What you’ll learn here
Beta-alanine benefits? Apparently … take this supplement, and you’ll push out more reps; cover longer distances, and train harder. You’ll build more muscle and strength. And you’ll catch a glimpse of your dream physique in the mirror quicker.
Well, at least that’s how the pitch for beta-alanine usually goes with supplement companies.
Scan through their product labels, and you’ll become absolutely convinced that beta-alanine is the magical potion to better performance. For example: breaking your personal bests in the gym, developing your glutes fast, or pumping hard for another 10 seconds at spin class.
Is it true, though? Or is beta-alanine just another expensive – but kind of useless – supplement (ahem, if you don’t already know, I’m talking about BCAA supplements) on the market?
That’s what this article is for. Here, we’ll explore all the science-based intel available on beta-alanine (benefits, dosage, and all the good stuff) so you can judge if it’s truly worth your hard-earned money.
What is beta-alanine?
Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid (1, 2, 3). That simply means your body can make beta-alanine naturally from amino acids; you don’t necessarily need to get it from your diet (unlike essential amino acids).
Your body doesn’t use beta-alanine to synthesize protein – as you’d expect with other amino acids.
Instead, your body primarily binds it with the essential amino acid, L-histidine, to form carnosine, a dipeptide molecule (i.e. made up of 2 amino acids) that’s highly concentrated in tissues that have a high energy demand (4, 5).
Of course, that includes your muscles and brain.
If you want to understand amino acids better, here’s a guide on protein intake that you can check out.
Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid your body uses to form carnosine, a molecule highly concentrated in your muscles and brain.
Benefits of beta-alanine supplementation
OK, so beta-alanine is a precursor to carnosine. So what?
Well, to see why this is important, you’ll first need to understand what happens in your muscles when you exercise.
When you work out (especially at high intensities), your reliance on glycolytic metabolism increases – this is simply the anaerobic metabolic pathway that breaks down glucose to form energy (ATP) (6, 7, 8, 9). So yay, you get energy.
But there’s a problem. In addition to producing energy, the pathway also causes the accumulation of 2 byproducts: lactate and hydrogen ions.
This reduces the pH level in your muscles – creating a more acidic state.
In case you’re wondering, that’s responsible for the burning sensation you get in your muscles, especially when you’re creating plenty of metabolic stress (e.g. performing high reps).
Imaginably, if you can find a way to counteract the acidity in your muscles, you’d be able to delay getting fatigued.
An important note: your body has more than enough L-histidine to support carnosine production. What does that mean?
Ultimately, this explains the marketed benefits of supplementing with beta-alanine.
Increased beta-alanine levels mean increased carnosine levels. And that, in turn, leads to enhanced intracellular buffering and reduced lactic acid accumulation. Thus: enhanced performance.
Quick question: Why not supplement with carnosine straight?
All this sounds good. But it also raises a question that’s undoubtedly flashed across your mind: “If the idea of beta-alanine supplementation is to raise muscle carnosine levels, why not just supplement with carnosine straight?”
An excellent question. And the answer to that would be because your body doesn’t absorb carnosine very well.
By the time carnosine has a chance to reach your muscle cells, your body would have broken it down into its respective amino acids – beta-alanine and histidine – via the enzyme carnosinase (16).
So, nope. You can’t supplement with carnosine straight.
Beta-alanine is the precursor to carnosine. This is important because carnosine is a hydrogen ion buffer that counteracts the acidity in your muscles – helping you to work harder for longer. Carnosine gets broken down before it reaches your muscles so you cannot supplement with it directly.
Does beta-alanine work?
So, on a theoretical and cellular level, everything sounds great.
Beta-alanine helps reduce acidity in the muscles – and that enables you to train harder for longer.
But … how good is it in reality? Can you depend on it? Or, more importantly, should you spend money on it?
You’re going to hate me for this. But it really depends.
Why? It all comes down to beta-alanine’s mechanism. Remember how beta-alanine helps negate the effects of lactate accumulation?
Intuitively, that would mean that you’ll only see benefits from supplementing with beta-alanine if your training results in a high degree of lactate accumulation.
