If one thing is certain, it’s the fact that we have no shortage of fitness supplements – some good, some bad, some nothing but a waste of money.
And in that vast sea of products, it can be difficult (impossible even) to distinguish between effective and ineffective.
One supplement that has been gaining lots of attention lately is betaine (also known as trimethylglycine).
These days, you can find it in quite a few supplements – primarily pre-workouts and similar muscle-enhancing products.
Because of its increasing popularity, betaine has gotten the attention of many fitness enthusiasts and researchers alike.
Betaine has been shown to have many benefits for bodybuilders. It can increase performance in the gym, increase energy, aid in digestion and improve liver and heart function.
What Is Betaine?
Betaine (commonly referred to as trimethylglycine or TMG) is an amino acid that is commonly found in beets, which is where it first got its name. Other foods like quinoa, spinach, and cereal are also rich in the amino acid.
Structurally, betaine is the amino acid glycine but with three methyl groups attached to it, which is where it gets its scientific name – trimethylglycine.
Within this guide, we’ll be using both names interchangeably.
As a compound, betaine has two primary functions within the body: as an osmolyte and as a methyl donor.
Let’s take a closer look:
Trimethylglycerine’s first function as an osmolyte (organic compounds that influence the properties of fluids within living organisms) means that the amino acid helps bring balance to fluid levels both within the cells and outside.
Betaine’s other function as a methyl donor is important for numerous bodily processes, including:
- the reduction of homocysteine into L-methionine (which appears to help prevent cardiovascular disease) (3, 4, 5, 6);
- the increase of s-adenosyl methionine (SAM-e) – a process known as SAM-e cycle, which is important for anabolism and liver function (more on that later).
All in all, betaine supplementation helps improve whole-body methylation, which is beneficial for many processes within the body.
But, how does the amino acid stack up as a bodybuilder’s friend?
Betaine Anhydrous As a Pre-Workout Stimulant?
I want to start by saying that we don’t have as many human trials regarding betaine’s effects on athletic performance.
So far, we’ve seen mixed results from the research, with the majority of studies finding some ergogenic effects of betaine supplementation.
For example, one study from 2010 set out to examine betaine’s effects on muscular strength and power (7). Twelve men (average age of 21) with at least three months of experience in the gym were put on two 14-day trials (with 14 days in-between). Muscle and power tests included the squat, bench press, and vertical jump.
In that study, researchers noted that twice-daily betaine supplementation positively impacted some of the athletic parameters.
Another study from the year before looked into the effects of 15 days of betaine supplementation on muscle endurance and time to exhaustion in college-aged men (8).
The 24 subjects were split into two groups: one was given a daily placebo, and the other received betaine. Both groups were tested for several athletic measurements (including vertical jump power test and AMRAP sets on the bench press and squat with 75% of their 1 RM).
Researchers found that betaine supplementation led to improved endurance on the squat and an increase in the quality of repetitions.
The last study worth looking at here is that of Cholewa et al. (9). In it, the team of researchers wanted to determine if betaine supplementation had any beneficial effects for athletic performance and body composition in women.
Twenty-three women with little experience with weight training were recruited. All of them were tested for body composition, quad muscle thickness, bench press max, squat max, and vertical jump height. Subjects were then split into two groups: one receiving placebo and the other 2.5 grams of betaine daily.
The experiment was carried out for eight weeks, with both groups doing two upper and two lower-body workouts each week. Researchers found that the betaine group managed to do greater weekly training volumes when compared to placebo. The girls in the betaine group also tended to experience greater fat loss.
We’ve seen more and more pre-workout supplements containing betaine in recent years, as the amino acid seems to show ergogenic benefits. From a mechanistic point of view, betaine should improve these athletic measures.
We already covered that betaine acts as a methyl donor, which helps increase creatine bioavailability (10). This, in turn, accelerates the production of ATP molecules (the primary energy currency for our cells) and delays time to exhaustion (1, 2).
The other potential mechanism here is betaine’s role as an osmolyte – improving the hydration level of cells and thus making them more resistant to stress and fatigue.
All of that makes sense on paper, but we still need more human trials before concluding on the matter. So far, there’s little actual evidence, and it’s a good idea to take the findings with a grain of salt.
Betaine for Muscle Growth and Strength
One study from 2013 certainly shows promise (11). In it, researchers had 23 men with an average of 5 years of training experience complete the protocol. Half the subjects were given a placebo, and half were given 2.5 grams of betaine per day. The protocol lasted for six weeks and consisted of three two-week periodized training cycles.
Bench and squat volumes were assessed at the start, as well as body fat percentage.
Researchers found that the betaine group saw significant improvements in arm growth, bench press volume, and overall body composition.
Sadly, that’s about it in terms of human trials that have examined betaine’s muscle-building abilities.
For the moment, we should take the findings in the above study with a healthy dose of skepticism. But, seeing as betaine may have some ergogenic effects on us (as seen in the previous papers), it’s not too far-fetched to assume that the amino acid might be beneficial for muscle growth in the long run.
