Creatine Alternatives: What Are The Options?
Written by Ben Carlisle
Last updated on: Sep 18, 2022
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Creatine is a famous, science-backed, safe supplement which will help you achieve your athletic and fitness goals However, it is often asked, are there any alternatives to creatine which can produce the same results.
No alternative supplementation truly matches the effects of creatine. However, reasonable strength and muscle substitutes include protein powder and BCAA. Energy alternatives include caffeine, citrulline, beta-alanine, nitric oxide, and niacin. Consider combining one or more of these alternatives.
Getting into the best shape does not only take getting up early in the morning to work up a sweat; it entails a complete lifestyle change, including the correct supplementation. While creatine is typically the number one go-to supplementation, we'd like to know if there are similarly effective alternatives? So, let's find out.
Are There Any Suitable Alternatives To Creatine?
There is no standalone supplement that can provide the same benefits as creatine. However, several alternatives deem to be pretty successful in matching one or more of this world-renown supplement.
So, by combining various supplements, you can achieve similar results. However, to fully replicate creatine's effects, you'll need to focus on investing in a supplement that boosts strength and muscle mass development. Then, you'll also need a supplement that can help enhance your energy levels during exercise.
What Is Creatine?
Creatine is a naturally occurring substance that primarily resides in the muscles' cells. Approximately 95% of creatine storage is in the skeletal muscles; the remaining 5% lies in the heart, brain, and other body tissues (1).
On a chemical level, creatine is a mixture of three different amino acids (2):
These three amino acids form an endogenous tri-peptide molecule known as methyl guanidine acetic acid or, simply put - creatine (2).
Creatine serves as an essential fuel source that helps your muscles produce sufficient energy for fast-twitching muscle contraction, such as during heavy lifting or high-intensity exercises. In addition, creatine supplements are popular among bodybuilders and athletes as it helps improve performance, boost muscle growth, and enhance strength (3).
Creatine is a critical component in creating and boosting adenosine triphosphate (ATP)- the primary form of energy in your muscle cells (4). Your muscles rely on ATP to function correctly and power muscle contractions.
ATP consists of one nitrogenous base (adenine), ribose sugar, and three serially bonded phosphate groups. ATP is famous as the "energy currency" of cells as it provides readily releasable energy between the second and third phosphate groups (5).
ATP hydrolyzes and loses one phosphate during strenuous muscle activities or high-intensity exercises. Additionally, its limited supply quickly depletes, making the regeneration of ATP essential (6).
During the regeneration phase, adenosine diphosphate ADP - the by-product of ATP depletion - "borrows" a phosphate from creatine phosphate. The phosphocreatine helps replenish ATP levels as it provides an immediate phosphate source that boosts ATP reformation. So, phosphocreatine - the most rapid form of regeneration - serves as a temporary buffer to help maintain ATP production (7).
The Benefits Of Creatine Supplementation
Creatine supplementation has a well-earned reputation thanks to the remarkable benefits it offers.
Here are the superb benefits of creatine:
Creatine Increases Muscle ATP Energy
Creatine increases muscle ATP energy which results in improved exercise or sporting performance.
Like we said earlier, most of the body's creatine stores lie in the skeletal muscles, of which about 65% is in a phosphorylated form (8). So, consuming creatine naturally boosts the muscles' phosphocreatine stores, which later play a pivotal role in the energy of muscle contractions and ATP formation during high-intensity exercise (9).
The dephosphorylation process of ATP will help to fuel muscle contraction by freeing energy to promote high-intensity movements. Therefore, muscle function critically depends on ATP availability.
Increased muscle ATP levels allow you to maintain the muscle peak for longer, and it amplifies the effects of resistance training by improving lean body mass and anaerobic capacity (10).
Research shows that short-term creatine supplementation can improve exercise or sporting performance in the following ways (11):
• Maximal power or strength by 5-15%
• Maximal effort muscle contractions by 5-15%
• Single-effort sprint performance by 1-5%
• Repetitive sprint performance by 5-15%
Moreover, creatine supplementation and training promote more significant gains in strength, high-intensity performance, and fat-free mass. Of the 300 studies evaluating the ergogenic value of creatine supplements, 70% of the studies report significant results, while the remaining groups report non-significant effects (11).
