in the kidneys and liver. The produced creatine is then transported to skeletal muscle where the vast majority of it remains (3). Studies suggest as much as 50% of stored creatine in the muscles comes from dietary sources, mainly red meats, and that vegetarians possess significantly less natural creatine in their muscles than meat eaters (4) but levels are equal when both groups supplement (Get supplementing you veggies!)

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PHYSIOLOGICAL ROLE

 

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The importance of creatine in the body is highlighted by genetic disorders which disrupt the biosynthetic pathway pictured above. The major genetic disorders are associated with the synthesis enzymes or disruption of creatine transport into the brain (5,6). The end result of any of these genetic abnormalities is severe neurological defects suggesting creatine plays an important role in normal brain function (7). Additionally, research has shown that creatine supplementation provides not only physical enhancement but also cognitive improvements as well (8).

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Now for the important part: What does creatine actually do when it is sitting in the skeletal muscle? First we need to understand the power of ATP.

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All cells in our body utilise an ‘energy currency’ called ATP (Adenosine TriPhosphate) which we ultimately produce from the food we eat in the form of glucose (9). When energy is required in a cell a phosphate ion is split from the ATP molecule which then becomes ADP (Adenosine DiPhosphate). The breakdown of the last covelant link between phosphate and ATP liberates energy which can be utilised by the cell for a number of processes including movement, growth or protein synthesis (10)(In our case we want that cell to grow some big-ass biceps).

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Creatine itself can be phosphorylated into phosphocreatine with the addition of a phopshate ion take from ATP (12). Phosphocreatine comes into play by essentially acting as a phosphate store for when energy demands are high. At some point during exercise ATP is being reduced to ADP faster than ADP is restored to ATP. Our total ATP concentration is falling and thus so is our available energy. In the muscle, phosphocreatine is stripped of its precious phosphate which is then attached to a wandering ADP molecule. This provides a fresh new ATP molecule to power a cellular process.

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That is how creatine works as a supplement in a nut shell. It acts as a store of potential energy. The idea behind supplementing with large amounts of creatine is that we increase the creatine concentration in our muscles thus providing a larger store of energy which should allow for greater numbers of muscle contractions before we fatigue.

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Phopshate + Creatine (requires ATP) = Phosphocreatine

Phosphocreatine + ADP = Creatine + ATP       

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HOW WILL THIS AID MY TRAINING – WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SHOW?

 

Creatine supplementation, in theory, provides a greater store of utilisable energy to skeletal muscle. This allows greater use of that muscle before the onset of muscle fatigue. In reality creatine supplementation is great for some types of exercise and fairly poor or non beneficial for others. Creatine will be of most use in high intensity anaerobic repetitive work (13). This would include something like weightlifting in which a number of repetitions are performed and then a break is taken. This can also include high intensity workouts involving rapid sprinting/cycling (14). Modest improvements have also been seen in ‘single effort work’ for example, a one rep max on a very heavy weight (15). In this area creatine has been shown to increase general performance with a focus on maximum power.

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Areas where creatine will not help at all are mainly endurance based sports, for example, long distance running (16). Presumably this is due to the fact that muscle activity is maintained for a long period of time and a lack of rest reduces ATP replenishment rates (ADP–>ATP) even when high levels of creatine are present in the muscle.

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'Is this how you do a bench press?'
‘Is this how you do a bench press?’

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To briefly summarise a number of other studies…It has been demonstrated that subjects receiving creatine supplementation along with resistance training lead to decreased serum myostatin concentrations compared to subjects that trained with no creatine or subjects which didn’t train and also didn’t receive any creatine (17). (Really we should have another group here that took creatine without doing resistance training but hey ho). Myostatin is important for INHIBITING muscle growth so a lack of it should allow for greater muscle development. Ever seen a Belgian Blue cow? These guys have been selectively bred to lack functional myostatin….