The evidence agrees. A fairly recent meta-analysis found that beta-alanine positively influenced performance on high-intensity tasks ranging from 30 seconds to 10 minutes in duration (17).
But what are ‘high-intensity tasks?’
Good examples include high-repetition lifting with short rest periods, circuit training, high-intensity intervals, high-intensity steady-state efforts in the 0.5 to 10-minute range.
It’s worth noting that beta-alanine’s effects on more traditional resistance training outcomes are less clear.
While there are a handful of individual studies reporting beneficial effects of beta-alanine on strength and hypertrophy outcomes when combined with resistance training, there are plenty of individual studies reporting null findings as well (18, 19, 20).
Here’s the bottom line.
Supplementing with beta-alanine does bring about benefits for some lifters. Particularly for those specializing in highly glycolytic types of exercise that lead to the substantial accumulation of hydrogen ions – for example, CrossFit.
As for those who train in low rep ranges and with ample rest, though?
The use of beta-alanine is pretty arguable. Especially when there’s always the option of creatine, one of the most research-backed and safe workout supplements out there. And speaking of safe …
Supplementing with beta-alanine does have its benefits. However, it’s likely limited to exercises that lead to the substantial accumulation of hydrogen ions. In other words: high-intensity work.
Is beta-alanine safe?
So, beta-alanine can be beneficial for selected lifters and scenarios. But is beta-alanine supplementation even safe in the first place?
Fortunately, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest it is.
A recent meta-analysis concluded that beta-alanine can be safely consumed in doses of up to 6.4 grams a day up to 24 weeks (21).
Any side effects?
That said, it is not without its side effects. One of the most well-reported side effects of beta-alanine is a tingling sensation called ‘paresthesia’ when reasonably large doses are consumed (22, 23). It’s usually experienced in the face, neck, and back of the hands.
While it can be a pretty disturbing phenomenon, there is (thankfully) no evidence that paresthesia is harmful in any way.
Also, it’s worth mentioning that the reaction varies from person to person.
Some people may experience mild tingles at around 10 mg/kg of body weight; most people experience moderate tingles at 20 mg/kg. Almost everyone will have severe tingles (sounds fun, but it’s likely anything but) at 40+ mg/kg.
Possible reduction in muscle taurine levels
Because beta-alanine and taurine share the same transporter, another concern researchers have with beta-alanine supplementation is that it could cause an unintended reduction in muscle taurine levels.
Just so you know: taurine, an amino acid, helps to ensure proper muscle function and protects against muscle damage – amongst other benefits in the body, like protecting the brain, heart, and immune system (24, 25, 26, 27, 28).
So … a decreased level of taurine would definitely be a problem.
While some animal studies have indeed documented significant reductions in intracellular taurine, human trials have not (29). This doesn’t negate the concern; researchers have attributed this discrepancy to lower doses in the human trials.
As a result, it remains unclear if substantially larger, cumulative doses (beyond what’s been studied) would make it a concern.
Regardless. It’s unlikely that you’ll venture into such dangerous territories because the dosage instructions for beta-alanine are pretty sane.
Beta-alanine supplementation is largely believed to be safe. That said, a common side effect is a sensation of tingling (paresthesia), which is dose-dependent. Another concern is that it could lead to a reduction in muscle taurine levels.
Beta-alanine dosage: How much should I take?
The standard daily beta-alanine dose stands at 2 to 5 grams (30).
If paresthesia is a concern for you, breaking up your daily dose into about 800 to 1200 milligrams of beta-alanine every 3 to 4 hours can help. Don’t have the time for that? Look out for beta-alanine supplements that have a time-release coating.
These dissolve slowly, simulating what would happen if you were to split up your dosage. Without you actually doing it, of course.
That said, these pills are more expensive – so if you don’t have the budget for it, a simple hack is to take beta-alanine with food. Doing so helps slow down your body’s absorption of the compound, thus preventing (or minimizing) tingles.
And as with creatine, beta-alanine appears to take some time to get ‘loaded’ into the muscles.
