Whether you’ve been working out for some time or are just getting started, the two most common supplements you’ve probably heard about are Protein and Creatine. Both help the muscle building process, with protein acting as the building blocks for new muscle, and creatine aiding in performance and speed of recovery.
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The benefits of these substances have long been established, but that doesn’t necessarily mean everybody should be shoveling giant scoops of powders in to a blender every morning and after they exercise.
First and foremost meat contains all the protein and creatine the average person requires to function properly. If your body didn’t have enough protein you’d notice muscle wastage and you probably couldn’t support your own weight. If you weren’t getting enough creatine your muscles would be severely lacking in energy and you probably wouldn’t be able to lift your shopping bags.
In other words even with the poorest of eating habits, most people are not lacking in protein and creatine.
Protein is made up of essential and non-essential amino acids. These are synthesized by the body and used to aid a wide range of internal processes, from building new cells to maintaining the immune system.
In terms of building muscle, whenever you work out hard the fibrous structural protein in the muscle becomes stressed and sustains small amounts of damage and tearing. New protein you’ve consumed is then transported to this area and used to re-build the tissue. The fascinating thing is that it rebuilds the tissue stronger than before the workout. This is why lifting weights makes your muscles grow. It’s the body’s way of reinforcing itself in case it faces the same amount of stress in the future.
The idea is that when you regularly work out to an intensity that requires this re-building of structural protein, you get bigger. If you go too light nothing of significance happens because the body is already prepared for that amount of stress. If you work out too often the muscle doesn’t have a chance to recover and you can go backwards. Gradually you need to increase the amount of weight you lift to ensure that you keep reaching the point of “failure” (i.e. you just can’t do any more reps).
Creatine is used by the body to energize the brain and muscles. It is stored within the muscles as a phosphate that helps replenish Adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is used as an immediate form of energy. For example if you suddenly got out of your chair and ran for a mile, you muscles would be tapping in to ATP right away.
Studies have shown that supplementing with creatine monohydrate powder (sometimes in capsule or pill form) can increase performance by increasing the immediate energy available to your muscles. This isn’t an infinite process, as eventually the muscle itself is going to be too worn out to continue, but in cases of high intensity athletics or weight lifting, it can help you go a little longer or squeeze out a few extra reps.
Because amino acids from within the body are usually needed to create creatine, when you supplement it you have a surplus left over to aid other bodily functions. This can help speed up the recovery of your muscle because the body can focus on rebuilding the structural protein instead of replenishing creatine. In other words it makes the whole muscle building process slightly more efficient.
Users of creatine often report a prolonged pumped feeling after workouts. This is because a small amounts of water is carried through to the muscle during synthesis. Aesthetically this can make your muscles look bigger, though it can also give you a bloated stomach.
There’s a difference between functioning properly and functioning efficiently. If you are specifically hitting your muscles multiple times a week, you will still get by ok eating a fairly typical diet. Humans have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to withstand a range of environmental extremes. If you couldn’t function on a restricted or low quality diet then the various tribes around the world and the vast numbers of people living in poverty, would be dead.
In other words you will see results whether you take protein and creatine supplements or not. However taking supplements will absolutely help you gain better results, because it ensures you have enough of the amino acids on standby for when they’re needed. Think of it as going to a fill up your car but having to wait a few hours for a delivery of petrol. Supplements ensure the tank is full.
Will Everybody See Results?
Of course there are other factors at play that determine whether consuming protein shakes and taking creatine is going to result in bigger muscles. Obviously you still have to work out hard – you can’t just take these things and get big over night.
If you are an absolute beginner to lifting weights most people will advise you to steer clear of supplements because you don’t yet know how you perform without them. Once you get in to a regular routine, have pushed yourself to your limits, and have a feeling of how quickly you can recover between workouts, then you might consider supplementation. At this point you will notice if your performance increases while using them.
Likewise if you have been lifting weights for some time without supplements and either cannot seem to move up to a heavier set, or you simply aren’t seeing the same results anymore, you too may consider taking supplements to see if they help you push through the plateau.
Supplements vs Food
Protein shakes are more of a convenience than a necessity. You can easily eat enough protein after a workout to help recover, but it’s not always practical or cost effective to keep making steaks every day, and tinned Tuna gets old fast!
Creatine on the other hand is much harder to consume naturally at the levels required to see an increase in performance.
That being said unless you push yourself to the limit during every workout, you may not even notice the benefits to begin with.
Like anything there is no magic pill that will automatically make you superman, but smart supplement use can absolutely help.