By Wietse In het Panhuis
If you have been training for some time, you have probably heard about it before. If you ever used pre-workout, you probably felt its effects before. I am talking about beta-alanine. Beta-alanine has been shown to be effective for some sports. The question is: Can beta-alanine supplementation be beneficial for strength training?
What is beta-alanine? Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid, which means that it is naturally present in the body. Even though it is already present in the body, supplementation with the intention to increase its levels could be beneficial (just like creatine). Beta-alanine is often used in sports that involve high intensity exercises, such as rowing and short-distance ice-skating. It is believed to combat muscle fatigue, and thereby has a positive effect on muscle endurance. Science has shown that beta-alanine is especially interesting for endurance during high intensity sports, and not for endurance (e.g. long distance running) and explosive (e.g. shot-put) sports.
How does beta-alanine improve endurance? Endurance is improved when fatigue is inhibited. There are many processes during exercise that could lead to fatigue. One of those processes is acidification of the muscles due to buildup of H+-ions (hydrogen ions) and lactate. Of course, the body has many mechanisms to prevent and counteract acidification, to make the pH (a measure of acidity) neutral again. Such mechanisms are called buffer mechanisms. In one of those mechanisms, a protein called carnosine plays a role. During the production of ATP (energy production from food), H+-ions are formed. During exercise, a lot of energy is produced, and therefore also a lot of H+-ions. This will lead to a drop in pH (and will thus be more acidified). Carnosine works as a buffer by reacting with H+-ions. In that way, acidification and thereby fatigue of the muscles will be inhibited, which results in increased endurance.
Now beta-alanine comes in the picture. Beta-alanine supplementation results in increased carnosine levels. Greater carnosine levels have been shown to increase endurance during high intensity exercise with a short duration, such as rowing and sprinting, like mentioned before. This raises the question: why not just supplement carnosine? This will not be effective, since muscle cells cannot take up carnosine from the blood stream. The only way to increase carnosine inside the muscle cells, is if carnosine is produced (synthesized) in the cells themselves. Carnosine can be synthesized from beta-alanine and L-histidine (an amino acid), which in turn cannot be produced by muscle cells, but they can be taken up from the blood by muscle cells. There is more L-histidine than beta-alanine in the blood, and the enzyme that combines these two to form carnosine, binds more easily to L-histidine than to beta-alanine[5-7]. For these two reasons, enough L-histidine is present while beta-alanine is often in shortage when carnosine is being produced (in other words: beta-alanine is the limiting factor). This means, that only beta-alanine is necessary to increase carnosine levels.
Thus, beta-alanine supplementation increases carnosine levels in the muscles. In turn, carnosine works as a buffer to stabilize the pH and thereby endurance is increased. This is illustrated in Figure 1.
How much beta-alanine do you need to use to see results? Increasing carnosine levels in the muscle cannot by achieved by taking beta-alanine once. According to scientific studies, supplementing 6,4 grams for 4 weeks is the most effective strategy to increase the carnosine levels in the muscle (by 65%). When supplementing for longer than 4 weeks, this will be equally effective and thus gives the same results. It just implies that supplementing beta-alanine for a short time period (less than 4 weeks) is not very effective.
The supplement is safe, but you may get a tingling, itching feeling on your skin (paresthesia) when you take more than 10 mg/kg body weight at once (around 800 mg). To prevent this, you can take eight daily dosages of 800 mg. Alternatively, four doses of 1600 mg of slow-release capsules also works to get the same effect without experiencing paresthesia. Beta-alanine is commercially available in powder or slow release capsules. Powder costs about €16,- per 500 grams or ~€5,-/month. Slow-release capsules are about €15,- for 90 capsules or ~€20,-/month, making slow-release capsules four times as expensive as powder.
Fun fact: Beta-alanine is often present in pre-workout, but since intramuscular carnosine levels cannot be increased by taking beta-alanine once (like you do with pre-workout), this beta alanine has no added benefit to the pre-workout. Since beta-alanine dosages are often above 800 mg in pre-workout, this often results in paresthesia. Concluding: beta-alanine in pre-workout is useless and only gives you itches.
Can beta-alanine improve workouts for strength training? Unfortunately, in order to draw clear conclusions on this topic, more scientific research should be done. There are however a few studies that investigated this. One study looked at the effect of beta-alanine during a 10 week training program. This study showed that total working volume increases due to beta-alanine. This effect only occurs during high-repetition sessions (8-12 repetitions) with little rest (30-90 seconds) and not in low-repetition sessions (±5 repetitions) with long rest (2-5 minutes)[9,11]. This makes sense, as during bodybuilding, muscles will get acidified which quickly can result in fatigue. Since beta-alanine improves the buffer capacity of the muscle by increasing carnosine levels, more repetitions can be done before reaching failure. In general, a greater training volume results in increased muscle mass. However, so far it has not yet been proven that the usage of beta-alanine supplements improves the gaining of muscle mass[10-12]. This might be due to the fact that in the performed studies training schedules varied and also included sets with fewer repetitions.
