Breaking Barriers: How Creatine Supplementation Can Help Women Shatter Fitness Plateaus
Creatine is one of the most well researched supplements in sports science; and can have a positive impact on exercise performance, strength, and fatigue reduction. Yet many women who train don’t take it. So why is that?
Many women think Creatine is a supplement you only take if you want to gain some serious muscle, you might also have heard it causes water retention (and therefore weight gain) – and let’s be honest ladies, none of us like to see that scale going up!
So will you put on weight if you start taking it?
Some of this stems from the original ‘bodybuilding’ methods of loading creatine (taking high doses for the first 5-7 days) but it’s not necessary to do this (it just saturates your creatine stores quicker); and whilst it’s true you may experience a small increase in water weight when you first start taking it – this is not bodyfat! (And it is just an initial increase – it won’t continue to go up as long as you’re taking it)
The reason for this is that Creatine is osmotic which means it attracts and holds a small amount of water in the tissues where the creatine is stored.
The impact of this differs in everyone – and the research shows that men actually tend to experience more water retention than women. I’ve been taking Creatine for years and to be honest I can’t recall seeing an increase when I started taking it.
So what is it?
It’s a naturally occurring amino acid derivative produced by your liver and kidneys which can also be obtained through your diet from meat and fish, so vegans and vegetarians would particularly stand to benefit from creatine supplementation; but it’s highly unlikely any of us are saturating our creatine stores via diet alone. (Interestingly herring appears to be the best source giving around 6.5g per kg – but I can’t imagine many people are eating a kilo of herring every day)
Women actually have naturally lower creatine stores than men, meaning we respond better to creatine supplementation and could therefore potentially experience more performance improvements than men.
It's stored in your body in the form of phosphocreatine, primarily within the muscle tissue (with around 95% stored here), but some is also stored in the brain tissue; and supplementation of creatine can increase the storage potential by 10-20% in those eating an omnivore diet and up to 40% in vegans and vegetarians.
Creatine supplementation doesn’t convey effects that are unnatural – it just allows a process that is happening anyway to occur for a longer period - think of it like increasing your fuel tank.
So why is it useful?
Overall creatine seems to have a beneficial effect on strength in women who take it for a long period of time. One study showed female participants experience a 15% increase in exercise performance after supplementing with creatine for 10 weeks, compared to 6% in men. It essentially helps you get tired less quickly and go for longer.
In fact, the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) declared that ‘creatine monohydrate is the most effective ergogenic nutritional supplement currently available to athletes with the intent of increasing high-intensity exercise capacity and lean body mass during training’. And it’s so well proven the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) now recommends creatine supplantation alongside strength training for improving muscle growth in adults over the age of 55.
Did I notice any significant difference after supplementing with creatine? Honestly, I’ve been taking it for so many years it’s impossible to say, the reality is the benefits come over time. It’s not as though I started to take it and added 20kg to my deadlift over night (sadly!!).
But let’s face it – women have a harder time building muscle than men; add into the mix I’m mid 40s and perimenopausal - age and hormones are most definitely not on my side.
And for menopausal women, creatine supplementation in combination with resistance training has been shown to counterbalance muscle, bone and strength loss by reducing inflammation, oxidative stress and bone resorption, while increasing bone formation.
How does it work?
There are 4 different energy systems used by the body to generate ATP - which is our energy ‘currency’. The 3 main ones being Aerobic lipolysis (which uses fats), and Aerobic and Anaerobic glycolysis (both of which use carbohydrates).
The fourth is the Phosphocreatine energy system which is the one we’re interested in here.
The phosphocreatine system supplies immediate energy and is dominant in the first few seconds of maximal intensity exercise. It’s the fastest means by which your body replaces ATP and is used for maximal effort exertions lasting 5 seconds or so – and therefore useful whether powerlifting, throwing, jumping, sprinting.
Short term supplementation appears to improve:
Maximal power/strength by 5-15%, which is useful for explosive movements
Work capacity at maximal effort in resistance and sprint training by 5-15%, meaning you are able to repeat a maximal performance bout for greater number of rounds during a given session (useful for resistance training and interval training)
Improved performance in single effort sprint training by 1-5%
This has been testing using a variety of exercises including cycling power, bench press, sprinting, swimming performance.
Longer term, supplementation seems to improve general training quality, resulting in a 5-15% increase in strength and performance.
And despite Creatine being most well-known for its impact on exercise performance, there is also a growing body of literature around creatine and brain health (including cognitive processing, brain function, recovery from trauma, short term memory, and even depression)
Females have been reported to have lower levels of creatine in the brain, particularly the frontal lobe which controls mood, cognition, memory and emotion.
Creatine supplementation in humans has consistently demonstrated improved cognitive performance and brain function; and reduced mental fatigue during stressful mental tasks in healthy adults.
Females process stress differently to males, more often multi-tasking and are also more often susceptible to sleep deprivation for a number of reasons - including menopausal sleep disturbances (something I’m all too familiar with!) Creatine supplementation has been shown to support these exact scenarios by increasing mental capacity under sleep deprivation (maybe that’s how I’m still functioning!)
So given all that I personally plan on taking it every day for the rest of my life.
Creatine monohydrate is the form generally recommended (there’s no evidence that the more expensive forms have better efficacy); and the recommended dose is 3-5g per day every day, regardless of whether training or not. It doesn’t need to be pre / post work-out - any time of day is fine - the aim is just to saturate your body’s creatine stores, so just take it every single day.