Hey everyone! We’re excited that Jason Bosak is back with another blog post for 3DMJ! For those who don’t know, Jason (along with Richard Knapp) was our first 3DMJ client back in January 2010! In 2009 we launched our services by taking applications for free coaching to two sponsored athletes, and Jason was one of them! He’s a great representative of the team, the sport and progressive overload in life! A fantastic bodybuilder, he also pushes himself intellectually, as he’s a coach and a PhD candidate in health and human performance. So without further ado, enjoy this blog on beta alanine by Jason Bosak, PhD(c), CSCS, USAPL Certified coach!
In the world of physique sport, beta-alanine is one of the few supplements that is considered a “staple” in most supplement regimens. In Volume 4 Issue 9 of MASS, Eric Trexler reviewed an article that looked into whether beta-alanine has been underdosed in the scientific literature. The main takeaway was that research has not yet shown a top-end for muscle carnosine saturation. In other words, more beta-alanine, over a longer period of time, seems to keep increasing muscle carnosine stores. Theoretically, then, more daily beta-alanine should provide the benefit of greater muscle carnosine levels. What exactly does that mean and how much does it matter for your physique goals?
How it works
Beta-alanine supplementation increases muscle carnosine levels (Blancquaert et al., 2015). Carnosine is a physiological buffer. When we exercise, there are multiple pathways that energy (in the form of ATP) is formed to facilitate that work. The process of synthesizing ATP also creates metabolic byproducts. Some of these byproducts are things like lactate, free radicals, and Hydrogen ions, which alter the pH level within the muscle. The accumulation of these metabolic byproducts, in the muscle, can cause pain and can impair muscle function. This is where carnosine comes in. Carnosine is a physiological buffer that helps to maintain pH balance within the muscle and may help scavenge free radicals (Matthews et al., 2019). If the accumulation of these byproducts can limit exercise performance, it makes intuitive sense that buffering them should have the effect of improving performance.
Beta-alanine does, indeed, increase muscle carnosine stores and appears to improve the buffering capacity within the muscle. The effect is most pronounced with longer exercise durations. A meta-analysis of the effects of beta-alanine supplementation shows that there was not a significant impact on exercise performance for exercise lasting less than one minute, but there was a significant effect for longer exercise durations (Saunders et al., 2016). Anecdotally, we know that, with high repetition training, there is often more pain/burning than with lower repetition training. It makes sense, then, that beta-alanine would have a bigger impact on longer duration training. The longer we train, the more metabolic byproducts can accumulate and, potentially, limit performance.
What Does This Mean for my Physique Goals?
While there is a lot of research on the performance effects of beta-alanine supplementation, that is not the case for the long-term effects of beta-alanine use on muscle hypertrophy. When training for hypertrophy, higher repetition and short rest period training is sometimes utilized. In those situations, beta-alanine seems like it would provide a clear benefit. On a higher-repetition set, beta-alanine may help you get some more reps by mitigating acidosis and helping to maintain intramuscular pH levels. With short rest periods, where metabolic byproducts might accumulate, without fully clearing, beta-alanine should also improve set to set performance. So with light weight or short rest period training, beta alanine will probably improve exercise performance. Beta-alanine has also been shown to increase the total training volume during a workout (Hoffman et al., 2008). Perhaps, this is because beta-alanine helps to slow the set to set fatigue that builds up throughout a workout, allowing more total tonnage to be lifted in a given session.
These all seem like good reasons to supplement with beta-alanine. Is this a good thing for hypertrophy, though? Most people probably agree that mechanical tension is the primary driver of muscle hypertrophy. At face value, being able to perform more reps or more total workload seems like it should increase the tension stimulus on the muscle. Something we see with EMG, though, is that with longer contractions, muscle activity actually increases as fatigue sets in (Fuglevand et al., 1993). EMG activity is not a direct measure of muscle tension, but can serve a decent proxy. When we combine our knowledge of EMG activity and fatigue with research on rest-pause sets, we can make a pretty good inference about repetitions in a fatigued state generating more mechanical tension. Rest-pause training involves using short rest periods so that, after the first set, all subsequent sets are performed in a fatigued state. Even though traditional training allows for more total repetitions, rest-pause training has been shown to be as good or better at inducing muscle growth (Prestes et al., 2019). A possible explanation for this is that, with rest-pause training, the majority of the repetitions are high-tension reps, since they are performed in a fatigued state. We see something similar with blood flow restriction (BFR) training, where, with the accumulation of metabolic byproducts and fatigue, muscle activation is higher during BFR training (Wilson et al., 2013). Training in a fatigued state allows for a similar tension stimulus with less total work to recover from.
If we augment our training with a buffer that delays the onset of fatigue, are we simply creating a situation where we have to perform more total work in order to get the same number of high-tension repetitions? With the example of rest-pause training, we see that doing fewer reps can sometimes be beneficial. Each rest-pause set (after the initial set) is, essentially, beginning closer to failure. Beta-alanine, in effect, actually does the opposite; it causes each set to begin further from failure. If we supplement with beta-alanine, there is a good chance we will be able to perform more total reps; but are the additional reps simply low-tension, lower-activation reps that occur before fatigue begins to set in? There may be some difference between trainees, but I am not convinced that the majority of serious lifters need to be able to do more total work. It may often be the case that lifters need to be able to balance a significant tension stimulus with fatigue and recovery. From that perspective, it may not make sense for many lifters to create a situation where they have to perform more total work to get the same amount of high-tension stimulus.
