Mark McGwire swears by it. Eight-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney lifts with it. Heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield trains using it. Several Utah Jazz players rely on it. Even the BYU football team is taking it.
And thanks to the trickle-down effect, creatine is now the in-thing for a whole bunch of hardbody-seeking Utah high school athletes - including Ryon Bingham and most of his Alta High teammates.Mitch Lunak, who coaches football and wrestling at Alta, could tell Bingham had REALLY bulked up when he saw his already-beefy two-sport star wearing his singlet (a one-piece wrestling uniform) at practice.
"I noticed a big difference," Lunak says. "He got a lot leaner and had a lot more muscle mass."
Lunak couldn't help but be impressed, but his eyes didn't turn into saucers like the pupils of some of Bingham's wrestling opponents when they watched his sculpted mass step on the scale at the mandatory pre-match weigh-in.
"They see this guy who looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger. He's a pretty awesome-looking kid," Lunak says with a chuckle. "He beats most of his opponents before he even steps on the mat. They look at him and then they look at their coach like, `Do I have to wrestle this guy?' "
Unfortunately for them, they do. Or they can flee for safety, as one kid at a Las Vegas tournament did. "After he wrestled Ryon for a minute, he just ran out of the building," recalls Ryon's dad, Jeff Bingham, with an ear-to-ear, "that's-my-boy" smile.
The scared-out-of-his-wits kid might have just been running to the store for a bottle of creatine.
Everybody else is lately.
If the creators of creatine (KREE-uh-teen) ever need a poster boy to push their product, Ryon Bingham is their guy.
Bingham isn't just an oversized teenager; he's a huge specimen of a man. He's so big the veins on some of his muscles are larger than a lot of people's actual muscles, and that's only a slight exaggeration.
An intimidating-looking senior, Bingham is being recruited by many of the nation's top football programs, including Nebraska and Florida.
Bingham stands about 6-foot-4 and weighs in at about 265 pounds, and from the looks of him, 260 of those pounds are pure muscle. Muscle that was painstakingly sculpted through a combination of innumerable sweaty hours of iron-pumping to loud music in a sweaty gym, Mr. Universe-type genes, relentless dedication and the help of protein and supplements such as creatine.
Not that creatine deserves all the credit for Bingham's development. He was a brawny boy before he started taking the supplement about a year ago. His dad says he had a "V-shape" frame and carved calves when he was all of 4 years old. Plus, before being introduced to the latest nutritional craze, he had lifted weights for a few years with his older brother, Josh, a former Alta lineman who is now a freshman at Southern Utah.
Creatine, however, allowed him to reach the gargantuan level he's at now.
"I recommend it," says Bingham. "I think it's great."
Why shouldn't he? Since he started gulping it down, his benchpress max jumped from 340 pounds to 410. His other maxes have skyrocketed to 530 on the squat, 310 on the cling. His skin is bulging in new places all the time. He's feeling more confident than ever before. He doesn't even need a spotter to hold the world in the palm of his hands.
"It helped out a lot," Bingham says.
But don't be misled. Bingham should come with a label attached to him. Something like: These results are not typical unless you have been blessed with body-building genes and you work out three to four hours a day, six days a week while taking this supplement.
Creatine is not a magical steroid-substitute. You can't just pop some pills, wait a few days and then start picking up barbells like they're toothpicks. Creatine doesn't build muscle; it just lets you build muscles quicker.
"You've got to lift and work hard for it to work," Bingham says.
Derived from red meats and fish, creatine is an amino acid compound that prevents muscle fatigue, buffers lactic acid that causes muscles to "burn" and increases recovery time between sets in a given workout and between sepa-rate workouts.
In simple terms, it allows you to work out harder and longer, explains Dr. Chuck Stiggins, who is the head strength and conditioning coach at BYU.
Bingham felt the difference right off the bat.
"It makes it so you can work out longer," he says. "It gives you more endurance."
Though misconceptions swirl about creatine, Stiggins says it is safe and can be beneficial to athletes, even at the high-school level, as long as consumers follow a few basic guidelines. Most importantly, he insists it be used conservatively and that young athletes be monitored while taking it. That can present a problem since it is readily available over-the-counter at gyms, health and nutrition stores, supermarkets and even at Zuka Juice.
"One of the problems you run into with creatine is it's been widely overused," says Stiggins, who earned his doctorate in exercise physiology. "The attitude of a lot of young people is if a little bit's good then a lot is better. . . . They want instant results, but that's not the way it works."
Taking too much creatine can cause muscle spasms, cramps, strains, pulls and tears. If taken improperly it can also cause more serious problems by overloading the kidneys.
Timpview High football coach Chad Van Orden said one of his players started to get a rash while using creatine. The problem, though, was that he wasn't keeping himself hydrated. Sure enough, the rash disappeared as soon as he refilled his body with liquids.
"You need to drink lots and lots of fluids, especially water, when taking it," adds Stiggins, who recommends sending the pills or powder down the hatch with grape juice. On the other hand, he warns, it shouldn't be used with citric products because it lessens its effectiveness.
One possible problem with using creatine is that nobody really knows the long-term effect it could have, since it only hit the market in 1992. Several studies were discussed earlier this summer at the American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting in Orlando, but no conclusive answers have been found concerning the future.
"The verdict is still out on the safey of creatine supplementation, especially over long periods of time," the ACSM says in a statement. "More research is needed in both animal and human studies to thoroughly evaluate any potential deleterious side effects."
That doesn't mean a red flag should be thrown up, as it was when creatine was originally blamed for the deaths of three college wrestlers earlier this year. After a study, the Food and Drug Administration said creatine didn't appear to be a major factor in their deaths.
Stiggins says BYU's athletic department has not had any creatine-related problems after using the product for several years.
The Utah High School Activities Association hasn't been notified of any problems, either, according to UHSAA executive director Evan Excell. "We haven't heard anything at all" good or bad, he says.
Still, even the remote possibility of potential bad side-effects is enough to make a lot of people shy away from it. Include Excell in that group.
"I guess deep down I'm not a big proponent of it," he says.
Some feel that using creatine gives athletes an unfair advantage. But potential health risks are usually the biggest concern. The recent banning of the supposed "mir-acle" weight-loss drug combo is still fresh in the minds of many skeptics.
"It seems like they came out with phen-fen and a year later they're saying people are dying from it," Lunak says. "From all I know now, (creatine) is OK. But in a week they could come out and say that anybody that's been on this is going to die of a brain tumor. That's why I would never tell a kid to take this. That's his place or his parents place, not mine."
Jeff Bingham urges other parents to educate themselves about creatine, like he did when Ryon first wanted to use it.
"I read a lot about it and talked to the owners of (health store) GNC," he says. "I think it's wonderful for these kids. I think it's totally safe. I haven't seen one neg-a-tive thing about it."
But even Ryon had his doubts when he heard about creatine at first, and his mom didn't know what to think other than to be worried. It could have been steroids for all she knew. They were both reassured when they found out how widely used it is by pro and college teams.
"You never know. It could be a gimmick or it could be something that's going to hurt you," Ryon Bingham says, recalling his first impressions of creatine. "But all the colleges are taking it now, so it must be a good thing."
Unless you have to stand opposite him on the line of scrimmage or at weigh-ins.