There are dozens of sports supplements that claim to increase strength/power and to help build muscle. While most are, in fact, worthless, creatine has been shown to produce increases in muscular strength in dozens of well-executed studies. Based on this, creatine must be a good supplement for climbers. Right? Not so fast my high-ball sending, redpoint-crushing friend!
Let’s look at the facts. First, creatine is by far the most effective, legal sports supplement on the market. Not only has it been show to enhance explosive strength in numerous well-controlled studies (Toler 1997 & Kreider 1998), but when consumed in large doses the user actually increases lean mass (large, harder muscles). Consequently, creatine has become the biggest selling sports supplement in the country, and it’s widely used by football and baseball players, weight lifters, bodybuilders, MMAers, cross-fitters, sprinters, and millions of fitness buffs.
Creatine is a compound that’s natural to our body, and it is used in the muscles to help create ATP (the energy source for brief, explosive movements) as part of the anaerobic alactic energy pathway. Creatine is present in animal foods such as red meat, however, the amount consumed in a normal diet is quite small (typically just a gram or two per day). Studies have shown that taking 20 grams per day of supplemental creatine for five or six days will enhance performance in short-duration, high-intensity exercise such as sprinting or weight lifting. This “creatine loading” protocol is the method used by most athletes in search of greater strength/power and gains in lean body mass. (Long-term use of the creatine loading protocol may be stressful on the kidneys, so it would be wise to cycle on and off creatine if you consuming “loading” amounts.)
Two side effects of creatine loading are weight gain and “cell volumizing.” Both these effects occur because creatine associates with water as it is stored in the muscles (95% of the creatine is stored inside muscle cells, and so intracellular water almost certainly increases). Over the six-day loading phase, more and more creatine is stored and an increasing amount of water is drawn into the muscle cell—this gives muscles a fuller, “pumped” feel and look, just what bodybuilders and fitness buffs want. This loading process, therefore, typically results in a water weight gain of a pound or two (or more). This is a good thing for athletes in sports where increased bodyweight and speed (inertia) can be used to your advantage (e.g. football, swinging a bat, or swinging your fist). However, in a sport that requires a high strength-to-weight ratio, it can have a negative impact on performance.
Some climbers have argued that stronger muscles (due to creatine loading) can easily lift the extra weight gained. The problem, however, is that creatine loads in all muscles of the body, not just the “climbing muscles”. Furthermore, creatine will load proportionally more in the largest muscles of the body—the legs!–not exactly the place smart climber would want to increase muscle mass. Therefore, I’m sure you’ll agree that the creatine loading protocol would likely be counterproductive for a serious climber.
If you are still not convinced, let’s consider the cell volumizing effect of heavy creatine use. Bodybuilders love the fact that their muscles pump up more easily when they are loaded with creatine (and water). I quickly noticed this same effect when experimenting with creatine when it first appeared on the market in 1993. It seemed strange at the time, but I pumped out more quickly when I was “on” creatine, this despite the fact that I felt like I had a little more zip in my muscles. What I theorize is that the cell volumizing effect may lead to faster occlusion of important capillary blood flow into the muscles during strenuous exercises, thus causing a severe pump and rapid muscle failure when energy pathway shifts away from anaerobic alactic (after 10 to 15 seconds). So while creatine use may have a positive effect on brief powerful climbs lasting less than 15 seconds, the “pump effect” may very well hamper climbing performance on longer boulder problems and difficult roped ascents.
All this said, I do believe that well-timed, small-doses of creatine can help climbers recover more quickly and without the undesirable side effects of “loading.” The protocol I’ve developed and used for several years now is to add just 2 to 5 grams of creatine to a quart of sports drink that I sip throughout my workout (or climbing day). This provides just a little more than a normal “dietary dose” of creatine to hasten recovery of maximal power between exercises and routes.
- Small-dose creatine usage (2 – 5 grams per day) may yield a slight increase in power and a small edge in recovery between strenuous exercises, boulder problems, and routes, without any significant undesirable side effects.
- The high-dose “creatine loading” protocol (20+ grams consumed daily) is likely counterproductive for climbers, due to weight gain (commonly 1 – 3 pounds) and increased muscle “pump” during long, sustained boulder problems or routes.
- A small percentage of individuals are creatine “non-responders”, meaning that creatine consumption results in no observable positive or negative effects.
- Creatine usage is reported to cause cramping, particularly in the foot and leg muscles, in some individuals. Long-term creatine use may be harmful to the kidneys.
- Creatine is not a banned substance, nor is it on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) list of prohibited substances.
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