While not as universally accepted as a mechanism of muscle hypertrophy as tension, some researchers have proposed metabolic stress, or the accumulation of metabolic byproducts, as a possible stimulus for muscle growth (Schoenfeld, 2013). Perhaps it is the interaction between mechanical tension and metabolic stress that makes BFR and rest-pause training effective. When we consider this possible mechanism, in regard to beta-alanine supplementation, the logic is pretty straightforward. A physiological buffer decreases acidosis in order to improve performance. This does not mean that metabolic stress will be eliminated by supplementing with beta-alanine. Rather, it may mean that metabolites like lactate can accumulate more, before intramuscular acidosis occurs. That could be considered a positive for beta-alanine supplementation, but it is important to consider that metabolic stress, if it is a driver of hypertrophy, is probably secondary to tension.
On the other hand, with evidence that beta-alanine may also work as an antioxidant, it is important to mention that eliminating free radicals may improve acute performance but, in some cases, can impair hypertrophy. We know that in non-elderly subjects, free radicals like reactive oxygen species (ROS) and reactive nitrogen species (RNS) are important for signally muscular adaptations and that high-dose antioxidant supplementation can potentially impair muscle growth (Merry & Ristow, 2015). These metabolic stresses may be an important part of the signalling process for muscular adaptations, and beta-alanine supplementation could possibly create a situation where a lifter needs to do more overall work in order to achieve that same response.
Something else to consider, in regard to metabolic adaptations, is sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is an increase in muscle size that is not related to an increase in the size and/or number of contractile proteins. As Greg Nuckols has posited, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy may be related to energy metabolism, where the increase in sarcoplasmic proteins have the function of aiding in anaerobic metabolism (2015). I would posit that some of that may growth could potentially be due to an increase in the muscle’s natural buffering capacities, since training can actually improve buffering capacity (Bell & Wenger, 1988). Adaptations tend to occur in response to stressors that signal for those adaptations to occur. ATP hydrolysis from anaerobic pathways is a major contributor toward hydrogen ion accumulation during exercise (Robergs et al., 2004). If anaerobic ATP production results in hydrogen ionization, it stands to reason that hydrogen ion accumulation could serve as a potential signal that the anaerobic system has been stressed and that adaptations are necessary. These adaptations could, possibly, include sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. If that were the case, attenuating this effect with beta-alanine supplementation could theoretically interfere with this type of muscle growth. If some of the sarcoplasmic hypertrophy occurs in order to improve buffering capacity, it is possible that, by artificially improving buffering capacity, we could be missing out on those adaptations.
While the performance effects of beta-alanine supplementation are pretty well-established, the effects of its supplementation on muscle growth are not really known. Based on the role of carnosine as a physiological buffer and what we know about hypertrophy, from rest-pause and BFR training, the argument could be made that supplementation could create a situation where a lifter would have to do more total work in order to generate the same stimulus for adaptation. With that said, it is also entirely possible that being able to perform more total volume-load, during a workout, could more than offset these factors. However, it may not be appropriate to assume that most serious lifters are unable to create an adequate stimulus for a hypertrophic response. It may, more often, be the case that serious lifters should be looking to generate an adequate stimulus, while actually decreasing the overall fatigue induced by the workout. If more total work is required to get an adequate hypertrophic stimulus, due to beta-alanine supplementation, it is possible that it could be counterproductive toward the goal of muscle growth.
While it is possible that beta-alanine supplementation could be inappropriate for the goal of muscle hypertrophy, it is important to note that this is all speculative and that an increased work capacity could, very well, translate into greater hypertrophic adaptations. Beta-alanine supplementation also increases muscle carnosine content (Rezende et al., 2020) which, like creatine, could possibly have an osmotic effect. This means that it is possible that more carnosine in the muscle could also mean that more fluid would be brought into the muscle, increasing its total volume and size. There is a 28-day concurrent training study that showed that beta-alanine supplementation caused a non-significantly greater increase in fat-free mass than placebo (Freitas et al., 2019). Interestingly though, beta-alanine supplementation also caused a greater increase in intracellular, extracellular, and total body water. The increase in body water would technically be counted toward an increase in fat-free mass. So, while this is not necessarily evidence that beta-alanine helps grow more actual muscle tissue, it is possibly evidence of an osmotic effect where the increased muscle carnosine content could help to increase muscle volume. Training does not really seem to be a big factor in increasing muscle carnosine content, so this isn’t an adaptation that would naturally occur with training (Harris et al., 2012). Beta-alanine supplementation is probably the most effective way for humans to increase muscle carnosine content, so if it is beneficial to muscle growth, supplementation would be the best way to achieve that goal.
Another mechanism through which beta-alanine could aid in hypertrophy is through the SNAT2 pathway. SNAT2 is an acidosis-sensing glutamine pump that can actually inhibit the mTOR pathway for stimulating muscle protein synthesis (Evans et al., 2007). If intramuscular acidosis stimulates SNAT2 to inhibit the mTOR pathway, it is possible that decreasing acidosis, through beta-alanine supplementation, could be beneficial for muscle protein synthesis. It is important to note, though, that this is based off of in-vitro rat studies and not exercise-induced acidosis.
In conclusion, it is certainly possible that beta-alanine supplementation could be beneficial when training with the goal of hypertrophy. You should keep in mind though, that the research hasn’t really hashed this out just yet. Moreso, it is prudent to consider theoretical ways in which its use could actually be counterproductive toward that goal. There is some evidence that beta-alanine increases fat-free mass slightly more than placebo, but it is important to note that if a supplement hasn’t been conclusively shown to have a certain effect, it probably pays to be a late adopter and to wait for that research to come out.
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