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You’d be forgiven for thinking that most supplements are just for men. After all, most of the scientific research that supports their use is performed on either men or rats, and really, what’s the difference? All kidding aside, men tend to be the primary consumers of supplements, particularly those that aim to boost performance in the gym, so much of the anecdotal evidence also comes from our male counterparts. And just whose attention do you think those sexy women in bikinis in so many supplement advertisements are trying to draw?
If there’s one exception, it’s creatine. Among the most popular and most researched supplements in the world, creatine is not only safe but also effective for both men and women. (1) In fact, we now know that because creatine is one of the few supps whose effects have been clearly demonstrated in female athletes. Here are some examples of that research, and a few reasons you should add creatine to your daily supplement regimen.
Creatine Increases Energy
Creatine is both produced naturally in the body and obtained from foods such as meat and fish. Its primary job is to aid in the creation of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is cellular energy used to make your muscles contract and your body move. Taking supplemental creatine increases its levels in muscles, which then boosts the amount of energy your muscles can create and use. (2)
This can make a huge difference during your workouts, because having more creatine to draw on can increase the amount of high-intensity work your muscles can perform in a short period. That can equate to more reps in the gym or more intervals on the track, and you can do both stronger and faster.
For the sake of this article we’ll assume that your pursuit is lifting weights, and fortunately, research shows that taking creatine can enhance endurance, as measured by how many reps you can bang out in a single gym session. (3) Unfortunately, the majority of these studies were conducted on men. But as Richard Kreider, PhD, writes in the textbook Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplements (Humana Press, 2008), “… a number of recent well-controlled short- and long-term studies in women have reported ergogenic benefits.” (4) In short, creatine works for women just as well as it works for men.
Creatine Increases Strength
Given the above information, it makes sense that taking creatine would influence muscle strength. Clearly, any substance that allows you to work out longer and harder can spur strength gains simply by helping you finish more intense workouts.
At least 20 studies in the past decade have shown that subjects who took creatine experienced greater increases in muscle strength than those who didn’t. In fact, in reviewing creatine-related studies, researchers Eric Rawson, PhD, and Jeff Volek, PhD, found that subjects who took creatine saw on average a roughly 10% surge in strength compared to those who took placebos. (5) In the same review, Rawson and Volek write: “Although few studies focused on the combined effects of creatine supplementation and resistance training on muscle strength and weightlifting performance in women, it appears that the response is similar in magnitude to what’s experienced by men.” (5)
In the research that looks specifically at the effect of creatine on female athletes, the results are impressive. In one study conducted at Virginia Tech (Blacksburg), female lacrosse players who took creatine during their pre-season training increased their one-rep maxes (1RMs) on the bench press and also dropped more bodyfat than players taking a placebo. (6) Similar results–a higher 1RM on the bench press and squat–were seen by researchers at the University of Alabama (Birmingham) when they studied female soccer players who took creatine. (7)
Creatine Increases Muscle Size
It’s not just strength that improves but muscle size, too. In one study conducted at the University of Saskatchewan (Saskatoon, Canada) and published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, male and female subjects were given either creatine or a placebo and then told to train each arm separately twice per week. The creatine group took the supplement after training one arm and a placebo after training the opposite arm; the placebo group consistently took just that. After six weeks, the creatine group exhibited greater increases in size in the arm they trained before taking the supplement. (8)
One of the ways creatine affects muscle size is by boosting levels of insulinlike growth factor-1 (IGF-1), found a study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism in which male and female subjects engaged in resistance training and supplemented with creatine. (9) Because IGF-1 is directly involved in muscle growth and strength, stimulating it promotes gains in both areas.
Creatine Improves Athleticism
In the same ways that creatine can improve your physique, it can also enhance athletic performance. Because it increases the amount of energy you have at any given time, creatine works best for sports that require frequent bursts of movement separated by short rest periods. It’s perfect for sports such as soccer, basketball and football in which you sprint for a few seconds, then return to relative rest. Creatine can help ensure that you perform equally well on the fifth, 10th or 20th burst of movement as on the first. (10)
Creatine Improves Health
Creatine is so often hyped as a performance-enhancing supplement that it might seem bizarre to think of it as a health-booster. Yet it has been shown in several studies to benefit both heart and mind. Scientists began to suspect that creatine possessed cardiovascular-protective properties when it was found to mitigate the symptoms of congestive heart failure. (11) Another study, in which male and female subjects took creatine for eight weeks, found that their total cholesterol dropped 5% and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels dropped more than 20%. (12) Other research has shown that creatine can affect levels of homo-cysteine, an inflammatory marker often associated with heart disease. (13)
Creatine also appears to improve cognitive function, (14) and it shows promise in treating symptoms of such debilitating diseases as Huntington’s disease and Parkinson’s. It could even help ameliorate symptoms of depression. (15)
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether you take creatine because it improves your health, enhances your performance in the gym or pumps up a lagging body-part, or even because your boyfriend suggested you might like it. Isn’t just one of those reasons enough?