If you've ever talked training, nutrition and supplementation with any guy in the weight room, you've probably heard him mention creatine. Most likely, you filed it away in your brain under “never take under any circumstances.” Women tend to stay away from supplements that promise muscle gains out of fear of getting bulky or — gulp — looking like Ah-nold.
Well, here's a little fact most members of the weight-room posse don't know: Creatine works differently in women than in men — much differently, in fact. Surprisingly, we can get the all the muscle-building benefits without adding body fat.
The Training Pick-Me-Up
“When you take creatine, it allows you to train at a higher intensity and a higher volume," Stout says. That is why numerous studies have shown that creatine increases muscular strength, power and lean muscle mass. “When a muscle cell has more creatine, each contraction can be more forceful, and you can do more work before the muscle fatigues,” Talbott says. That means when taking creatine, you may eke out more repetitions with the same amount of weight.
And the benefits are not only strength-related, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Researchers at the University of Oklahoma at Norman separated participants into three groups: creatine, placebo and control. The creatine and placebo groups did four weeks of high-intensity interval training (also known as HIIT). Unexpectedly, they found that creatine improved anaerobic threshold — the maximal amount of exercise you can do before your muscles begin to produce lactic acid - by 16 percent, versus the 10 percent bump experienced by the placebo group.
What does this mean for you? Say you can run a seven-minute mile. If you can improve your anaerobic threshold by delaying the point at which your muscles fatigue, you could run a six-and-a-half-minute mile comfortably for a while without producing lactic acid. Being able to do that can help you perform better in a race or in the gym. “If you can do a few more reps and put on a little bit more muscle, you're going to be burning more calories,” Talbott says. “The rule of thumb I use is that if someone can put on five pounds of muscle, they can burn 200 more calories per day by just sitting around. So you can think of creatine almost like a fat-loss supplement.”
Other Health Implications
Unlike most sports nutrition supplements that started in the medical world and crossed over to the gym, creatine's roots were planted by athletes. Currently, science is exploring how this sports supplement can help people suffering from neuromuscular diseases, such as muscular dystrophy, McArdle's disease, Parkinson's disease and heart disease.
One of the most interesting populations using creatine is the sedentary. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging showed that even a low dose of creatine created a huge impact on muscle function in elderly subjects in just two weeks. In another recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers found that men with one of their arms in a full cast who took large doses of creatine (five grams four times per day) better maintained lean muscle mass than the placebo group, which lost 3.7 percent of their mass.
Creatine And You
While creatine supplementation is well researched (something many other sports supplements lack), about only one third of human studies involved female subjects. But it's what those female studies are finding that warrants women cast another look at the creatine jug. What the research revealed was: creatine benefits are greater in women than in men; and unlike men, women do not gain weight from creatine supplementation even when loading.
“If you look at all the research, the majority of it finds that when women take creatine, they don't gain weight, but they see an enhancement in performance,” Stout says. Why is that? One theory is that women have naturally higher levels of creatine than men. But if women already have high creatine levels in their muscles, why even consider supplementing with it? Consider that it enhances performance and increases strength without causing you to gain additional pounds. And then take into account that creatine has an antioxidant effect that reduces muscle damage, improves recovery and preserves lean muscle - all things a woman athlete would certainly benefit from.
Creatine comes with a welcome bonus — no medical or dietary interactions to speak of. “It doesn't even do what carbohydrates do: spike insulin,” Stout says. “Creatine doesn't cause any kind of hormonal reaction. Everybody asks me what the most dangerous supplement out there is and I say sugar. I consider creatine to be even safer than sugar.”
Whether you go for a powder, pill or liquid (creatine is sold in all three forms) looking at all the creatine formulations available on the market can be mind-numbing. Experts agree that there's only one thing you need to reach for: creatine monohydrate. “It's hard to find a creatine supplement that doesn't have a bunch of sugar in it or 50 other ingredients in there,” Stout says. Original creatine monohydrate has not only been shown to perform better than “sexier” blended formulas but it's also going to cost you pennies a day, compared to dollars a day.
Possible Side Effects
You may experience gastrointestinal issues, muscle cramps, bad breath, strains and pains and dizziness. Most of these side effects were reported when the supplement first came out and when scientists were still figuring out the correct dosage to take. These days such side effects are very rare. Stout, who has studied creatine extensively, says the only side effect he has heard of is the energy buzz that vegans get when they begin to take creatine. “Vegans are so depleted in creatine because there is no source of it in their diet,” he says. “You don't experience that if you're getting creatine elsewhere in your diet and you're muscles are stocked at normal levels.”
“Loading”: Is It Necessary?
Consuming 20 to 25 grams of creatine daily to make sure your muscle stores are full, instead of the regularly recommended three to five grams a day, is known as loading. Doing a “loading phase” when first starting to take creatine was a popular supplementation method a decade ago, but the practice has fallen out of favor with most experts. While there are people out there who say it's necessary, it isn't — there is no scientifically compelling reason to take more than five grams of creatine daily. Plenty of research has shown that muscle stores do in fact "load" perfectly well on this amount.
Flashback: The first report of creatine having muscle-building effects was published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry - way back in 1926!