Let’s put one fear to rest right away: Taking creatine won’t give you a barrel chest, saddle you with sleeve-busting arms, or otherwise bestow you with unflattering “man muscle.” Nothing can (except steroids), and you can thank (or blame) genetics for that. On this point, the research is clear: If you’re a woman, supplementing with creatine won’t turn you into a linebacker.
How Can Creatine Help My Workouts?
Otherwise, creatine is an equal-opportunity workout enhancer. Many studies show that ladies can experience the same performance improvements as men — including increases in strength and endurance — without a significant increase in body weight. In one landmark study from Canada, for example, men and women who supplemented with creatine for six weeks both became stronger, but only the guys bulked up. “The difference could be due to the fact that men have more muscle to begin with,” says Joan Eckerson, Ph.D., a creatine researcher and professor of exercise science at Creighton University, in Nebraska. There’s also evidence that creatine may effect the breakdown of leucine — a key muscle-building amino acid — differently in women than it does in men. “But the reality is that scientists haven’t found concrete explanation for the gender difference,” says Eckerson. Indeed, the difference has baffled scientists for decades, since creatine serves the same primary role in the body regardless of whether your chromosomes match or not.
Creatine helps create energy. Whenever the body runs low on its primary energy source, adenosine triphosphate (ATP), creatine reacts with other molecules to generate more. As a result, creatine helps the body not only sustain muscular work, but also recover between bouts of it. “If you recover faster between sets, you can keep lifting longer and harder, leading to greater gains in strength and power,” says Eckerson. This benefit extends post-workout, reducing the time needed between intense lifting sessions. “There’s also evidence that it helps endurance athletes recover between repeated bouts of exercise [like intervals],” says Eckerson, “although it’s not shown to significantly effect endurance exercise performance.”
Will Creatine Make Me Bulky?
If you do notice greater muscle growth while taking creatine, odds are it won’t be significant. In one recent study from Brazil, for example, women in their 60s who took 5 grams of creatine a day during a 12-week strength program gained just 3 percent more muscle than those who took a placebo. What was significant, however, was creatine’s effect on training volume: By the end of the study, the women who took creatine were able to handle more than double exercise volume (i.e., total sets and reps) of the placebo group. So while creatine can’t help you look like a bodybuilder, it might help you lift like one.
Which brings us to another misconception: The idea that creatine is a steroid. It’s not. Creatine is a protein manufactured by your kidneys, liver, and pancreas, and ingested by way of meat, poultry, and fish. “Your body makes about one gram [per day], and you get another gram [per day] from food if you’re an omnivore,” says Eckerson. Vegetarians and vegans miss out on that second gram, but that doesn’t put them at a disadvantage; if you work out regularly, and you want to boost performance and strength, you should consider increasing your daily dose above two grams through supplementation.
What Type of Creatine Is Best?
This is where many women throw up their hands. With so many versions of creatine available to consumers — including creatine nitrate, gluconate, malate, ethyl ester, magnesium chelate, hydrochloride, and alpha ketoglutarate to name a few — deciding between them can easily become overwhelming. So allow us to narrow your choices: Dismiss anything that’s not labeled “creatine monohydrate.” It’s the most studied (and generally the least expensive) form of creatine, and nothing else has been proven more effective, says Eckerson.
You can also dismiss any instructions regarding “loading,” which is the practice of taking extra-high doses for several days to saturate your muscles. Studies show that even a single daily dose of 5 to 10 grams can do the trick. To optimize your results, take 2 to 5 grams (most scoops are 5 grams) of creatine monohydrate 30 to 60 minutes before exercise, and then again within 30 minutes of completing your workout. If this isn’t doable, just take the entire 5 to 10 grams post-workout. “Anabolic hormones, including insulin and growth hormone, are elevated after exercise, helping to drive more creatine into your cells,” says Eckerson, who recommends blending it into a shake or stirring it into juice to make it more palatable. An additional 2 to 5 grams first thing in the morning on rest days will make sure your creatine tank remains topped off.
Need another reason to give creatine a try? Taking it may benefit your bones, according to Canadian researchers. In their study, postmenopausal women who added creatine to their training routine for one year lost 69 percent less bone than those who took a placebo. The reason: Creatine may activate bone-synthesizing cells called osteoblasts, say the researchers.
As with any supplement, consult your doctor before taking creatine — especially if you’re pregnant or have kidney problems. Your body breaks creatine down into a waste product called creatinine, which is processed in your kidneys and excreted in urine, says Eckerson. That’s not a big challenge if your kidneys are healthy, but it can be if they aren’t.