David Neill was better suited to holding up tackling dummies than playing quarterback before his senior year at Newhall Hart High. But in a few months he packed 40 pounds onto his 6-foot-4 frame, and by season’s end was a 200-pound all-star with a college scholarship.
Neill credits two factors for his startling development: hours in the weight room and the use of creatine supplements.
“I take it straight from the spoon and swoosh water in my mouth to dissolve it,” he said. “Creatine makes your muscles feel bigger when you work out. I noticed a huge size increase.”
Creatine is produced naturally in the body and is found in beef, pork and fish. Supplements have been popular for a decade with body builders and professional athletes, who say creatine builds muscles the way spinach pumped up Popeye.
Cans of the same powder Neill bought at a nutritional supplement store are in the locker rooms of the Lakers, New York Yankees and Denver Broncos. NFL stars such as John Elway and Troy Aikman endorse it. Mark McGwire can give an assist to creatine, should he break Roger Maris’ home run record.
Who is next, Paul Bunyan? More likely, the kid next door.
Teenage athletes have spurred creatine’s sales, which have nearly quadrupled in two years to an estimated $180 million, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.
“Kids realize, why risk your life with steroids when you can get the same benefits with creatine?” said George Contreras, football coach at Oxnard Rio Mesa High. "[Creatine] is cheaper and it’s legal.”
Whether it is safe for athletes whose bodies have yet to fully mature is a topic of debate.
Not Enough Research
Typically ingested as an odorless, tasteless powder, creatine is promoted as chicken soup for the physique. Independent studies show that it rapidly increases lean muscle mass when combined with weight training. No one disputes that it works.
However, critics say there is an alarming absence of research on the product’s long-term effects and point to a growing chorus of complaints by users of cramping, dehydration and loose stool.
Because creatine is a nutritional supplement, it is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
Some doctors worry about kidney or liver damage they say might occur from flushing large doses of creatine from the body.
Mickey Mellman, the Dodgers’ internist for 13 years, says he has noticed liver irritation in some users. He is alarmed by creatine’s burgeoning popularity among high school athletes.
“It’s nuts, it’s misdirected and it shows a poor understanding of the physiology of the athlete,” Mellman said. “Anyone who thinks that a substance will supersede an adolescent’s natural growth and rate of maturity is kidding himself.”
Even the most vociferous creatine proponents stop short of giving it blanket endorsement for use by teenagers.
Richard Kreider, a professor in the Exercise and Sports Nutrition Laboratory at the University of Memphis, monitors use by Memphis athletes and is among at least three researchers who are beginning long-term studies of the supplement.
“If they are training hard and eating right, creatine is fine in the proper dosage,” he said. “But even if it is perfectly safe for adolescents . . . there is no compelling reason to take it until the body is more fully developed.”
The Assn. of Professional Team Physicians reported in May that 85% of its members will not recommend creatine until more studies are done.
The San Diego Padres and Seattle Seahawks are among professional teams that do not allow creatine in their training rooms, although the Seahawks estimate that 25% to 50% of their players use it. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went so far as to release a position paper detailing their misgivings.
But prudence is often shoved aside in the rush to achieve results, and there are countless tales of users gaining 10 to 20 pounds of muscle in just months.
Caving In to Pressure
The pressure to become bigger and stronger is greatest in football, and it is felt at an increasingly young age.
At a recent scouting combine in Ventura County, a high school coach surveyed the field of players running and jumping for the benefit of college recruiters and remarked, “I think just about every guy here is on creatine.”
Said another football coach, George Hurley of Newbury Park High, “Kids come to the conclusion that if the guy next to me in the weight room is doing creatine and I’m not doing it, he is ahead of me.
“There is also pressure from colleges. You are 225 pounds and a recruiter comes out and says, ‘Sorry, son.’ The next year you are 250 pounds and you’re considered a prospect.”
Like most high school coaches, Hurley neither recommends nor discourages the use of creatine by his players. But the problem with a hands-off approach is that use is not monitored.
“The way kids are, they believe if a little is good, a lot is great.” said Mel Hayashi, an orthopedic surgeon in Thousand Oaks who has worked with the U.S. Olympic team and volunteers as a team physician for high schools.
Some medical experts fear that fostering the mentality that an athlete needs something artificial could lead to the use of anabolic steroids.
“You can admit to creatine use because it is legal and acceptable,” Mellman said. “I fear people are ascribing gains to creatine use and masking the use of a more dangerous substance.”
Many teenage athletes fail to consult a physician before taking creatine. They see the dramatic effects on a teammate and strive to keep pace.
Kyle Boller, this year’s Hart quarterback, is less likely than his predecessor, Neill, to qualify as a creatine poster boy. Boller suffered severe cramps and stopped taking the supplement after a few weeks.
Following instructions on the container, Boller was “loading” creatine--taking four times the normal daily dose of five grams for two weeks before settling into a routine of one teaspoonful a day. Neill started the same way.
“It takes the water out of your muscles, and even though I drank a liter of water with it, I had problems,” Boller said.
