As a sports dietitian, I’m constantly bombarded with questions about this shiny supplement and that flashy pill.
Does this work? Does that work?
Honestly, if you have to ask. Probably not. But I won’t get on my soapbox about the nasty world of sports supplements in this article. We’ll save that for another day.
For now, let’s talk about a supplement that actually works: beta-alanine.
The reason I want to cover this is that people either don’t take it or they are taking it incorrectly. Which is a shame because, if you take it right, it actually has some pretty awesome benefits, especially if you’re into powerlifting or play a sport that requires muscular endurance.
Let’s get to it.
What is Beta-Alanine?
Beta-alanine is a popular ingredient in most pre-workout supplements due to the belief that it turns you into a beast in the gym in terms of strength.
So, I’m going to do my best to not bore you with the biochemical mumbo jumbo and just explain what role this amino acid plays in the body.
Beta-alanine is created in the body to form something called carnosine. Carnosine is a compound that regulates the acidity in our muscles. I’m sure you’re familiar with that “burn” you feel during those last few sets of your workout.
Well, that burn is caused by the acid buildup that naturally happens when your muscles contract over and over again. Eventually, if this acid builds up enough, your muscle will be unable to contract anymore.
Studies show that carnosine works to clear this acid from the muscle much more quickly than normal, thus, allowing your muscles to contract more frequently. The end result? You can pump out more reps. This means improved muscular endurance, which is a phrase you’ll need to remember as it’ll keep coming up in this article.
So, why bother with beta-alanine and just supplement with carnosine instead? Cut out the middleman?
The problem with that is the way that carnosine is digested. When you consume just straight carnosine, all your body does is split it into beta-alanine and histidine, the two amino acids that come together to make carnosine. In that form, you won’t get the benefits we’re looking for.
So, if you ingest extra beta-alanine, your body will produce more carnosine on top of that beta-alanine you already make naturally. Giving you that extra edge.
The beautiful thing about beta-alanine is that, unlike sodium bicarbonate which is a popular ingredient in pre-workout supplements due to the fact that it also reduces muscle acidity, it’s much safer to take and doesn’t cause that nasty stomach ache bicarb has the tendency to cause.
Okay, so that’s the biology of how it works. Now let’s get into the details of the benefits of beta-alanine from building muscle to athletic performance.
The Benefits of Beta-Alanine
According to this fantastic literature review done a few years ago of multiple, well-designed studies done on beta-alanine, the summary concluded that endurance improved when the particular exercises lasted 1-4 minutes. This is the perfect duration for the type of exercise you do when performing supersets in the gym, drills such as the type I did for my kettlebell training certification and WODs in CrossFit.
In another study done in 2008, they found that men who took beta-alanine every day for a month did 22% more reps than the men who did not take beta-alanine. This tells us that, even if you’re not a CrossFitter or doing supersets, beta-alanine can help you lift more weight.
Finally, a third study showed benefits in traditional endurance exercise such as cycling or distance running. Again, they took beta-alanine for one month. After cycling to exhaustion, the subjects who took the beta-alanine were able to cycle 2.5% longer than the subjects who did not.
So, here’s the rundown.
Beta-alanine helps with weightlifting and endurance exercise in some way, but you will get the most benefit if you fall in the first category of 1-4 minute exercisers.
Good news for you CrossFitters!
As far as muscle growth, you’re better off just taking creatine. Studies haven’t shown that beta-alanine can directly help with your gains in a significant way, so if you’re looking for any aesthetic benefits rather than performance, you’ll want to pass on this supplement.
How Much Should You Take and How?
So here’s the thing with supplements.
It’s one thing to know that something works. Or even HOW it works.
But if you aren’t taking the right amount, you’re wasting both your time and money.
This is for a separate article, but most supplement companies are scammers who try to cut corners wherever they can to save money. Sounds cynical, but it’s so true! Especially since there is very little regulation in the supplement industry to keep the public safe and the products honest.
One way that these companies cut corners is to package a supplement with much less of the actual product than is needed to see benefits. For example, you might buy a creatine supplement and drive it home super pumped to get swole.
However, if you look at the label and it’s like many creatine supplements you see at GNC, it only has 2 grams of creatine per serving, when you need 5 grams to actually get benefits. So, the company slashes costs by only giving you half of the product, but you get none of the benefits.
This is a dirty secret in the supplement world and they hope you aren’t smart enough to check, but that’s why I’m glad you’re here because I’m going to make you smarter than that.
Op, I promised not to get on my soapbox. But I did.
The amount of beta-alanine used in the studies above where athletes and lifters saw benefits were between 3-6 grams.
So, if you engage in very high intensity exercise, you'll want to be closer to the high end of that range at 6 grams and on the lower range if you aren't going too hard. Most of you regular weightlifters hearing this would be safe at around 4 grams a day. Also, pay attention to how your tummy feels and taper your dosage if it gives you bellyaches.
But hold on there, there’s one very important thing you should know: beta-alanine must be taken every day for at least 30 days for you to see performance benefits. So, if you’re someone who sucks at consistency with your supplements…
*raises hand sheepishly*
...beta-alanine is not the supplement for you. Because if you miss even a day, you'll see a decline in performance benefits.
The good news is that you can take it at any time during the day as long as you take it, it doesn’t have to be taken before each workout. So, if it works for you to have it with your orange juice at breakfast or your glass of milk before bed, then that’s totally fine. You’ll still get the benefits. It also is better absorbed with food.
Just beware of those famous tinglies.
Any Other Tips on Taking Beta-Alanine?
I just need to say here not to expect beta-alanine to turn you into Bruce Banner. Honestly, you should really only commit to taking it if you’re super serious about performance benefits. So, if you are super dedicated and consistent, have a competition coming up or just really, really need to hit that new PR, then beta-alanine can help.
However, considering it only slightly helps you with supersets, lifting volume and doesn’t have a significant effect on gains, it’s more for the most committed lifters and athletes rather than your casual one.
But, wait! Before I dash your dreams there’s good news!
Beta-alanine on its own gives you these benefits only slightly, but if you combine it with other supplements with similar effects such as caffeine and betaine, then you can double and even triple the performance benefits.
Pulse is a pre-workout supplement that contains not only 3.6 grams of beta-alanine, but also caffeine, betaine and other endurance and strength boosting compounds. If you’re looking for a natural, high-quality beta-alanine supplement that actually has the clinically effective dose of beta-alanine, then you want to try Pulse.
The bottom line?
Beta-alanine is known as the “one-rep max” supplement because it can help you not only squeeze out just a few more reps, but can delay the fatigue your muscles feel when engaging in intense lifting sessions. It can also help slightly in some athletic sports.
Since I am a scientist and not a bullshit-peddler who operates on commission, I don’t want to sensationalize the effects like beta-alanine is going to have you flipping taxis over. However, its effects can be much more substantial when combined with other ingredients, such as those found in Pulse.
Just make sure you stay consistent every day for at least 4 weeks to allow the compound to build up in the muscles if you want to see benefits.