For the past quarter-century, creatine has been the most popular supplement for helping to promote performance during strength training. By recharging your muscles’ ATP stores, it allows you to maintain high-intensity activity—lifting, sprinting, etc.—past the point where you’d normally need to slow down or rest. However, if your goal is to maximize your strength and power training, there’s another amino acid you should consider supplementing with as well: beta-alanine.
Get More Reps: How Beta-Alanine Helps Build Work Capacity
While it works via a different mechanism than creatine, beta-alanine offers similar benefits, including supporting your ability to train more intensely and produce explosive power. Simply put, beta-alanine can help you go harder for longer, whether that means getting more reps on your weight-training sets, more takedowns on your opponents during MMA practice, finding a second wind when you’re finishing a sprint race, or standing on the pedals another 10 seconds at spin class.
Here’s everything you need to know about this underrated muscle supplement.
What Is Beta-Alanine?
Anyone who’s ever worked out hard knows about the “burn.” When you lift weights, run, swim, or do any other strenuous activity that lasts more than a few seconds, lactic acid builds up in your muscles. Lactic acid is a byproduct of the muscles burning carbs for fuel, and consists of a molecule called lactate and hydrogen ions. The lactate goes back to your liver and is recycled as an energy source to keep you working hard, but the hydrogen ions stay in your muscles, making them sting and ache. Not only is it an uncomfortable feeling that may make you want to quit what you’re doing, but research from the University of Utah shows that hydrogen ion buildup actually works to shut your muscles down so you have to stop and rest. This hinders performance, and, ultimately, your ability to make gains.
Beta-alanine is a precursor to the amino acid carnosine, which is found naturally in animal foods. Carnosine acts as a lactic acid buffer, helping the muscles defend against the buildup of hydrogen ions in your muscles, and therefore the burn you feel during a workout. Consuming supplemental beta-alanine has been shown to help boost levels of carnosine in the body, blocking lactic acid and supporting anaerobic performance.
What Are The Benefits of Beta-Alanine?
As with creatine, an abundance of research has demonstrated that taking beta-alanine can aid high-intensity, short duration exercise performance. Specifically, beta-alanine’s effect on carnosine levels translates to better workouts in the following ways.
Boosts Work Capacity
A study in Nutrition Research looked at college football players taking beta-alanine for 30 days. Their training volume across all strength workouts ended up being higher than that of the control (placebo) group, and the total amount of weight they lifted on the bench press in particular was significantly greater. Researchers also observed a trend toward lower rates of fatigue in the athletes during anaerobic power tests, and the players themselves reported feeling less fatigued.
Interestingly, when taking beta-alanine, improvements in work capacity may be possible independent of exercise. A study in Amino Acids had subjects use the supplement without following a training program. Muscle carnosine levels increased by a whopping 58.8% after four weeks, and 80% after 10 weeks, and the subjects saw significant improvements on work capacity tests administered at both times.
Promotes Power Output
A 2013 study followed jiu-jitsu and judo competitors who used beta-alanine. Before and after four weeks of supplementation, they were tested on four different anaerobic power tests lasting 30 seconds each. The martial artists’ performance scores significantly improved in the second and third tests, and tended to improve in the fourth, showing that not only did the players see gains in power, but their ability to produce it in a fatigued state (after previous power tests) also improved.
Aids Body Composition
A trial published in The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that subjects who took beta-alanine got better results from high-intensity interval training (HIIT), gaining more lean body mass and endurance compared to placebo.
Can I Get Beta-Alanine From Food?
Beta-alanine is a component of carnosine, which, like all amino acids, is present in meats. Interestingly, some research suggests that the amount of physical activity an animal gets in its lifetime can determine how much carnosine it stores in its muscles. Therefore, game animals such as elk and bison could offer greater carnosine levels than more popular fare like beef and poultry.
Nevertheless, you need a significant intake of beta-alanine to reap the performance benefits (see “Do I Need To Load Beta-Alanine” below), so your best bet is to consume it in a concentrated supplement form—as a tablet or powder. This is even more important for those who eschew animal foods. The European Journal of Applied Physiology reports that vegetarians often have lower levels of carnosine than those who eat mixed diets.
Do I Need To Load Beta-Alanine?
Like creatine, beta-alanine has to build up in your system to be maximally effective. “Athletes should follow a loading phase of two to five grams daily,” says Shannon Ehrhardt, R.D., a performance dietitian with EXOS, Onnit’s partner in performance nutrition. (The larger the person, the more he/she will need to saturate the muscles, so you may need to experiment with your intake to find the right amount.) At that point, you can cut back to a maintenance protocol of two to three grams daily.
When Should I Take Beta-Alanine?
While it’s a common ingredient in many pre-workout products, beta-alanine doesn’t have to be taken at any specific time. Once levels reach four to six grams in your body, you should be able to see the difference in your workouts.
However, if you want to simplify your supplementing and get beta-alanine, B vitamins, BCAAs and more in one place, Onnit’s Total Strength + Performance offers such a formula that’s designed to help boost performance pre-workout. Research from Florida State University found that athletes who consumed it for four weeks had significant increases in their max squat, bench press, and deadlift poundage. (Their bench presses, in particular, skyrocketed by nearly 14 pounds on average.)
Is Beta-Alanine Safe?
You’ve probably heard of or experienced what many athletes describe as a tingling sensation from products that contain beta-alanine. The reason for this is unknown, but scientists think it may be beta-alanine acting on parts of the nervous system that end in the skin, and the effect is similar to the pins-and-needles feeling of when a hand or foot falls “asleep.” Assuming you’re healthy, this feeling is temporary and harmless.
In the International Society of Sports Nutrition’s official position stand on beta-alanine, it stated the following: “To date, there is no evidence to support that this tingling is harmful in any way. [The tingling side effect] is typically experienced in the face, neck, and back of hands. Although not all individuals will experience [it], it is typically dose-dependent, with higher doses resulting in greater side effects.”
If you want to do all you can to avoid the tingling sensation, you can take smaller amounts of beta-alanine at each serving, or look for a brand that offers a more sustained-release formula (Onnit’s beta-alanine does) so it absorbs more slowly during digestion.