Under the rigor of scientific control, the vast majority of sports supplements fail dismally to deliver any type of quantifiable benefit to athletes. A decade ago, creatine monohydrate was confirmed as one extremely rare exception. Now, finally, another supplement is shaping up in a similar manner.
Beta-Alanine is a new substrate with some mounting science that’s extremely exciting. But just how good is this new supplement? Could it be the new standard in performance enhancement supplementation? Could it quite possibly be a better performance-enhancer than creatine monohydrate?
In this report I’m going to give you the straight up facts about beta-alanine: what it could do for you (and what I think it can’t do) and how you might incorporate this supplement into your nutrition schedule.
Before I can tell you what beta-alanine can do for you, we’ve got to take a step back and look at exactly what’s going on inside a muscle during intense exercise. But don’t worry, I’ll make it interesting.
Metabolic Acidosis and Muscle Failure
You’re in the gym, fully psyched, ready to hammer out a working set, Max-OT style. You wrap your hands around the barbell, you’re completely focused and ready to give it everything. Just to be sure, you envisage a 44‑Magnum aimed right at your head and ready to go off if you don’t get six complete reps on this set. Best of all, you’ve got that oily feeling in your stomach – with this weight, deep down you’re not sure if you’ve got six reps in you.
You tear through the first three reps but the weight is heavy as hell. You close your eyes, grit your teeth and dig deep to get the fourth, the fifth rep almost feels like an impossibility but some how you get it done. You explode at the start of your final rep but the bar is moving agonizingly slow, then it stops. You know you’re in trouble so you find that place and dig even deeper. By sheer will-power the bar moves a little more, then just when you thought you were past the sticking point, the bar stops again. And this time it aint goin’ anywhere. Your training partner assesses the situation in a split second and grabs the bar. The set is over. The magnum goes off, mentally decapitating you. (Told you it would be interesting).
What happened? You reached muscle overload failure that’s what.
This reaction in our bodies is known as “metabolic acidosis.” This biochemical reaction is brought about during the breakdown (hydrolysis) of ATP, the primary source of energy production in all cells, including muscle. In short, metabolic acidosis is the generation of protons or hydrogen ions (H+) that occur by intense muscle contraction which causes blood and muscle pH to drop.1
This accumulation of H+ and subsequent decrease in pH (increased acidity) is directly linked to muscle fatigue and what we know in the gym as muscle failure. The increased acidity shuts down the enzymes vital for energy production and force-producing capacity.2 When this happens muscles start to burn, rapid exhaustion sets in and if you’re lifting weights, it literally terminates your set. Game over!
The Carnosine Connection
Muscle failure is caused by the dramatic accumulation of H+. In theory, if we could “buffer” or neutralize this increase in H+ it would prevent the subsequent decline in muscle pH and allow for a greater amount of work to be completed before fatigue and muscle failure inevitably sets in.3 In the gym that would mean heavier weight, more reps, every set. And you know what that translates too – more muscle!
There is evidence to suggest that one compound is particularly effective at binding H+ (neutralizing them) to help prevent the decline in pH levels.4 Best of all, this affect is shown to have a positive impact on exercise performance.5 That compound is called carnosine.6
Carnosine (-alanyl-L-histidine), is a dipeptide present in brain, heart, skin, liver, kidney, and skeletal muscle tissue. By virtue of its pKa, carnosine appears to be an ideal biological buffer of H+ to enable greater work capacity in humans.7
A compounds’ pKa value simply means how much of it is bound to H+ at different pH levels. Human muscle and blood pH is approximately 7.0. To be an effective buffer of H+ the compound must have a pKa close to pH 7.0 to be beneficial. Carnosine’s pKa is 6.83 which is ideal.7
Aside from its pKa, another clue that carnosine would be a particularly effective H+ neutralizer is its concentration in muscle. A high carnosine concentration in muscle is shown to delay acidosis (a decline pH) and fatigue.5
Athletes, such as bodybuilders that train consistently at high intensities, posses higher-than-normal muscle carnosine concentrations.8 Therefore, muscle carnosine concentration appear to increase in response to the appropriate training stimuli. However, the most exciting news is that with correct supplementation, you can dramatically increase your muscle carnosine levels safely and effectively by as much as 66%.9
The most effective way to boost your muscle carnosine levels to this extent is by supplementing with a high quality, bioavailable form of beta-alanine.
Supplementation with carnosine itself is rather expensive and probably ineffective; this compound is broken down to its constituent amino acids (beta-alanine and histidine) by the enzyme carnosinase, which is highly active in blood.10 Alternatively, carnosine is synthesized efficiently in muscle via carnosine synthetase. Beta-alanine has been identified as the rate-limiting substrate in the formation of carnosine.11 The data show that beta-alanine more than fits the bill as a research-based performance enhancer, for a number of reasons.
