Beta Alanine Supplementation

July 7, 2010

If you pick up any fitness magazine or walk into any nutrition store you will find dozens of products that claim to improve performance, with more showing up on the store shelves every month. In most cases the claims are exaggerated with very few products actually improving performance. Every now and then however a product does come along that lives up to the hype; about twenty years ago that product was creatine, which has gone on to become the most researched performance enhancing supplement with the vast majority of studies supporting it’s use in most athlete groups.  Recently another product has started to show that same type of promise: Beta alanine. Beat alanine supplementation has been reported to decrease fatigue associated with higher intensity exercise.

Fatigue during Exercise

Fatigue, defined as the inability to carry on a given level of work, is a complex phenomenon with many factors contributing simultaneously. While the inability of the nervous system to activate muscle fibres, interference with calcium release or uptake within the muscle, structural damage to muscle fibres, heat, and depletion of energy stores are some of the main culprits, an accumulation of metabolites like ADP, inorganic phosphate,  lactate and hydrogen ions are among the most well known contributors to fatigue.

There has been an ongoing debate about the role of lactate in fatigue. Research conducted in the 1970s suggested that lactate was a major contributor to fatigue. Many of these studies were correlation studies that did not look at cause and effect. While there was a correlation between the amount of lactate that was produced and fatigue more recent research has shown that lactate itself does not contribute to fatigue and may actually work to prevent fatigue. The production of hydrogen ions, from various sources in the series of chemical reactions that take place when the anaerobic energy systems are used, can lead to a decrease in the pH of the cell; interfering with energy production and muscle contraction.

Buffers

Buffers are the body’s chemical agents that keep pH in the cells within normal range. There are a variety of buffers that the body uses. Bicarbonate is the most important extracellular buffer, meaning that it maintains the pH outside of the cells. It has been known for many years that ingesting sodium bicarbonate, baking soda, can increase the effectiveness of the bicarbonate buffering system in the body and delay fatigue in high intensity sports. For many people ingesting baking soda causes stomach problems and can lead to vomiting or diarrhoea, unpleasant side effects at the best of times but particularly problematic during competition.  Carnosine is the primary intramuscular buffer found in humans, it also seems to have positive effects on the nervous system, acts as an antioxidant and may have anti aging effects.  Carnosine does not appear to be increased by exercise  but supplementation with Beta Alanine does increase intramuscular carnosine and improve buffer capacity.

Effects on Performance

The majority of studies suggest that beta alanine can enhance performance in sports where there are maximal or near maximal efforts for 60s to 5 minutes. Shorter duration sprints and strength training do not seem to benefit as much from beta alanine use, although total work volume in strength training sessions can be improved by as much as 20% following beta alanine supplementation. Whether the increase in work volume can translate into better training adaptations and performance improvements is not known. Two studies have shown improvements in power at anaerobic threshold following beta alanine supplementation and slight improvements (2.5%) in time to exhaustion at anaerobic threshold.

Supplementation Protocol

Several studies have been done on to find the optimal protocol for taking beat alanine. It appears that ability of beta alanine to increase carnosine is dose dependant, 6-7 g per day give best results. Beta alanine supplements often cause tingling sensations in various parts of the body, particularly in the head and neck region. This can become quite intense and unpleasant if large doses are taken at one time. The tingling can start within minutes of taking the supplement and last for up to an hour.  Smaller doses spread throughout the day or time release capsules seem to decrease or eliminate the tingling. Beta alanine supplementation is not an acute response supplement it needs to be done over an extended period of time for significant effects to be noticed, usually 28 days or more.

Adverse Effects

Currently the only known adverse effects associated with beta alanine supplementation is the tingling that is noticed shortly after taking the supplement.

References

  1. Allen DG, Lamb GD, Westerblad H. Skeletal muscle fatigue: cellular mechanisms. Physiol Rev. 2008;88(1):287–332.
  2. ARTIOLI, G. G., B. GUALANO, A. SMITH, J. STOUT, and A. H. LANCHA, JR. Role of A-Alanine Supplementation on Muscle Carnosine and Exercise Performance. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 42, No. 6, pp. 1162–1173, 2010
  3. Boning D, Maassen N. Last word on point:counterpoint: lactic acid is/is not the only physicochemical contributor to the acidosis of exercise. J Appl Physiol. 2008;105(1):368.
  4. Cairns SP. Lactic acid and exercise performance: culprit or friend? Sports Med. 2006;36(4):279–91.

