IN 1992, when the journal Clinical Science first championed the muscle-building properties of creatine, critics cried foul, warning of side effects including kidney and liver damage. A mountain of research ensued. The result, ten years later, is a rare thumbs-up for the multi-billion-dollar supplement industry: an over-the-counter muscle enhancer backed by research and endorsed—though with decided reluctance—by the medical establishment. Study after study shows that creatine supplements can help you with anaerobic bursts of strength, without the side effects once feared.
As an amino acid manufactured by your liver and kidneys and found in meat, creatine is used to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the molecule that drives muscle contraction. But during intense anaerobic exercise—flashing a 5.10, ripping a double black—creatine stores in your muscles are exhausted, leaving you fatigued and unable to go on. By taking a creatine supplement, research shows you can provide your muscles with more fuel to endure longer bouts of explosive action. In one study at Appalachian State University, 36 track athletes consumed creatine while training and saw gains in their jumping ability and lean-muscle mass.
So do you need creatine? No. But if you're an adult (the jury's still out on whether creatine is safe for adolescents) involved in climbing, mountain biking, or other anaerobic sports, the supplement can provide a performance boost. Those interested, says University of Connecticut physiologist William J. Kraemer, a former member of the U.S. Olympic Sport Science and Technology Committee, don't need to take more than five grams per day (after an initial loading period of 25 grams per day for four days), but do need to put in the extra work—not just down the pills. "Obviously," he says, "you'll get a lot more from it if you include it as part of your strength and resistance training."
Curious to try some of the other "wonder supplements"? Here's what you should know:
ANDROSTENEDIONE What is it? A synthetic hormone used in the production of testosterone. The lowdown: Though andro has a rep as a "legal steroid," studies have revealed no strength-enhancing properties—and a host of dismal side effects, including hair loss and kidney damage. Professional opinion: "You may be the one that this drug does nothing harmful to," says Catherine Jackson, chair of the Department of Kinesiology at California State University at Fresno, "but you'll find better odds in Vegas." Survey says: Be afraid, be very afraid.
EPHEDRINE What is it? A chemical stimulant derived from the herb ephedra. The lowdown: Ephedrine is ten times stronger than caffeine and is often marketed as an energy booster for the weight room. However, ephedrine can cause increased heart rate and high blood pressure, and it's associated with heart attacks. The stimulant was implicated in the death of Minnesota Viking Korey Stringer last summer. Professional opinion: Says Jackson: "You're playing Russian roulette. I would not let anybody I care about take it." Survey says: Did we mention heart attacks?
GLUTAMINE What is it? An amino acid produced naturally and synthetically. The lowdown: Like creatine, glutamine is used by muscles in the production of ATP. But few studies have looked at the effects of over-the-counter glutamine supplements on strength training in healthy athletes. Professional opinion: "It's been shown to limit muscle atrophy in people who are ill," says Jackson, "and you can elicit a similar stress response from intense exercise. So glutamine could have a positive effect." Survey says: Wait for new research to emerge.
INSIDE THE TYPICAL Foghat-themed weight room you'll find two typical users: bronzed apes getting ripped by hogging the bench, leg sled, and mirrors; and past-their-prime athletes hoping to cut an old squash injury off at the pass with a lazy machine circuit. Too bad. Not only are such routines mind- and soul-numbing, but because they're derived from bodybuilding—a dubious athletic niche that treats muscles as trophies rather than team members—both are fundamentally flawed. For the kind of usable musculature that may not seal the deal on ElimiDate but will sharpen your prowess on the trail, slopes, or river, it's time to embrace functional training, an approach to lifting that mimics movements actually involved in sports.
"You need to train in patterns that reflect life," says Paul Chek, the country's best-known functional-fitness evangelist. Chek developed many of the movement's tenets at his eponymous training center in Encinitas, California. Rather than isolating individual muscles, functional exercises follow the three basic motions of athletics (rotational, side-to-side, and front-to-back) to recruit entire muscle groups, and put you on your feet rather than a padded bench. When you're forced to maintain your balance while moving weight, you strengthen your core, an oft-neglected muscle group comprising your glutes, lower back, and abdominals. A solid core is vital for transferring power from lower body to upper body—like when lifting a 60-pound pack onto your back—or vice versa. "If your core is deficient," says Chek, "your arms and legs have nothing to anchor to."
Much to the weight-machine industry's chagrin, functional training has become more than the pet theory of a handful of personal trainers. The National Academy of Sports Medicine recently developed a functional-training certification program. And prior to the last two Olympics, U.S. athletes were using functional regimens to prepare for everything from triathlon to alpine skiing. "Ninety percent of our training involves movements that mimic sport," says Dana Healy, director of conditioning at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. "It makes more sense—how does a Nautilus curl transfer over to everyday activity?"
This month, in part two of our Shape of Your Life program, as you continue to build your endurance foundation, we'll introduce a functional-strength regimen for the gym. You'll start with only one set (studies show that one set, done right, has the same benefits as two). You'll put equal emphasis on the down portions of each lift, developing your muscles to descend, not just climb, a mountain. And when you plateau, you'll lift less weight for a day before attempting more—a periodization strategy you can think of as "step back and leap."
All this should be welcome news. By lifting less weight in a smarter fashion, functional training won't tap your endurance resources the way traditional approaches can. (Yes, you will be doing aerobic endurance work in month two). Most of the exercises you'll perform can be adapted; almost anything done on two feet, for example, can be done on one. This should help prevent workout boredom. And most important, you'll nurture real muscular movement for the field—not just the mirror. Which is the only kind of strength you'll ever need.
A college professor plans to drive across the United States using only ten gallons of gas and a combination of three hybrid cars. Dr. Cliff Ricketts, an agriscientist from Middle Tennessee State University, will set out on Saturday and attempt to cover 2,532 miles from Savannah, Georgia to Long Beach, California. The first two cars will run on solar energy and hydrogen, and the third, a plug-in hybrid Toyota Prius, will run on electric batteries and a fuel mixture that is 95 percent ethanol. He expects to average between 58 and 65 miles per hour. Next year, Ricketts wants to make the trip on sun and water alone.
San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters is calling for backcountry skiers to buy rescue insurance to help spread the costs of what he says are increasingly common search and rescue operations. The insurance is $12 and offer buyers coverage for five years. Masters is worried that growing backcountry travel will soon exhaust his annual $100,000 search and rescue budget. A single rescue or recovery operation can run as much as $50,000. "I think you should be responsible and held accountable if you are engaged in these types of recreational pursuits," Masters said. Six people have died in Colorado avalanches this season, including a man in San Miguel County three weeks ago.
On Thursday, a man was arrested and charged with driving under the influence and reckless endangerment after leading police on a high-speed chase down a runway at Philadelphia International Airport. Kenneth Richard Mazik, 24, rammed his black Jeep Cherokee through a chain-link fence and drove toward a plane that was trying to land. Air traffic controllers directed the pilot to pull up and prevented the vehicle from reaching the plane. Police were able to stop Mazik after a five-minute chase. The FAA says the airport shut down for about 35 minutes.