BCAAs are one of the most popular muscle building supplements on the market and are surrounded by a lot of hype. Let’s find out what they are and whether they are really worth your money!
What are BCAAs?
BCAAs stand for branched-chain amino acids and consist of three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. They are grouped together due to their chemical structure, as they are the only ones that are branched–containing a side chain of one carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms.
There are 9 essential amino acids that cannot be made from the body, and therefore must be consumed through food or supplements. Branched-chain amino acids have been touted for various benefits, notably improving muscle recovery and growth, bettering training performance, and reducing muscle soreness.
BCAAs May Improve Muscle Recovery and Growth
The first benefit is largely due to the BCAA leucine, which has been found to stimulate muscle synthesis. In one study, a complete meal of protein (which contained leucine) or leucine alone maximized muscle protein synthesis within the first hour of exercise.
However, participants benefited from consuming a meal high in protein (with high amounts of leucine) or the supplement which demonstrates that you can get sufficient amounts of BCAAs through food.
This is what a lot of people don't take into account: BCAAs are already found in high amounts from their regular protein sources. For example, the branched-chain content in a serving of chicken breast, roasted peanuts, and wild salmon is 6.6, 6.8 and 5.9 grams respectively.
Comparatively, one scoop of a BCAA supplement typically contains 5-6g of BCAAs. Therefore, if you are eating sufficient amounts of dietary protein each day, then you are already getting enough BCAAs from food alone. For this reason, although BCAAs are important, taking them in supplemental form on top of your dietary intake may not benefit you in a noticeable way.
Furthermore, branched amino acids make up only 3 of the 9 essential amino acids. For this reason, these amino acids may not be enough to generate a greater growth response.
Several studies have shown that to truly maximize growth response, all amino acids are necessary.
BCAAs May Reduce Fatigue and Boost Training Performance
The second benefit surrounding BCAAs is that they improve training performance. You’ve probably seen many gym-goers with giant 4 liter jugs filled to the brim with bright red or purple liquid. This workout drink is most likely partly filled with BCAA powder.
The reason bodybuilders use intra-workout BCAAs is because during exercise, BCAA levels get depleted in the body and tryptophan (an amino acid important for the production of serotonin) levels increase.
Consequently, that results in a high concentration of serotonin in the brain which leads to fatigue. By supplementing with BCAA intra-workout, you prevent tryptophan from entering your brain, keeping serotonin low and boosting your energy as a result.
However, it is important to keep in mind that usually this is often only a concern for those on high level programs, such as athletes. If you are an average gym-gooer or workout for 45 min to an hour, then BCAAs may not be necessary.
Furthermore, while BCAA supplements decrease tryptophan uptake, they also decrease tyrosine uptake, which is an amino acid that improves mental focus and energy. So there could be a chance of counter effect as well.
BCAAs May Reduce Muscle Soreness
The third claim many supplement companies make is that BCAAs can aid with recovery, improving muscle soreness. In one study, participants consumed a BCAA supplement as opposed to a placebo and experienced significantly less muscle soreness following exercise.
However, the research was performed in the absence of a proper intake of whole foods. Hence, while it shows that there is a benefit to taking BCAAs as opposed to nothing at all, eating a regular serving of dietary protein will also lead to the same effect.
Who Are BCAAs Best For?
For almost everyone, as long as you are meeting your total daily protein recommendation (0.8-1g of protein per pound of body weight), then you are likely getting enough branched-chain amino acids to get the benefits they offer.
However, if you are someone who trains with long duration and regularly performs high volume workouts, you may find that BCAAs may improve your performance and focus during training. That being said, there is still insufficient evidence to fully confirm its effectiveness as current studies only show a small effect, and many report a placebo effect as well.
Also, if you are eating a low protein diet (lower than 0.8g of protein per lb of body weight on a daily basis), then BCAA supplements may be beneficial to ensure you are maximizing protein synthesis.
Moreover, if you find it hard getting your daily water intake, using BCAAs can serve as an easy trick to consume more since you can flavor it. Also, there aren’t any downsides of supplementation other than a slight stimulation in appetite.
Finally, if you can fit BCAAs into your budget and you are a serious lifter trying to make the most of every gym session you have, trying them out for yourself in the case they do provide long term benefit won't hurt.
When Should I Take BCAAs?
BCAAs can be taken before, during or after training. There is no credible evidence that suggests a certain timing superior to another. Many prefer pre or intra-workout in order to provide a consistent boost of energy during training, while others prefer post-workout to jump-start the recovery process.
The Bottom Line
Overall, branched-chain amino acids may provide benefits when it comes to physical performance, muscle mass and recovery. However, out of all the supplements out there, BCAAs may be the least necessary. This is because they can be found in protein-containing foods as well as protein powders.
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