The Power Clean

June 14, 2010

The Olympic style lifts, the snatch, clean and jerk and their variations have become the basis of the strength and power programs for many sports. The primary reason for including these exercises in a program is to train the nervous system to maximally activate the muscles, resulting in greater speed and power while under load. Additionally some coaches feel that the movements used in the clean are similar to those used when the body starts to open during jumps and accelerating out of the athletic ready position. Athletes throughout the world use the Olympic style lifts yet there are many misconceptions and concerns about including them in a training program.

Safety

Many athletes and coaches worry about being injured while doing a clean or snatch. When done properly the Olympic style lifts are among the safest lifts. Back injuries in sports like golf, baseball, and football occur about twice as frequently as they do in Olympic lifting. The odds of developing a shoulder injury during the bench press are much greater than injuring your back during a clean, provided they are done properly.

Sets and Reps

The Olympic style lifts need to be explosive; power is the key to successfully using these exercises in your program. It is possible to muscle the weight up but it defeats the purpose of the exercise and increases the chance of injury. In order to keep these movements explosive and powerful sets need to be short. The anaerobic alactic energy system, which uses the ATP-CP stored in the muscles, is the only energy system that provides energy quickly enough to maintain the power output needed to make the Olympic style lifts effective. The anaerobic alactic system can provide energy for 10-12s of all out work, which is about four reps for a power clean or power snatch. There is no need to take these exercises to a failure point, so you should have a little left at the end of a set.

Choosing the Right Lifts

Table 1 shows a list of the Olympic style lifts and some of their variations. There are plenty to choose from, providing the opportunity for lots of variation in your program. The exercises that are chosen will be dependant on equipment and space available and the body structure of the athlete.

Clean Snatch Jerk
Power clean Power snatch Push Press
Hang clean Hang snatch Push Jerk
Clean pull from the floor Snatch pull form the floor Power Jerk
Clean pull from blocks Snatch pull from blocks

During the explosive second pull of the clean or snatch the weight is brought in against the legs high on the thighs, near the hips. This brings the bar close to the athlete’s center of gravity and allows the greatest power production. It also keep the bar moving close to the body, eliminating a swinging action away from the body that could potentially cause injury when the athlete tries to dip under the bar. To effectively perform the technique of either the snatch or clean the athlete must be able to get the bar into the right position. While this will not be a problem for the majority of athletes those with very long arms and short torsos may have difficulty performing the exercise properly. To test whether an athletes should be performing clean movements or snatch movements have the athlete assume the hang clean starting position demonstrated on the video, holding a broom stick in front of their body with an overhand grip. If the broom stick is sitting above the middle of their thigh they can safely perform clean and snatch exercises. If the broom stick is sitting below mid thigh ask the student to move their hands out to a snatch width grip and reexamine the bar placement. If sliding the hands out has moved the bar above mid thigh the student can perform snatch movements but not clean movements. If the bar is still not above mid thigh and the body position is correct the athlete should not be doing either clean movements or snatch movements.

The Jerk and variations can be safely performed by almost all athletes provided they have adequate flexibility through the wrists, shoulders and elbows to get into the correct body positions. Very tall athletes with long limbs may feel unstable during Jerk variations because the bar is so far above their center of gravity. These athletes should spend some time focusing on developing rotator cuff and shoulder strength before attempting these exercises.

If an athlete has physical limitations that prevent them from using the Olympic style lifts in their training this does not mean they cannot train for power development. Various plyometric jumps and jump throw combinations with medicine balls can be used instead.


Squatting Improves Speed

June 10, 2010

Modern strength training programs for athletes spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on using unstable surfaces, single leg exercises and balance training to improve speed, strength and power.  There is currently no research that shows that these types of training improves athletic performance (1) but it has been well established that training on unstable training results in significantly less force development and loads that will limit strength gains (2). All this balance and stability training has come at the cost of building strength in traditional exercises like the squat, bench press, deadlift, and power clean yet these exercise have time and again been shown to be key to athletic performance. A recent study at Applalachian State University examined the relationship between squat strength and sprint speed(3).  The subjects were a group of 17 football players with an average height of 1.78m and an average weight of 85.9 kg.  1RM squat was assessed on the first day of the study. All subjects were required to squat to a 70o knee angle, making it a deeper squat than the 90o knee angle that many people use in training. A deeper squat will normally decrease the amount of weight lifted. The average 1RM squat was 166.5 kg. Later in the week the subjects performed electronically timed 5, 10, and 40m sprints on a standard outdoor track surface. When they analyzed the data they found significant correlations between squat strength to body weight ratio and the 10m and 40m sprints.  When the group was divided into those with a squat to bodyweight ratio of greater than 2.1 and those with a ratio of less than 1.9 those with the higher strength to weight ratio were significantly faster than those with a squat to bodyweight ratio less than 1.9. This study adds to the growing body of evidence that shows the importance of traditional strength training exercises for improving athletic performance.

