The Truth About Creatine for Climbers

creatineThere are dozens of sports supplements that claim to help build muscle and increase strength. While most are, in fact, worthless, creatine has been shown to produce increases in muscular strength in numerous well-executed studies. Based on this, creatine must be a good supplement for climbers. Right? Not so fast my high-ball sending, flash training friend!

Creatine is by far the most effective 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 sees their muscles get larger and harder, and they gain lean muscle mass (i.e. weight). 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, and millions of fitness buffs. But is it a good supplement for climbers? Let’s take a look at how creatine works.

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). Creatine is also present in animal foods such as red meat, however, the amount consumed in a normal diet is quite small (a couple grams 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” protocal is the method used by most athletes.

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. 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, results in a water weight gain of several pounds (or more) in most individuals. This is a good thing for athletes in sports where increased weight 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 in the “growing process.” However, the problem is that creatine loads in all muscles of the body, not just the “climbing muscles”, and will load proportionally more in the largest muscles of the body–the legs! Of course, increasing leg strength and weight is a bad thing for climbers since they are never the limiting factor. There’s just no way around it, creatine loading is not a good thing for climbers.

If you are still not convinced, let’s consider the cell volumizing effect of heavy creatine. Bodybuilders love the fact that their muscles pump up more easily when they are loaded with creatine. 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 faster when I was “on” creatine, this despite the fact that I felt like I had a little more zip in the muscles. What I quickly concluded was that the cell volumizing partially occluded capillaries that intervene in muscle, thus slowing blood flow and causing the rapid pump. In climbing, the goal is obviously to avoid the dreaded full-on pump as long as possible.

That said, I do believe that well-timed, small-doses of creatine can help climbers recover more quickly and without the nasty side effects of “loading.” The protocol I’ve developed and used for several years now is to add just two to five grams of creatine to a quart of sports drink that I sip throughout the day when climbing. This provides a slow trickle of creatine into the blood and muscles to aid recovery between routes. For training, I wait until the end of the workout; then I initiate the recovery cycle by consuming just two to five grams of creatine mixed into a quality sport drink.

The bottom line: either don’t use creatine at all or limit your use to just a few grams on workout/climbing days–this may slightly enhance your recovery with no noticeable weight gain or other negative side effects.

Copyright 2014 Eric J. Hörst. All rights reserved.