Is beta-alanine an effective supplement?
written by Philip Stefanov | JULY 25, 2023
Welcome to this week’s newsletter, where we’re diving into the fascinating world of fitness supplements to discuss a popular choice: beta-alanine.
You’ve probably seen it on the label of your favorite pre-workout or as part of some ‘top 10 best supplements for muscle gain’ articles.
Read on to learn what beta-alanine is, how it works, and if you should bother with it for muscle and strength gain.
What is Beta-Alanine?
Beta-alanine is a common compound added to performance supplements. It is often credited for producing the tingling sensation trainees experience after taking a scoop of their favorite pre-workout. (Interestingly, that’s because the compound activates sensory neurons that innervate the skin.)
Beta-alanine is an amino acid, but we must backtrack to understand why and how it works.
During exercise, the body breaks down ATP (adenosine triphosphate) molecules to get the energy it needs for muscle contractions. Depending on the duration and intensity, ATP demands can increase as much as 1000 fold, which is a lot.
As a result, hydrogen ions build up in the muscles, causing the pH to drop, leading to an acidic environment (acidosis) and all-familiar muscle fatigue, accompanied by a burning sensation.
Carnosine, a molecule primarily found in the brain and skeletal muscle, serves as a buffer for hydrogen ions. In other words, its function is to neutralize hydrogen ions and limit their negative impact.
You can think of carnosine as a sponge that soaks up hydrogen ions, slowing down the drop in pH and delaying the burning sensation we experience during training.
But what does this have to do with beta-alanine? This amino acid increases carnosine levels, providing a greater buffer in our muscles during training. As a result, pH drops more slowly, acidity doesn’t increase as rapidly, and we can delay the burning sensation and fatigue.
Unfortunately, there is a catch. Let’s talk about it.
What Does Research Say About Beta-Alanine?
A meta-analysis of 15 studies with 360 participants examined beta-alanine's performance-enhancing effects. Researchers looked at 57 measures across 23 exercise tests using 18 supplementation regimes.
Beta-alanine appeared to improve performance, but only in the 60-240 second range (one to four minutes).
“In line with the purported mechanisms for an ergogenic effect of β-alanine supplementation, exercise lasting 60–240 s was improved (P = 0.001) in BA compared to Pla, as was exercise of >240 s (P = 0.046). In contrast, there was no benefit of β-alanine on exercise lasting <60 s.”
These findings make sense because, as discussed above, beta-alanine works by increasing carnosine levels, which serve as a buffer to the hydrogen ions that accumulate during exercise.
It’s reasonable to assume that hydrogen ion accumulation takes time to occur and leads to the familiar burning sensation and fatigue. According to the findings, activity must last at least a minute for trainees to experience any noticeable benefits of beta-alanine.
The problem is that the average set during resistance exercise rarely goes beyond 40-45 seconds, which means trainees interested in muscle and strength gain are unlikely to see any benefits from beta-alanine supplementation.
These findings mostly align with the research on beta-alanine for hypertrophy and strength gains. The results are mixed at best, but I wouldn’t count on this supplement to bring any noticeable benefits.
What Does That Mean For You?
First, you don’t need to supplement with beta-alanine if you’re primarily into traditional gym training for muscle and strength gains. While some small studies suggest there could be benefits, the findings aren’t convincing.
Second, even if you choose to supplement with beta-alanine, there’s no need to do so before working out. Similar to compounds like creatine, BA is beneficial when taken consistently, which means timing isn’t as relevant.
Thanks for sticking around. I'll catch you next week!
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