You’ll only notice performance changes once your muscle levels of carnosine have increased. This may take up to 14 days (31).
When should I take beta-alanine?
Because the performance benefits you see from beta-alanine are based on raising muscle carnosine concentrations, the time of day you consume beta-alanine doesn’t matter. At all.
So – it comes down to what you prefer.
But of course, as mentioned earlier, you’d want to preferably split your intake up over the day to prevent feeling like a can of soda pop.
Is there a need to cycle beta-alanine?
A glaring complication in answering whether there is a need to cycle beta-alanine is the lack of human performance studies assessing its effects beyond 24 weeks.
Beyond that point, we still don’t know if muscle carnosine concentrations will continue to rise – or it’ll reach a ceiling.
Additionally, we also don’t know if cycling beta-alanine is necessary at all.
So, until we have answers to these uncertainties, it appears that the best course of action would be for you to try out what works best for you.
If you feel better cycling beta-alanine, go for it.
Try 4 to 9 weeks ‘on’ cycle, followed by 4 to 9 weeks ‘off’ cycle; that’s because muscle carnosine levels appear to remain elevated for up to 3 months after ceasing beta-alanine supplementation (34).
But if you’d rather not go through the hassle of tracking your intake over time, taking it daily (like you do with creatine) is a good approach.
The standard daily dose of beta-alanine supplementation is 2 to 5 grams. You may want to split this dosage up to prevent tingling sensations. It doesn’t matter when you take beta-alanine, and there’s generally no benefit to cycling the supplement.
Can I get beta-alanine from foods?
Yes, you can get beta-alanine from foods – and the top sources are meat, poultry, and fish.
These foods typically provide either carnosine or anserine, which your body then breaks down into its smaller amino acid groups, including beta-alanine.
Thus explaining why vegetarians and vegans have about 50% less carnosine in their muscles than those who consume an animal-based diet (35).
That said … regularly consuming 2 to 5 grams of beta-alanine through your diet alone is still very challenging for most people, no matter a plant-based diet or not. The average daily intake of carnosine levels from foods is likely 0.05 to 0.25 grams (36).
It can be difficult to hit that number, even if you’re regularly doing meal prep for better control over food intake.
As you can tell, supplementing with beta-alanine is – therefore – the most reliable method of increasing your muscle levels of carnosine.
The top sources of beta-alanine are meat, poultry, and fish. Regardless, it’s typically challenging to hit the required daily amounts of beta-alanine (i.e. 2 to 5 grams) consistently through diet alone. Supplementing with beta-alanine is still the most reliable way of increasing your muscle carnosine levels.
Does beta-alanine contain calories?
Despite what the nutritional label on your tub of beta-alanine tells you, yes, it does contain calories.
As mentioned earlier, beta-alanine is an amino acid.
So, just like any other protein source, they contain roughly 4 calories per gram, which equates to 20 calories for a 5 gram serving of beta-alanine.
As little calories as that sounds, you may still have to track its contribution to your daily calorie intake. 20 calories over a month tallies up to 560 calories, after all.
Decide if beta-alanine is a good fit for your training style
So … are beta-alanine’s benefits backed by science? Yes.
But (and there’s a huge but) it appears only to benefit certain types of exercise. Consider adding beta-alanine to your stash of supplements only if you are any of the following:
- CrossFit competitor
- Training with high repetitions (20+ reps)
- Doing anaerobic-dominant conditioning and resistance training concurrently
Anything that leads to a high degree of lactate accumulation, basically. If your acid-buffering capacity is not a limiting factor for your training style (e.g. pure strength or heavy loads with generous rest periods), beta-alanine supplements may not have much to offer you.
If you’re looking at workout supplements that are well-researched and proven to work, look no further than this trio: whey protein, caffeine, and creatine.
Before you click away from this article, I just want to point out an important fact. Supplements are not magic. They don’t do the work for you. You can’t just pop a wild combination of pills and hope to wake up with your dream physique – no.
Instead, you have to train hard, eat according to your goals, and catch enough sleep to support your recovery. Get the basics right, then think about supplementation.