Pro Tips

What Is Muscle Buffering, and Does it Really Work?

Everything fit guys need to know about enhancing their body's ability to clear lactic acid and delay fatigue for greater gains and monstrous one-rep maxes.

CrossFitters watching man lift barbell
Corey Jenkins / Getty

Muscle buffering isn't a topic you hear guys slinging around the gym, like one-rep max or training to failure—but it could have a huge impact on both. 

Never heard of it?

"When you do high-intensity exercise—whether that’s intervals or intense strength training—you get an accumulation of metabolic waste, like lactic acid," says Joel Seedman, Ph.D., strength and performance specialist and owner of Advanced Human Performance. Muscle buffering is a term that refers to your body's ability to neutralize and eliminate this waste that gunks up your muscles during anaerobic work. 

Guys who are better at buffering have a greater workout capacity, longer time to fatigue, and later onset of lactic acid accumulation.

In short: "You can get more work done before your body shuts down," Seedman says. "Depending on how fit you are, that can be upwards of 10-35%."

Want to learn more? Keep reading who benefits the most from boosting his/her muscle buffering capacity, how to determine what your baseline is, and how you can enhance it.

Athletes who benefit from high-efficiency muscle buffering

"CrossFitters, swimmers who do events longer than 20 seconds, track athletes who run beyond 100 meters, wrestlers, MMA fighters, soccer, basketball, and football players, depending on the position, all benefit from improved muscle buffering," Seedman says. It's any sport or discipline where you're engaging in continuous activity and getting that buildup of lactic acid.

Lifters can also achieve greater gains and blast through strength plateaus. If you can delay lactic acid buildup and how long it takes your muscles to reach the point of failure, you're going to put them under greater time under tension. This is a huge bonus if hypertrophy is your goal. Increase your lactic threshold and you'll be able to handle heavier loads for greater periods of time.

How to tell where you are on the muscle-buffering spectrum

This isn't like VO2 max where you can take a test to find how good (or bad) you are at buffering muscle waste. 

The easiest way to gauge your ability is to see what it feels like when you start to fatigue. See how long it takes for your body to feel maxed out—lungs burning, heart hammering, muscles searing with the buildup of acid, then short-circuiting due to fatigue. If it happens only after a few minutes of a HIIT circuit or halfway through a lifting session, that’s a sign you need to improve your muscle-buffering capabilities, Seedman says. 

How to boost your muscle-buffering potential

You can do anything that induces high levels of metabolic waste. It's most effective to teach your body how to deal with the stress, over and over, so it eventually becomes efficient, Seedman says. 

"That can be high-intensity interval training, sprinting, intense biking or rowing—anything that lasts 20-90 seconds with small, brief rest periods." he explains.

You'll notice majority of these activities will tax your lower body. It's not necessarily that your legs are better at muscle buffering. It's just that most activities that involve waste buildup are lower-body emphasized, Seedman says.

That, and your legs house your body's most efficient muscle groups, because there are more slow-twitch muscle fibers (which are recruited for endurance activities).

If you're a lifter, strength training with higher reps and time under tension is just as important, if not more, than doing intervals. But incorporating both in your training regimen to further your muscles' efficiency. "You can also end your workouts with finishers, like a 20-to 50-rep squat, squat hold, sled push, and/or heavy or large-rep walking lunge sets," Seedman says. These will completely tax your legs and train your body to buffer better. 

The best endurance-boosting supplements

You can also add supplements to your nutrition plan. Seedman recommends beta-alanine and carnosine.

"You have intramuscular levels of carnosine in the body—particularly in the muscles—and the more you have, the better you can buffer all these metabolites," Seedman says. "Certain supps have carnosine, and ingesting it alone is okay, but stacking it with beta-alanine is best for delaying muscular fatigue and improving endurance," he adds. 

Take 2-3g before and after your workouts. 

Research has found some pretty impressive benefits. One Brazilian study found beta-alanine supps helped improve muscles endurance—specifically during sprinting, jumping, and weightlifting. Just make sure the intervals are one to four minutes long; another study published in Amino Acids found people don't experience the same boost if they train for less than a minute.

What's more, men were able to blast through 22% more squats at 70% of their one-rep max after taking beta-alanine supplements for 30 days, according to a study published in the International Journal of Sport Medicine

See what you can accomplish by boosting your muscle-buffering potential. 

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