The Alpha of Beta
Beta-alanine is becoming more and more prevalent in preworkout products. Here’s why.
We all know that elevated training intensity requires an optimal state of mind, but many fail to consider that superior workouts also rely on having an optimal muscle cellular environment. In short, you have to prime your brain and your body to get the best workout, and the more reps and sets you can complete during training sessions, the bigger the muscles you can grow. Currently, there are a number of supplements on the market that claim to decrease muscular fatigue during training, but none has received more scientific support than beta-alanine.
Beta-alanine is a non-proteinogenic amino acid, which means that it is not involved in synthesizing proteins (i.e., building muscle). It’s not available in abundance in the foods we eat, but the body can create its own beta-alanine.
In muscle tissue, beta-alanine and histidine combine to form carnosine. But there’s a hitch. The amount of beta-alanine that’s available limits carnosine production. That means that only when the body has excess beta-alanine (such as when it’s taken supplementally) does it yield elevated muscle carnosine levels. Science has shown that four weeks of beta-alanine supplementation can increase muscle carnosine levels by more than 60 percent.
Why do we want elevated muscle carnosine levels? Well, the earliest studies investigating the performance-enhancing effects of carnosine were done because scientists realized that animals with the greatest capacity for prolonged high-intensity exercise just happened to have the highest carnosine levels. Furthermore, more recently, scientists have concluded that advanced bodybuilders have elevated carnosine levels in quadriceps muscle, indicating a link between carnosine and muscle size.
The main mechanism by which carnosine increases muscle function and performance is through its ability to reduce acidity in muscles during prolonged high-intensity exercise. One of the primary causes of fatigue during heavy exercise is an increase in muscular acidity, which happens normally as a result of training.
Beyond its acid-buffering effects, carnosine is a potent antioxidant, and scientists hypothesize that its ability to scavenge free radicals is also linked to increased endurance.
Beta-Alanine and Performance
Supplementing with beta-alanine increases the length of time you can maintain power during exercise. That means that if you take beta-alanine, you’ll be stronger toward the end of your workout than you would be if you didn’t take beta-alanine. You’ll also be able to work out longer. In one study, conducted at the University of Oklahoma, women who supplemented with beta-alanine for 28 days were able to cycle longer than the group that didn’t take beta-alanine. In another study, published in the journal Nutrition Research, football players took beta-alanine for 30 days before and during a preseason football training camp. The result was not only significantly higher training volume (meaning the beta-alanine group could do more reps before exhaustion) but also a lower fatigue index — the players didn’t feel as tired during and after the workouts. Similar benefits were shown in a study in which four weeks of beta-alanine supplementation led to a 22% increase in the number of reps completed by trained men during workouts.
The effect of beta-alanine supplementation on performance also has been evaluated in elite-level rowers. In a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, rowers took either 5 grams of beta-alanine or a placebo and carried out a 2,000-meter rowing performance test. Those who took beta-alanine completed the test 4.3 seconds faster than those who took the placebo, an outcome that correlated with up to 45% greater carnosine levels in the supplemented group. In another performance-based study, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, elite cyclists were either given beta-alanine or a placebo for eight weeks and were then tested on cycling sprint performance after a 110-minute simulated endurance road race. It was found that average power and peak power (during sprinting) increased by 5 and 11%, respectively, in the beta-alanine group.
Beta-Alanine and Muscle Size
Because beta-alanine can delay workout fatigue and increase training volume, it’s not surprising that taking the supplement leads to improvements in body composition. In support, it was reported that subjects who completed a high-intensity-interval-training program while taking a beta-alanine supplement had greater lean mass gain and fat loss compared to those who trained while taking a placebo. Along the same lines, research has shown that combining beta-alanine and creatine with resistance training leads to synergistic increases in lean body mass over time. Fortunately, just about any high-quality preworkout blend will include both compounds.
Beta-alanine does have one unique side effect. Taking higher doses can result in a tingling feeling in the skin. Don’t worry — it’s not permanent, and it’s not dangerous. Still, instead of taking one larger dose of beta-alanine, it’s recommended to take smaller doses more frequently. Try taking 1.5 to 2 grams both before and after workouts. And be patient — it can take up to four weeks of supplementation to notice maximum benefit.