Should women take creatine?  Before I answer that, a better initial question is, why would anyone, regardless of gender, take creatine in the first place?  With so many supplements on the market these days it can be difficult and confusing to determine which ones are worthwhile, which ones are unnecessary and which ones are simply a waste of money.

To creatine, or not to creatine…

In college, I had a professor who was always looking for the answer, ‘it depends’.  Now if you’re a concrete thinker like me, this didactic methodology is infuriating.  At that point in my education, I was looking for a list of facts to memorize, but give me some nebulous pseudo-answer to make me think critically and I was stumped.

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However, I eventually realized that ‘it depends’ is usually the right answer.  Each person has different training goals, so there is no such thing as a cookie-cutter approach—no one size fits all.  Individualized fitness is tantamount to success.  So the better question is, is creatine right for you?

Creatine is merely an optional aspect of fitness.  If the goal is to get more fit, creatine may be a tool to help a woman get there.  But fitness is such a broad concept.  It means so many different things to different people.  In order to best understand the utility of creatine, and whether or not women should take it, let’s quickly have a little exercise science lesson.

Class is in session

First off, skill related fitness is generally defined based on seven common components: strength, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination, and reaction time.  Some overlap exists with health related fitness which is commonly defined as cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance, muscular strength, flexibility, and body composition.  So your first task is to determine if you are interested in simply improving your health, or increasing your performance.

Creatine is predominantly associated with performance improvements related to power, and rate of force development.  Power is doing a lot of work in a short period of time.  Now if you dig a little deeper into the scientific literature, you’ll find studies examining the influence of creatine on other forms of exercise, but the results are less clear.

So in terms of exercise type, creatine supplementation makes the most sense for women wishing to participate in short duration, high-intensity activities to increase power performance.  These activities may include power or Olympic lifting, or sports involving repeated effort, short duration bursts of power (ie repeated sprinting, or jumping).

The reason why creatine becomes less relevant with longer activities has to do with the way the body supplies energy to the working muscles.  In the body, the energy currency is adenosine triphosphate (ATP).  In order to do anything from hiccup to hang-clean, the body requires ATP.

The fastest method for getting ATP is to break apart a creatine phosphate molecule.  The problem is, only a limited supply of creatine phosphate is stored in the body, so this method for producing energy only lasts for about 10 seconds or less.  After 10 seconds, the contribution of the other, slower energy systems begins to take over.

Creatine supplementation works because the body automatically converts creatine to creatine phosphate.  So more creatine equals more creatine phosphate equals more ATP.  When more ATP is immediately available, the amount of work able to be done in the 10 second window of opportunity increases.  All of these chemical reactions are the same, regardless of gender.

Should women take creatine-02

Is creatine necessary?

Creatine is simply a protein composed of a few amino acids (the building blocks of protein).  Creatine is a natural component of most diets, being found in meat and fish.  However, the body doesn’t need dietary creatine because the liver is able to combine the necessary amino acids from other foods to create creatine.  So creatine supplementation is not necessary, but women who supplement will find that they can increase their stored creatine levels by up to 20%.  Women deciding to take creatine should consider it a performance enhancer, and not a health booster.

Is creatine safe?

Creatine is a naturally occurring protein, which the body uses on a regular basis.  There have been some minor kidney issues associated with creatine use, but they are considered rare and more likely to be the result of a separate underlying health condition.  In other words, for women at risk for any type of kidney disease (including diabetics), creatine should probably be avoided, just to be cautious.  Otherwise, creatine supplementation is generally viewed as safe.

However, there aren’t any long-term studies on the effects of chronic creatine supplementation for women.  Best practice would be to cycle through dosing regimens depending on your workouts to avoid any potentially harmful effects of chronic use.  Women can try supplementing for 1-2 months as power, speed and repeated sprint performance are trained, followed by a 1-2 month period where no supplementation occurs and other aspects of fitness become the priority.

Bottom line

Women seeking to improve power output, strength, or repeated sprint ability may find that creatine supplementation is useful for improving performance.  Longer duration, steady-state activities such as jogging are unlikely to be improved, based on the underlying physiological principles of creatine supplementation.  The cost-benefit ratio improves for women wishing to achieve elite levels of performance compared to the recreational athlete.

Practical tips

Many creatine manufacturers recommend a substantial loading dose over the first week or so.  While the loading dose will boost your body’s creatine concentrations faster, the high doses can become costly.  The truth of the matter is the maintenance dose (around 3-5 grams/day), is just as effective for increasing creatine levels, it just takes longer.  My advice, skip the loading dose and focus on proper exercise load/volume progression.

Don’t forget to exercise!

Should women take creatine?  Final answer: it depends!  Women participating in high-intensity, short-duration exercise, where elite performance is warranted might consider giving creatine a chance.  Recreational exercisers who are more focused on health can save a lot of money by skipping the unnecessary supplement.  The bottom line is creatine supplementation is only effective when combined with exercise; simply taking it won’t do you much good.

Regardless of whether or not you choose to supplement with creatine, all women should focus on staying active and accumulating at least 30 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous exercise on most days of the week, or at least 150 total minutes of exercise every week.

Reference

Terjung, R.L. et al. (2000). ACSM roundtable discussion: The physiological and health effects of oral creatine supplementation.  Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 32(3), 706-717.

Images by Adrian Fallace.

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