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Look at dat ass...
MOO BITCH

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Additional studies performed on young college footballers have also shown modest increases in circulating dihydro testosterone as well as testosterone itself following creatine supplementation (18.19) (please follow the references for greater detail). Creatine may therefore enhance your training in multiple ways, not just providing additional ATP for muscle contractions.

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Take home message: Creatine has no significant effect on aerobic endurance. However, it will increase power during short, repetition-based exercises including weight lifting and high intensity cardio training.

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COMMERCIAL FORMS

 

drugs

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Creatine can be purchased as a powder or as a tablet. I have always personally gone with a non-flavoured powder as it is easy to add to a protein shake. Tablets may be more convenient for people who want to take their creatine at a specific time when not at home. In terms of performance, both forms contain the same product but powdered creatine may provide faster absorption into the system. Make sure to read the manufacturers instruction when switching to a new creatine and always stay within the recommended dose.

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Something of additional importance to point out is that the supplement industry in general is always looking for ‘the next big thing’ to sell you. Very often ‘new and improved’ versions of creatine will make their way onto the market with loudly advertised improvements such as malate or citrate. These newer products offer no advantages over standard creatine but usually cost considerably more. Stick with standard creatine monohydrate (the form on which most research is based) for the same functional product at a lower cost.

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HOW AND WHEN TO TAKE CREATINE

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Most users of creatine, and most creatine product labels, suggest a loading phase followed by a maintenance phase of creatine dosing. The idea here is to saturate yourself (mainly your muscles!) with high levels of creatine in the first week followed by a lower dosing from then on. This is what I personally do whenever I have taken a break from creatine i.e. when going abroad for a week or two with limited weight training.

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It is common to see a cycle suggested on the product label. for example

Week 1: LOADING 5g x 4 times daily

Week 2-8 MAINTENANCE 5g daily

BREAK (usually 1-4 weeks)

REPEAT PROCESS

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It is not necessary to cycle creatine at all as it can be taken for a long period of time with no ill effect to health. However, most people throughout the year have commitments that may reduce or entirely remove their ability to train and this can be an opportunity to take a break from creatine and re-load when returning to the gym.

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SIDE EFFECTS AND HEALTH ISSUES

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One of the major things you may hear about creatine is in regards to it safety as a long-term supplement. Modern creatine-based supplements have only been around for two decades. Research can therefore only address this far back. Some studies looking into the health impacts of long term creatine use have lasted as long as five years. In most cases this is ample time to uncover any safety-related issues.

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Commonly cited 'side-effects' of creatine use such as kidney and liver damage, muscle cramps and dehydration have been thoroughly debunked in the literature

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Kidneys: Common statements seem to be that long term creatine use may lead to kidney and/or liver damage. Kidney damage is the most widely cited issue. This is probably due to research being portrayed in a misleading manner. When additional creatine is taken into the body, creatine breakdown products, namely creatinine, will also increase in the blood as well as in the urine. Serum creatinine levels are commonly used as an indicator but not direct measure of kidney function. Therefore, when supplementing with creatine, do not be alarmed by a rise in creatinine levels. Multiple human studies have confirmed that longer term creatine use is not damaging to the renal or hepatic systems in any way (20, 21, 22).

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kidneys

 

 

 

Gastro-intestinal Tract: GIT disruption CAN occur with larger doses of creatine, especially when taken on an empty stomach. This is sometimes referred to as ‘Mud Butt’ in some gyms. GIT disturbances are very rare, short lasting and self-resolving. These mild GIT issues can be avoided by taking smaller doses more frequently or eating something before hand. If you decide to cycle creatine and are starting the ‘load phase’ avoid taking your daily creatine all at once. Instead try to split dosing across the day.

