How creatine works

Can this powerful supplement help power up women's workouts, too?

June 17, 2003
How creatine works
Women athletes haven't jumped on the creatine bandwagon like men. But why not? After all, the scientific and athletic communities alike have substantiated creatine as a bona fide performance-enhancing supplement that improves high-intensity exercise performance, increases strength and body mass, and improves recovery ability between sets during workouts. So far, the vast majority of creatine users are men, but you're an intelligent female athlete who trains hard, eats right and stays up to date on cutting-edge training techniques and dietary supplements. So why aren't you using creatine?

Even if you train hard, you could probably still increase the intensity of your workouts. You haven't already completed your quest for that lean, sculpted physique, have you? Creatine can help, but you're probably concerned that it may not work for you. Worse, you may have heard it will make you bloated and retain water, or maybe you've tried it with disappointing results. Or perhaps you think it will make you bigger--even massively muscular--which obviously isn't your goal for training hard and eating right.

The real question is: Does creatine work for women or against them? Taken correctly, as described here, creatine can enhance performance and add a little lean body mass without making you massive. With some fine-tuning of dosages, it shouldn't cause bloating or stomach discomfort, either.

High-Intensity Performance Boost
The vast majority of creatine in your body--95%--is stored in muscle tissue, and it provides the quick, short bursts of energy necessary when performing high-intensity activities like sprinting or resistance training. By supplementing your diet with additional creatine, you're able to load your muscles with more of this energy-producing compound. This increases your capacity to perform high-intensity work for a longer time.

For example, during a period of creatine supplementation, you might be able to squeeze out one or two extra reps on your second, third and fourth sets. In theory, these small, creatine-induced increases in training intensity and volume should produce significant gains in strength and hypertrophy.

Yet one top researcher, Peter Lemon, PhD, of the University of Western Ontario in Canada, emphasizes that very little research has been done with female subjects. Although some initial work suggests that females would also benefit from creatine supplementation, Lemon believes they probably won't experience the same magnitude of performance improvements and lean body mass gain observed in male subjects.

Why not? Preliminary data suggest that females may have higher resting levels of muscle creatine than males. If so, this might account for decreased response to loading in females. The relationship between initial resting muscle creatine and potential improvement is well-documented. Each individual has a ceiling on the amount of creatine she can store in her body, and the closer you are to your limit, the less benefit you'll receive from supplementation.

For example, a vegetarian, who naturally has a lower resting muscle creatine concentration, will likely see dramatic improvements in performance following a period of creatine supplementation. A meat-eater, however, who already has a relatively higher level of muscle creatine from the small amounts of creatine in red meat, might experience less-dramatic results.

Muscles by Osmosis
While scientists sort out all of the physiological details, many female athletes are already using creatine to enhance their training. Stephanie Worsfold, an IFBB fitness pro and Canadian Fitness Champion who placed seventh at the 2000 Jan Tana, believes creatine helped her train at a higher intensity. "It also improves my muscle fullness and gives me a better pump during workouts," she says. Like most fitness competitors who use creatine, Stephanie does so during the off-season when she focuses on increasing her strength and lean body mass.

Closer to the competition date, female athletes become more concerned about water retention, bloating and appearing too smooth, and most avoid using creatine right up to the time of a contest. During this crucial period, even the slightest error in preparation could be disastrous, and most competitors would rather not experiment with creatine, Stephanie notes.

Yet taking creatine doesn't automatically make you bloated and smooth-looking. These side effects are most likely due to the way it's used, not to the creatine per se. Adjusting the timing and dosage may eliminate or at least minimize side effects for women athletes.

Since creatine is an osmotically active compound, it draws water into the cells where creatine is stored. Thus the body moves water inside the muscle cells, increasing cell volume and giving your muscles that postworkout pumped look. This increase in cell volume may help stimulate muscle growth over time when combined with strength training, Lemon states. These hyper-hydrated muscle cells might also help protect athletes from heat illness and dehydration when competing and training.