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September 02, 2015

Beta-Alanine: Is this the next creatine or better?

Jeffrey R. Stout, PhD, FISSN, CSCS

Over the last decade of examining and researching sports supplements, there have been very few compounds that have passed my stringent criteria for gaining access to supplement stardom. Creatine, of course, is the most popular and most effective. It easily hurdled the challenges of requiring a physiologic basis for success, of providing solid research backing, and of proving itself with athletes and fitness professionals. Almost every day, there are new compounds that challenge this criteria, but few pass the test. One that just might is an amino acid called Beta-Alanine.

If I can explain how a supplement can improve your physique or exercise performance in one sentence, and anyone off the street can understand it, I know we’re at a good starting point. I know there’s potential. Fortunately, I can do that with Beta-Alanine just as easily as I can with creatine. Here’s the sentence: Beta-Alanine triggers events in the muscle cell that buffer the acidity produced during high-intensity exercise, increasing energy and power while delaying fatigue. Pretty simple, isn’t it?

For reasons you’ll discover momentarily, Beta-Alanine works best for anaerobic, high-intensity activities such as power events, which naturally include weight training. It means you’ll be stronger, experience less fatigue, and be able to perform more sets at higher intensities. In short, it promotes growth and strength, two areas that will never lose popularity. Now that I’ve got your interest, let’s figure out how it works.

Beta-Alanine is a non-essential amino acid that is common in many foods we eat, such as chicken. By itself, it’s not much of an ergogenic aid. But when it enters the muscle cell, it becomes the rate limiting substrate to carnosine synthesis (1). Simply, without Beta-Alanine, our muscle cells don’t make any carnosine (or at least don’t make enough to matter). We need carnosine, a chemical found primarily in fast-twitch muscle, to buffer H+, so the pH levels in our muscles don’t drop so low that are muscles are burning so bad that we have to quit. Make sense? If you’re cutting your sets prematurely, you’re not growing.

Interestingly, carnosine concentrations in athletes, such as sprinters and bodybuilders, appear to be significantly higher than those of marathon runners, untrained individuals, and the elderly (2). Furthermore, intense physical training is capable of increasing muscle carnosine levels. Twelve days of intense training in elite speed skaters has been shown to increase muscle carnosine content by 87% (2). Suzuki et al. (5) recently examined the relationship between skeletal muscle carnosine levels and high-intensity exercise performance, and discovered a significant relationship between carnosine concentration and mean power. Basically, the higher the carnosine, the better the performance. In theory, increasing skeletal muscle carnosine levels (via beta-alanine supplementation or intense training) should increase buffering capacity, delay fatigue, and increase exercise performance.

So why don’t we just take carnosine? Certainly some misinformed supplement companies have tried packaging it, but it won’t work. Once L-carnosine enters the digestive system, it is hydrolyzed into histidine and beta-alanine, which is then taken up by skeletal muscle and synthesized into carnosine (2). Due to the immediate hydrolysis, carnosine can not be taken up into the muscle intact. Since much of it is lost during digestion, and much of what’s left is used to create beta-alanine, it’s much more effective (both physiologically and monetarily) to take beta-alanine.

In fact, Harris (2) reported that 4 weeks of supplementing beta-alanine (4 to 6 grams per day) resulted in a mean increase of 64% in skeletal muscle. Recently Hill et al. (3) examined the effect of beta-alanine supplementation on muscle carnosine levels and exercise performance in untrained subjects. In double-blind fashion, twenty male subjects (19-31yrs) supplemented either 4.0g beta-alanine or a sugar placebo for the first week, then up to 6.4g for an additional nine weeks. By week four, mean carnosine levels increased by 58%. Six weeks later, another 15% increase. The researchers also recorded a 16% increase in total work performed during cycle ergometry.

In another study, Stout et al. (4) examined the effects of beta-alanine supplementation on physical working capacity at fatigue threshold (PWCFT) in untrained young men. In double blind fashion, subjects consumed either 1.6g of beta-alanine or sugar placebo four times per day for six days, then 3.2 grams per day for 22 days. The results revealed a significantly greater increase in PWCFT of 9% over placebo. The findings suggest that beta-alanine supplementation for 28 days may delay the onset of neuromuscular fatigue and improve work capacity.

More work capacity equals more reps and more sets in a given workout. It means more sets at a higher intensity with less fatigue. That, my friend, means more growth and more strength. Recent study (will be published in 2006) demonstrated that when highly trained athletes supplemented beta-alanine during their 10 week weight training program, they gained more muscle and loss more fat than the athletes who only trained.

Beta-Alanine is my pick for the next blue-chip, high-profile sports supplement.

  1. Dunnett M., R. C. Harris. Influence of oral beta-alanine and L-histidine supplementation on the carnosine content of the gluteus medius. Equine Vet J. 30(Suppl): 499-504, 1999.
  2. Harris R. C. Muscle carnosine elevation with supplementation and training, and the effects of elevation on exercise performance. (Presented at the International Society of Sports Nutrition Annual conference, 2005, New Orleans.).
  3. Hill C. A., R. C. Harris, H. J. Kim, L. Boobis, C. Sale, J. A. Wise. Theffect of beta-alanine and creatine monohydrate supplementation on muscle composition and exercise performance. (Presented at the American College of Sports Medicine Annual conference, 2005, Nashville.)
  4. Stout J. R., J. O’Kroy, M. Mielke, R. Zoeller, D. Torok, J.T. Cramer, and B. S. Graves. Effects of 28 days of beta-alanine and creatine monohydrate supplementation on physical working capacity at neuromuscular fatigue threshold. (Presented at the International Society of Sports Nutrition Annual conference, 2005, New Orleans.).
  5. Suzuki Y., I. Osamu, N. Mukai, H. Takahashi, and K. Takamatsu. High level of skeletal muscle carnosine contributes to the latter half of exercise performance during 30-s maximal cycle ergometer sprinting. Jap. J. Physiol. 52:199-200. 2002.
Written by Jeffrey R. Stout, PhD, FISSN, CSCS