So why does improved strength improve speed and acceleration? Think back to your high school physics class and you might remember the formula F=ma; force is equal to mass times acceleration.  Transforming the formula to solve for acceleration we get a=F/m; acceleration is equal to force divided by mass. When we are speaking of running or jumping activities the mass is your body weight. If you increase your strength to body weight ratio you will increase your speed and acceleration; it is simple physics.

Unstable surface, single leg and balance training may be fine during a warm up but they are no replacement for good old fashioned deep squats when it comes to increasing strength and improving speed and power that translates to athletic ability. So if you want to get faster stop using circus tricks and lift some real weights.

  1. Wilardson, J. (2004). The effectiveness of resistance exercise performed on unstable equipment. JSCR. 26(5) 70-74.
  2. Behm et al (2002). Muscle force and activation under stable and unstable conditions. JSCR 16(3) 416-422
  3. McBride et al (2009). Relationship between maximal squat strength and five, ten, and forty yard sprint times. JSCR. 23(6) 1633-1636.

Eccentric Training

June 6, 2010

Introduction

You’ve heard it all before, how much can you lift? Just about everyone goes to the gym to “lift” weights, never putting much thought into lowering them. You’ve seen it before: the person doing barbell curls, allowing the barbell to drop rapidly from the top of the lift back to the bottom with no control during the lowering portion. The lowering part of the repetition is just as important if not more than just lifting it, by allowing the weight to drop you are cheating yourself out of half of the lift. Unless you’re training specifically just to “lift” weights, you should be concerned with lowering it as well. The lowering portion contributes to size and strength gains.

In order to understand how Negative Training or Eccentric Training can benefit your current program, we must first classify the various types of muscle contractions. We must also have a fundamental understanding of the anatomy of a repetition. The human body is capable of three types of muscle actions concentric, isometric, and eccentric muscle actions. Lifting a weight is termed the positive portion, or concentric action, of the lift. This is the part of the movement that everyone in the gym seems to put their focus on. Holding a weight at a given point in the range of motion is an isometric action, meaning that no movement is occurring in the body part being trained. This type of muscle action is not typically seen during your usual work out but can become important in some sports training programs. The major muscle action we will be looking at is the lowering of a weight. It is also known as the negative portion or eccentric action.

A Closer Look

Let’s take a closer look at what’s happening during an eccentric muscle action.  As you lower the weight, you are typically much stronger than during the lifting phase. There are two main reasons for the increase in strength; first, you are no longer attempting to overcome the force of gravity by lifting upwards and second, eccentric contractions result in greater force developed in the working muscles because the actin and myosin cross bridges that allow a muscle to contract are stretched apart. What this means is that regardless of how much weight you can lift, you will be able to lower much more. In fact, you are 20-40% stronger in the eccentric phase. Therefore, the weight you use to train is too light to tax your eccentric strength. This does not mean you should simply ignore your eccentric strength and continue to drop the weight. Instead, you should lower the weight with control to eliminate momentum and focus on the muscle being trained, by moving slower the tension is increased in the working muscles. By incorporating eccentric training schemes, you can get greater increase in size and strength from your workouts.

As with every training method, eccentric emphasized training has advantages and disadvantages. The major advantage of eccentric training is that it allows you to pick up more weight, causing the body to adapt to the increases in weight, which over time will cause increased size and strength. The disadvantage is that the extra weight increases the risk of injury, and depending on the type of eccentric training utilized will require a spotter. There are several types of eccentric emphasized training, using different modalities including free-weights, machines, manual resistance and body weight.

Eccentric Safety and Effectiveness

Before getting into the specifics of eccentrics, safety guidelines must be addressed. The rep speed is of utmost importance when performing eccentric work and will vary depending on the type of method being used. For eccentric training to be effective and maintain safety, you should follow a 3-10 second count per repetition. Any faster and you won’t have control of the weight. Always apply maximal effort throughout the entire eccentric portion of the lift. Proper weight selection must be determined. You are 20-40% stronger on the lowering portion of an exercise than the lifting. However, this does not mean that you add 40% to your max the first time you undertake an eccentric training session, build to this over time by following the eccentric methods below that don’t require added weight.