Thus, beta-alanine mainly seems to work for high intensity exercise during which glycolysis plays a major role (exercise durations of 1-6 minutes), since beta-alanine supplementation increases the muscle’s acid buffer capacity. Beta-alanine does not increase strength (like creatine does). Therefore, beta-alanine might be useful for bodybuilders (or for sports like bootcamp), but not for powerlifters or any sport that requires short bursts of energy (such as shot-put). More studies that test long term beta-alanine supplementation during a bodybuilding training schedule should be conducted to get clear answers on how much bodybuilders could benefit from beta-alanine.
Beta-alanine: yay or nay? Yay AND nay!
It is both yay and nay, because there is not a clear answer.
Beta-alanine might improve endurance in bodybuilders, bootcampers and other high-intensity sports.
Beta-alanine supplementation does not increase strength.
Evidence for increases in muscle mass is lacking (even though it is likely).
In addition, supplementation can be either expensive or really inconvenient. Since beta-alanine can have paresthesia as a side effect at high dosages, supplementing about 6.4 grams per day without experiencing paresthesia can be done in three ways:
The cheapest option is to supplement 8 servings of 800 milligrams distributed over the day.
If you do not like regular supplementation, you might consider two daily servings of slow-release capsules (which is however four times as expensive).
Finally, you might just take 5 grams of powder in one or two servings per day, with the disadvantage of itches which may last up to one hour.
In summary, beta-alanine probably has some beneficial effects for bodybuilders by increasing volume and thereby possibly muscle mass. However, more scientific studies should be done to be sure. Please take into account that effects of single supplements are generally relatively small: The greatest improvements come from a good training schedule and good nutrition. Thus, as long as you are on amateur level of training, supplements in general will not make great differences. For professional athletes it can be more useful, since small differences could make the difference between winning or losing a competition. If you are not a pro, but if you want to improve in sports as much as you can, of course that’s fine. If you think it is worthwhile to either regularly supplement, pay a lot of money or experience itches, beta-alanine might be a good contribution to your workout.
References  Artioli, G. G., Gualano, B., Smith, A., Stout, J., & Lancha Jr, A. H. (2010). Role of beta-alanine supplementation on muscle carnosine and exercise performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 42(6), 1162-1173.  Suzuki, Y., Ito, O., Mukai, N., Takahashi, H., & Takamatsu, K. (2002). High level of skeletal muscle carnosine contributes to the latter half of exercise performance during 30-s maximal cycle ergometer sprinting. The Japanese journal of physiology, 52(2), 199-205.  BAUER, K., & SCHULZ, M. (1994). Biosynthesis of carnosine and related peptides by skeletal muscle cells in primary culture. European journal of biochemistry, 219(1‐2), 43-47.  Matthews, M. M., & Traut, T. W. (1987). Regulation of N-carbamoyl-beta-alanine amidohydrolase, the terminal enzyme in pyrimidine catabolism, by ligand-induced change in polymerization. Journal of Biological Chemistry, 262(15), 7232-7237.  Harris, R. C., Tallon, M. J., Dunnett, M., Boobis, L., Coakley, J., Kim, H. J., … & Wise, J. A. (2006). The absorption of orally supplied β-alanine and its effect on muscle carnosine synthesis in human vastus lateralis. Amino acids, 30(3), 279-289.  Horinishi, H., Grillo, M., & Margolis, F. L. (1978). Purification and characterization of carnosine synthetase from mouse olfactory bulbs. Journal of neurochemistry, 31(4), 909-919.  Ng, R. H., & Marshall, F. D. (1978). REGIONAL AND SUBCELLULAR DISTRIBUTION OF HOMOCARNOSINE–CARNOSINE SYNTHETASE IN THE CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM OF RATS. Journal of neurochemistry, 30(1), 187-190.  Harris, R. C., Tallon, M. J., Dunnett, M., Boobis, L., Coakley, J., Kim, H. J., … & Wise, J. A. (2006). The absorption of orally supplied β-alanine and its effect on muscle carnosine synthesis in human vastus lateralis. Amino acids, 30(3), 279-289.  Hoffman, J., Ratamess, N., Kang, J., Mangine, G., Faigenbaum, A., & Stout, J. (2006). Effect of creatine and ß-alanine supplementation on performance and endocrine responses in strength/power athletes. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism, 16(4), 430-446.  Hoffman J, Ratamess NA, Ross R, Kang J, Magrelli J, Neese K, Faigenbaum AD, and Wise JA. Beta-alanine and the hormonal response to exercise. Int J Sports Med 29: 952–958, 2008.  Hoffman JR, Ratamess NA, Faigenbaum AD, Ross R, Kang J, Stout JR, and Wise JA. Short-duration beta-alanine supplementation increases training volume and reduces subjective feelings of fatigue in college football players. Nutr Res 28: 31–35, 2008.  Kendrick, I. P., Harris, R. C., Kim, H. J., Kim, C. K., Dang, V. H., Lam, T. Q., … & Wise, J. A. (2008). The effects of 10 weeks of resistance training combined with β-alanine supplementation on whole body strength, force production, muscular endurance and body composition. Amino acids, 34(4), 547-554.