Research confirms that consuming 20 grams of creatine supplementation for five days can improve the performance of maximal isokinetic exercise and reduce fatigue by 6% (12).
Creatine Stimulates Protein Synthesis
Short-term, high-intensity exercise cause muscle fatigue to die the skeletal muscles' inability to maintain a high anaerobic ATP production (13).
Ingesting creatine at a rate of 20 grams per day for 5 to 6 days increases creatine concentrations by approximately 25 mmol/kg dry mass.
Creatine is part of the contraction end product unique to muscle; it selectively stimulates the synthesis of two major contractile proteins (actin and myosin heavy chain) in cultures of differentiating skeletal muscles. However, creatine will only affect the synthesis rate, not degradation (14).
Creatine Decreases Lactic Acid Build-Up
If you have enough creatine stored in your muscles before exercise, it can be a lactic acid buffer. More so, it can aid in muscle recovery if you consume it after training.
Creatine supplementation will increase the aerobic breakdown of glucose while reducing lactic acid production. Although creatine does not alter your glucose metabolism, the supplement will activate AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK).
AMPK is a sensor of low or depleted ATP levels and a true master of regulating your metabolism. For example, the AMPK will shift your basal glucose metabolism towards oxidation, reducing lactate production in your muscle cells (15).
The build-up of lactic acid in your muscles significantly contributes to muscle fatigue. Therefore, creatine supplements benefit endurance athletes by enhancing energy production in working muscles and raising their lactate threshold (16).
Creatine Alternatives For Strength And Muscle Growth
If you are still stuck on a fence about taking a creatine supplement, consider trying these highly-effective substitutes.
Protein Powder As A Creatine Substitute
Protein supplementation, alongside resistance exercise, is a potent stimulus for muscle protein synthesis and regulating skeletal muscle mass. Therefore, combining protein shakes with high-intensity or resistance training can enhance your physical performance while increasing muscle mass and boosting weight loss (17).
Protein powder provides essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) that your body quickly absorbs. As your body digests protein, the stomach breaks it into amino acids. These amino acids are critical to ensure biological processes like storing essential nutrients, muscle repair, and muscle growth.
Researchers believe that protein powder consumption increases amino acid availability in the bloodstream, which triggers a significant response for muscle synthesis (18).
Various powdered protein supplements are available, including animal- or plant-based sources.
The most common animal-based protein powders are:
• Whey Protein Powder
• Casein Protein Powder
• Egg-White Protein Powder
The most common plant-based protein powders are:
• Soy Protein Powder
• Pea Protein Powder
• Hemp Protein Powder
• Brown Rice Protein Powder
A 2018 analysis supports that protein supplements can significantly improve muscle strength and size in healthy adults that perform resistance training (19).
BCAAs As A Creatine Substitute
Twenty different types of amino acids serve as building blocks of protein synthesis. Of the twenty, nine are considered essential as the body cannot self-produce these specific amino acids. Instead, you need to obtain them through your diet.
Of the nine essential amino acids, leucine, isoleucine, and valine are the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) (20). While the liver breaks most amino acids down, BCAAs mostly metabolize in muscle tissue.
BCAAs supplementation helps increase muscle growth and repair by activating a pathway in your body that will stimulate muscle protein synthesis. In addition, BCAAs, particularly leucine, increase the rate of producing proteins to repair muscle damage from intense workouts while decreasing protein degradation in resting muscle (21).
So, when you aim to build muscle, you want to ensure that muscle protein synthesis can outpace muscle protein degradation. Fortunately, adequate supplies of BCAAs can help you to reach these goals.
In a study, individuals who consumed 5.6 grams of BCAAs after resistance training had a 22% greater muscle protein synthesis increase than the placebo group (22).
However, note that BCAAs supplementation offers about 50% less of an increase in muscle protein synthesis than a whey supplement (23). Therefore, BCAAs, can't increase muscle protein synthesis maximally without the help of other essential amino acids. So, consider pairing it with whey protein or other complete protein sources.
Creatine Alternatives For Energy
You can't only focus on strength and muscle-building substitutes; you'll have to pair one of the alternatives mentioned above with an energy-boosting supplement.
