The Scenic Route
Let’s be honest, in the gym, as in much of life, the direct route is often the best. When we think about making gains, we might consider the direct effects of our energy intake, what we’re lifting, or how many reps we’re doing – straightforward cause and effect stuff.
But sometimes the secondary player, the scenic route, if you will, might have an impact too. Fans of beta-alanine, a fast growing ingredient on the pre-workout market, claim that it is exactly that.
Along with histidine, beta-alanine makes up the compound carnosine, found massed throughout our brains and muscle tissue. Carnosine is the body’s primary lactic buffer. This means that it’s our first line of defense against the lactic acid that builds up in our limbs as we exercise, causing that familiar ‘burn.’
The bigger our carnosine reserve, the more buffer we have to absorb the acid. Thus, your average gym junkie or athlete will often have higher levels in their tissue.
Carnosine, then, could be thought about more in terms of increasing our relative pain threshold than muscular or aerobic performance, per se: the secondary player.
The Good Food Guide
They say you are what you eat, and when it comes to carnosine, that’s never been more true. As its name suggests, most naturally absorbed carnosine (and, by extension, beta-alanine,) is found in high protein foodstuffs like red meat, fish, and poultry. Because of this, vegetarians and vegans often have less than those ‘carnivores’ among us. The same is true for women, who metabolise the substance more quickly.
So if we did want to increase our carnosine count, couldn’t we just eat more meat, poultry and fish? Well, the theory is that the effort of acquiring and eating the required amount might be both financially unrealistic and overly time-consuming.
On top of this, because of inconsistencies in how carnosine is actually broken down during digestion (either naturally occurring or as a supplement,) its proponents regard the direct beta-alanine supplement as more efficient.
Beta-alanine is a naturally occurring beta amino acid, which on the face of it sounds great. All natural, all good, right? But what actually happens when we drastically load up on it in pre-workout form?
First things first, contrary to reports in some quarters, there’s no evidence to suggest that beta-alanine will boost your muscle performance.
As already stated, although it can marginally delay the onset of fatigue, this doesn’t necessarily translate to better results.
On the contrary, the most commonly reported effect of taking beta-alanine can be far more alarming. Technically known as Acute Parasthesia, you might know it better as severe pins-and-needles. Whatever you choose to call it, lasting for up to 90 minutes across the face and limbs, it hardly feels that natural, and it seems there’s no way around it if you’re using beta-alanine.
Although fans claim you can always just reduce the dosage, we can’t help but see that as a little counter-intuitive – if you’re taking so little as to avoid Parasthesia, will there ultimately be that much endurance benefit to speak of?
Beta-alanine supplements have been suspected of interfering with various medications, and it isn’t recommended for children or pregnant women. Which is never a good sign
The problem is that there’s no real way of guaranteeing what sort of quality you’re actually getting from a product containing beta-alanine. Bear in mind that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) treats dietary supplements as foodstuffs. This means that they simply don’t have to go through the same rigorous testing that substances classed as medications do.
To top it all, even beta-alanine’s supporters concede that it takes weeks to become effective and essentially must be used consistently to be of any use at all – it’s not a ‘slam it on the day’ type thing by any means.
There’s also evidence that suggests long term usage causes taurine imbalances, leading to neuromuscular and other health complications. ‘Ah! But you just need to take a regular taurine supplement!’ say the cheerleaders.
All of which adds up to more supplements and more expense for you, all for a pre-workout that won’t kick in for ages, and that you’ll need to take indefinitely to see gains. And this was supposed to be SAVING you the cost and hassle of eating more red meat, fish and poultry!
Pre-Workouts without Beta-Alanine
So what are the best alternatives?
Beta-alanine is so prevalent in the pre-workout market that its actually not that straightforward to find a good replacement (with the exception of 4 Gauge, as you’ll see from the table blow).
The reason is the trade-offs. So there are a few products without beta-alanine, but most of them contain a whopping quantity of caffeine (so a massive kick and then an equally massive crash), or contain artificial sweeteners. Or (as in 1 M.R. Vortex below) has a proprietary blend so we don’t have a clue what the dosages are of anything. Anyway, for what it’s worth, here they are;