When it comes to improving your high-intensity performance, the supplements that first come to mind are caffeine, creatine and, more recently, nitric oxide. Beta-alanine is a relative newcomer to this level of the game, but it has the potential to eventually earn the type of respect that these other stellar players receive.
Beta-alanine appears to hold such great promise because of its role in muscle tissue, specifically in its ability to reduce lactic acid buildup. An increased level of lactic acid — and the burn associated with it — is often the limiting factor for the number of sets and reps you can ultimately perform. Using beta-alanine may help you crash through pain thresholds that previously limited your lifting endurance.
You may know more about beta-alanine than you realize. In muscle, beta-alanine bonds to the amino acid histidine to form the dipeptide known as carnosine. Carnosine plays an important role in delaying the negative effects caused by hydrogen ions that accumulate in muscle when you push your workouts to the edge.
When most people think of muscle fatigue due to high-intensity exercise, lactic acid usually comes to mind as the culprit. Briefly, lactic acid dissociates to form lactate and hydrogen ions. These hydrogen ions cause muscle pH to decrease and the burning sensation to set in.
Even if you’re man enough to push past the burn, hydrogen ions can interfere with contractile units. So, no matter how high your tolerance for pain, these ions accumulate in your muscles, ultimately compromising your performance. Supplementing with beta-alanine or carnosine can help moderate this outcome.
Although many substances are ineffective when taken in supplemental form because they are changed or negatively affected by digestive or absorption processes, that’s not the case with beta-alanine or carnosine.
A study showing that supplementation with beta-alanine could improve exercise performance was presented at the American College of Sports Medicine annual conference.
The scientists wanted to see if beta-alanine, used with creatine monohydrate, had any beneficial synergistic effects over creatine alone. The results were positive — beta-alanine did indeed play a significant role in improving performance. The subjects receiving beta-alanine and creatine produced more power during the first minute of an all-out cycle test than the creatine-only group.
Other research indicates that beta-alanine increases lactate threshold, improves the ability to sustain maximal power during high-intensity exercise and decreases neuromuscular fatigue.
Consequently, anyone who participates in exercise where lactic acid accumulation is often the limiting factor, and this includes bodybuilders, stands to benefit from beta-alanine. In the gym, that could translate into more reps with a given weight.
In addition, research demonstrates that muscles with higher levels of carnosine are able to contract with greater force, meaning they are stronger. So, beta-alanine (or carnosine) is ultimately a double-duty supplement — as an aid to strength and also allowing for more reps before muscles succumb to fatigue. Thus, it’s a solid supplement for both strength and muscle gains.
To maximize its effects on size, take beta-alanine or carnosine and train with higher reps (10-15) and/or short rest periods (30-60 seconds). Also, incorporate drop sets, supersets, consecutive sets with little if any rest or high-intensity circuit training. These techniques result in extremely high levels of lactic acid buildup — lowering muscle pH and raising muscle acidity.
Carnosine will help you squeeze out even more reps than you were previously able to perform by delaying the time it takes for muscle pH to drop to a level that compromises exercise performance.
For best results, take 1-1 1⁄2 grams (g) of beta-alanine along with 1-1 1⁄2 g of histidine (or 1-1 1⁄2 g of carnosine in place of both beta-alanine and histidine) before and after workouts.
If you ask which plan is better, we’d say it’s a wash: the digestive system breaks down carnosine to beta-alanine and histidine and reconstructs carnosine in muscles. Some argue that it’s simpler to cut out that breakdown step and just take beta-alanine and histidine. In our opinion, either option will provide similar effects.