Consider trying one of the following alternatives:
Caffeine As A Creatine Substitute
Caffeine is a prevalent ingredient in pre-workouts, but pure caffeine stimulants also exist.
Caffeine stimulants help to prevent adenosine from connecting to specific brain receptors that lead to an increase in nerve activity, making you more alert and energetic (24).
You can benefit from caffeine during short-term high intensity or endurance-based exercise; it increases vigilance, alertness, and your central nervous system's function while reducing your perception of effort while exercising (25).
Caffeine acts rapidly; most people notice the effects of caffeine within minutes. These side effects last until your body fully metabolizes the drug. The duration depends on various factors like weight, diet, pregnancy, or smoking.
The half-life of caffeine in healthy individuals is approximately five hours. However, the elimination phase can range between 1.5 to 9.5 hours. The broad range is from individual variations like weight, pregnancy, diet, oral contraceptives, smoking, and altitudes (26).
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends limiting caffeine dosages to 400 milligrams per day (27).
Citrulline As A Creatine Substitute
Citrulline is a non-essential amino acid quickly gaining popularity as an exercise supplement.
After consuming citrulline, it converts into arginine and nitric oxide. Nitric oxide will promote blood vessels vasodilation by relaxing the constricting muscle cells (28).
Citrulline does not directly build proteins, but it can increase protein synthesis through stimulating vital pathways involved in muscle building (29).
Several studies suggest that citrulline can help improve athletic performance by increasing oxygen levels in your muscle tissue. While citrulline supplements might not help the body use more oxygen, they can enhance oxygen usage in muscles, which helps to improve endurance (30).
A different study shows that individuals who ingested citrulline significantly reduced the fatigue sensation, a 34% increase rate of oxidative ATP production during exercising, and a 20% increase in the phosphocreatine recovery after exercising. These results indicate a more considerable oxidative ATP synthesis contribution to anaerobic energy production (31).
Beta-Alanine As A Creatine Substitute
Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid. More so, unlike most amino acids that synthesize proteins, it combines with histidine to produce carnosine stored in the skeletal muscles (32).
Carnosine helps reduce lactic acid accumulation in your muscles during exercise, leading to reduced fatigue and improved athletic performance (33).
Beta-alanine also helps increase your time to exhaustion, helping you exercise for more extended periods. For example, a study found that cyclists consuming this supplement for four weeks increased the total work completed by 13% (34).
Beta-alanine can reduce fatigue and boost training volume (35). The supplement enhances exercise performance by increasing your capacity and decreasing muscle fatigue.
Nitric Oxide As A Creatine Substitute
Nitric oxide is a molecular gas naturally produced by nearly every cell type in the human body. In addition, it is a vasodilator and one of the essential molecules for blood vessel health (36).
A vasodilator will relax your blood vessels' inner muscles, causing the vessels to widen. In this way, nitric oxide will ultimately increase blood flow and lower blood pressure. In turn, wider blood vessels increase nutrients and oxygen delivery to working muscles during exercise (36).
With time, oxygen levels start to deplete in the muscles, causing you to get tired. However, nitric oxide counteracts this process by increasing glucose uptake in the muscle cells, giving you a burst of energy. Therefore, nitric oxide enhances exercise performance, allowing you to train longer and harder without experiencing muscle fatigue (37).
While nitric oxide supplements do not contain nitric oxide itself, they are filled with compounds like nitrates, l-arginine, and l-citrulline that encourage your body to produce nitric oxide naturally.
Niacin As A Creatine Substitute
Niacin belongs to the eight groups of B vitamins, specifically vitamin B3.
Niacin is found in many pre-workout formulas to fuel cellular metabolism with coenzymes that convert food into energy quicker.
Niacin supports ATP energy production by maximizing the energy reserves vital for dietary and cellular fuel. In addition, niacin primarily functions in energy-producing and catabolic reactions, including the degradation of carbs, fats, proteins, and alcohol (38).
Note that the "flushing effect" is a significant adverse effect of niacin which can cause reddish, itchy skin and a tingling sensation in your face (39).
In short, there is no alternative supplement that will add up to the unique benefits of creatine.
Consider combining one or more energy or strength and muscle supplements as mentioned earlier to achieve similar results to creatine. Alternatively, try investing in a pre-workout that contains at least one or more of these ingredients.