Alongside creatine, beta alanine (BA) is one of the most popular ‘pre workout’ gym supplements. It appears in many popular pre-workout blends, or is available as a standalone supplement. MyProtein, the UK’s most popular brand has a signature product called Pulse V4 which contains beta alanine, with the following claim:
Pulse®V4 is a powerful pre-workout formula, combining some of the most heavily researched supplements. Each 17g serving of Pulse®V4 provides 9.2g of our ‘Premium Pre-workout Blend’, combining Creapure®, AAKG, Beta Alanine, and Citrulline Malate, plus a rich amino acid profile. Link
You can also buy BA alone, with the claim that it is
Ideal for anyone participating in sports that require explosive actions such as sprinting, weight training or boxing and those involved in prolonged endurance exercise. Link
In short, BA is marketed heavily to gym goers who wish to invest in products that will be beneficial to the gym workouts and subsequent GAINZ. BA is not a new product, and has received plenty of attention in the scientific literature. Several reviews have been published, (1–6) the most recent being published late in 2016 (7). This most recent review is the subject of this blog post and infographic.
What is beta-alanine?
BA is an essential amino acid that when ingested combines with histidine to create carnosine. Carnosine plays an important role in muscle tissue as it buffers hydrogen ions, which are the by-product of moderate to high intensity exercise. An accumulation of hydrogen ions eventually leads to a drop in muscle pH and a decline in performance. By buffering hydrogen ions, carnosine assists in offsetting fatigue and potentially allows for an increase in exercise output. Carnosine cannot be taken as a supplement on its own as it doesn’t survive the digestive system and make it to the muscle tissues intact. For this reason, BA has risen to prominence as supplementing with it leads to greater carnosine levels within muscles.
Although it is clear BA supplementation leads to an increase in carnosine levels, whether this leads to improved performance is debateable. This review does a great job discussing the contexts in which BA does provide performance benefits, and the contexts in which it doesn’t. I will try to summarise how this relates to a casual gym user performing resistance training multiple times per week below:
Duration of performance:
- For any exercise bout lasting less than 30 seconds there appears to be no benefit of BA supplementation. MyProtein’s claims of BA being ideal for explosive sports seems a little misleading in this regard (8,9)
- Exercise bouts of 30 seconds to 10 minutes show the most benefit from BA supplementation
With these two points in mind, the benefits a casual gym goer could get from BA supplementation are limited unless sets are extended to last beyond 30 seconds via the use of higher reps, slower tempos, or multiple sequential sets (drop-sets, supersets, tri-sets, giant sets, etc). It must also be considered whether these sets need to be taken to failure to yield any potential benefits of BA supplementation, a point discussed below.
End-point of performance:
The authors noted that BA
“Exercise capacity and performance were both improved by supplementation, although effect sizes suggested β-alanine to be almost twice as effective at improving exercise capacity”.
Capacity tests are taken to failure, whereas performance tests tend to involve pacing strategies pacing strategies. Essentially, this means BA is most effective when the exercise is taken to failure or exhaustion, and only partially effective when effort is sub maximal. This is likely because working until exhaustion will result in a maximal production of hydrogen ions, leaving performance outcomes more sensitive to changes in the muscle’s buffering capacity. As suggested above, in a resistance training setting, BA’s efficacy may be dependent on how often sets are taking to complete failure.
Trained versus non-trained:
The effect sizes of BA were shown be greater with non-trained individuals. However, while it may be tempting for a beginner gym user to take all-the-supplements there may be drawbacks to constantly working to failure in the manner I have described above. It is perhaps best for the beginner to get the fundamentals right first (technique, nutrition, sleep, etc).
Using sodium bicarbonate along with BA can lead to additional gains in performance. Sodium bicarbonate acts as an extracellular buffer (preventing acidosis outside of the cell) while BA acts as an intracellular buffer. The two together have been shown to be more efficacious than either alone in a small number of studies. However, the optimal dosing strategy (acute versus chronic dosing) and most sensitive exercise modalities remain unclear and warrant further investigation. Given the likelihood of sodium bicarbonate supplementation to cause gastro-intestinal distress it is best to leave it alone until there are more data regarding the best practices.
The review showed that the amount of BA ingested does not directly influence its efficacy. 1.6 g per day for 2 weeks has been shown to increase muscle carnosine and exercise improvements have been seen with 4 to 12 weeks of dosing at 3.2 g to 6.4 g per day. The review concludes that a minimum of 2 to 4 weeks of dosing with 3.2 g to 6.4 g is advisable, with these doses split across the day into smaller doses to avoid the prickly heat/itchy face feeling (paraesthesia). Note, paraesthesia is not required to know that BA is ‘working’ despite what some people would have you believe.
I hope this small write up helps you decide whether an investment in BA is worth it. I also hope the infographic helps condense some of these ideas into a pretty format. Let me know if you have any Qs. Thanks for reading.
- Artioli GG, Gualano B, Smith A, Stout J, Lancha AH. Role of beta-alanine supplementation on muscle carnosine and exercise performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 Jun;42(6):1162–73.
- Caruso J, Charles J, Unruh K, Giebel R, Learmonth L, Potter W. Ergogenic Effects of β-Alanine and Carnosine: Proposed Future Research to Quantify Their Efficacy. Nutrients. 2012 Jun 26;4(7):585–601.
- Derave W, Everaert I, Beeckman S, Baguet A. Muscle carnosine metabolism and beta-alanine supplementation in relation to exercise and training. Sports Med Auckl NZ. 2010 Mar 1;40(3):247–63.
- Hobson RM, Saunders B, Ball G, Harris RC, Sale C. Effects of β-alanine supplementation on exercise performance: a meta-analysis. Amino Acids. 2012 Jul;43(1):25–37.
- Quesnele JJ, Laframboise MA, Wong JJ, Kim P, Wells GD. The effects of beta-alanine supplementation on performance: a systematic review of the literature. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2014 Feb;24(1):14–27.
- Sale C, Saunders B, Harris RC. Effect of beta-alanine supplementation on muscle carnosine concentrations and exercise performance. Amino Acids. 2010 Jul;39(2):321–33.
- Saunders B, Elliott-Sale K, Artioli GG, Swinton PA, Dolan E, Roschel H, et al. β-alanine supplementation to improve exercise capacity and performance: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med [Internet]. 2016 Oct 18; Available from: http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/early/2016/10/18/bjsports-2016-096396.abstract
- Kendrick IP, Harris RC, Kim HJ, Kim CK, Dang VH, Lam TQ, et al. The effects of 10 weeks of resistance training combined with beta-alanine supplementation on whole body strength, force production, muscular endurance and body composition. Amino Acids. 2008 May;34(4):547–54.
- Sweeney KM, Wright GA, Glenn Brice A, Doberstein ST. The effect of beta-alanine supplementation on power performance during repeated sprint activity. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Jan;24(1):79–87.