We all know the burning sensation that you feel when take a high rep set to absolute failure. It feels like every fiber of your muscles is on fire and begging you to stop.
Lactic acid. Most athletes see it as a villain, the cause of muscle fatigue, burn and delayed onset muscle soreness (aka DOMS). We’ve been led to believe it’s a waste product we need to “flush from our systems” with a massage, resting with our legs propped up on a wall, or by taking huge, skin-crawling doses of Beta Alanine or (for the truly daring) stomach-rumbling Sodium Bicarbonate.
But the latest research suggests that our bodies don’t, in fact, produce a substance called lactic acid when we exercise. Turns out, lactic acid — at least as we thought we knew it — is mostly just myth.
In fact, it may be the single most misunderstood subject in all of fitness.
During intense training our bodies actually create something called lactate (no relationship with breastfeeding, it’s just an awkward coincidence it sounds like lactating!).
It may seem like only a minor difference – lactic acid, lactate, potato, poh-tah-toe, right? -- but the implications for optimizing strength, muscle, speed, and endurance are tremendous. Sleep on this distinction at your own peril.
Lactate not a waste-product or by-product at all, and it serves an incredibly important purpose for fueling your best workouts. Better still, there is good reason to believe Lactate itself is anabolic, and its release may be a critical step the body takes to prime muscles to heal and grow.
Has Lactic Acid/Lactate been misunderstood all these years? Read on for the truth behind the burn.
It’s actually the accumulation of hydrogen ions that makes the surrounding environment acidic and causes our muscles to burn.
For years, we’ve been told by coaches, trainers and science teachers that lactic acid causes our muscles to ache and tire when we exercise intensely. The theory is that when the body breaks down glucose for energy, it produces lactic acid as a by-product. Researchers concluded that the accumulation of lactic acid — and the increasing acidic environment in our muscles — is what causes muscle fatigue and failure.
“However, there is no experimental research to prove this. Just correlative data,” says Jeremy McCormick, PhD candidate in Exercise Science at the University of New Mexico. Ever since lactic acid was first linked to exercise metabolism in the 1920s, this theory has gone unquestioned for more than 80 years.
A closer look at the biochemistry involved during exercise reveals a different story altogether.
When we lift, our bodies require quite a lot of energy to fuel muscle contraction. Without getting TOO sciencey, our cells break down the molecule ATP, and a hydrogen ion is released in the process. During strenuous exercise where oxygen is limited (high rep sets, sprinting, etc), our metabolism can’t keep up with the ever-growing number of hydrogen ions in our body.
It’s actually the accumulation of hydrogen ions that makes the surrounding environment acidic and causes our muscles to burn – not an increase in lactic acid.
If too many hydrogen ions are the culprit, then why blame so-called lactic acid? How did so many well-intentioned, intelligent doctors and trainers get it wrong for so long?
As exercise intensity increases, our bodies rely on glucose to keep up with the demand for energy. One of the end products of the breakdown of glucose is pyruvate, and this molecule begins to build up in our cells along with the hydrogen ions. Since our body doesn’t want these concentrations to rise unchecked, each molecule of pyruvate absorbs two of the hydrogen ions, forming lactate.
“Scientists have been confused because lactate and hydrogen ions are present together in the muscle when you exercise intensely, and they thought it was lactic acid,” says McCormick. “But it’s really lactate,” he says.
“Not only does lactate serve as a buffer, research also indicates that our bodies reuse lactate as a source of energy for our muscles, heart and brain.”
To keep our muscles functioning, our bodies try to reduce the acidic environment by neutralizing the growing number of hydrogen ions. Lactate doesn’t cause the acidic environment, it tries to minimize it. It’s when this buffering process can’t keep up that our muscles start to burn.
“If we didn’t produce lactate, we would have an accumulation of hydrogen ions, and our muscles would get so acidic as the pH [a measure of acidity/alkalinity] keeps dropping to a point where muscles won’t function,” says McCormick. “Basically, you’d have mechanical failure.”
Our bodies constantly produce lactate, and it is usually cleared quickly from our system. When we train hard, “we hit a threshold where hydrogen ions accumulate, and you can’t clear it as fast as you’d like,” says McCormick.
Not only does lactate serve as a buffer, research also indicates that our bodies reuse lactate as a source of energy for our muscles, heart and brain. During moderate and hard exercise, it can be shuttled back into the mitrochondria of muscle cells (the fuel burning component of your cells) and converted into energy.
This energy efficient system requires a specific oxygen threshold to be present. As an athlete fatigues during a hard workout, oxygen levels fall. Eventually the system begins to accumulate acid faster than it can clear it, and loses the ability to convert lactate back into energy to fuel working muscles. With energy systems collapsing and acidity spiking, performance plummets.
Supplementing the amino acid Beta Alanine can reduce muscle acidity to keep the reps and sets going – although the commonly provided explanation that it blocks “lactic acid” is misleading. As we’ve now learned, it in fact is blunting the effects of acidic hydrogen ions. Make no mistake, Beta Alanine works… just not the way 99.9% of supplement companies claim it does.
The use of Beta Alanine, while effective, is an incomplete approach to the lactate/lactic acid building up that occurs during hard training. It’s far from wrong, but if you have a fitness goal beyond just getting a few more reps in (such as building as much lean mass as possible or going from 100th to 10th place at your next Spartan Race), there’s simply a better way to manage muscle acidity and lactate production.
Even with Beta Alanine keeping acidity at bay, oxygen levels will continue to fall, and the production of muscle lactate will fail. Reps, sets, and muscle building potential gets left on the table as the energy system becomes starved for oxygen.
Enter Octacosanol. Supplementation with the long chain alcohol Octacosanol has a broad range of muscle building benefits, but of particular interest is its ability to raise blood oxygen levels and promote muscle endurance.
Combining Octacosanol with Beta Alanine allows muscles to clear acidity and convert lactate into fuel 40-50% longer – a fact our pre-training product UNTAPPED takes full advantage of.
There are additional benefits to keeping the Lactate system going (or even boosting it by raising oxygen levels), rather than trying to squelch it with heavy doses of Beta Alanine alone.
Several recent studies have found a significant, positive correlation between muscle Lactate levels and Testosterone. The relationship is so strong that lactate can very fairly be categorized as anabolic.
When one considers the high intensity, high volume approaches present in virtually every hypertrophy based training program (ie, primarily concerned with adding muscle mass), it should come as no surprise that the burn of muscle acidity is constantly present. That burn is an essential trigger for muscle-building.
The lactate released in response to that burn may well be the most effective natural testosterone booster in existence. If adding lean mass is the goal, the lactate energy system is definitely not something to be avoided or buffered away. It’s something to be harnessed and taken full advantage of through hard training and smart supplementation.
While the difference between lactate versus lactic acid is mostly semantic on the surface, our new, deeper understanding opens avenues for fresh approaches to fitness, lifting, supplements, and muscle-building tactics in general.