Increased muscle growth, faster recovery, increased endurance, less body fat, reversal of the beginning stages of heart failure and greater mental acuity (about a 10 point increase in IQ!) are just a few of the many benefits of the supplement creatine. Benefits, I might add, that are very well supported by reliable research as creatine is possibly the most researched athletic supplement out there. So why isn't everyone running to take this miracle in a powder? Indeed, it's estimated that upwards of 75% of professional athletes and Olympians take it so why aren't more of us average Janes taking it?
That's the question I found myself asking as I read about it in several fitness books this past week. It isn't that I've never heard of it before - you can't spend more than 10 minutes on a weight floor without somebody sprinkling white powder into their drink (note: if they're sprinkling white powder into your drink you are in one of the few situations in which it is totally appropriate to drop a weight on someone's foot) - I just figured it was one of those kooky things that bodybuilders did, you know like wrapping chains around their bench press bar and making sex noises during every rep. But after reading breathless reports of its amazing powers and virtual lack of side effects, I took it as a sign when I found a small canister on clearance at Target. I bought it.
Perhaps I should not buy supplements on clearance at a mega-grocery store but that's a discussion for another day. At any rate, I took my first dose yesterday. The white sparkly powder (seriously, Edward Cullen is jealous) didn't dissolve well in the recommended 8 oz of water but it also didn't taste like anything so I chugged it down and went about my business. An hour later this was me:
Okay so this isn't ME me but my belly was so swollen I pretty much looked 4-months pregnant like J.Lo. here (p.s. Elvis only wishes he could design a maternity line this awesome). While creatine doesn't have any serious side effects - anecdotal reports of severe cramping and dehydration have been disproven in studies - it does have one very uncomfortable side effect: Bloating. And not just "my period is imminent, hide the cookies" bloating but "holy crap, if you poke me with a pin I'll turn into an elephant sprinkler" bloating. While I peed like a racehorse for the rest of the day and the bloating was gone within a few hours, still, I was not happy. Before I tell you more about my little experiment, here are some FAQs about the supplement. ( Read here for more info and hilarious answers.)
What is Creatine?
Creatine, an organic compound produced naturally from amino acids in our kidneys and liver and stored in our muscles, was first discovered in the 1800's. By the early 1900's it was already in use as a performance aid (and I mean that in the non-Levitra sense, egads marketing has warped me!). This extensive history has made it one of the most studied supplements on the planet.
There are several different types of creatine and prices range from pennies a serving to $120 for a small canister. Creatine monohydrate, the kind I took that made me inflate like a Macy's Parade float, is the cheapest and most common. Other types of creatine like creatine ethyl ester are supposed to not have the bloating/gas side effect but of course they cost more. And you don't find them on clearance at Target, precluding any "the universe made me buy it" arguments.
How do you use Creatine?
Most sources recommend "loading" for the first 4-5 days by taking 20-30 grams a day with afterwards taking 5-10 grams a day for maintenance. You maintain this load for about 6 weeks and then you stop the creatine for 2-6 weeks before starting a new cycle. Although I did read several recommendations that said to never stop taking it, just to repeat the loading every couple of months.
Most sites I read recommend taking one dose within a half hour of finishing your weight workout and a second right before bed (presumably so you go through the distended-whale stage in your sleep). Make sure that no matter when you take it, you are drinking a ton of water.
What are the effects of Creatine?
It works by drawing water into your muscles and because of this it has the dual effect of 1) making your "pump" or the visible size of your muscles look larger and 2) making you gain weight about 1.5-6 pounds during the first week as your body retains this extra water. The water weight is lost after stopping the creatine but you retain the extra muscle you built - in studies athletes on creatine gained about 5 pounds more of muscle than athletes not on creatine doing the same training program.
Should I be capitalizing Creatine?
I have no idea.
After doing all this research on it, I am super intrigued by the benefits but I have one main concern. It's the weight gain. Don't even pretend you are surprised. While I'm still not weighing myself (two months now scale free, yay me!!) the thought of doing something that could make me gain 5 pounds in one week makes me want to run and cry in my closet just for old time's sake. I don't care if it is water weight. When your pants don't fit, your pants don't fit. I also am not thrilled about my muscles getting "bigger." Yes, I love my new Rachel Cosgrove muscles and I love being strong but I don't necessarily want them any bigger. Less body fat? Higher metabolism? More energy? Yes, please! But I'd like those without the hypertrophy.
Unsurprisingly, when I threw this question out on Twitter, the only people who responded that they had taken it were men. I think a lot of women are scared away from creatine for the same reasons that I am: we don't want to gain weight and we don't want bigger muscles. But what about our lack of testosterone - wouldn't that inherently limit our muscle growth? (And since creatine is not a hormone it would not impact our testosterone or estrogen levels.) And if we're gaining weight but it's all muscle, isn't that a good thing? Plus: TEN IQ POINTS. Who doesn't want to be smarter? (Notice how the reversal of heart disease doesn't even make my top 3? Hahaha...)
I'm stymied. Help me out! Am I being an idiot and looking for a magic solution in a jar? Or does this fall in the "why WOULDN'T you?!" category like fish oil or vitamin D? Any of you take creatine? Anyone want to reach through their monitor and slap some sense into me?
Written with love by Charlotte Hilton Andersen for The Great Fitness Experiment (c) 2010. If you enjoyed this, please check out my new book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything for more of my crazy antics and uncomfortable over-shares!