• Firstly, oral supplementation enters the blood stream (plasma) intact.9 Beta-alanine’s presence within tissues corresponds with the rate and magnitude of carnosine synthesis.12
• Supplementation (3.2grams/day) in healthy people significantly elevates muscle carnosine concentrations, possibly by as much as 66%.9
• More importantly, this elevation in muscle carnosine has been reported alongside significant improvements in athletic performance at high exercise intensities.7
• During intense weight lifting, carnosine appears to contribute up to 40% of buffering capacity in muscle.8
• Studies have correlated increases in muscle carnosine (via only 2-4 weeks of supplementation with beta-alanine) with improvements of 8-12% across a range of tests from sprint cycling to leg extensions.9,13-15 If you can get a 12% improvement in only a couple of weeks, that’s very significant.
For all of these reasons, supplementation with beta-alanine makes a lot of sense for bodybuilders and power-based athletes.
The Next Creatine?
Beta-alanine’s positive influence on muscle carnosine and athletic performance has led to the speculation that this supplement will supersede creatine monohydrate as a performance-enhancer. However, if your goal is to maximize muscle mass and strength during resistance training it’s important to remember what each supplement is capable of.
Beta-alanine’s ergogenic (performance-enhancing) effect appears to reside in its capacity to boost carnosine levels that help neutralize the increase in H+ concentrations in working muscle. Whereas other physiological buffers are restricted by their roles in various reactions to do this, carnosine’s main role is to buffer H+ produced by the dissociation of carboxylic acids, (including lactic acid) that accumulates during high-intensity work.5
Carnosine is found in high concentrations in type-2 muscle fibers.6 This is further evidence to suggest it serves exclusively as a buffer, particularly at high intensities.
In contrast, creatine monohydrate’s ergogenic effects reside in its proven ability to enhance the cellular bioenergetics of the phosphagen system namely by increasing phosphocreatine concentrations in muscle. An increase in phosphocreatine is responsible for continued force production and high work capacity during exercise.16
Creatine monohydrate enhances ATP resynthesis which not only delays the onset of neuromuscular fatigue, it promotes efficient calcium handling and provides more energy for the synthesis of new muscle.17
Unlike beta-alanine, creatine monohydrate is shown to enhance/amplify many key aspects of muscle growth such as muscle IGF-1 production, satellite cell formation and the synthesis of contractile protein.18 Whereas beta-alanine’s capacity to enhance maximal strength (such as 1RM) is ambiguous, supplementation with creatine is consistently shown to enhance strength gains in the gym.19
The bottom line is that aside from anabolic steroids, nothing has the capacity to enhance strength and muscle mass gains like creatine monohydrate.
Conversely, beta-alanine’s ability to enhance power output is impressive and has led to 3 U.S. patents as seen in BETA-X. Due to its exclusive H+ buffering capacity, some research suggests it may provide an ergogenic effect in this particular department that creatine simply cannot match.15 Along this line, a study of 33 college football players showed that when you combine beta-alanine with creatine monohydrate during weight training, the total amount of work performed each workout, gradually increased.14 More reps with heavier weight would surely mean better strength and mass gains in the long run.
The Bottom Line
Strength and power athletes shouldn’t view beta-alanine as a replacement for creatine. The real value I see in supplementing with BETA-X is that it’s the ideal complement to creatine; each appear to enhance muscle performance in a way that the other does not.
As creatine monohydrate and beta-alanine enhance muscle cell bioenergetics via different pathways, the effects of one would probably enhance the benefits of the other. While this result hasn’t exactly panned out in studies that have examined the effects of combining the two, these investigations have only been of short duration (up to 6 weeks). The synergistic effect may be subtle and take months of training to manifest.
The bottom line is, if you want to maximize muscle mass and strength gains from resistance training, high potency BETA-X will be a very smart addition to your arsenal of research-based supplements.
All in all, it appears to be a very exciting time for athletes and others that want the best results possible from weight training. We have a short but steadily increasing list of supplements shown in research to be safe and provide a number of important benefits. Smart athletes will take advantage of this. BETA-X is a welcome addition to this elite category of research-based performance-enhancers.
1. J Appl Physiol. 62; 1392-7, 1987.
2. Biophys J. 48; 789-98, 1985.
3. J Appl Physiol 87; 2341-7,1999.
4. Med Sci Sports Exerc 16;328-38, 1984.
5. Jap J Physiol 52;199-205, 2002.
6. J Sport Sci 16;639-43, 1998.
7. Amino Acids. 32:225-33, 2007.
8. J Strength Condit Res 19: 725–729, 2005.
9. Amino Acids 30: 279–289, 2006.
10. Gut 11: 250–254, 1970
11. J Neurochem 21: 1429–1445, 1973.
12. Eur J Biochem 225: 617–623, 1994.
13. J Strength Cond Res. 20(4):928-31, 2006
14. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 16(4):430-46, 2006.
15. Med Sci Sport Exerc 35.5 (2003) : abstract 1206.
16. J Nutr Biochem 11: 610–618, 1997.
17. Nutrition. 20(7-8):609-14, 2004.
18. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007 Feb;39(2):298-307
19. J Strength Cond Res 17:822-31, 2003.