A fitness studio in the Wedding district of Berlin. Armin Stolle mixes a small scoop of a white, odorless powder with water before training. The 26-year-old quickly drinks the cloudy liquid and loads a barbell with weights. “I’ve been taking creatine for about nine months now,” he says. Normally the recreational athlete is on an American football field, but today it's time for strength training.
“I take five grams, usually before training, and also on non-training days,” Stolle continues. All of his football colleagues, but also many other sports-loving friends, take it, as he says. They are no exceptions: According to an American survey, 14 percent of around 21,000 college athletes surveyed said they took creatine. If you look around at German fitness influencers on social networks, you get the impression that nothing works without the white powder. But what exactly is it – and is it safe?
"Creatine is, first of all, a substance produced by the body. Unlike vitamins and minerals that we have to get from food, creatine can be produced by the human body itself," says nutritionist Martin Smollich from the University Hospital of Schleswig-Holstein. This mainly happens in the liver and kidneys.
It is then stored in muscles, says Smollich. "And this is where it has its most important effect. It serves to quickly provide energy in muscle cells." This is important for power lifting or sprints, for example. As the scientist explains, muscles can get energy from various sources, including creatine, sugar and fat, but the body needs more time to do this. Accordingly, creatine is unlikely to help during a long jogging session, for example, says Smollich.
You also have to be fast and strong in American football. Athlete Stolle creatine (not to be confused with the hair component keratin and the natural dye carotene) helps a lot, as he says between his squats. "At some point I just reached my limits and then started taking it. Now I'm faster and have more strength and can lift more weight during exercises."
The expert for muscle physiology and metabolism at the German Institute for Nutritional Research (Dife) Maximilian Kleinert explains: The creatine stores in the muscle cells are usually up to 80 percent full. By taking it you try to fill your storage to 100 percent. “What we already have is probably enough, but there is still a bit of room for improvement.” This energy buffer allows athletes to lift their weights one or two times more, says Kleinert.
This means that creatine not only increases performance within a short period of time, but also muscle volume and maximum strength, says nutritionist Smollich. Whether it makes sense to take it for recreational sports depends on your personal goals - you don't need it. "But if you say, 'I want to have higher maximum strength and bigger biceps through my training,' then creatine accelerates that process."
Dife expert Kleinert states that the advantages are in the percentage range. "If you're an Olympic athlete, of course, the one or two percent can make the difference between a gold or silver medal. But for recreational athletes, I think it's more important to eat sensibly."
Speaking of nutrition. Athlete Stolle also says that he doesn't eat meat and therefore can't get the creatine from his food. That's why it's important to him to take synthetic creatine. The Dife expert confirms this. "Creatine is found in relatively high concentrations in red meat and fish, and together with the body's own synthesis, a balanced diet meets our creatine needs." It is interesting that vegetarians and vegans sometimes have lower muscle levels. However, Kleinert also says that this isn't a big deal in everyday life.
According to Smollich, Kleinert and the European Food Authority EFSA, consumption is generally harmless. Only people with previous kidney diseases should be careful.
According to Smollich, there is a group of people for whom regular creatine intake makes sense: older people over 55. Older people break down muscles more and more quickly, and this is accompanied by a loss of function. "This means that older people can no longer climb the stairs as well, can no longer go shopping as well, and are simply physically weaker. Here, creatine, together with strength training, can help maintain muscle mass for longer as they age - and thus functionality Quality of life," explains Smollich.
Athlete Stolle is still a long way from that. But he still wants to take the powder.