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Heat tolerance and muscle cramping: Internet rumours suggesting creatine messes with thermoregulation, induces dangerous dehydration and/or muscle cramps have now been thoroughly debunked in two systematic reviews on the topic (23, 24)

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Weight gain: This is something that I actually found to be true but the weight gain I observed was probably due to water being pulled into the skeletal muscles. A number of studies have shown an acute increase in water retention in muscles following creatine loading but this subsides and has no negative effects on your training or health. Ultimately creatine has been shown more than once to promote FAT LOSS and lean MUSCLE MASS GAIN due to higher training intensities and volume (25,26).

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To date, research has found no negative impact to kidney, liver, intestinal function or any other major organ for that matter.In fact, in rodent studies, creatine improved the life span of mice (27) but whether this translates to humans remains to be seen. If you are a healthy individual then creatine is perfectly safe to take over the  long term. However,  it is important to point out that if you have a PRE-EXISTING KIDNEY DISORDER then it is probably best to avoid creatine-based supplements in general unless your doctor says otherwise.

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Take home message: Creatine can provide a real benefit to your workouts if you lift weights or perform high intensity cardio workouts. The supplement is cheap and safe to to take over a long period of time. Creatine comes in multiple forms but the standard powdered creatine monohydrate is the most popular for a reason.

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TOP PICKS

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I’ve tried a few different creatine manufacturers before. It can be an overwhelming choice as there are quite literally hundreds of different brands. However, on the inside of the tub its all essentially the same. My Protein Creatine monohydrate is very cheap and does a good job. It doesn’t dissolve well but I add it to my whey protein so don’t notice when drinking it. This is the stuff I’m currently using. The ‘micro-ionised’ powder by Optimum Nutrition dissolves much better so may be a good choice if you plan on taking the creatine by itself with water or juice. Creatine monohydrate can also come ‘flavoured’ which makes the experience of drinking it much more pleasant if just using water. My Protein offers a number of flavours and is a good place to start.

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Thanks for reading and please feel free to comment about your experiences with creatine whether good or bad. You can also reach me at ed@scienceguysupplements.com

-ScienceGuy





 

REFERENCES

I recommend using Google Scholar for quick access to these studies.

 

(1) Stoppani, Jim (May 2004). Creatine new and improved: recent high-tech advances have made creatine even more powerful. Here’s how you can take full advantage of this super supplement. Muscle & Fitness.

(2) “Supplement muscles in on the market”. National Review of Medicine. 2004-07-30

(3) Passwater, Richard A. (2005). Creatine. p. 9

(4) Burke DG, Chilibeck PD, Parise G, Candow DG, Mahoney D, Tarnopolsky M; Chilibeck; Parise; Candow; Mahoney; Tarnopolsky (2003). “Effect of creatine and weight training on muscle creatine and performance in vegetarians”. Medicine and science in sports and exercise. 35(11): 1946–55.

(5) “L-Arginine:Glycine Amidinotransferase” http://omim.org/entry/602360

(6) Braissant, O; Henry, H; Béard, E; Uldry, J (May 2011). “Creatine deficiency syndromes and the importance of creatine synthesis in the brain.”. Amino Acids. 40 (5): 1315–24.

(7) Hemmer; W, Wallimann, T (1993) ”Functional aspects of creatine kinase in brain” Developmental Neuroscience. 15 (3-5): 249-260

(8) Rae, C; Digney A.L; McEwan S.R (June 2003). ”Oral creatin supplementation improves brain performance: a double blind, placebo controlled, cross-over trial”. Royal Society Publishing. 270, 2147–2150

(9) Knowles, J. R. (1980). “Enzyme-catalyzed phosphoryl transfer reactions”. Annu. Rev. Biochem. 49: 877–919.

(10) Campbell, Neil A.; Williamson, Brad; Heyden, Robin J. (2006). Biology: Exploring Life. Boston, MA: Pearson Prentice Hall.

(11) Di Carlo, S. E.; Collins, H. L. (June 1, 2001). “Submitting illuminations for review”. Adv. Physiol. Educ. 25 (2): 70–71

(12) Saks, Valdur (2007). Molecular system bioenergetics: energy for life. Weinheim: Wiley-VCH. p. 2.