Although he has had hamstring problems, University of Michigan-bound running back Justin Fargas dismisses cautionary tales.
A prep All-American at Notre Dame High in Sherman Oaks, Fargas lost weight this spring while training for the school track team. But with creatine complementing his weightlifting regimen, he believes he will be at his 195-pound football playing weight by the time he reports at Michigan in August.
“I’m not going to lie; it helps,” Fargas said. “Before my senior year I gained 15 pounds and I wasn’t fat.”
The International Center for Sports Nutrition, a private, nonprofit organization in Omaha serves as a consultant to several of the most enthusiastic creatine users--the San Francisco 49ers, the Yankees and the University of Nebraska.
Lately, however, associate director Kristin Reimers has counseled a steady stream of gawky teen athletes.
“Usually it’s the male athlete who has not matured or put on adult muscle mass but wants to be competitive among peers,” she said. “We ask, ‘Are they maxing out on training? Is a good diet there?’ Those are the more important factors.
“Creatine is adding pretty artwork to the house. It’s not the foundation.”
Use isn’t restricted to male athletes, although creatine manufacturers say female athletes are responsible for only a small percentage of sales.
Ed Croson, athletic director at West Hills Chaminade High, provided creatine to the girls’ soccer team a year ago, but one player said she and most of her teammates only sampled it.
As an assistant football coach at Chaminade in 1992, Croson was introduced to creatine at a seminar conducted by the Dallas Cowboys. Chaminade players became perhaps the earliest high school users in the Southland, and Croson, now the head coach, estimates that as many as half the players on his team take it.
“We’ve had great results,” he said.
Croson and others point to a body of short-term studies that have failed to turn up side effects. A panel of leading authorities on creatine at a June symposium sponsored by the National Strength and Conditioning Assn. gave the substance an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
“After reviewing more than 120 studies, we’ve concluded that creatine is one of the few supplements that appears to be beneficial to athletes,” said Kreider, the University of Memphis researcher who served on the panel.
Business Is Booming
Such endorsements give the green light to marketers armed with promotional material promising buffed bodies at no risk. Creatine is big business.
The powder is sold at health-food stores, gyms and supermarkets. It can be bought on the Internet and is available in powder, liquid, pills, candy (“Creatine Crunch, Peak Performance Training Bar”) and chewing gum.
New products that combine creatine with other dietary supplements are popping up, and are enthusiastically marketed. Createc GH-3, for example, is described as “a unique gh releaser and muscle cell volumizer powered by L-arginine, creatine and much more,” in a promotional brochure that promises the product will burn fat while it builds muscles.
Great Earth Inc., a major manufacturer of creatine, is marketing a product that allegedly bonds creatine molecularly to a glutamine peptide, increasing the length of time creatine remains in the body.
“What we are headed for is finding ways to make creatine better,” said Alan Fischman, Great Earth’s marketing director.
Dozens of companies sell creatine--which costs about $40 for a three-month supply--and entrepreneurs are moving into the market by launching home businesses. Among their first targets are high school football teams.
“I don’t know how many people have tried to sell it to me,” said Mike Herrington, Neill and Boller’s coach at Hart. “I get calls and mailings every week. A couple of my former athletes are selling it.”
Coaches at Santa Ana Mater Dei and Laguna Hills highs provided their players with creatine last year for about half the retail cost. Laguna Hills halted the practice after the Saddleback Valley Unified School District issued a directive in May, prohibiting coaches at the district’s five high schools from supplying any dietary supplement to athletes.
Governing bodies of high school athletics are just beginning to discuss the use of creatine. No guidelines are offered coaches or athletes by either the City or Southern Sections, which govern high school sports in Southern California.
A spokesman for the National Federation of State High School Athletic Assns. said a committee will take up the topic in October.
FDA Has Limited Role
The first studies on creatine in the body were done nearly 100 years ago, but research on the supplement didn’t begin until British sprinters took creatine in preparation for the 1992 Olympics. Professional athletes began using it shortly thereafter.
“Studies have been done primarily on collegiate athletes, that’s where the science is,” said Reimers of the ICSN.
The government is of little help in supplying information. A 1990 federal law expanded the definition of dietary supplements from substances composed of essential nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and proteins to include anything that contains an herb or an amino acid. Since passage in 1994 of the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act, the FDA no longer evaluates their safety.
Problems with dietary supplements are reviewed only case by case, and there haven’t been many complaints about creatine, FDA spokesman Laurel Eu said.
Still, creatine is among 10 substances that the FDA receives a significant number of questions about. The agency answers that it does not have information about the safety or purported benefits.
Many teenage athletes believe they don’t have time to wait. Neill’s father researched creatine by studying information available on the Internet, gave it his blessing, and his son immediately started using it.
Neill went on to pass for more than 3,000 yards, earning a scholarship to Nevada.
He is a creatine creation, and he apologizes to no one.
“The coaches at Nevada said they really want me on creatine and that all their players are on it too,” he said. “I feel pretty good about it. Nothing bad has happened so far.”