In one of the most practical studies I’ve seen in the area of sports performance, researchers from Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado, studied the effects of beta alanine supplementation on two groups of college athletes. The results confirmed what well-coached athletes have known for many years – beta alanine is one of the most effective supplements for athletes who want to gain muscle and strength, lose bodyfat, and even become faster.
This groundbreaking study was published in the July 2011 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. It involved 22 collegiate wrestlers and 15 collegiate football players, as opposed to using untrained (and often unmotivated) students in exercise science classes. The authors said these two sports were similar as they were characterized by having bouts of high-intensity (75-100 percent effort) with short (5-45 seconds) rest periods. To use the common scientific term, these sports required high levels of anaerobic power.
Beta alanine is a nonessential amino acid, which means it can be produced by the body – as opposed to an essential amino acid that must be acquired from food. It combines with the essential amino acid histidine to form carnosine, which is a dipeptide (a molecule joined by a peptide bond) found in high concentrations in brain and muscle tissue.
Increasing carnosine concentration in the muscle tissue may help athletes in sports that require high levels of anaerobic power. Anaerobic power is a key factor in sports such as wrestling (WR) and American football (FB), which is one reason athletes from these sports were used in this study. The researchers hypothesized that taking four grams of beta alanine “…combined with normal in-season training would improve performance of collegiate wrestlers and FB players in tests of anaerobic power and would promote lean mass increase at a faster rate than placebo.”
Before sharing the results, let’s take a closer look at the tests performed in this study and some the characteristics of the athletes and the sports of wrestling and American football.
Functional Testing 101
To measure anaerobic power, this study used the 300-yard shuttle test. With this test, an athlete sprints between cones, set 25 yards apart, back and forth a total of 12 times (12 x 25 yards = 300 yards).
The primary strength test for upper body strength was the 90 degree flexed-arm hang. This test is performed on a 1-inch diameter pull-up bar, and the subject grasps the bar with and underhand (chin-up) grip so that the palms are facing the body. The athlete assumes a position supporting the entire bodyweight with the arms held at 90 degrees. When the subject fatigues and the angle of the arms increases, the test is terminated and the time recorded. Because bodyweight is involved, the test is also used to measure relative strength of the upper body. The authors noted that the flexed-arm hang “…requires a high-intensity static contraction to be held for 30-90 seconds, thus mimicking many holds performed in collegiate WR.”
Bodyfat was assessed using a Lange skinfold caliper and a 7-site measurement. I must point out that in my Biosignature program, I only recommend Harpenden skin fold calipers and I use 12 sites – my research and experience shows that this is the most accurate combination.
One interesting aspect about the subjects used in this study is that during the pre-season and often during the season, collegiate wrestlers try to reduce their bodyfat as much as possible so that they can compete in lighter bodyweight classes. Ideally, they want the weight loss to be fat and not muscle, as fat does not contribute to performance whereas a loss of muscle will result in a loss of strength. Obviously, a supplement that can help prevent muscle loss would be extremely valuable for these athletes.
The 8-week testing period occurred during the early season for the wrestlers and in-season for football players (September 15 – November 7, 2008). The football players practiced with the team, but were considered “red shirt” status and thus did not play in games. As a result, their resistance training program could be more similar to an off-season program (in fact, the players lifted four times a week during this period).
The type of study performed is called, “double-blind, placebo-controlled.” What this means is that half of the wrestlers and approximately half of the football players were given beta alanine, while the others were give a placebo. The subjects took two capsules, containing one gram of beta alanine each, with breakfast and with lunch. One of the requirements of the study was that none of these athletes had used beta alanine three months prior to the study.
If I designed the study, I would have preferred to have some of the capsules consumed during the workouts, and also I would have used a higher dose – especially for the football players as they usually possess considerably more muscle mass than the wrestlers.
The Results are In!
The importance of each of the major measurements conducted in this study vary with the sport, for example a lower bodyfat percentage is more important for a wrestler than an offensive lineman in football. However, the selection of the tests presented, in my opinion, a reasonable compromise.
Although classified as a nonessential amino acid, the results of this study confirm the idea that beta alanine should be an essential part of an athlete’s training. Let’s break down these findings.
For the Wrestlers:
Both groups lost bodyfat but those taking beta alanine increased their lean mass by an average of 1.1 pounds, whereas the group not taking it lost lean mass.
Those taking the supplement improved their mean flexed-arm time by an average of 6.5 seconds versus 5.0 for the placebo group. This result is consistent with the body composition test, which suggests that the placebo group also lost strength due to a decrease in muscle mass.
Those taking the supplement showed a mean decrease of 1.6 seconds compared to 1.3 for the placebo group. A decrease in shuttle time suggests that the athletes were either sprinting faster throughout the entire test, sprinting faster during parts of the test, or both. Having splits available for each of the 12 sprints would determine this, but the main point is that the group using beta alanine demonstrated superior results in anaerobic power compared to the placebo group.
For the Football Players:
The players taking the supplement gained an average of 2.1 pounds of lean mass to an average of 1.1 pounds for the placebo. This suggests an increase in strength. Further, the group taking the supplement had no changes in body fat percentages whereas the players taking the placebo gained and average of .8 percent bodyfat.
Those taking the supplement improved their mean flexed-arm time by an average of 3 seconds versus .39 for the placebo group. Part of the difference could be explained by the fact that the supplement group lost bodyfat whereas the placebo group ‘s bodyfat percentage remained unchanged.
In the 300-yard shuttle, those taking the supplement showed a mean decrease of 1.1 seconds compared to .4 for the placebo group. Noted the authors, “This speed advantage multiplied over the course of an entire game could be very impactful the the athlete.”
The major takeaway point from this study is that in all the important performance measures conducted on these high level athletes, beta alanine supplementation resulted in major improvements over a placebo group. Although I recommend a different protocol for the supplement, which involves combining it with micronized creatine monohydrate such I’ve included in my Beta Alanine Supreme
formula, this study confirms that beta alanine is one of the most important supplements an athletes should be taking on a regular basis.