(13) Bird, S. P. (2003). “Creatine Supplementation and Exercise Performance: A Brief Review” (PDF). Journal of Sports Science & Medicine. 2 (4): 123–132.

(14)  Graham, AS; Hatton, RC (1999). “Creatine: A review of efficacy and safety”. Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association. 39 (6): 803–10; quiz 875–7.

(15)  Engelhardt, Martin; Neumann, Georg; Berbalk, Anneliese; Reuter, Iris (1998). “Creatine supplementation in endurance sports”. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 30 (7): 1123–1129

(16) Kreider R, Rasmussen C, Ransom J, Almada AL (1998). “Effects of creatine supplementation during training on the incidence of muscle cramping, injuries and GI distress”. Journal of Strength Conditioning Research. 12 (275).

(17)  Saremi, A.; Gharakhanloo, R.; Sharghi, S.; Gharaati, M.R.; Larijani, B.; Omidfar, K. (2010). “Effects of oral creatine and resistance training on serum myostatin and GASP-1”. Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology. 317 (1–2): 25–30

(18)  Van Der Merwe, Johann; Brooks, Naomi E; Myburgh, Kathryn H (2009). “Three Weeks of Creatine Monohydrate Supplementation Affects Dihydrotestosterone to Testosterone Ratio in College-Aged Rugby Players”. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine. 19 (5): 399–404.

(19) Hoffman, J; Ratamess, N; Kang, J; Mangine, G; Faigenbaum, A; Stout, J (2006). “Effect of creatine and beta-alanine supplementation on performance and endocrine responses in strength/power athletes”. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism. 16 (4): 430–46.

(20) Kreider, Richard B.; Melton, Charles; Rasmussen, Christopher J.; Greenwood, Michael; Lancaster, Stacy; Cantler, Edward C.; Milnor, Pervis; Almada, Anthony L. (2003). “Long-term creatine supplementation does not significantly affect clinical markers of health in athletes”. Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry. 244 (1–2): 95–104.

(21) Mayhew, DL; Mayhew, JL; Ware, JS (2002). “Effects of long-term creatine supplementation on liver and kidney functions in American college football players”. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism. 12 (4): 453–60

(22) Gualano, Bruno; Ugrinowitsch, Carlos; Novaes, Rafael Batista; Artioli, Guilherme Gianini; Shimizu, Maria Heloisa; Seguro, Antonio Carlos; Harris, Roger Charles; Lancha, Antonio Herbert (2008). “Effects of creatine supplementation on renal function: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial”. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 103 (1): 33–40.

(23) Lopez RM, Casa DJ, McDermott BP, Ganio MS, Armstrong LE, Maresh CM; Casa; McDermott; Ganio; Armstrong; Maresh (2009). “Does Creatine Supplementation Hinder Exercise Heat Tolerance or Hydration Status? A Systematic Review With Meta-Analyses”. Journal of Athletic Training. 44 (2): 215–23.

(24) Dalbo VJ, Roberts MD, Stout JR, Kerksick CM; Roberts; Stout; Kerksick (July 2008). “Putting to rest the myth of creatine supplementation leading to muscle cramps and dehydration”. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 42 (7): 567–73

(25) Antonio J, Ciccone V. The effects of pre versus post workout supplementation of creatine monohydrate on body composition and strength. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2013;10(1):36.

(26) Becque MD, Lochmann JD, Melrose DR. Effects of oral creatine supplementation on muscular strength and body composition. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2000;32(3):654-658.

(27) Bender, A.; Beckers, J.; Schneider, I.; Hölter, S.M.; Haack, T.; Ruthsatz, T.; Vogt-Weisenhorn, D.M.; Becker, L.; et al. (2008). “Creatine improves health and survival of mice”. Neurobiology of Aging. 29 (9): 1404–11