Eccentric Applications

The most common methods of eccentric training are eccentric only, eccentric finishes, emphasized eccentric, accentuated eccentrics and manual eccentrics.

Eccentric only

This method requires the use of attentive spotters. They allow for the maximum amount of weight to be used safely. The weight used will be approximately 130-140% of the lifters 3RM, the maximum amount of weight you can lift three times. If the load is too heavy risk of injury is increased and the weight will descend too quickly to get a benefit from the movement. You should not push the weight during the concentric portion of the lift; the spotters lift the weight to the starting position and then when you are ready they release the weight. You then push against the weight as it slowly lowers on its own. If the weight selected is correct, you will push be pushing as hard as possible even when the weight continues to descend. If the weight is too heavy, you will not be able to push up against it long enough to provide an effective eccentric overload, an eccentric should take at least two seconds to complete. If you are able to stop the movement at any point during the lowering portion, then the weight is too light.

Eccentric finishes

These require the use of spotters at the end of your set. After you complete the set by taking it to the point of momentary muscular failure, the spotter will then lift the weight back to the top. Then you will lower the weight under control. This will be repeated until you are not able to control the weight. This method will allow you to reach momentary muscular failure not just concentrically but eccentrically as well.

Emphasized eccentrics

This method allows eccentric to be done without the aid of spotters. These are the safest form of eccentrics as they use the lightest weight and are completely controlled by the lifter. The goal of emphasized eccentrics is to increase the length of time it takes to lower the weight. Initially the weight will be lowered to a three second count and gradually increased to a ten second count when the resistance is increased and the weight is again lowered for a three second count. This type of training eliminates momentum from the movement, which keeps tension thru ought the range of motion constant and increases the total time under tension for the muscle.

Accentuated eccentrics

These are typically done on a machine but can be performed with dumbbells as well and without the use of spotters. The machine should have a movement arm that allows you to use one or both limbs. The weight will typically be decreased from your regular concentric-eccentric loads. The concentric portion is performed with both limbs while the eccentric phase is executed with one limb at a slow speed. You perform all eccentric reps on the same limb for a set or alternate between reps. If using dumbbells, use both arms to get the weight into the top position then remove one arm and lower slowly.

Manual eccentrics

Manual eccentrics are my personal favorite to perform. They allow the lifter to perform maximally both concentrically and eccentrically without waiting until the end of a set, or just doing eccentric only sets to tax the eccentric strength. Manual eccentrics require a spotter who applies resistance to the bar or weight stack while you are performing the eccentric portion. The major advantage is that the muscle will fatigue both concentrically and eccentrically at about the same time.

Positive results

These eccentric methods all provide a different challenge and add variety to your current training program. Keep in mind they will all result in some serious soreness if applied properly. The delayed on set muscle soreness (DOMS) produced by eccentric training is much greater than in traditional training. The severity of muscle damage that they induce means that they can only be performed for a week or two at a time and only 3-4 times during the year. You may choose to include a few eccentric sets at the end of your regular sets or for the highly motivated an eccentric emphasized work out session. Regardless of which method you decide to use, the result will be greater development in size and strength.

Guidelines for incorporating Eccentric Training into your program:

An eccentric training program is not advisable for the beginner that has less than 6 months of proper progressive training under their belt.

Use a spotter for all exercises; the exceptions would be with accentuated eccentrics. Remember you will be using more weight than you can lift therefore proper spotting is required. Not all exercises allow for eccentric training such as squats, leg presses and few others. Make safety paramount!

Do not go beyond failure during your eccentric sets. An eccentric set should be terminated when you can no longer resist the lowering of the weight for at least a two second lowering phase. If you go beyond this point you are now allowing the bar to free fall due to gravity and not focusing on the muscles being worked.

Progression is key. Determined the appropriate weight for each eccentric exercise then strive for increases as you would with any other training technique. Whenever you find that you’re able to resist a weight load for more than five to six seconds on the first of rep then it would be time to increase weight.

Recovery is paramount. Since, eccentric training causes more muscle breakdown than other types of lifting, it often requires more recovery time. So when you begin doing eccentric workouts, you may well need to alter your weekly schedule consequently. For example, instead of working the biceps muscle group three a week, you’ll probably only work it only once every seven to ten days, depending on the level of muscle soreness.

Muscle soreness is a good sign that you may require more recovery. However do not train a muscle group if too much soreness is still present, a little soreness is ok but use common sense and stay injury free.

Eccentric training should be performed after a base level of strength has    been established; proper progression working up to eccentrics is important.