Being able to do just a bit more work every time you’re at the gym can make a significant difference in the long-run.
Would the benefit be big, though? We don’t know yet.
The featured bodybuilder in this post is Breon Ansley. He is a classic physique pro and won the Mr Olympia classic division in 2017 and 2018. You can find him on Instatram @breonma_
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Betaine Anhydrous for Fat Loss: Does It Make a Difference?
To date, one trial has found betaine to accelerate fat loss (12). In that paper, the women in the betaine group managed to lose up to twice as much fat when compared to the placebo group. They also managed to do greater weekly training volumes.
But another study couldn’t find a benefit to betaine supplementation for fat loss (13).
Until we have more research, I’m more inclined to believe that if betaine does indeed offer fat loss benefits, it’s not because it directly impacts the mechanisms behind it, but purely because it allows us to do slightly more work at the gym on a weekly basis (14, 15).
Plus, as we all know, fat loss often comes with fatigue and a decrease in performance, so taking betaine might be a great way to offset that to a degree and possibly retain (or even increase) your muscle mass a bit better.
Betaine for Overall Health
Unlike many health supplements out there, betaine has shown some real promise in human trials. Let’s take a look.
Betaine and liver health.
Granted, leading a healthy lifestyle is the most beneficial thing we can do to maintain good liver health. Certain negative habits like alcohol abuse and eating too many fats and refined carbs can cause excessive amounts of fatty acids to build up in the liver.
When the fat content in the liver becomes too high, the condition gets classified as fatty liver disease. At an early stage, it is reversible. But, if left alone, it can progress to a serious health problem.
Betaine and the heart.
Homocysteine is an amino acid that gets biosynthesized from methionine. Elevated levels of the amino acid have been shown to cause arteries to become narrow and stiff (18). As you can imagine, that is something we want to avoid.
The good news is, supplementing with trimethylglycine can help lower levels of homocysteine in the blood. This is possible because the amino acid donates one of its methyl groups to homocysteine, thus reducing it into the harmless L-methionine (3, 4, 5, 6).
Betaine and food digestion.
Many people don’t realize it, but gut health is imperative for overall health. And it all begins with how well we can digest the food we consume.
If you don’t have sufficient levels of stomach acid, you won’t be able to digest food properly and absorb its nutrients. Over time, this can lead to serious issues like nutrient deficiency, irritable bowel syndrome, heartburn and more.
Among the digestive ‘juices,’ hydrochloric acid (HCl) plays the biggest role, so having sufficient levels of it is imperative. Betaine can be quite helpful here, as the amino acid is most commonly sold as betaine HCl, and can help the body secrete more HCl (19).
Does Betaine Have Side Effects?
It doesn’t appear to, at least not in healthy folks. A rare few individuals have reported feeling nausea or getting diarrhea from betaine supplementation, but that’s about it. And that usually occurs when the dose goes up to several grams.
When taken at higher doses every day, some folks have also reported having their breath and sweat take on a fishy odor. But, taking about 250 mg of vitamin B2 seems to negate that effect.
Other than that, betaine supplementation appears safe, at least for healthy people.
Since betaine has several effects within the body, it’s important to know what you’re trying to gain from supplementing with the amino acid. Let’s take a look at some of the benefits:
- For improvements in gym performance and possibly helping with fat loss, studies so far show that doses between one and six grams per day seem to be effective.
- To reduce homocysteine levels (and possibly offer cardiovascular protection), trials suggest that anywhere from 500 mg to 2000 mg can achieve that.
- To aid in food digestion and HCl production, 700 to 2000 mg of betaine HCl seems to be helpful.
- For the reversal and treatment of liver conditions (such as fatty liver disease), trials have found that up to 6000 mg per day (split into multiple doses) is needed to have an impact.
What Results Should You Expect From Betaine Supplementation?
To end this guide on a realistic note (as I don’t want you to have unrealistic expectations from a supplement), I’d like to share what possible benefits you might experience from betaine.
- A small boost in exercise performance (primarily endurance and power) (7, 8, 9).
- Possibly better fat loss, but we need more evidence here (12)
- Improved liver function and health (16, 17).
- Better digestion and improved gut health.
- Reduction in homocysteine levels and possibly cardiovascular protection in the long run (3, 4, 5, 6).
For exercise performance (and possible muscle gain and fat loss benefits), start with a more conservative dose, see how it affects you, and only then increase it. On average, we’ve seen doses of 2.5 to 3 grams in the studies, so that’s a good mark to aim for.
Where to get Betaine
You can find Betaine in many pre-workout supplements including:
Click the above links to check out the ingredients and reviews on amazon.
Personally, I buy Bulk Supplements brand Betaine on Amazon and use it as an ingredient in my own DIY pre-workout. Click this link to check it out.
Thank you for reading! If you liked this article, please comment below and then…. go Pump Some Iron!