Depending on which study that you look at, sodium bicarbonate (better known as baking soda) is either an efficient ergogenic aid, or just another way to induce nausea. Sodium bicarb acts to alkalinize or reduce acidity. It is made in the body, and used to help maintain a narrow range of acid/base levels in the blood. Either excessive alkaline or acidic blood is very harmful to health. Sodium bicarb is often administered to patients suffering from heart attacks, in which a lack of sufficient oxygen flow to cells results from a failure of the heart to sufficiently pump blood leading to increased blood acidity. From an athletic standpoint, while there are several causes of muscle fatigue, increased acidity is definitely one of them. Increased muscle acidity is the result of anaerobic metabolism, whereby waste products of muscle metabolism boost local acidity in muscles. This, in turn, interferes with the activity of certain energy-related enzymes, which cannot function in an acidic environment.
While lactic acid has often been accused in the past of being the primary instigator of increased muscle acidity, in fact only the acid portion of lactic acid is the true culprit. Lactate itself is a reusable fuel, where it is released into the blood from exercised muscle, sent to the liver, and then reconverted into glucose in a process known as the Cori cycle. The actual process of converting lactate into glucose is known as gluconeogenesis. So the actual acidity from lactic acid are hydrogen ions. These hydrogen ions cause a drop in both muscle and blood pH levels, meaning higher acidity. In the muscle, this leads to lower rates of glycolysis, or use of glucose as a fuel; an interference with the activity of calcium ions required for muscular contraction; and an increased feeling of overall fatigue in the muscle.
Although sodium bicarb doesn't work in the muscle itself, it does impart an alkalosis, or acid-lowering effect in the blood. This lowers levels of hydrogen ions in the blood. But the sodium bicarb also tends to promote exit of lactic acid out of the muscle and into the blood, and this is where the ergogenic effect comes into play. Since the increase of metabolic acid occurs mainly during higher intensity, short-term activity, the ergogenic effect of sodium bicarb is most evident for shorter duration events, such as sprints. But not all studies of sodium bicarb have found a definite improvement after its use. A recent analysis of prior studies that have involved sodium bicarb use in sports found that it was ergogenic in 38% of the studies.
Since weight-training and bodybuilding exercise normally features a short period of high intensity, and since the major cause of fatigue appears to be increased muscle acidity (felt as a burning sensation in the trained muscle), it would initially appear that sodium bicarb would be an ideal ergogenic aid for use in bodybuilding and other weight-training activity. Several studies have examined whether sodium bicarb may be useful for those engaged in weight-training. The results have been mixed, with some studies showing increased repititions done, less feelings of fatigue after using sodium bicarb. Other studies, however, have not shown any improvements.
One primary reason for the lack of response after ingesting sodium bicarb is that since it works by neutralizing excessive acidity, for it to work you need to impose a level of exercise intensity high enough to significantly boost muscle acidity levels. Several of the prior studies that showed no effects after using sodium bicarb did not provide sufficient intensity levels for the bicarb to do anything. In actuality, you would need to use enough weight to stress the muscle, and do each exercise to failure as a means of producing an intensity level high enough to truly test the effects of bicarb.
This was precisely what was done in a new study that involved 8 men experienced in weight training. They ingested either 0.3 milligrams of sodium bicarb per kilogram of bodyweight, which is the standard dose for athletic purposes, or a placebo consisting of salt water. Both treatments were separated by 48 hours, and both drinks were mixed with 5 milliliters per kilogram of bodyweight flavored, sweetened water provided in a opaque flask. The men then did 3 sets of bench press and back squat using 80% of one-rep max weight done to complete muscle failure. The results showed that when the men consumed the sodium bicarb solution, they were able to complete additional reps in the squat compared to the salt water placebo. But when they did the bench press five minutes after the squat exercise, no improvement was noted. The men did a similar number of reps on the first set of both the squat and bench press, but did more reps on the second and third set of the squat. The study authors suggest that the failure protocol used in the exercises explains the clear ergogenic effect of sodium bicarb. Why the bicarb didn't work for the bench press wasn't explained, but it may be related to the larger muscle mass of the legs compared to that used when doing a bench press. More muscle mass means more muscle acidity.
Should you consider regular use of sodium bicarb to enhance workout performance? While baking soda is not expensive compared to high priced "pre-workout" supplements, routine use of sodium bicarb would not be a good idea because of the high sodium content of baking soda. In fact, it is the high sodium content of baking soda that has limited its use among athletes, since many have experienced gastrointestinal distress following the use of sodium bicarb. But there are ways around this. If you ingest a high carb meal, 120-150 minutes prior to exercise, and at that time consume a dose of 0.3 grams of sodium bicarb per kilogram of bodyweight mixed with 7 milliliters of water per kilogram of bodyweight, the risk of gastrointestinal distress drops significantly. Most of the problems that have occurred with ingestion of sodium bicarb have involved ingesting it too close to exercise or sports activity.
Recent research suggests that sodium bicarb is synergistic with beta alanine, which works to boost levels of carnosine, an intramuscular buffer in muscle. Creatine also lowers muscle acidity, and the combination of sodium bicarb and creatine offers a potent weapon against premature training fatigue, and would likely allow you to train with an increased level of intensity, which translates into increased muscle and strength gains. Adding caffeine to the mixture would make it even more potent, with the amount of caffeine being 300-400 milligrams.
Duncan, M.J, et al. The effect of sodium bicarbonate ingestion on back squat and bench press exercise to failure. J Strength Cond Res 2013: in press.
©,2013 Jerry Brainum. Any reprinting in any type of media, including electronic and foreign is expressly prohibited.
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